Attack of the bar mitzvah boy
Tuesday 02 August 1994
There he is up on the stage contorting his limbs to imitate the letters of the Hebrew alphabet or standing with hands on hips, daring all the proud parents to laugh at descriptions of their finest hour - the day their child is awarded a school prize by Greville Janner MP.
The evening I catch Schneider, at a charitable event in Hampstead Garden Suburb, Janner's son is in the audience. Schneider brings him on stage for ritual humiliation with a conjuring trick using matzos and Palwin's, a particularly noxious Israeli alcoholic cordial. Schneider deadpans: 'Christians go on and on about Jesus turning water into wine. I'd be more impressed by someone who could turn this stuff into wine.'
Closer to the funny bone, Schneider mimes a lax and gormless congregant, holding his prayer book upside-down, quite unable to keep hold of both yarmulke and prayer shawl. The audience continues to laugh. Schneider knows how far he can go: the act has been honed at many a bar
mitzvah, synagogue hall and Jewish wedding. If he knows how to bite, he also knows how to please. His academic background (an uncompleted DPhil in Yiddish theatre) comes in handy when he belts out New York, New York in Yiddish and gives a masterclass on the beauties of the language - a choice selection of phlegmy coughs and splutters.
None of this material is much use on the alternative comedy circuit, where he has also established himself with a far more abrasive and contemporary act and characters like the hopeless Hungarian magician Mr Zero Talent.
His Jewish side emerges only occasionally, as when a 'volunteer crosses himself on the way to the stage: 'That's no good] If you want God's protection from me, you'll have to try a Star of David - and you won't find it that easy with one finger]'
Backstage, Schneider elaborates on how he adapts his stage persona. 'On the circuit, you get lots of noisy hard-drinking 20- and 30-somethings, so it's a bit of a sumo thing, a gladiatorial struggle. With Jewish audiences, there's much less drinking, you can't swear - the ages are from 18 to 80. In cabarets I sometimes have to be quite aggressive, but for Jewish gigs I'm lovable. Basically you want them to take you home for a Friday night meal.'
Schneider is after more than free food these days. His career is on that delicate cusp between localised phenomenon and mainstream acceptance, thanks to appearances on the largely improvised satirical news programme The Day Today. Waiting in the wings are soon-to-be-broadcast episodes of an Alexei Sayle sitcom and Mr Bean (although he much dislikes being described as 'the Jewish Rowan Atkinson'). Then there's the hit radio show Watching Me, Watching You, transferring to BBC2. Or you could switch to ITV and hunt for Schneider in the Pizza Hut ads; he's the gangling, paint-splattered decorator.
That's the promising present and the bright future. The past is another matter. Schneider traces the roots of his comedy back to a friendless adolescence and deep selfconsciousness about his looks. Back then he adopted the Jo Brand tactic of getting in first: 'I'd meet someone for the first time and say: 'Hello, I've got a big nose, spotty skin and greasy hair'. I was so defensive about my appearance I'd just rattle off all these gags and putdowns.'
As if to compensate, early success came remarkably easily. 'I'd been at Oxford a long time,' he says. 'So I took the plunge, decided to become an actor and said to myself 'Oh dear, this is going to be hard'. A job with the National Theatre came up a week later.'
This was a part in Joshua Sobol's Ghetto which required a Yiddish-speaking cabaret artist. Schneider was simply the only one around.
Having paid his dues, Schneider's current bid for stardom is The Dave Schneider Show, stopping off in London on the way to the Edinburgh Fringe. It features a straight woman and two dancers and will include 'acting, a bit of in-your-face comedy, a bit of more gentle comedy, sketches about adolescent sexual awkwardness, parodies of Prince, a striptease with an orange. . .'
It also offers some wry reflections on the riotous lifestyle he may soon be enjoying: 'I do a bit in the show about comedy as the new rock and roll, because I don't really fit into that picture. I don't drink. I don't smoke. I'm very bad at having vices, I do my gig and then come home to my girlfriend and her seven-year-old to watch telly. And I sometimes think: 'Is this really rock and roll?' I'm even glad that my Edinburgh show is on at 7 o'clock, so I can get an early night.'
Sounds like a nice Jewish boy.
The Dave Schneider Show at Hampstead's New End Theatre, 27 New End NW3 (071-794 0022). 6-7 August.
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