Comedy for Koby kicks it up a notch

LA-based comic Avi Liberman has been regularly bringing over a revolving door of his funny friends to Israel for a good cause since 2002.

Avi Liberman 370 (photo credit: Yissachar Ruas)
Avi Liberman 370
(photo credit: Yissachar Ruas)
Believe it or not, there are still some American standup comedians who have not performed in Israel with Avi Liberman. But not many.
Since 2002, the Los Angeles-based Liberman has annually (and more recently bi-annually) corralled a slew of fellow American funnymen and women to make their first visits to the country and entertain audiences for a good cause.
Back when Liberman first arrived for a solidarity visit amid the horrors of the second intifada, it was called Stand Up For Israel. Then, for a few years, the shows benefited the Crossroads center for at-risk youth. For the last five years, the shows have been under the Comedy for Koby auspices to benefit the Koby Mandell Foundation, which works on behalf of individuals and families struck by terror; the organization was named after 13-year-old Koby Mandell, who was murdered near his home in Tekoa in May 2001.
But whatever the benefactor or gravity of the cause, the common element in all of the tours Liberman continues to organize is sheer laughter – from equal-opportunity jokes aimed at Israelis, American Jews and everything in between. One such joke from Liberman: “I love to going to Marzipan bakery in Jerusalem for the chocolate rugelach. This last time, they were out of the air-sealed plastic containers. The guy said he’d put them in cardboard boxes and if he closes them really tight, it would be the same thing. I told him it wouldn’t, and he said he’d been doing this for 15 years and knew what he was talking about. So apparently, if you are Israeli and have been doing something for a long time, you can defy the laws of physics.”
Or, “LA has such a large Jewish community that they actually have a Yeshiva Day School Basketball league. I don’t think that’s morally or ethically correct, because it instills these kids with a false sense of athletic ability.”
“While I don’t generally consider myself a topical comedian, following the headlines, when I’m in Israel, I have to be,” said Liberman last week. He had just arrived in Jerusalem, flown in especially for an appearance at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America.
“One of my first phone calls here is to one of my fellow comics in Israel – Benji Lovitt or Yossi Tarablus – to find out what’s going on here. Audiences in Israel have come to expect a new 20 minutes of material every six months, but it’s generally said that a comic comes up with a good, solid new five minutes every year. So, there’s a lot of work to do.”
Although he’s more than up to the task, when Liberman returns next month for the upcoming Comedy for Koby series, he’ll have the support of his guest American standup masters – Andrew Norelli, Dan Naturman and Roy Wood Jr.
All veterans of late-night TV variety shows and nightclubs, and with Wood Jr. currently appearing in the TBS sitcom Sullivan & Son, the lineup is as potent as any that Liberman has put together in the past 11 years.
According to Liberman, the ability to attract top-rate talent is a function of the stellar reputation the tour and the receptive audiences in Israel have garnered from the comics who have appeared here in the past.
“They go back home and talk about the great experiences they had in Israel,” he said. “I don’t have to sell it myself as much anymore, I just say, ‘Go and talk to so and so’ and they sell it themselves.”
And what they’re selling is the chance to appear before some of the most enthusiastic and appreciative audiences they’re likely to encounter – audiences mostly from English-speaking countries that revel in laughing at themselves and the absurdities of their adopted land. According to Liberman, many of the visiting comics end up changing or embellishing their standard routines with new bits gleaned from their observations on their – in most cases – first visits to Israel.
“It’s one of those positive complaints I get from the organizers in some of the cities we perform. They say, ‘We know the comedians come up with stuff while they’re here, so we want to have the show later in tour,’” said Liberman. “I laugh and respond that someone has to be first and second. And anyway, these guys are so funny, they can do just about 20 minutes of their regular acts and the audience will love it.”
Of course, the “regular act” for some of the comics might not be a great fit for the sizable religiously observant Anglo community that makes up the bulk of the audience – at least at the Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh shows.
Liberman said he makes it a point to bring over performers who aren’t excessively off-color, and advises them keep their more bawdy material for the Tel Aviv show.
“We sort of know what’s going to be offensive or not, it’s just a matter of using common sense,” said Liberman.
“Generally, if you’re trying to be edgy just for the sake of being edgy and there’s no joke there, then it’s not going to be funny. As Carl Reiner once said, ‘As long as it’s twice as funny as it is dirty, then it will be fine.’” On the other hand, Liberman has occasionally provided tips to the visiting comics to help them localize their jokes and make them even funnier.
“There have been times when I said, ‘This would work great if you just added this,’” said Liberman.
“When [popular American comedian] Ron Pearson was here, he called up someone from the audience during his show. When we were in Beit Shemesh, I said to him, if you do this, it will get a big laugh. Just say ‘I need a woman who is not shomer negiya to come up on stage and really sound out “shomer negiya.”’ The audience, not thinking that he would know a phrase like that, went wild.”
The positive feedback, gut-wrenching laughs and all-around professionalism of Comedy for Koby have enabled the tours to book larger rooms, sell out more quickly and as time goes on, involve fewer glitches. Liberman credited the “well-oiled machine” to the staff on the ground in Israel, including outreach specialists Dena and Jeremy Wimpfheimer, who create a buzz in the Anglo community before every tour. And the comic headliners end up enjoying the shows and the visit to Israel as much as the audience, said Liberman.
“We’re still learning as much as we can on how to make the trip even better. But my first questions to the comedians after every tour is ‘What can I do better?’ Over the years, I find that they really have to think hard about it. So that means we’re going in the right direction and that makes me feel good.”
“I’ve learned over the years that no tour is going to go exactly as planned. Things are going to come up, and you just have to improvise and deal with it. Just when you think you have it as organized as it can be, you have to be ready when something goes awry.”
Luckily, for the comics who parade on the stage for Comedy for Koby, being able to laugh it off comes naturally.
The Winter 2013 Comedy for Koby tour kicks off on Thursday, December 5 in Beit Shemesh – 8:30 p.m, Eshkol Payis, Migdal Hamayim. Other shows: Saturday, December 7 in Gush Etzion – 8:30 p.m., Matnas Gush Etzion; Sunday, December 8 in Jerusalem – two shows: 7 and 9:30 p.m., Beit Shmuel; Tuesday, December 10 in Tel Aviv – 8:30 p.m, Tzavta; Wednesday, December 11 in Ra’anana - 8:30 p.m., Yad Labanim; Thursday, December 12 in Modi’in – 8 p.m., Einan Theater.