Comedy: Anyone here tonight Jewish and insecure?

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Jackie Mason: Much Ado About Everything

Playhouse, WC1

Tired of journeying to smoke-filled pubs somewhere near the North Circular to listen to angry pubescents delivering gags about the local Tesco, I finally get a glamour night out, with Jackie Mason in the West End. It was far from the normal comedy crowd: much more American, infinitely older, full of fur and pearls. The bagel belt was out in numbers, basically: less a breath of fresh air than a welcome waft of expensive perfume.

Jackie Mason - once Jacob Maza - is an old-fashioned music-hall entertainer (once he'd done with being a rabbi, he became Social Director at a Catskills hotel, performing complete with yarmulka). He likes observational one- liners, and being oldish (64), a little plump and jowly, short, grey when not dyed, and very Jewish, he's in a position to be rude to whomever he wants. His catchphrase, "and I say this with the greatest respect", is used as a preface to every insult. "Puerto Ricans? Now I say this with the greatest respect ..."

Mason rather struggled on Have I Got News For You 10 days ago, so once he had strutted on to the tune of "New York, New York", he explained his confusion: "There's this poyson in the cabinet, but out of the closet. You understand this?" Then almost immediately he went into his Jewish routine: "Any gentiles in tonight?" No one put their hand up. "Come on, don't be ashamed."

His Jewish material is less whiney than Woody Allen's, but still full of self-deprecation. He's fond of doing impressions of Jews struggling with the physical world: lots of hand-to-forehead angst about house-buying, computers, call-waiting or in-flight turbulence, the Jews always turning to Gentiles for explanations. The interval, he explains, is to give the Jews in the audience an opportunity to argue about his age, discuss if he's any good ("he's good", "he's no good"), and to tell each other about their headaches. And there are streams of surreal, meandering monologues: wondering why kids never show you pictures of their grandparents - "And here's Grandpa, putting his dentures in a glass."

Occasionally he gets serious, talking about "poysecution" and discrimination. "Decent people don't insult people. Compassion is better than truth. You should always tell a Jewish girl she looks Hawaiian, anything other than Jewish ... especially when she's got all those bandages across her nose." If it goes quiet, Mason smirks and stares at someone in the front row: "These are all jokes, stupid. Why does no Jewish man ever laugh without looking at his wife?"

That slice of seriousness in Mason's routine comes from something which happened in 1964 (he still mentions it), when he was beginning to break into television. Mason had a serious misunderstanding with Ed Sullivan, the biggest cog in the industry, and he was blackballed. He went back to playing random clubs throughout America. Now, over 30 years later, he's published an autobiography, broken Broadway box-office records, and won Tony, Emmy and Ace awards. He talks about stereotypes and cultural studies, but just as he's getting serious, someone in the audience loudly blows their nose. Mason spins round: "This is no time to clear your nostrils, you anti-semite."

Like any material which stems from one source, it flags slightly over a two-hour set. Some of the gags will be lost on you if you don't go to all your cousins' bar-mitzvahs. It's a funny show, but - and I say this with the greatest respect - it makes Riverdance look positively multicultural.

Playhouse, WC1 (0171 839 4401), to 6 December.

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