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A Man Walks Into the Kotel ...
Heard the one about that off-the-wall comedy club in Jerusalem, where, if you bomb on stage, people gasp in horror?
In all seriousness, there really is a club in Jerusalem called Off the Wall. However, with a little bit of love and care, the world of stand-up comedy is starting to blossom in Israel.
"To experience the comedy scene in Israel is to have a lesson about the cultural differences between America and Israel," expounds Benji Lovitt, a Dallas-bred comic based in Jerusalem.
"While America has a much larger, decades-old comedy scene, in Israel, comedy is still very new. Though there are not many other clubs at this point, Off the Wall and a small number of clubs in Tel Aviv are moving forward."
Lovitt observes that just like average citizens, good comics pursue happiness with a required bit of thoughtfulness. Indeed, a trip to a club can be quite an eye-opener about how comedy is influenced by international cable television but also affected by politics and the values some audiences bring into the club with them.
Off the Wall founder David Kilimnick "presents a very interesting lesson in Zionism," Lovitt continues. "He scrounged together some money and created the club with a similar community-building mentality as those who built the first kibbutzim 100 years ago."
Pacing and the timing of a comedy show may flow in a similar way to its U.S. counterparts, but it will have a very different feel, according to Philadelphia native and 20-year comedy veteran Michael Ziegfeld, who has logged some laughs with tours of Israel.
"What I found fascinating when I was there to perform a couple of years ago was that there were 65 comics and only two clubs, Off the Wall and Camel Comedy Club in Tel Aviv," recalls Ziegfeld, who has shared the stage stateside with Joan Rivers, Lewis Black, Lisa Lampanelli, Margaret Cho and Jeff Foxworthy.
"Though it seems as if you can find 65 comics performing on any given block along South Street, 65 in Israel is quite a big number. Comedy has really hit in Israel commercially only in the last four or five years, and one can see that influence on late-night talk shows in Israel hosted by former stand up comics."
Also influential: Eyal Kitzis of Israel's sketch comedy TV show Eretz Nehederet (Wonderful Country).
"The scene is now like a snail starting to outgrow its shell," claims Ziegfeld.
Though comedy is coming of age in Israel, Ziegfeld and Lovitt both caution that there are still growing pains. Although Eretz Nehederet'spolitical skits have gone global and viral (especially one depicting a "peace treaty" summit involving the Angry Birds of video game fame), both comics point out that it takes smart gamesmanship to capture local audiences.
One not only has to be careful about how the jokes are executed but also fearless when it comes to a sensitive or religious audience member.
"When I first moved here, I thought people would be into political humor because there is so much going on, but I found that was not the case," recalls Lovitt.
"As politics can be depressing for many people, they want to go to the club to escape. The release of Gilad Shalit in exchange for over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for many Israelis was a sort of Pearl Harbor moment in that everybody knew where they were when the announcement of Shalit's release was made.
"Now that he's free, the topic on the politics surrounding that is a safe topic, and we will see if comics start to joke about that and how audiences will react."
"The job of the comedian is very different in Israel," Ziegfeld says. "While Israeli audiences want a new flavor and will embrace your being an American comic, you also have a responsibility to use humor to bring various groups of people together."
"If you have good listening skills, you will be successful," but he cautions that the political climate in Israel "can either be stifling to the organic nature of what comedy's about or the comic can accept it as a challenge to bring more layers of storytelling to the act to make it work and connect to the audience."
One Israeli comic and television writer who has accomplished just that is Yossi Tarablus. While he is best known in the United States as the first Israeli stand-up comic to be invited to complete on NBC's Last Comic Standing, his comedy has also traveled well internationally.
Fresh from a tour in Australia performing in both Hebrew and English for different audiences, he returns home to reconnect with some of the challenges Ziegfeld observed, as well as the joys of being part of a cultural revolution on the move.
"Jokes sometimes need be modified because of varying points of view and beliefs represented in the audience," Tarablus explains. "However, when you put the reality straight in the face" of the audience, done "in an intelligent way, the true comedy appears without any cushioning.
"I joked about the Israeli-Arab conflict in front of Arabs in a few of my shows, and they were laughing with me and had a great time. If you understand Hebrew or have a chance to come to an English show, you will have the opportunity to see the unique lack of some forms of political correctness that define Israeli humor."
Tarablus notes much has changed in the 13 years he has been doing comedy, beyond the fact the actual number of comics have multiplied. More women and people from different ethnic groups are regulars on the circuit. Though the venue numbers are still small, the actual number of shows is increasing, along with the number of comics performing in them.
For those who speak Hebrew, Tarablus recommends the ZOA Comedy Bar in Tel Aviv, where he regularly appears on weekends.
Another talent to keep an eye out for is Avi Nussbaum, one of the main writers on Eretz Nehederet, who still shines live on stage.
Lovitt, meanwhile, has created an interesting niche for himself on the Israeli comedy circuit. His intelligent comedy springs from a heady mix of an American Jewish childhood, several years of employment at the Israeli consulate in Atlanta and playful deconstruction of the immigrant experience in Israel.
The perspective on Israeli culture and politics has not only made him a staple in Israel's comedy scene, but also a favorite speaker for a variety of Jewish organizations in Israel and abroad.
When visiting Israel, consult the websites for artist lineups, show times, venue information and cover charges at: www.israelcomedy.com; www.telavivcomedy.com;www.camelcomedyclub.co.il ; www.tarablus.com ; and www.benjilovitt.com .
For information on "Eretz Nehederet" tapings, visit: www.mako.co.il/tv-erez-nehederet .