Stand-up fight

American comedian Jackie Mason is the acerbic host of a one-off ITV debate on the validity of press intrusion
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The American comedian Jackie Mason is verbally jousting with a paparazzo. The snapper claims that in some respects the paparazzi let Princess Diana off lightly. Mason is taken aback by this argument: "That's like saying 'O J Simpson is not such a bad person. Look how many people he didn't kill'."

In Jackie Mason - the People's Champion, a one-off ITV debate about press intrusiveness, Mason makes for a coruscating host. He's like every opinionated New York cabby you have ever had nightmares about - only funny.

He is also wonderfully quick on his feet. When Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan asks why fellow guest Neil Hamilton is "sitting on a chat show rather than being an active Member of Parliament", Mason shoots back quick as a flash: "You're also sitting on a chat show. You're sitting on a chat show for the same reason that he is. He's trying to straighten out his career, and you're trying to make a living. You both can't be trusted."

Mason feels particularly strongly about the issue of privacy. "Tabloid exposes are perverted, a total injustice. They destroy any idea of democratic rights in a free society. Would anybody want the words they say during lovemaking to be repeated in public? I see people's lives destroyed by something that is no one else's business. To defend that is itself sick. People have no moral right to destroy another person's livelihood and his relationship with his family. There is such a thing as decency."

On Jackie Mason - the People's Champion he rigorously quizzes the tabloid photographer about what he does: "What if someone brought in a camera while you were doing whatever you do with a girl? Wouldn't you think that person should be punched in the mouth or thrown in jail?"

Mason has not always been so on the money. Some of his more politically incorrect live routines have led to him being dubbed "the Bernard Manning of Brooklyn". A former rabbi, he stoutly defends himself against charges of bigotry. "I'm no more a bigot than a murderer. It's preposterous to give me that label. My material is purposefully misinterpreted. When a reporter wants to find a headline, he just calls me a bigot. He takes an innocent joke and makes an accusatory thing out of it. Journalists take my comedy literally. I'm only a comedian, but they criticise me as though I were a politician, as though I was Winston Churchill rather than Jackie Mason. Just because I joke about Jews doesn't mean I hate Jews. Civil rights are a holy thing to me. As a rabbi, I marched for the rights of blacks and gays."

The richest comic seam that Mason mines is the cultural gap between Jews and Gentiles. "Different cultures create different behaviour patterns, and it's a great source of comedy," he explains. "A Gentile loves to fix a car, while a Jew looks at it as a riddle."

Now a veteran performer, Mason views his industry with a commendably jaded eye: "Everyone wants to ascribe idealistic notions to what they do. Politicians say they want to serve the public, and performers say they want to give people happiness, but I don't buy any of it. They just want to be in the limelight as the star of the show."

Once he gets up a head of steam, this motormouth is devilishly difficult to stop. "And another thing," he continues, 'why should people listen to celebrities' opinions? Why do we make them authorities on issues they know nothing about? Why should we care what Michael Jordan tells us about perfume? Does that make any sense? Why do people go to a restaurant just because Frank Sinatra once went there? Would you ask a cook to recommend a singer? How much credence should the public give celebrities?"

So does the sixty-something comedian ever think of leaving the shallow world of showbiz behind and retiring? "No, all I have is a big mouth. I'll keep going as long as I can talk."

'Jackie Mason - the People's Champion' is on ITV tonight at 11pm

James Rampton