Yukking it up in Israel

Canada’s national standup comedy club, Yuk Yuk’s, is heading to the Holy Land.

Mark Breslin 370 (photo credit: Courtesy/PR)
Mark Breslin 370
(photo credit: Courtesy/PR)
Mark Breslin never really felt at home inside a synagogue, hunched over a Torah. But in 1976, he created his own Jewish house of worship: a comedy club.
Thirty-six years later, his club Yuk Yuk’s has become Canada’s biggest comedy chain, with over 100 resident comics and 17 locations all over the country. And yet, while Breslin’s connection to Judaism grew alongside the expansion of his business – “The history of North American comedy is the history of Jewish comedy. The two are inseparable,” he says – he never made it to Israel. But now, at 60, Breslin aims to change that in a big way.
On May 31, Breslin will arrive in Israel with six of his best comics in tow for a culture-swapping week-long comedy tour. Co-sponsored by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the trip is meant not simply to make a few bucks off of Israeli audiences, but rather to strengthen Canada-Israeli bonds in a fun, creative way.
His comedians include Jews and non-Jews alike: Rebecca Kohler, Aaron Berg, Sam Easton, Jean Peul, Nikki Payne and Michael Khardas – the latter an Israeli Canadian. And with Canadian documentarian Igal Hecht filming the whole thing, Breslin hopes to bring the crew’s experience to a wider, international audience.
“I was never a good tourist,” he says, calling from Toronto. “I would never go to France and point at a church and say, ‘Oh, wow, a church.’ When I go somewhere, I get really involved in the place.”
For his trip to Israel, that may be an understatement. Aside from the seven comedy shows planned, he and his comics will tour the country, meet with The Jerusalem Post’s own Khaled Abu Toameh and learn more about the cultural and socio-political issues facing Israel during a briefing with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
It’s an ambitious trek, considering Yuk Yuk’s “couldn’t have had humbler beginnings,” as Breslin points out. “We started one night a week in the basement of a community center [in Toronto]. But it took off like a shot.”
By 1984, when Breslin opened his second location in Ottawa, it became clear that “I’d need to get a bank account and stop keeping the money in a shoebox under my bed. I never thought Yuk Yuk’s would be my life’s work; rather something I’d do to cause trouble and meet girls,” he says, “Which I did, by the way.”
That’s true of the “trouble” part, too. Breslin maintains that “we practice comedy in a very authentic way – there’s no censorship. When I first started in the ‘70s, fully a third of the audience would walk out in disgust. Over the years, the world has caught up with us.”
Breslin’s connection to Judaism has finally caught up with him as well. Never a religious Jew or an active Zionist, he says, “My Jewishness has always come out in my sense of humor. That’s how I connected. We always say that comedy is Jewish jazz – from vaudeville to Seinfeld.”
Breslin’s trip this month, then, was launched by two parallel interests. He still recalls being in public school when a teacher announced that Israel had won the Six Day War to cheering students.
“Something happened between 1967 and today,” he says. “You wouldn’t find that immediate reaction now.”
In Hecht’s resulting documentary, he hopes to show that, while abstaining from political viewpoints, Israel is a “very exciting and vibrant country interested in reacting and participating in contemporary world culture,” he says, “which I don’t think is true of every place in the Middle East.”
And while he doesn’t tease himself that a comedy tour documentary could change the world, “You measure progress in millimeters,” he says. “Even the slightest uptick in good feeling toward the country, and we’ll have done something good.”
On a smaller, more personal level, Breslin just wants to better understand Jewish comedy.
“It fascinates me that there is another country out there that is primarily Jewish and starting to get involved in the comedy world. Comedy is an art form of our people, and I want to see how our people are doing it in Israel,” he says.
Further, Breslin hopes to uncover some Israeli talent for a hopeful Israeli comedy festival in the future in Toronto, or even to launch a Yuk Yuk’s in Tel Aviv.
Breslin’s stable of comedians is excited to arrive in Israel, but never lose an opportunity to crack a joke.
“We were approached at gunpoint to participate,” says Kohler. “To be honest, I am pretty ignorant about Israel. My family used to sing Christmas carols every year, so I picture Bethlehem and camels and people in robes with a baby. But as I’ve grown up, I’ve followed the issues in Israel, and I picture an exciting place with drama and beauty. It’s like the perfect novel, but in a country.”
Khardas – the lone comic who has visited Israel before – says the country has become his sole trip destination.
“I don’t go to Cuba or Brazil or Mexico,” he says. “I only come to Israel. I’m addicted.”
Berg, who is currently wrapping up a one-man Off Broadway show in New York City, is a lot like Breslin – a non-religious, cultural Jew who somehow never made it here. In a way, he’s glad he waited.
“Comedy is a very Jewish art form from its inception,” says Berg. “I think this tour is the best possible way for me to go. And hopefully my parents will finally stop being disappointed in me.”
With three Jewish comedians and three non-Jews, the cultural familiarity will be all over the map. But Kohler believes that, regardless of religion, “Israel holds great meaning and great history. It’s connected to who we all are as people.”
There’s silence on the line, as Breslin and the room of comics digests what she just said.
“While that’s all true,” says Breslin, “Rebecca told me she really wants to have sex with a man while holding his gun.”
The Yuk Yuk trip is sponsored by the Canadian Jewish community’s Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.Jerusalem shows:

May 31, 9 p.m., Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI), Dr. Max and Gianna Glassman Family Center, Pierre Koenig 37. Call (02) 566-1181 for more information.

June 2, 8 p.m. and 10 p.m., Off the Wall Comedy Basement, 34 Ben Yehuda, Call (050) 875-5668 for more information.