Audiences wants grins, not grim

Audiences want to laugh. While Connecticut theaters offer a wide variety of entertainment, comedy sells, particularly to a middle-class, middle-aged audience. With the country's current economic troubles, not to mention the fear of a swine-flu pandemic, more people are looking to lighten up. And even in tough times, a stand-up comedian will almost always draw a crowd.

In the case of Bill Cosby, it was a sitting-down comedian. When Cosby booked the Oct. 4 date at the Klein Memorial Auditorium in Bridgeport, he was recovering from recent cataract surgery. As he told the audience, he was assured that common ophthalmologic procedure was "a cinch," "no problem," but, as it turned out, he could barely see and needed to be led to a chair, center-stage. After explaining his predicament, he proceeded to regale the audience with so many hilarious stories that they were, literally, falling off their seats.

The recent recipient of the 12th annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, Cosby is known for his astute observations on human behavior, often revolving around marriage and family. Which is not surprising. Popular on TV from 1984 to 1992 and still running in syndication, The Cosby Show followed the day-to-day travails of the Huxtables, an upper middle-class black family living in Brooklyn.

So why does Cosby make such a direct connection with the funnybone? Because he makes us laugh at ourselves, our foibles, our relationships. And he does it gently, kindly, utilizing an avuncular style that evades abrasion and offense.

Perhaps at the diametric opposite end of the spectrum is Jackie Mason, who played a gig on Oct. 22 at the Palace Theater, Stamford Center for the Arts. At least, that's where the audience sat. Mason seemed to think he was in Camden, N.J., making several off-hand comments about the commute. Traveling on the road to one-night stands can be confusing so patrons laughed indulgently, hesitating to correct his misplaced geography. Even those in the front row whom he chided, "This show is not for you; it's for intelligent people."

One of the lone survivors of the Borscht Belt circuit, Mason's aggressive humor is topical, timely and politically incorrect. His new show, No Holds Barred, delivers, as advertised, with Mason shooting most of his barbs at Pres. Barack Obama -- particularly his lack of qualifications for the White House job, his "It's time for a change" slogan and his proposed health care reforms.

Mason's controversial targets also include former Pres. Bill Clinton, whom he characterizes as "a degenerate sex maniac," and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, whom he imitates with an uncanny ear. One of his best-received anecdotes revolves around Alaska, not a spin on its former Governor Sarah Palin but the frustration in building its oil pipeline because of disturbing the tranquility of the roaming caribou. Admittedly, those who don't share his particular political convictions grow a bit testy at times but he soon moves along, skewering other targets.

Hailing from a long line of rabbis, Mason became one of the hottest comics in America in the 1960s as a regular performer on The Ed Sullivan Show. His first one-man show, The World According to Me, began an unprecedented two-and-a-half year run on Broadway in 1986 and was followed by several additional critical and commercially successful one-man shows.

Mason characteristically peppers his one-liners with Yiddish phrases (referring to Obama as a "schvartzer") and an occasional Jewish chant. His "solution" to protecting the U.S. border with Mexico involves utilizing retired Jews on lawn chairs stationed along a fence in Arizona, and his comments on Jews vacationing on African safaris brought down the house. Such "chutzpah!"

As an equal-opportunity cynic, Mason's stereotypical, inflammatory humor also includes jibes at doctors and taxi drivers from India, along with undocumented Mexican restaurant workers and violent rappers ... "Do you think Tony Bennett ever tried to kill Bing Crosby?"

Watching both Bill Cosby and Jackie Mason is like taking a master comedy class in timing and delivery. Both septuagenarian comedians obviously revel in being on-stage and the patter of their longer set pieces so totally disarms you that convulsive laughter is inevitable.

Susan Granger is a regular contributor to the Westport News. Her movie reviews can be found on page B12.