Jackie Mason is in no danger of anyone stealing his act. What would anyone do with it? You repeat the jokes to your friends and elicit nothing more responsive than a blank stare. The medium is the message; Jackie Mason and his comedy are one and inseparable, and incomparable.
"On Location: Jackie Mason on Broadway," which premieres on Home Box Office at 10 tonight, is a one-hour condensation of Mason's long-running one-man Broadway hit, "The World According to Me!" Some of the jokes to be heard on the uproarious original cast album (yes, they rounded up the entire original cast) are not on the HBO show, and they're missed.
But the hour is extremely and ecstatically satisfying anyway, because in a nation sea to sea and toe to toe with comics, where you can hardly walk down the street without running into one, Mason, at about 5-foot-5, is a giant. He is not just funny, he is organically funny.
There's nothing studied about him, nothing contrived, nothing faked. It's authentic hilariousness.
Mason is as funny as his subject matter, the human race. And what comes through in HBO's special, with a TV camera bringing you closer to Mason than most of the seats in the theater would, is not just the ebullience of Mason's humor, but its poignancy.
The poignancy comes less from individual remarks than from the cumulative effect, and of the strange combination of Quixote and Pagliacci that Mason represents on stage. To appreciate it, you don't even have to know that this Broadway hit, transplanted from an earlier run in Beverly Hills, followed a couple of decades that were relatively fallow for him.
Now he's such a hit you wouldn't believe. "I don't care if you laugh or not, because I've got enough money to last me the rest of my life," he says. "Unless I want to buy something."
Mason may unite an audience in laughter, but his best material is about things that divide us. "If there was no difference, I would have no act at all," he says of his running (actually, strutting) commentary on Jews, gentiles and many other varieties.
"Are any Italians here? No? Then let's tell the truth about them," Mason says.
The reason gentiles do not have cockroaches: "There's no food in the house."
Mason describes a cousin who is half Jewish, half Italian: "He can't buy it wholesale, he steals it."
If you wanted to, maybe you could be offended, but it's easy to see that Mason is mocking, not exploiting, the way humans naturally divide up into groups and the way those groups then spend most of their time harboring suspicions about one another. It gives us something to do.
Midway through the show, Mason ventures into the political arena. He refuses to attack Ronald Reagan, he says; "I can't stand anybody who makes fun of a person just because he doesn't know what he's doing." And he admires Richard Nixon because, "I love a crook who knows his business."
Mason does impressions, of a sort; his Teddy Kennedy simply stands there going "bee-butta-bee-butta-bum-bum-bee." It's musical, really, but so is all of Mason's delivery. The cadences are so rhythmic you could dance to them. He is a total comic being, and without a single fatuous or groveling impulse. He gets the drop on all potential hecklers by doing all the heckling himself.
In the fall, Little, Brown will publish Mason's autobiography, "Too Jewish," but he gives a short preview of it here, sitting at the edge of the stage, near the end of his performance, and talking about the hard times that brought him to this pinnacle. It's not self-pitying or mawkish, but it adds a little more tenderness to the evening.
In editing "World According to Me," it would have been preferable to include more of Mason's ethnic observations and dispense with his Ed Sullivan impression, but that was probably left in for its status as a historic relic, and for the fact that Mason twirls, careens and moonwalks across the stage as he does it.
Nick Vanoff, one of TV's most justifiably admired producers, produced; Dwight Hemion, one of the best TV directors of all time, directed. They added no gimmicks or distractions but concentrated instead on bringing Mason to the home screen at full strength and full tilt.
Words like "funny," "hilarious" and "brilliant" may be inadequate to the task of describing Jackie Mason, but he would probably settle for them -- while offering a few additional superlatives of his own, of course.
His humor is balm, tonic and revelation. In a more nearly perfect world, we wouldn't need the kind of prescriptions Jackie Mason writes. Perhaps it's just as well, then, that this is not a more nearly perfect world.