It does no disservice to Jackie Mason (I think) to say that my visit to his latest (and billed as his last) London show yielded one blissfully funny moment that I shall be recounting at dinner parties for years to come. The only thing is, it wasn’t on the stage. It was in the toilets.
There’s a gents hidden away behind the back wall of the stalls at the Wyndham’s Theatre, through a door that looks like the way to the emergency exit. Not many people know about it, so it’s always quiet and queue-less.
That night, there I was doing God’s work, as Bill Cosby used to say, when a fairly elderly gentleman entered. There were just the two of us there and as we exchanged pleasantries that turned into a conversation I realised that I had found perhaps the only non-Jew in the stalls (Jackie Mason events usually feeling, from the make-up of the audience, like an unusually well-tempered synagogue AGM). “It’s an interesting thing, Jewish humor, isn’t it? There’s always a nugget of truth.” he said amiably. I agreed. The man warmed to his theme. “I love the way he just stands and talks.” Then came the first killer line. “He’s like a cross between Dave Allen and Jeremy Clarkson.”
I gulped. “And what’s that accent? He has some kind of a foreign accent,” the man continued. I explained that it was Yiddish-inflected American. “Yi-yiddish?” he asked, pronouncing the word with some difficulty. I explained what Yiddish was, and for good measure suggested that he read Ken Gross’s wonderful biography of Jackie Mason, entitled “Jackie, Oy!” The man whipped out a notepad and pen to jot down the title. Then the confusion returned – he looked at me, helpless. “How do you spell ‘Oy’?”
Why was this funny? The man was asking interested questions and making reasonable observations. After all, the late Irish comic Dave Allen would chat to an audience rather as Jackie Mason does. The celebrity British motoring correspondent Jeremy Clarkson is known to be witty (I disagree, but that’s just my opinion). In another place, in different company, there would have been nothing amusing about the comparison. But in that theater, on that night, in that audience, it was hilarious.
Because we know, my friends, my brethren, we know that comparing Jackie Mason to two gentile entertainers with not a trace of Yiddishkeit about them is as ludicrous as if the gentleman had cited the amusing slapstick of his local Klu Klux Klan grand dragon. And not being able to pronounce the word Yiddish, still less to spell “oy”. Funny. In the context.
I once saw a rabbi give a lecture about comedy as the juxtaposition of opposites. You see a man in a smart suit trip on a banana skin, he posited, and it’s hysterical. It shouldn’t be, because the man could have hurt himself. But that contrast between the self-possession of the besuited executive and the ridiculousness of his accident is what makes it. The rabbi was going somewhere with this – the ultimate, the divine comedy, he explained, is at the end of days when the Jewish people will seem ruined, everyone will know misery like they’ve never known before and then the Messiah will come and we’ll all be as happy as we were miserable, and that is comedy at its purest.
The juxtaposition of opposites. There may be some truth in that. Jackie Mason is funny partly because he’s a rabbi himself spouting irreverent humour. The man in the toilet was amusing because he was so at odds with everyone around him (I mean, have you ever even seen a British Jew organised enough to have a paper and pen in his pocket for writing down titles of books he should read?).
But there was also something in what the man had said about there “always being a nugget of truth.” Perhas great comedy has as much to do with a distorted reflection of a reality we all know. And if you put those two ideas together – of contrasts on the one hand, and the reinforcing of the familiar – is that not itself a contrast?
But pondering all this, while interesting, isn’t very funny. So let me leave it with the most hilarious, pithy put-down for a pseudo-intellectual question about comedy I’ve ever come across. In a televised Q&A with Neil Simon many years ago, the lengthy session had time for one last quick question. An eager student put up his hand. “Mr.Simon?” he asked, “Could you please explain to us all the evolution of stand-up comedy?” Everyone sighed and settled in for a 20-minute reply. Quick as a whip, Simon shot back, “The evolution of stand-up comedy? The absence of chairs.”
James Inverne is a leading UK arts journalist. He is the former editor of Gramophone, the world’s best-selling classical music magazine, and before that spent more than five years with Time magazine as European Performing Arts Correspondent.