Frankly, I don't think the real question is whether Jackie Mason ever actually flipped off Ed Sullivan on the air. Mason always denied it, existing tape of the performance seems to suggest that he may have come close, but never actually crossed the line, despite Sullivan firing him from an outrageously lucrative exclusive television contract that night. And the fact remains that about a year later, Sullivan publicly apologized to Mason and welcomed him back on the show. So that long debated piece of pop culture trivia is a sideline to what really matters when one considers Mason's rather pugnacious personality, and that's this: the real question is, could Mason have flipped off Sullivan, by which I mean, was it in his general nature to give the finger to the hand that was at least partially feeding him? And the answer to that is a resounding "yes." Mason seems to delight in provoking people, perhaps in a slightly less rambunctious way than Don Rickles, for example, but no less pointedly.
Mason, who went through at least a partial career slump after the Sullivan episode, personifies the Borscht Belt comedian. There's little question a lot of his humor is Jewish-related, and his schtick is peppered with quite a bit of Yiddish, which to the uninitiated can make Mason seems like he's trying to cough up a hairball in the middle of any given routine. Mason is also unabashedly politically incorrect, incorrect enough to make Bill Maher look like Pollyanna by comparison. Mason, once on the cusp of one his many "major" comebacks, famously jettisoned his chance at prime time sitcom success with an ill-advised comment about blacks (the little remembered series was the short lived Chicken Soup, given the then plum spot following top rated Roseanne, featuring Mason and co-star Lynn Redgrave in an equally ill advised semi-update of Abie's Irish Rose, or, alternatively, a semi-geriatric remake of Bridget Loves Bernie). But the perhaps more jaded New York City audience, obviously consisting of a lot of, if not mostly, Jews, has helped resurrect Mason's career more than once, including with his one man Broadway show which earned him a Tony.
This "farewell" performance finds Mason surprisingly low key (he seems to be nursing a cold--he sniffles quite a bit and finally brings out a handkerchief to repeatedly wipe his nose late in the set), if no less scabrous. Taking on everything from Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama (the special was evidently taped sometime late in last year's primary race) to such cultural references as erectile dysfunction and rap music, Mason is an equal opportunity offender, of that there's little doubt. What struck me repeatedly in this special, is how similar some of his rants sounded to Rush Limbaugh, of all people. Little comments about what exactly granted Hillary her "experience," or the disparity between others calling Blacks the "N" word and their own intracultural use of the term, sounded like they could have come straight from that vaunted "golden EIB microphone." I had to wonder if Mason was being deliberately ironic, or perhaps he, along with Joe Lieberman (someone Mason also skewers) are the two Jewish conservatives.
The audience seems entertained, if not at the point of hysterics very often, especially for something that's being blled as Mason's final New York performance. Part of this may be due to Mason's rather confrontational opening, where he chooses several people in the front row (ostensibly in jest) and then holds them up as examples of being "fagelehs" (gay in Yiddish) or other equally stereotypical pejoratives. Unlike Rickles, though, there's a certain gentleness, as hard as it may be to believe, in Mason's "attacks," softened up by his light laughter every few minutes. The actual performance is intercut with both historical footage (at least up front), and then every few minutes with some backstage commentary by Mason. To say that Mason appears full of himself is a bit of an understatement, but again, one has to wonder how much of this is intentionally ironic.
Mason is a relic in a way, and this concert memorializes a brand of comedy that is going the way of the Dodo. One of the most appreciated stand-ups within the comedy profession, Mason doesn't always translate well to the public at large. You may not need to be Jewish to at least like Jackie Mason, but my hunch is it's going to help if you are.