In a couple of weeks, on Wednesday 4th October, the annual Comedy International conference and showcase is back in London.
Representing Israel in the showcase are three comics: Yossi Tarablus, Yohay Sponder and Shahar Hason. The night before (Tuesday 3rd October), they are performing a one-off full-length show From Israel With Laughs at the Seven Dials in Covent Garden – “People can see us for an hour and a half rather than just 10 minutes each,” Yossi told me on Skype from Tel Aviv.
“Will I – a non-Jew – appreciate it?” I asked.
“Sure,” he told me. “Shahar and Yohay have just returned from their Edinburgh Fringe show and from the Asia Comedy Festival in Singapore. It’s not going to be Jewish/Israeli stuff. People who don’t know Israel and who aren’t Jewish can come and still have a blast.
“We will be doing international stuff that works that we have performed all over the world. My show is a lot about family and kids and marriage. A wife is a wife and a child is a child and dating is dating. We are doing adjustments, but we won’t be doing material that we would be testing on the crowd. We respect the crowd. We do our homework.”
“Are the three of you similar in style?” I asked.
“No, we’re very different in style. It’s a great mix of comedians because everyone is at a different stage in life. I am the only one who is married; the other two are single.”
“How,” I asked, “is the comedy scene in Israel?”
“The English-language stand-up scene in Tel Aviv and in Israel has really taken off. In the last five years, when we started this endeavour, we didn’t know how it was going to pan out. We started with an open mic and then expanded to another more professional evening and then another evening in Jerusalem and another evening in Tel Aviv. There was was a time when you could go to see English-language comedy in Israel four times a week. Now you can see it three times a week, which is great.”
“You said,” I pointed out, “when we started this endeavour. What endeavour?”
“We wanted Israel to be a base,” explained Yossi, “a hub for international comedy like there is in Amsterdam and Berlin and, of course, I’m not even talking about Anglo places like London and New York. We want to go out and perform all over the world. And we want international comedians to visit Israel. We have a lot of people who speak English here, a lot of expats from the US and the UK. So we have enough of an audience for weekly shows.”
“I presume touring American Jewish comedians already include Israel?” I said.
“The production company that is bringing us to the UK is the one which brought Louis CK and Eddie Izzard and Jim Jefferies to Israel and they’re producing Chris Rock’s upcoming tour in Israel in January. So they bring a lot of A-listers to Israel. And Abi Lieberman brings three comedians with him every six months to do charity shows in Israel. Seinfeld was here a year and a half ago.”
“So how,” I asked, “is Israeli comedy different from New York Jewish comedy?”
“I think,” said Yossi, “that a lot of New York Jewish comics are Woody Allen-esque. Very smart, very sophisticated, very funny and more like Eastern European Jews. They are maybe a little bit more self-deprecating: classic Shtetl Jews.
“Israeli Jews, in their comedy, are a little bit more – as Israelis are – more direct. We appreciate political correctness, but not in comedy. We don’t have a problem laughing at anyone. Laughing at our wars; criticising the other side; criticising ourselves.
“I think being in a country that is constantly in a state of… alarm… makes you less vulnerable to… eh… I mean, what can happen? We are here. We have survived everything. So we don’t care about… I mean, subtleties are fine, but we just want to have people laughing, bursting out laughing, forgetting the news, any tension in the streets or even any economic crisis. People come to comedy clubs to forget. People come to comedy clubs to laugh and have a great hour-and-a-half, to forget all their troubles.
“So we are there to punch you in the stomach and to make you laugh and we want to do that in a way that will make you disconnect from the news. We don’t do a lot of stuff about politics or about current events which might trigger you to something a little bit more traumatic. We don’t want that. We just want you to laugh because your life is pretty-much like ours. Finding a common denominator with the audience is something we look for as much as possible.”
“New York Jewish humour IS self-deprecating,” I said, “whereas I think maybe the superficial image of Israelis is that they are very self-confident.”
“Self confident and less politically correct,” agreed Yossi. “Looking at stuff without any buffers. So – Boom! – in your face. That is the Israeli mentality. Straight talking. If we don’t like this guy, we say we don’t like him. In Israel, we are really afraid to be a hypocrite. If we say we are afraid of Arabs, it’s straight. We are afraid of Arabs because we have a problem with the Arabs. You know? What can you do? It’s not an evening of poetry. It’s an evening of comedy.
“People have asked me about anti-Semitism or anti-Israeli feeling— if we have encountered anything – but, when you do comedy, it’s hard to be pissed-off with someone who makes you laugh. We just want people to have fun.”