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.”
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.
“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.”