American comedians Ari Teman and Danny Cohen together with Benji Lovitt, a well known comedian among the Anglo communities of Israel, have teamed up for the Rocket Shelter Comedy tour. Running today through July 31, their stand-up comedy will provide Israel with some much-needed comic relief.
The 32-year-old Teman regularly performs in comedy clubs around New York City as well as on the road. He appeared in a VH1 commercial and once performed at the White House for US President Barack Obama. He talks about the inspiration behind Rocket Shelter Comedy and how he hopes it will counteract the increasing anti-Semitism among today’s comedians.
How did you initially get into standup comedy?
I always loved it and I ended up taking a comedy class about seven or eight years ago, which was terrible, but once I got on stage I felt like I sucked less than everyone else in class. So I thought maybe I could do this. I just kept doing it after that.
Do you remember your first time performing?
It was at the basement of Gotham Comedy Club in New York City. At that point, you’re just hoping friends will show up and watch.
But then you do open mic nights, where you pay five dollars for a drink and they let you ramble in a room full of comedians for a few minutes. So you do that for five years and eventually, you don’t suck.
Confidence is never going to happen to a Jew, but eventually I felt comfortable on stage. Really, if you’re not nervous standing in front of strangers, trying to make them laugh, then something is wrong with you.
I got lucky because one night I had a really great set and someone saw me and started using me in comedy clubs all over New York.
I started getting a lot more stage time in front of bigger audiences, and that was a big break for me. It’s a cycle: you have a great set and you get confident, then you have a bad set and you lose your confidence. It goes on and on like that for the rest of your life.
Who is your favorite comedian?
Kermit the Frog... I don’t know, it’s hard to say. Richard Pryor, Louis C.K. and Greg Rogel are some of my favorites. One of the perks of being as comedian is that there are hundreds of funny guys out there, and I get to see a few of them every night. Most comedians are some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. They’re in the career of making people like them.
Given the current situation in Gaza, has there been more anti-Semitism in the comedy world?
Oh yeah, comedians are bashing Jews, Judaism and Israel. There’s been a huge surge of anti-Semitism; the trending topic is how much Jews suck. Usually, only Jewish comedians talk about that. The posting of articles that have no basis in fact and are just propaganda has led to this climate.
People wouldn’t have submitted these kinds of articles as a fifth-grade English essay, but they’re posting them online just to stir up anger. I’ve had many conversations recently with different comedy club owners who are Jewish, and they know that a lot of these comedians hate Jews. It’s not currently politically correct to say it out loud, so it comes through in other ways.
This is one of the reasons we’re here now; Danny and I are friends with thousands of comedians in New York City and Los Angeles, and all they’re seeing is this anti-Israel propaganda on television that time and again has shown no regard for facts. It’s just an excuse to bash Israel and the Jews.
When you engage them, which is often initially in a hostile exchange, they don’t know that there are 4,800 start-ups in Israel. They don’t know that the cancer drug that’s saving their aunt was made by an Israeli. They don’t realize that the technology they’re using to bash Israel online was invented in Israel. They think of it as a bunch of brown people in sand throwing rockets at each other. In reality, some of us are quite pale.
Would it be fair to say that Rocket Shelter Comedy has a two-fold objective: educate comedians in America on what Israel is really about, and bring some much-needed laughter to Israelis?
Yes, 100 percent. I got an email from my attorney saying that he had been called abruptly to the army, and needed a few days to get some paperwork to me. I felt like if my attorney is putting on a uniform, ensuring people’s safety and doing his part, then what am I doing sitting on my butt? If you’re a good friend, then you show up during the tough times. So Danny and I decided to get on a plane and do what we can do, which is to lighten the mood for folks for a short while.
We also brought a bunch of video equipment. The folks at B&H were all wishing us well. That’s definitely the camera store you want to go to right before heading to Israel! I imagine that’s the worst thing about being a Hamas propaganda guy is you’re doing all these videos and you can’t shop at B&H! We’re going to do videos of life in Israel while we’re here.
Our target audience are comedians in the states who aren’t getting the full picture of Israel. I think a lot of Israel’s PR is reactive. It’s like trying to win a customer over after they’re already upset, as opposed to marketing to them in the first place. This topic needs to be put out not as preaching to the choir; not on sites that only Jews and Israelis read, but to everybody.
Israel’s marketing is basically that they’ve got a bunch of beaches, old Jewish stuff to look at, and it’s generally safe despite the war. Most people don’t even know about the beaches... come on guys, let’s put more effort into advertising all the great things about Israel.
What’s your schedule while you’re here in Israel?
We just got some very exciting news: the Tel Aviv show has been moved to this Monday, July 28 at Habima. There is another show in Modi’in and then two more in Jerusalem. We’re working with the IDF in America and obviously here in Israel to send us down to the south on Wednesday July 30 to do some shows for the soldiers there. If we don’t perform well, then they send us right in. So, no pressure there.
A room full of Jews is always nerve-wracking, but this is a big deal because it’s a break for these soldiers during what is clearly a very stressful time. Plus, they have guns! So far I’ve been here a couple days and it’s been nice. Israelis just yell at you; that’s how they speak English. There’s no lower volume.
I don’t know if they’re taught English by someone who screams, so that’s just how they know it. I ask questions and they answer, and I’m not sure if they’re giving me information or telling me I’m a worthless human being. I’m not sure which one it is.
Is this your first time performing in Israel?
No, I’ve performed in Israel before. It’s always a smart and fun crowd. My parents made aliya when I was younger, which is Hebrew for they abandoned me. So if anyone wants to speak 3,000-year-old biblical Hebrew, then I’m set. But for the most part, besides a Yiddish word here and there, my stand-up is all in English.
For more information on the show schedule, or to help sponsor the tour, visit www.rocketsheltercomedy.com. All proceeds go to benefit lone soldiers.