The Nine O'Clock Schmooze

Note: This review is from 2009

Review by Steve Bennett

It’s unusual for a stand-up with a relatively modest profile to hire out a 535-seater theatre. But it is surely far cheaper for Mark Maier to book the Bloomsbury for a night than to take a show to the Edinburgh Fringe, even if its career-enhancing potential isn’t so great. For a little more money, he could even have got decent sound engineering, rather than the dull, tinny set-up which would have shamed a village hall.

Did he have enough pulling power to fill the venue? Well, the balcony remained unused, but Maier and support act Bennett Arron more than half-filled the stalls, with a little help from friends. It wasn’t the usual comedy crowd either: predominantly Jewish, and with a much wider age range than you’ll find at the Comedy Store.

Mild-mannered Arron is one of the most innocuous comedians on the circuit. His set, which has barely changed in a decade, revolves around his unusual Welsh-Jewish heritage – ‘so I was never quite sure why I was being beaten up,’ he says in typically self-effacing style.

He never swears, although does indulge in mild innuendo about his failings in bed, or sweetly teases the pensioners who advertise in the Personals section of Mature Times. There’s no bite to any of his material, which laps gently over the audience and runs the real risk of seeming bland.

Some nicely crafted lines mitigate this, although for every two elegantly inventive gems, there’s probably one terribly clunky pun. But Arron’s soft charm and cheery, almost cheesy, smile usually carries him through, in a performance that’s notably understated.

What he doesn’t bring to this gig is a sense of occasion befitting the bigger stage; a failing that also besets Maier’s hour-long Nine O’Clock Schmooze set, in which a Jewish man tells a Jewish audience what Jewish people are like. It doesn’t completely exclude gentiles, for many of the behavioural traits and childhood tales are universal, but it does help if you have some awareness of the culture.

I certainly learned a few new Yiddish terms, ‘schluff’ being the best: an onomatopoeic word for an afternoon nap, slumped exhaustedly in the armchair. As for the Jewish traits he explores, they tend to involve a love of kvetching and of food – in that order – and a compulsion to try to spot fellow Jews in any situation – except if they’ve done something so bad it makes the news - even if you have nothing in common with them.

At best it’s Seinfeld-like observational comedy – almost literally so in the section about ‘regifting’ unwanted presents that echoes a plot from his sitcom. Witheringly accurate descriptions of familiar behaviour have the crowd chuckling along, although Maier largely avoids landing any more substantial punchlines that would convert those mildly amused knowing chortles into something heartier. This feels like reinforcement of traits that are already known, rather than shedding light onto hitherto unexposed conduct.

The apparently oxymoronic combination of insecurity and confidence seems to be the qualities that Maier marks out as particularly Jewish – which is perhaps why the faith has produced so many great stand-ups. Maier occasionally tosses out a pithy gag that temporarily puts him in that category, though generally the set is more matter-of-factly conversational to generate too many fine one-liners.

Maier also under-uses his greatest talent: the chameleon-like ability to morph into the characters that populate his story. The hilarious grimaces of the elderly Jewish clientele of the cruise ships he sometimes works on are particularly graphically realised, as is his sharp, stereotypically Germanic grandmother.

We do get one fully formed character to open the set, Roni Shimoni, an arrogantly uncommunicative Israeli army officer making a visit to London. His apparent humourlessness contributes to a wonderfully haughty comic attitude, even if the gags are as hit and miss as a rocket attack on Gaza.

As a stand-up, Maier is far more amiable, and his material enjoyably entertaining – but it still felt like a fringe show, whatever the size of the venue.

Review date: 8 Oct 2009
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Bloomsbury Theatre

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