When British comedian John Cleese began his show at the Charles Bronfman Auditorium in Tel Aviv on Monday night with the greeting, “Hello, Jewish people,” the packed hall 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. Actually, in that sense, Cleese’s wit is very Jewish.
The lanky, 79-year-old funnyman (he turns 80 in October) 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 the stage, with no death date.)
After showing the audience a doctored photograph of his third wife, he 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 preceded his Jewish jokes by revealing that one of his two daughters is married to a Jew and that he has Jewish grandchildren.
The funniest Jewish joke he told was provided by his son-in-law. It’s the one about two old Jews walking past a Catholic church boasting a billboard which reads, “Convert to Catholicism now and get 1,000 dollars in cash.”
“You wait here,” Abe tells Mel. “I’m going in.”
A short time later, Abe comes out. “That’s it. I’ve converted.”
“And did you get the money?” asks Mel.
“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 prompter throughout the show, and took short breaks 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.
He told another Jewish joke that he 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 asked 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 them laughing when you go!