COMEDY / Jack the Dad

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The Independent Culture
THERE CAN be few more potentially troublesome audiences than Southend on a Bank Holiday Monday night, but a packed Cliffs Pavilion offers no resistance to an ebullient Jack Dee. 'You're rough as old dogs, the lot of you,' he observes matter-of-factly, and no one disagrees. Dee's opening routine is traditional showbiz smarm in reverse. 'This is a beautiful theatre,' he says, fixing his surroundings with a withering look. 'You must be very proud of it.' So it's true, Mother, what they say about sarcasm being the highest form of wit.

Jack Dee's best one-liners - 'I was out till three this morning celebrating my wife's birthday. She was livid when I got home' - have a classic simplicity, but his stock-in- trade is precise observation. As with Nicholson Baker before he went sex mad, little things matter to Dee. Sometimes, as in his merciless dissection of the fast- food eating experience, he goes beyond mere consumer comedy to the essence of the human condition. At less transcendent moments, he comes across as the sort of person who is always demanding to see the manager. This is odd, because in his pre- comedy catering career, Jack Dee used to be the manager.

He is most likeable when turning his acute eye on himself: worrying about impending middle-age - finding himself saying things like 'your hi-fi is only as good as your stylus' - and griping about fatherhood. Dee's expectant-dad routine is rather cliche'd, but he is very funny about the impact of an infant daughter on his well-ordered home ('you press the eject button on your video and a bit of cake comes out'), and his refusal to check-in his critical faculties at the cloakroom of parenthood is inspiring. 'Blue grass?' he exclaims, when given his child's painting. 'If you think this is going on my fridge door, you've got another thing coming.'

Dee makes no secret of the fact that his presentation is inspired by the American stand- up tradition. The roots of the reflex anti-Americanism in which so many other homegrown comedians indulge are just as clear. They are jealous. All four of the US comics who make up the tobacco-company- sponsored Lighten Up tour work with a practised elegance that most of their British rivals can only dream of.

By the time they make it to Clapham Jongleurs, they've got the measure of their host country too. 'What is it you people call this?' fast-talking Keith Robinson asks of the rugby- shirted testosterone posse clustered at the front of the stage, 'a skag night?' The spontaneous feel of tonight's performer/ audience interaction makes a welcome change from stale domestic heckling rituals. Boisterous John Manfrellotti - imagine an Italian-American Denis Leary without the satirical edge - bounces jokes around the room with the effortless assurance of a great basketball player.

The pace doesn't slacken in the second half. Scott LaRose, who'll be the clean-cut star of the next but one series of Northern Exposure, offers an uncannily seamless mix of impressions. Unrepentantly Belushi-esque frat-boy Jim Breuer is the only one of the quartet who feels the need to get grotesque. But given his marked facial ressemblance to Homer's evil boss in The Simpsons, he doesn't have much choice.

Jack Dee: Cambridge Corn Exchange, 0223 357851, tonight; Norwich Theatre Royal, 0603 630000, Monday; then touring to 3 July.

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