Laughter on the front lines

An Israeli-born comic lands in Afghanistan. Sound like the beginning of a joke? Not for Avi Liberman.

Avi Liberman 88 224 (photo credit: )
Avi Liberman 88 224
(photo credit: )
Hordes of vacationers opt out of the traditional turkey dinner in favor of travel over Thanksgiving. Most, however, are not packing their bags for war-torn countries such as Afghanistan, where Israeli-born comedian Avi Liberman found himself over the holiday performing for American troops. "So many people told me I was missing out on Thanksgiving by not being with my family, but I think they were the ones missing out. I was with people I was really thankful for," says Liberman, currently in Israel on his annual Crossroads Comedy tour. Together with veteran war-zone comedian Butch Bradley, who has traveled to bases in Afghanistan and Iraq for the last five years, Liberman "caught military flights like cabs" and performed at three bases. The two comedians were recruited by fellow stand-up comedian Mike Burton and his upcoming television series Dog Tag Comedy, Live from Afghanistan, in conjunction with the US Army's Morale Welfare and Recreation offices. Liberman's involvement in the project came rather suddenly; he bumped into Burton at The Improv in California and discovered that he needed a last-minute replacement for the Afghanistan tour. "I canceled a gig in North California, confirmed all the final details on Saturday night and was on a plane Sunday morning," says Liberman. "It was a very moving experience," he recalls, though entirely different from the traditional comedy stage. The first show took place at a forward operating base in Farah, Afghanistan, "inside a Special Forces compound, with no microphone, no speakers." It was just 25 soldiers, two comedians, and "an hour of laughing and thanking each other for what we do." On their last night of stand-up, "300 people were crammed into a 'clamshell' (a small hangar) at an air force base in Bagrahm, Afghanistan." Standing ovations followed Bradley and Liberman's sets. In addition to being able to thank the troops in person, Liberman found himself thanking them for personally protecting him. To pick him up immediately upon arriving, for example, a car of troops had to come through "suicide circle," a town square where suicide bombings are rampant and bombers wait for targets. "I asked if this was a safe time of day, and they said, 'no,' because no time is safe," says Liberman. "People really take for granted living in a democracy." On another occasion, he put on armor in a Humvee and sat behind the driver in a convoy, listening to him communicate with the gunner about suspicious vehicles around the car. The Humvee one rotation before Liberman's was hit by a suicide bomber, and the car flipped. "It's not every Shabbat that you get a Friday night rocket attack," remarks Liberman. While the experience was frightening, it provided a unique angle from which to formulate new material for future shows. "I cater the shows to fit the bases. Some of the best jokes came at the end of the trip because I base my routines on my experiences. The convoy jokes couldn't have happened before the convoy ride itself." As if his time in the country hadn't presented enough danger and new material, Liberman also had to be smuggled out of the country after his original flight from Manas, Turkestan ("the Chicago O'Hare of the area"), was snowed in. Liberman was rerouted through Qatar, which required a visa to fly through - no easy task for someone whose place of birth is Israel. "Customs in Qatar told me I didn't have the proper paperwork, and there would have been a four-day delay. Fortunately, a US captain walked by, threw me into a C5 fighter jet and flew me to Germany." Despite the close calls, he says, he would "do it again in a second. It was so rewarding." No stranger to performing abroad, Liberman returns to Israel on a regular basis for his widely acclaimed stand-up comedy tours. He enlists his fellow comedians to join him in helping to boost morale. All the proceeds from the shows are also donated to Crossroads, a non-profit organization that works with homeless and at-risk teens in the Jerusalem area. "Israel is a country of love," says Liberman. "I laugh when people call Israel a war zone." The Crossroads Comedy Tour kicked off yesterday in Jerusalem and will move to Club Tzora in Beit Shemesh today, December 13, to Yad Labanim in Ra'anana on Saturday, December 15, and to Tel Aviv on Sunday, December 16 at ZOA House. Liberman will be joined by acclaimed stand-up comedians Mark Schiff, John Mulrooney and Reggie McFadden. All shows start at 8:30 p.m., with doors opening at 8. Tickets are NIS 100 each and all proceeds benefit the Crossroads Center for At-Risk Youth in Jerusalem. Call 054-627-2867 to request tickets to be picked up at the event.