Comedian Steve Jameson has made a name for himself with alter-ego Sol Bernstein, a foul-mouthed Jewish pensioner given to making outrageous remarks. Fresh from performing at the Spice Festival at the Hackney Empire, the 60-year-old chats to Something Jewish about Sol, stand-up comedy and Suzie Gold.
How did the character of Sol Bernstein come about?
I was working with Mark Maier at the time, we had an improv troupe called Jewvenile in the 90s and we wanted to create some characters. Sol was created at that time but not as a stand-up. The character eventually evolved into a stand-up but not until about five years later. It looked like it might be a fun thing to do and it just keeps getting better. For example I stopped smoking last year and through the anger management Sol got wilder I'm more in control this year than I was last year, but he's become more outrageous. With a character like that you can get away with murder.
Do you find that Sol appeals mainly to a Jewish audience, non-Jewish audience or both?
Largely a non-Jewish audience - Jews have a mixed reaction with Sol. I'm not putting myself on a par with Jackie Mason but certain Jews are uncomfortable with the Jewishness of it, others love it. You have to appeal to non-Jews as well, if I just worked for jewish people I would never make a living. But there's always going to be somebody in the audience who doesn't like what you do. You always find the one person who doesn't like you. I'm always really careful about what I write though as want people laughing with us, not at us. I don't want to create anti-Semitism. Unless the money is right......
Who are your favourite comedians?
All the old-timers really, you're looking at Groucho Marx, Jack Benny, George Burns, Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce – actually, he did a piece of material with a character called Sol, and that's how he became Sol, so that was my kind of tribute to him.
Was Sol based on anyone in particular?
Not really but my mother's father was an old Russian guy who went to England, didn't like it, went to New York, didn't like it, and came back. Had he been a funny man and been in the entertainment business, he would have turned out like Sol. It's really a tribute to those Vaudeville guys, they made it possible to do what we're doing today.
How long have you been doing stand-up and what were you doing before then?
I'm in my 15th year as a stand-up. In the 60s and 70s I was a singer and a songwriter and then I had 15 years as a civilian and then decided to do stand-up. I used to write songs for acts like The Drifters and Blue Mink.
What else are you up to at the moment?
Just working, gigging more than ever, the act has gone from where it was a couple of years ago with people saying they quite like it to performing four or five nights a week. Also, my son's getting married in Australia in November - unlike his dad he's hoping only to get married once - and I'm hoping to do something special. So I have ended up organising a trip round it. I'm doing a TV appearance on Paramount Comedy Channel so people can look and see what the act's like, and I've got four nights in Brisbane and eight nights in Sydney. Also I'm seriously thinking about doing Edinburgh next year but it's too late this year.
What do you think are the main differences between British Jewish comedy and American Jewish comedy?
Actually there's not a lot of difference – the reference points are different because we have a different culture over here - so it's difficult to say who you like best Woody Allen beats anybody, but all the English boys have got some great stuff. Personally I think stand-up sounds better with an American accent, that's the original. I know someone like Ivor Dembina who's one of my best friends, has written some world class Jewish jokes, but when he does the joke it messes it up. Ian Stone is a great craftsman too.
Has anybody ever thought that Sol Bernstein was a real person and not realised he's just a character?
Yes! The Scotsman thought Sol Bernstein was real, When I did Edinburgh the review said, "An old man with an old-fashioned style, comedy has moved on and so should he." Some people are really into Sol and some are not, and you have to live with that.
How did you enjoy being in Suzie Gold and would you like to do another Jewish movie?
I loved it, if anyone offered me a part I would do another one. It was really great working with a troupe of people, rather than being on my own, plus the catering was fantastic. Actually I was asked by Manchester Evening News about Sol Bernstein the movie. They wanted to know who would play Sol.
What's your family background and the origins of the family name?
All I'll tell you is they were Russian, and Jameson was changed by deed poll.
How religious are you now and when did you last set foot inside a synagogue?
I last set foot inside a synagogue when we were filming Suzie Gold. I'm not at all religious - I was born a Jew, I'll die a Jew, I've never made any secret about being Jewish as other comedians did but I don't believe in God and I'm not religious. But I don't eat treif.
And finally what's your favourite Jewish joke?
A man's checking into a hotel reception, a woman comes by, stops and has a look, says "I've never seen you before, where did you come from,? He says "originally Brooklyn, but I've been in prison for 27 years. I murdered my wife and buried the body." "Oh," she says. "So you're single??"