Top five Jewish comedians
(Filed: 22/06/2002)
Chosen by Dominic Cavendish

1 Lenny Bruce (1927-1966). New York-born Bruce, the uninhibited, fast-talking hipster who simply shared what was on his mind with his audience, instead of delivering set jokes, is seen as the founding father of alternative comedy. Imprisoned for obscenity in 1961, the authorities had him under observation until his drugs-related death in 1966. Listening to tape-recordings now, it's hard not to think "you had to be there", but Bruce remains the quintessence of cool for many modern comedians. His patter was filled with Yiddish expressions, but he quipped: "To me, if you live in New York or any other big city, you are Jewish."


Rivers on Minnelli: 'Oscar Wilde is the only gay man she didn't marry'

2 Julius Henry 'Groucho' Marx (1890-1977). In common with millions of others, T S Eliot adored Groucho - and wrote admiring letters to the bushy-eyebrowed, cigar-puffing brains behind the Marx Brothers. The zany slapstick of Chico, Harpo and Zeppo has been preserved on celluloid, but Groucho's intellectual vaudeville - pratfalling puns and non sequiturs - has best stood the test of time. Enduring witticisms include: "A man is only as old as the woman he feels", "Quote me as saying I was misquoted", and, of course, "I don't want to belong to any club that would have me as a member."

3 Joan Rivers (1934-). Unfairly maligned as unfunny because the wellspring of her humour is bitchiness, after four decades in the job, Rivers, raised in New York, still shoots from the hip and her vicious (self-satirising) assaults on celebrity have never been more necessary. Choice side-splitters heard in London recently include: "Oscar Wilde is the only gay man Liza Minnelli didn't marry." And: "Have you seen Cher lately? If you want to know what she's going to look like when she's dead, look at her now." Her catchphrase is: "Can we talk?" (as in, "Can we talk about child labour? It's not so terrible").

4 Woody Allen (1935-). Though the public may have tired of the archetypal Jewish New Yorker of late, Allen's back catalogue of one-liners easily resists the tainting influence of seedy personal revelations or latter-day mediocrity. His observations on sex and marriage, life and death, represent an essential first-aid kit for those suffering likeminded neurosis and existential angst. On sex: "Sex without love is an empty experience but, as empty experiences go, it's a pretty good empty experience." On marriage: "The only time my wife and I had a simultaneous orgasm was when the judge signed the divorce papers." On life: "If you don't fail now and again, it's a sign you're playing it safe." On death: "It's not that I'm afraid to die. I just don't want to be there when it happens."

5 Jackie Mason (1934-). Raised in Manhattan, Mason started out as a rabbi before turning to comedy. A consummate entertainer, he has been described as "the Bernard Manning of Brooklyn" on account of his non-PC fearlessness. Benjamin Netanyahu gave him an award for bravery after he abandoned a Broadway run to fly to Israel during the Gulf War. Of Netanyahu's attitude to the West Bank while prime minister, he joshed: "He'd like to give it back, but right now he can't. It's in his wife's name." The difference between Gentiles and Jews is a recurrent theme, but he's refreshingly lacerating about most aspects of modern life. His scathing views on Starbucks ("The less you get, the more it costs. By the time they give you nothing, it's worth four times as much. Am I exaggerating?") should keep him in fans for years to come.

  • Jackie Mason is touring the UK: Bridgewater Hall, Manchester (0161 907 9000) Wed; Pavilion, Bournemouth (01202 456456) Thur. Joan Rivers performs at The Theatre Royal Haymarket (0870 901 3356) on Mon & Tues.


    26 March 2002: Rivers in full flow [interview with Joan Rivers]
    19 March 2002: Living on his nerves [interview with Woody Allen]