Cleese tickles Tel Aviv

The funniest Jewish joke he told was the one about two old Jews walking past a Catholic church boasting a billboard which reads, “Convert to Catholicism now and get $1,000 in cash.”

John Cleese in Tel Aviv (photo credit: Courtesy)
John Cleese in Tel Aviv
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When British comedian John Cleese began his show in Tel Aviv on September 2 with the greeting, “Hello, Jewish people,” the packed Charles Bronfman Auditorium erupted in laughter.
It was a reminder that even though humor can sound antisemitic – and there were certainly non-Jews in the audience – we all need to laugh at ourselves sometimes. In that sense, Cleese’s wit is very Jewish.
The tall, 79-year-old funnyman (he turns 80 next month) gave three performances in Israel as part of his so-called Alimony Tour titled, “The Last Time To See Me Before I Die.” (There is even a picture of his gravestone on stage, with no death date.)
After showing the audience a doctored photograph of his third wife, Cleese explained with feigned irritation that he had been forced to launch the tour to pay 20 million dollars in alimony.
The audience lapped up his irreverent black humor that respects no taboos. It may have helped that he couched his Jewish jokes with the revelation that one of his two daughters is married to a Jew and that he has Jewish grandchildren.
The funniest Jewish joke he told was the one about two old Jews walking past a Catholic church boasting a billboard which reads, “Convert to Catholicism now and get $1,000 in cash.”
“You wait here,” Abe tells Sol. “I’m going in.”
A short time later, Abe comes out. “That’s it. I’ve converted.”
“Did you get the money?” asks Sol.
“That’s all you people think about?” retorts Abe.
Cleese has not lost his superb sense of timing. It’s true that he was aided with a teleprompter throughout the show, and took short breaks offstage while screening classic clips from Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, and other highlights of his career, but he is still as hilarious as ever – especially when he guffaws at his own jokes.
It is reassuring when icons such as Cleese – and later this year, Tom Jones – defy the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its guru, Roger Waters, and visit Israel.
Besides sparking marvelous memories of another era, Cleese has no problem tweeting jabs at today’s world leaders, from US President Donald Trump (“What tickles me is that the audiences at Trump’s rallies don’t realize that he’s rambling, because that’s how they think anyway”), to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (“Doesn’t Boris Johnson look like Trump’s sloppy werewolf?”).
I could not help but recall the funny commercial Cleese once did for an Israeli chocolate spread. He plays the part of a US general asked to give Israel the green light to carry out an air strike against an enemy, apparently Iran.
“We need your approval for the attack,” an Israeli officer in the war room says. “I promise you, we will be in and out in 33 minutes! General Rogers, we have the right to defend ourselves!”
Cleese reaches for the spread, licks chocolate off the wrapper which smudges onto his nose, and declares in Hebrew, “Sababa egozim” (loosely translated to “Let’s go nuts”) which the Israelis take as approval for the strike.
In his Tel Aviv show, Cleese told another Jewish joke that he had heard from an old Jew after a show in Florida. It’s about an old Jewish man on his deathbed who asks his family to summon a priest so he can convert to Catholicism.
After the quick conversion, his shocked family asks him why – after a lifetime of being a pious Jew – he had chosen to become a Christian.
“Well,” he said, “I decided that if someone’s got to go, I’d rather it be one of them.”
Rest assured, John Cleese, you’ll leave us laughing when you go!