COMEDY: Arjy bargy

Arj Barker is a funnyman with plenty of punchlines as well as a nice line in self-deprecation. And, because he's a foreigner, he can get away with saying things about the British that a native would be excoriated for. As a matter of fact, we love him for it

Arj Barker (right), a likeable American stand-up, constantly battles with British prejudices about his nation's sense of humour - or lack of it. "So many people over here come up to me after shows and say, `You're pretty funny - for an American.' I feel like replying, `You have pretty good teeth - for an Englishman.' Over the past couple of years, I've heard that about 50 times. I suppose it's a back-handed compliment."

He should certainly take it that way because his baffled-American stance is charming audiences - and critics - in Britain. To prove the point, he has the Perrier Best Newcomer Award from this year's Edinburgh Festival on his mantlepiece.

The richest vein Barker mines in his act is that old saw about Britain and America being two nations divided by a common language. He is shocked, for instance, that Boots sell foodstuffs. "I don't buy a sandwich from a place that sells butt-cream," he says in mock-horror.

On stage, he cultivates this wide-eyed innocence about Britain. "I can comment on things here with an outsider's perspective," he reckons. "I can say things that British people could never get away with. I can play with my naivety as a foreigner. Of course, it's a persona because I'm not really that out of it," he adds, hastily.

Like any good stand-up, though, he can also fire out one-liners with the best of them. "I'm in love with a philosopher, and she doesn't even know I exist," he moans. "What's worse, she can prove it." Later he muses that he's thinking of asking his doctor for a prescription for some medicinal marijuana: "I set my car-keys down, and five minutes later I know exactly where they are."

Barker is in many ways an old-fashioned comedian; he doesn't need to dress up as a failed showbiz legend, for example, to raise laughs. "I have no problem with conventional stand-up," he says. "What I like about it is its simplicity. It's just you, a microphone and the audience."

Arj Barker plays the Comedy Store (0171-344 4444), then the Meccano Club (0171-813 4478), then the Hampstead Comedy Club (0171-207 7256) tonight. Next Friday he plays Jongleurs Bow (0171-924 2766), then the Balham Banana (0181-673 8904), then the Aztec Comedy Club (0181-771 0885)

EXTRA

The delightful Julian Clary brings his "Special Delivery" to the Hawth in Crawley (01293 553636) on 18 Nov. His subject-matter is still, of course, biological, but this time it's babies.

Meanwhile, Peter Cook fans can celebrate his 60th birthday tomorrow at The Cosmic Comedy Club, Fulham Palace Rd, Hammersmith, 7.30pm. Acts include Dolly Dupree and Mark Thomas. Tickets available on the door (pounds 12).

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