Tag Archives: Daphna Baram

The journey of one scary Israeli lawyer from corset-wearer to stand-up comic

(This piece appeared in the Huffington Post and on Indian site We Speak News)

Daphna Baram – comedian moved from corset to controversy

Yesterday seemed a good day to go see Miss D’s Silver Hammer, the weekly New Act comedy night in London’s Hammersmith, run by Israeli comedian Daphna Baram.

The death toll in Gaza had reached over 100.

Daphna started her career as a human right lawyer and a news editor on a paper in Jerusalem.

“Basically,” she explained to me last night, “I was representing Palestinians accused of security offences at military courts in the West Bank and Gaza. I was – still am – very political. But the only thing I liked about lawyering was performing. There was lots of performing. I had a robe, I was young and I felt like I was an actress.”

“So you were a frustrated comedian?” I asked.

“No,” said Daphna,” it never occurred to me for a minute. I never saw live comedy.”

She moved to the UK ten years ago but even then she was not particularly interested in comedy until something dangerous happened.

“When I was 39,” she told me, “I had a heart attack while I was at the gym, I was struggling with diabetes which was diagnosed when I was 37, I’d lost a lot of weight and was really sporty. I was running five times a week, I was looking like Lara Croft. I got to the hospital in a good shape, except for nearly dying.”

“So that was your Road to Damascus?” I said, choosing an unfortunate phrase.

“It was,” she agreed. “While the thing was happening, I was quite jolly and everybody in the ambulance was laughing and the doctors were laughing and I was cracking jokes all the time.

“Once I was in the ambulance and they said I was not going to die, I believed them. So I thought How can I get drugs here? This is an ambulance. They asked me Are you in pain? and I wasn’t but I said Yes I am and they gave me the morphine and the pre-med and everything. By the time I got to hospital, I was really happy and there was a really good-looking doctor waiting at the door.

“So I was in quite a good mood and they put a stent in my heart, but the next morning I woke up and started thinking Fuck me, I’m 39. I just had a heart attack. My life is over… I’m never going to have sex again, because people don’t want to have sex with women who have had heart attacks. What do you think when the woman starts twitching and breathing heavily and stiffening and her eyes widen? Do you keep doing what you’re doing or do you call an ambulance?

“At that time, both my best friends were getting married. One of them a week before the heart attack and one of them a month after. I did their wedding speeches, which went down really well; people were laughing. At the second wedding, there was one guest called Chris Morris who I’d never heard of because I knew nothing about comedy.

“He said to my friend Kit, the groom: Does she have an agent? And Kit said: Yes, I’m her personal manager. Chris Morris asked Is she doing it for a living? and Kit said No, but I think she might and then he was on my case.

“I’d just had a heart attack, I was turning 40, I felt I needed to do something creative, something new, perhaps write a book. But I’d already written a book in 2004 about the Guardian newspaper’s coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the last hundred-and-something years.”

Daphna’s book on Israel: Disenchantment

The book is still available and Daphna writes occasionally for the Guardian on Israeli-Palestinian affairs.

“What’s happened in Israel this last week,” I suggested, “must be a joy for a comedian.”

“Normally,” she explained to me, “I open on Israel stuff about how aggressive we are and how I can kill and it kinda works with my persona which is quite authoritative. But the war broke the night I was in Glasgow and I did about ten minutes of just taking the piss, all the sex stuff, the fun stuff, the growing old stuff and being a reluctant cougar. Then I started talking about Israel and told a few jokes about that and people were not feeling uncomfortable about it.

“So I said Hold on, I want to stop for a minute because I have a lot of these self-deprecating jokes about Israel, but I’m feeling terrible telling them today, because my country has attacked Gaza, which is basically a massive prison surrounded by a wall. They are bombing them with F-16s jets and this will only stop if there is international intervention. The place is the size of Glasgow but without the drugs. I thought Obama was chosen to be the American President but, reading a statement that came out of the White House today, I realised it was really Mitt Romney. People were clapping – some of them were standing up and clapping. Then I went on to talk about pervy Englishmen and it went down really well.

“When that happens, you come out and you feel exhilarated. People laughed on the one hand, but also listened to what I had to say. Comedians want to be seen and heard. Maybe all of us were children who were not heard enough. Being in comedy is a little like being in prison or an asylum. Nobody is here for no good reason. Nobody stumbles into it by mistake. There’s something driving people to do it.

“I know one main thing which took me from lawyering to journalism to comedy was I need to be heard. I have opinions. I have thoughts. I need people to hear them. And I felt very ‘heard’ last week in Glasgow.”

“But you’re unlikely,” I said, “to do so well with Jewish audiences at the moment.”

“Well,” said Daphna, “there’s a website called the SHIT List. SHIT is an acronym for Self-Hating Israel-Threatening Jews. I think it came out around 2003. I’m on that list; my dad’s on that list; my uncle’s on that list.

“But Jews are not a homegenic crowd. Of course a vociferous majority both here and in America are very pro-Israel… Israel is like the phallic symbol of the Jewish nation. We’re the cool ones! We’re aggressive! We’re in your face! We don’t take shit from anybody! At the same time, we’re also embarrassing and rude. We’re a bit brutish. I think there is a dichotomy about the way British Jews feel about Israelis. Right wing Israelis who come here and speak can seem crass and sometimes people feel that they sound racist. There’s a feeling they don’t word it right.

Occasional Guardian articles…

“Leftie Jews come here and are quite critical of the Israeli government and some liberal Jews think You invoke anti-Semitism and you’re not even aware of it because you’re not even aware of anti-Semitism. And it’s true. We grow up in Israel where we kick ass and we’re the majority.

“There’s a lot of self-righteousness in Israel – a sense that we are right. But we have taken another people’s country and we don’t understand how come they don’t like it. That is probably my best joke ever, because it encapsulates the way I see the Israeli-Palestinian problem. First the taking over and then the self-righteousness, the not understanding how come the world cannot see we are the victims.

“But they’re not going to let us be the victims forever. Not when you see on television pictures of victims being dragged from the wreckage in Gaza and taken to shabby hospitals in a place that is basically a prison.”

“So,” I persisted, “maybe Jews won’t like your act at the moment?”

“When British Jews complain to me about something I’ve said in my act,” Daphna told me, “they don’t say it’s not true. They say Why do you say that? Why do you bring the dirty washing outside? When an Israeli comes out and talks like I do – because Israelis are the über-Jews and we are the ones who are there and have been though the wars – they find it quite difficult to argue with us.”

“Until last year,” I said, “you wrote serious articles under your own name of Daphna Baram, but performed comedy as Miss D.”

“I was worried that people who read me in the Guardian would… Well, no heckler that I’ve ever encountered has been as vicious as people who write Talkbacks to the Guardian after your article has been published.

“Hecklers sit in an audience. Other audience members can see them. When you write a Talkback to the Guardian, no-one can see you. So people are vicious.

“This is why I started gigging under the name Miss D – because I was scared. I thought These people are so vicious they will come follow me to gigs and, because my on-stage persona was so new and vulnerable… Look, it’s scary coming on-stage and telling jokes when you think you have a lot of enemies you don’t even know. Even now, after I ‘came out’ under my own name in January last year at preview gigs for my Edinburgh Fringe show Frenemies

“Look, when I started doing comedy, I was worried about these things…

“In my first year, I was not talking about Israel at all. I was doing some sort of reluctant dominatrix routine partly because the material was not coming. I was taking all the aggressive traits of my persona. I was dressed like a sexual predator. I wore corsets and the premise of my set was I’m scary and I don’t know why people think I’m scary. It’s still a theme in my comedy, but I think I’ve learned to put it in a less crass way. My premise now is that I’m not hiding behind my scariness.

“There’s something interesting about wearing corsets. You would think when you want to hide you cover yourself. But sometimes just exposing yourself is also a kind of cover. Being sexy on stage is a kind of cover. You’re a character. You’re somebody else. I don’t think I’m there yet but, more and more, I envy the comedians who stand on stage and they are who they are and just chat.

“When people talk to new stand-up comedians, they say: Oh, just go on and be yourself. As if that’s easy. It’s not. The whole journey of becoming a good comedian is managing to be yourself on stage as you are when you are funny in real life. I think it can take years.”

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Is there a bias against American comics performing on TV and radio in Britain?

(This blog was also published in the Huffington Post)

Last night, American comic Lewis Schaffer played his 250th show at the Source Below in Soho – London’s longest-running solo comedy show. He has been playing there every Tuesday and Wednesday (and sometimes also Mondays) since well before we failed to elect a government.

I could not see his show last night because I had long-promised to go to Daphna Baram and Alex Love’s always interesting Cantaloopy comedy club in Shoreditch. Arthur Smith was headlining but also on the bill was the wonderfully charismatic American David Mills.

I first saw David perform earlier this year at Cantaloopy and was shocked I had never heard of him despite the fact he won the 2011 Hackney Empire New Act of the Year. I must pay more attention to what is going on outside my living room. As a result of being so impressed by David, I also went to see the wonderful Edinburgh Fringe chat show Scott Capurro’s Position hosted by Scott and David and booked the two of them to very successfully host this year’s Malcolm Hardee Awards Show.

All three of these comedians have totally different acts. I will get crucified by the three of them for my trite descriptions. But I guess Lewis Schaffer is a rollercoaster observational ride with a brilliant butterfly mind. Scott Capurro is an insightful camp comic with a razor-sharp tongue that could cut a heckler’s throat across a crowded room. And David Mills is an American reincarnation of Noel Coward who could play the O2 Arena and make it seem cosy and friendly.

What these three utterly different acts share is that they are American, they have been based in the UK for at least ten years (so there is no cultural problem) and television & radio have not picked up on them (in general – obviously Scott does have some profile, but you could not say he is an established TV or radio star).

All three can be cutting-edge but are perfectly acceptable for middle-of-the-road audiences.

So why do they not get the TV and radio exposure they deserve?

Following on from my recent blog about what TV and radio producers actually want, I think there may be the possibility that, if an American comedian suddenly appears on TV or radio from nowhere, there is (as seen by producers) the risk that the audience may think they are vast successes in the US and have not been ‘discovered’ and whisked up from the relative obscurity of comedy clubs by talented UK producers. And/or there may be the complaint that producers should be showcasing British comics not American comics.

I can think of no other reasons.

Reginald D.Hunter has had some success on shows like Have I Got News For You, but (unsayable as it may be) he has the distinct advantage of being a black American rather than just an American and the advantage of the first adjective is strong enough to outweigh the disadvantage of the second. He is also very funny and very talented, of course, which helps – though it is not vital, as many BBC3 shows demonstrate.

Three comedians – Scott Capurro, David Mills, Lewis Schaffer – all different but all with two defining characteristics – they are American and they are funny.

Three of a kind. But different.

It sounds like a format for a TV show, doesn’t it?

_____

PS Someone pointed out I forgot Rich Hall, of course. Oh lord. Exception. Rule. Proves. Re-arrange.

I blogged about Lewis Schaffer’s response to this blog the following day.

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Shoreditch dreams – Satanic stand-up comedy and Lycra-clad policemen

Perhaps it was the fact I only had two hours sleep the previous night.

But what is it with Shoreditch in London?

It seems to have aspirations to be trendy Islington but its pockets of aspiring Yuppieness have been dropped down into what, at night, seems like a set from a Jack The Ripper film – jet-black stone streets with added 21st century traffic. It’s like King’s Cross but darker and with less investment.

Shoreditch is a dark night-time nether corner of schizophrenic Hackney, where partly-trendy-yet-immensely-downmarket Hoxton meets a corner of Hackney proper and the world that was the Kray TwinsBethnal Green, which now has 1950s Brits intermingled with penniless immigrants who have nothing but hope in two generations time.

And round the corner from all this sit the glass towers and stone solidity of the City of London.

Shoreditch is a very strange place.

The area is like some darkly surreal imagining on the thin border where a dream may or may not turn into a nightmare.

So, a couple of nights ago, I went to Shoreditch after only a couple of hours sleep the previous night with these thoughts in my mind and comedy in my heart.

Yes, I have no fear of bad writing.

I went to see the weekly Cantaloopy Comedy show run by Miss D aka the interesting part-comedian, part serious journalist that is Daphna Baram.

Last time I went, the Cantaloupe pub cat stole the show, meandering across the stage and occasionally finding high points from which to look down disdainfully at the performing comedians.

This time, sadly for me, there was no cat but also, sadly, no headliner Arthur Smith, whose mother had had a bad fall. Daphna reckons I am bad luck when I go to one of her gigs. She may be right.

But the Cantaloopy bill was so choc-a-bloc, the lack of the two main attractions did not damage the show.

One highlight for me was Janet Bettesworth, who is just plain weird and I cannot for the life of me figure out why.  It had nothing to do with my lack of sleep. It has something to do with her Joanna Lumley voice, the dry sometimes almost literary delivery, the unexpected shock of red hair and her extraordinary transformation late in the act into a comedy ventriloquist with Hammer Horror hints. It was like watching a refined relative talk sweetly to you but with a whiff of the Satanic and dark deeds behind the curtains of Middle England wafting from the stage. I began, at one point, to think I must be hallucinating.

Highly entertained and utterly fascinated… but hallucinating.

This can’t be happening, I thought.

Yet it was and I was pleased it was.

I knew it wasn’t my lack of sleep. I had seen Janet Bettesworth before and was equally mesmerised before.

I had never seen David Mills before despite the fact he was recently crowned New Act of the Year – the highly prestigious award formerly known as the Hackney Empire New Act of the Year and proof that something good can occasionally come out of Hackney.

But I was amazed how a totally top-notch professional camp American of this quality had  escaped my radar. Especially as he has apparently lived in the UK for a decade. Much like Maureen Younger being a new act for me at a Pull The Other One gig a couple of weeks ago.

Curiouser and curiouser.

A few weeks ago, someone mistook me for Antipodean intellectual Clive James. At Cantaloopy, David Mills said I reminded him of Shrek. I know which I prefer. But alas I know which is more realistic.

Altogether an unusual night in Shoreditch especially when, on my walk back to the car, I bumped into Noel Faulkner just leaving his Comedy Cafe venue and, after crossing Shoreditch High Street, he became fascinated by the sight of two police cars pursuing a man on a skateboard.

“The guy should just keep going,” Noel said to me. “Police cars will never catch a skateboard.”

When I reached my own car I saw, up an adjacent side street, two policemen and a policewoman milling around in the middle of the road while another two policemen were climbing up on a wall to look over railings into a graveyard.

I wondered what the man had done. Perhaps we are on the cusp of a spate of major skateboard robberies which will be countered by Scotland Yard establishing a Skateboard Squad of Lycra-clad coppers.

Or perhaps I just need more sleep.

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Oy! Oy! – Anti-Semitism, a murderous Israeli cross-border raid and a Jewish joke from the Prime Minister

This week, I was talking to Israeli-born, London-based freelance journalist Daphna Baram, who wrote a fascinating book Disenchantment: The Guardian and Israel about that British newspaper’s relations with and perception of Israel. (The 2004 hardback is currently on sale at amazon.co.uk for an eye-popping £94.98p)

The only prejudice I know I have is that I am unthinkingly pro-Jewish, largely because I went to a grammar school with a very high percentage of Jewish pupils. That prejudice in favour of Jews used to transfer equally to Israel.

Hey! – remember why Israel occupies the West Bank, the Golan Heights etc – it’s because, in 1967, the countries surrounding it were foolish enough to threaten to attack Israel (not for the first time) in an attempt to wipe it off the face of the map… They lost their gamble… and, in six days – spookily the same amount of time in which the Jewish God allegedly created the Universe – Israel created more defensible borders. Like him, they rested on the seventh day.

Egypt, Jordan and Syria miscalculated so badly that Israel’s defensive attack originally pushed the Egyptian Army back to the Suez Canal and threatened Cairo, while Jordan’s West Bank territories were over-run and Syria lost the Golan Heights. But, when I hear the words “Golan Heights”, I don’t think “wantonly occupied by Israel”, my memory is of the Syrian Army pouring heavy artillery shells down onto the farmland of northern Israel from the heights before the Six Day War started.

My automatic pro-Israeli thinking, of course, has lessened. Bulldozing the houses of terrorists’ families and taking ten eyes for an eye if you are attacked smacks of the Nazis in their occupied territories in the 1940s and makes me think Have the Israeli government never read their own history books? It was counter-productive for the Germans. It is counterproductive for the Israelis. When they bulldoze a house, does the name Lidice never spring into their minds?

They only have to look at a map. The town of Lidice is still there on modern day maps.

I am always a simplistic thinker.

If you constantly fire rockets into Israel, then Israel is going to react, possibly – and not unreasonably – by sending troops into the country from which it is being attacked. If the IRA had been repeatedly/constantly shelling Liverpool from positions just outside Dublin, the British government would have done more than send a few SAS men into the Republic of Ireland to assassinate people (as they did without the provocation of suffering rocket-attacks from foreign soil).

But I mentioned to Daphna Baram that I thought Israel’s image in the UK had mainly gone downhill since my erstwhile youth largely because of accents.

When I was a kid, the Israelis were automatically the good guys because they sounded like us and wore Western clothes, whereas the Palestinians/Arabs sounded like foreigners and wore costumes straight out of Lawrence of Arabia.

In my erstwhile youth, Prime Minister Golda Meir had an American accent and looked like a grandmother from Baltimore. Israel’s long-time Foreign Minister Abba Eban spoke like he had been educated at a rather stuffy English public school and dressed like the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Yasser Arafat, on the other hand, looked and sounded like a rather dodgy bloke up an alleyway in Casablanca or some similar black & white movie, selling dirty postcards to tourists.

I mean… Golda Meir – she was a Jew, the Israeli Prime Minister – and she titled her autobiography My Life… you have to admire her for having a sense of humour. Yasser Arafat did not look like he sat at home and watched Monty Python’s Flying Circus on TV. Golda Meir might have watched The Benny Hill Show.

It was around the time of Prime Minister Menachem Begin and his successor Yitzhak Shamir that things started to go downhill for Israel in PR terms. This was, I think, mainly because Begin and Shamir both had a guttural accent when speaking English though – yes, OK – there was also the minor matter of them both being former anti-British terrorists.

Begin had been leader of Irgun and Shamir was a former member of both Irgun and The Stern Gang.

But that has never been an insurmountable problem for the British – from Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya to Michael Collins, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness in Ireland, we have always accepted terrorists as the political leaders of ‘our’ former countries.

The trouble with Menahem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir was that they sounded as foreign and alien as their Palestinian rivals – and their suits were not as smart as Abba Eban’s had been.

Daphna did not really agree with me about accents changing Britain’s attitude to Israel, but she did tell me a story about Abba Eban.

In the late 1950s, when Abba Eban was Israel’s representative at the United Nations, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion ordered an especially murderous raid across the border.

Abba Eban stood up at the UN General Assembly and made a particularly brilliant speech defending the raid. He than phoned David Ben-Gurion to express his utter outrage at what he considered had been an appalling and reprehensible attack.

Ben-Gurion listened to Abba Eban, then said:

“Well, I was having second thoughts about the raid myself but, after I heard your outstanding speech, I  was convinced that I did the right thing”.

A story more Oy! Oy! than Oy Vey! perhaps.

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I saw this comedian last night and I have no idea who he was… or if the act was good or just deeply odd

I am worried I am going to get even fatter and ultimately explode like Mr Creosote in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. I am also worried, having just re-read this blog entry, that I am turning into a mindless luvvie but without the glitz, glamour, class and cravat.

Yesterday I had lunch with Malcolm Hardee documentary director Jody VandenBurg and multi-talented multi-media writer Mark Kelly, who has that very rare thing: a genuinely very original TV idea. He was, at one time the stand-up comic Mr Nasty and he reminded me of one typical early Alternative Comedy incident in which comedy duo The Port Stanley Amateur Dramatic Society got banned from right-on vegetarian cabaret restaurant The Earth Exchange… for throwing ham sandwiches at the audience.

This was actually part of their normal act but proved far too non-PC an anarchic step for the militant non-carnivores at the Earth Exchange which was so small I’m surprised they actually had space to move their arms backwards to throw the offensive sandwiches.

Mark also remembered having his only serious falling-out with Malcolm Hardee at the Tunnel Palladium comedy club after Malcolm put on stage a female fanny farting act who, at the time, might or might not have been a girlfriend or ex-girlfriend of local Goldsmiths College art student Damien Hirst. Mark felt the audience – and, indeed, Malcolm – might have been laughing at the performer rather than with the act.

Knowing Malcolm, I guess it might have been a bit of both.

(Note to US readers, “fanny” has a different meaning in British and American English.)

So, anyway I had a very nice ham omelette and banana split with Mark and Jody downstairs at The Stockpot in Old Compton Street, Soho, and then Irish comic/musician/vagabond Andrias de Staic arrived. I know him from his wonderful Edinburgh Fringe shows Around The World on 80 Quid and The Summer I Did the Leaving, but he is currently appearing until 2nd April in the Woody Guthrie musical Woody Sez at the Arts Theatre in London’s West End.

I swear that, the last time I met Aindrias – and it was only last year – he was 5ft 9ins tall. He confirmed this height to me. Yesterday he was 6ft 1in tall.

“It’s the theatrical work,” he told me. “It makes you stand straighter and taller.”

For a moment, I believed him. Then I realised it was rubbish. Then I started to wonder if it could be true.

Or perhaps I am shrinking. The uncertainty of life can be a constant worry.

After that, I went to the weekly Rudy’s Comedy Night gig at Rudy’s Revenge in High Holborn to see Miss D perform an interestingly different routine in which she gave advice on what to do and what not to do when having a heart attack – something she knows about, having had one in June 2009.

The gig was also notable because I saw for the first time the extremely funny and talented compere Katerina Vrana… and an extraordinary act by a man claiming to be an archaeologist about having a hawk on his arm. I missed his name. If you know, tell me, because it had the same effect on me as watching Anthony Newley’s Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? in a Kensington cinema one afternoon etched on my memory in 1969. Perhaps I mean the experience scarred me for life. When the movie finished, I sat there like a stunned halibut and thought What was that??!! and sat through it again to see what on earth I had been watching and whether I liked it. Except, of course, I didn’t have the opportunity to sit still and see this guy perform again last night.

He certainly had energy, that’s for sure.

As for Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? – it is highly recommended, provided you know what you are letting yourself in for.

It is a bit like North Korea in that respect.

(POSTSCRIPT: Within 5 minutes of posting this, two people Facebooked me to say the ‘hawk’ comedian is Paul Duncan McGarrity. The wonders of 21st century communications leave me in perpetual awe; I should, perhaps, get out more.)

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