Enjoying the last laugh

Israeli comedian Yuval Haklai makes heavy issues lighter in his popular web series "Voices of the Middle East."

November 30, 2016 20:52
Comedian Yuval Haklai

Comedian Yuval Haklai. (photo credit: RACHEL MARCO)

Yuval Haklai is anything but politically correct. In his successful and popular web series Voices of the Middle East, Haklai takes on topics such as the world media, religion, and Israeli/Palestinian relations with wit, bravado and brevity. Each episode is only a few minutes long. Haklai’s one-man show is coming to Europe and the US this month. You can also catch him in Tel Aviv, performing his Shabbos Night Live every Saturday night. Haklai sat down with The Jerusalem Post to discuss Israeli comedic style, combating the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement with humor, and his version of hasbara (public diplomacy).

Can you tell me about yourself?

Sure. I’m Israeli, but I spent a few years in California. I did one year of community service over there for the army. I started doing comedy in Israel. Then I got into writing for TV comedy shows. Around three years ago, I started performing in English too. It’s more fun to perform in English; everything sounds better.

Did that open you up to a wider audience?

Yes definitely, and I think what I’m doing with this web series is mixing an English/American vibe with the Israeli vibe of comedy. The Israeli comedy style is more in-your-face and much less PC, which is great for me. I think it’s great for all comedians actually because the PC movement became like a plague. I went on two comedy tours in America and it’s tough with all this PC stuff.

You did stand-up in America?

I did one-hour stand-up in English at comedy clubs, colleges and JCC’s. I did the Jewish circuit. The first one was in 2014 and the second was this year. It went great. I did a lot of stuff about the Middle East, some of which is now in my web series. Sometimes when I do the political stuff, like when I make fun of terror or the conflict, in the beginning, it’s hard for the audience. They can’t believe that I’m making fun of the conflict. But I think, why not? That’s the reality we live here in Israel. There is a lot to make fun of and to tackle. Maybe comedy is the last option we have to tackle those issues because everything is so politicized. If you’re pro-Israel, you’re right-wing, if you’re pro-Palestine, you’re left-wing. If you’re like me, who is sometimes one way and sometimes another, then what am I? You should see the comments to my web series; they’re hilarious. ‘You Zionist pig!’ Stuff like that.

What is your take on the obsession with being PC?

It doesn’t matter what you say nowadays; it’s more important who says it. So if you are Jewish, then you can not talk about the Palestinians. If you’re white, you can’t talk about blacks in America. Who are you to talk about it? Coming from the Middle East, it gives me an advantage because I’m from here. So I don’t have to be PC. I can talk about it.

Did you experience any anti-Israel sentiment when you’ve been on tour?

Yes, when I was in San Diego there was BDS week at all the college campuses. I noticed there’s a lot of ignorance. I went around pretending to be a reporter and I asked people questions. I asked what they thought about Israel’s actions against Jordan in the 2014 war. They responded that it was awful and what Israel did was horrible. ...It just goes to show that there is a lot of ignorance, although they have good intentions. It’s a little bit narcissistic, the BDS people. They think they’re saving the world and fighting the good fight. There is a lot to criticize Israel for, but get your facts straight.

Can you describe ‘Voices of the Middle East’?

I’m trying to talk about my experiences here in a way that only I can, to show how life really is here. The first two episodes were very political. Immigration is a hot topic now because of Trump’s comments about Mexicans and all that. So I wanted to talk about how hard it is for Israelis to even get a visa to America. Getting a visa to America is like leaving the friend zone when you’re a guy. Really, for us, America is this hot, sexy friend and everybody wants to get in there. Israel is like the guy friend who hovers around and takes orders. After all the sh#t we go through, the president always says, ‘Israel is our closest friend.’ It’s like, damn. So that’s another topic. Another episode is about religion in the Middle East. It’s a very anti-religious episode. That one could be considered left-wing, but I’m not trying to be left-wing or right-wing. It’s a mix like life, like reality. It’s more complicated than that. There is also another episode about Israelis selling Dead Sea products in the kiosks in American malls.

What has the reception been like from listeners?

Actually pretty crazy, the first episode had 200,000 views in Israel, which is a huge number for something in English. The Israeli minister for hasbara shared it because he thought it was a hasbara thing, but then he saw the third episode, which is less hasbara. The second one was ironically picked up by a lot of media. It’s about the world media. I’m saying that they’re like that gossip girl from high school talking about what Israel did last night. I’m taking a lot of risks and offending a lot of people, even people I need like the media. If it’s true, then I believe you should say it. That’s good comedy.

What are your plans for future webisodes?

I really want to tackle the PC issue because it’s also prevalent in Israel. The PC vibe has also come here. It’s good, but a bit ridiculous. Again, there are good intentions. The basis for PC is that words can change reality and I think it’s true, but up to a point. If it fights freedom of speech, then it becomes a problem.

For more information, videos and tour dates, visit: www.yuvalcomedy.com.

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