Mark Breslin never really felt at home inside a synagogue, hunched over a Torah.
But in 1976, he created his own Jewish house of worship: a comedy
Thirty-six years later, his club Yuk Yuk’s has become Canada’s
biggest comedy chain, with over 100 resident comics and 17 locations all over
the country. And yet, while Breslin’s connection to Judaism grew
alongside the expansion of his business – “The history of North American comedy
is the history of Jewish comedy. The two are inseparable,” he says – he never
made it to Israel. But now, at 60, Breslin aims to change that in a big
On May 31, Breslin will arrive in Israel with six of his best comics
in tow for a culture-swapping week-long comedy tour. Co-sponsored by Israel’s
Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the trip is meant not simply to make a few bucks
off of Israeli audiences, but rather to strengthen Canada-Israeli bonds in a
fun, creative way.
His comedians include Jews and non-Jews alike: Rebecca
Kohler, Aaron Berg, Sam Easton, Jean Peul, Nikki Payne and Michael Khardas – the
latter an Israeli Canadian. And with Canadian documentarian Igal Hecht filming
the whole thing, Breslin hopes to bring the crew’s experience to a wider,
“I was never a good tourist,” he says, calling
from Toronto. “I would never go to France and point at a church and say, ‘Oh,
wow, a church.’ When I go somewhere, I get really involved in the
For his trip to Israel, that may be an
understatement. Aside from the seven comedy shows planned, he and his
comics will tour the country, meet with The Jerusalem Post
’s own Khaled Abu
Toameh and learn more about the cultural and socio-political issues facing
Israel during a briefing with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
ambitious trek, considering Yuk Yuk’s “couldn’t have had humbler beginnings,” as
Breslin points out. “We started one night a week in the basement of a
community center [in Toronto]. But it took off like a shot.”
when Breslin opened his second location in Ottawa, it became clear that “I’d
need to get a bank account and stop keeping the money in a shoebox under my bed.
I never thought Yuk Yuk’s would be my life’s work; rather something I’d do to
cause trouble and meet girls,” he says, “Which I did, by the way.”
true of the “trouble” part, too. Breslin maintains that “we practice comedy in a
very authentic way – there’s no censorship. When I first started in the ‘70s,
fully a third of the audience would walk out in disgust. Over the years, the
world has caught up with us.”
Breslin’s connection to Judaism has finally
caught up with him as well. Never a religious Jew or an active Zionist, he says,
“My Jewishness has always come out in my sense of humor. That’s how I connected.
We always say that comedy is Jewish jazz – from vaudeville to
Breslin’s trip this month, then, was launched by two parallel
interests. He still recalls being in public school when a teacher announced that
Israel had won the Six Day War to cheering students.
between 1967 and today,” he says. “You wouldn’t find that immediate reaction
In Hecht’s resulting documentary, he hopes to show that, while
abstaining from political viewpoints, Israel is a “very exciting and vibrant
country interested in reacting and participating in contemporary world culture,”
he says, “which I don’t think is true of every place in the Middle
And while he doesn’t tease himself that a comedy tour documentary
could change the world, “You measure progress in millimeters,” he says. “Even
the slightest uptick in good feeling toward the country, and we’ll have done
On a smaller, more personal level, Breslin just wants to
better understand Jewish comedy.
“It fascinates me that there is another
country out there that is primarily Jewish and starting to get involved in the
comedy world. Comedy is an art form of our people, and I want to see how our
people are doing it in Israel,” he says.
Further, Breslin hopes to
uncover some Israeli talent for a hopeful Israeli comedy festival in the future
in Toronto, or even to launch a Yuk Yuk’s in Tel Aviv.
of comedians is excited to arrive in Israel, but never lose an opportunity to
crack a joke.
“We were approached at gunpoint to participate,” says
Kohler. “To be honest, I am pretty ignorant about Israel. My family used to sing
Christmas carols every year, so I picture Bethlehem and camels and people in
robes with a baby. But as I’ve grown up, I’ve followed the issues in Israel, and
I picture an exciting place with drama and beauty. It’s like the perfect novel,
but in a country.”
Khardas – the lone comic who has visited Israel before
– says the country has become his sole trip destination.
“I don’t go to
Cuba or Brazil or Mexico,” he says. “I only come to Israel. I’m
Berg, who is currently wrapping up a one-man Off Broadway show
in New York City, is a lot like Breslin – a non-religious, cultural Jew who
somehow never made it here. In a way, he’s glad he waited.
“Comedy is a
very Jewish art form from its inception,” says Berg. “I think this tour is the
best possible way for me to go. And hopefully my parents will finally stop being
disappointed in me.”
With three Jewish comedians and three non-Jews, the
cultural familiarity will be all over the map. But Kohler believes that,
regardless of religion, “Israel holds great meaning and great history. It’s
connected to who we all are as people.”
There’s silence on the line, as
Breslin and the room of comics digests what she just said.
all true,” says Breslin, “Rebecca told me she really wants to have sex with a
man while holding his gun.”The Yuk Yuk trip is sponsored by the Canadian Jewish community’s Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.
Jerusalem shows: May 31, 9 p.m., Americans
and Canadians in Israel (AACI), Dr. Max and Gianna Glassman Family Center,
Pierre Koenig 37. Call (02) 566-1181 for more information.June 2, 8 p.m.
and 10 p.m., Off the Wall Comedy Basement, 34 Ben Yehuda, Call (050) 875-5668
for more information.