Jackie Mason feels a moral obligation to be funny.
"I'd like to think I'm teaching people a moral lesson with my humor," says the comedian over the phone from New York, in advance of his Baltimore appearance tomorrow night at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.
"The point of all my humor is to point up the hypocrisy and the fraud and the sham and the pretension in society," he says, in the clipped Yiddish accent that has been his trademark since breaking onto the national comedy scene in the 1960s.
But ask if such ambitions might be counted as the work of a rabbi -- as Mr. Mason was ordained in 1959, to fulfill a generations-old family expectation -- and he cautions against making so deep a conclusion.
"I don't feel like I'm a man on a mission, I'm just expressing my own conscience. I have a lot of outrage about the immorality of society and I'm expressing my outrage," says Mr. Mason, 61, adding quickly: "I don't sacrifice any laughs to it."
Mr. Mason was born in Sheboygan, Wisc. His three brothers became rabbis, as were his father, grandfather and great-grandfather.
"But all my humor is not always about morality," the comedian says. "Sometimes it's just an innocent play about something that happens."
For example, he says he has nothing against the Indian taxi drivers he lampoons in his act, nor against taxi drivers in general, for that matter. "I just find them a hilarious group, because they never know where they're going and they pretend that they do. . . . It's an innocent kind of fun."
He titled his successful 1993 one-man Broadway show "Politically Incorrect" to puncture our culture's increasing tendency to make too much of ethnic and racial sensitivity.
This interview begins to fit that title when Mr. Mason responds to a question about "Chicken Soup," the ABC sitcom in which he starred with Lynn Redgrave. In a modern update of "Abie's Irish Rose," the show played satirically with the social frictions of Jewish/gentile relationships. But it stirred a sharp controversy over charges of stereotyping and was canceled, despite good ratings.
"Chicken Soup" premiered Sept. 12, 1989 to the top rating for its Tuesday night time slot. When it was canceled Nov. 17, the show was ranked 14th among the 91 shows on the air.
Mr. Mason says Jewish people and black people are equally "hypersensitive."
"I once said the word 'schvartzer' [Yiddish for 'black person'] and everybody yelled at me as if I was this tremendous bigot. It was a meaningless joke I'd been telling for 20 years. . . . When I said the same word on Broadway, where were all the writers to complain when I won the Tony?" (He won a Tony Award for his first Broadway show in 1988, "The World According to Me.")
He contends it has become fashionable to look for things objectionable. "It's one of those sick things, a perversion of some kind of desperate need to prove their great democratic spirit."
But, he adds, "It doesn't hurt me as a performer because most people know it's a sickness to think that way. Most people hate this idea."
Then he goes for the laugh again, noting how acceptable terminology changes from year to year. "As soon as you say hello to a girl you did something wrong. . . . You have to read a paper every week to find out which title is proper for a girl. First she was a lady, then she was a woman, then she's a Ms., and everybody's walking around guessing, 'Did I say something wrong?' "
Humor depends on exaggerating generalities to the point of nonsense, he says. "I never elevate any kind of discrimination to acceptability," he insists. "The whole idea of my humor is to show how ridiculous are all kinds of discrimination and pretention and hypocrisy."
Don't look for Mr. Mason returning to the sitcom TV scene. His experiences on "Chicken Soup" were considerably less than enjoyable.
"The minute that I started doing the show, regardless of the fact it was No. 1, I was praying to God that I should get a heart attack to get off that show because I hated every second of it. I'd rather pass away in front of a firing squad than do a sitcom."
"I'm basically a natural character who likes to do what he pleases on his own terms. I don't like the discipline and the regimentation and the conformity and the tediousness and the boredom and everything that goes with [making] a precise show," he says. "You have to keep repeating yourself in front of a Nazi storm trooper called a director saying 'Say it again, say it again.' "
Even worse, although he says he tried to conform, he believes the series "was a pretty mediocre product."
Mr. Mason also comes back to that word "moral" again.
"To me a comedian commits a moral offense of his own when he becomes a lecturer. . . . There should be truth in packaging even for comedians."
When: 7:30 p.m. tomorrow
Where: Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall
Tickets: $18 to $40
Call: (410) 783-8000