7 questions for comedian Yuval Haklai

Haklai, 29, grew up in Ramat Gan, served in the IDF and spent a little time in law school before realizing he was born to do something else.

Yuval Haklai (photo credit: PR)
Yuval Haklai
(photo credit: PR)
Let’s get one thing straight from the beginning.
Stand-up comedy is a quintessentially American art form. Its history meanders backwards through time, through today’s comedy clubs and latenight TV; back further through three decades of radio; back through vaudeville and burlesque theater to its roots in the early decades of the 19th century, to a type of entertainment known as minstrel shows.
Starting in the 1830s, minstrel shows were performed by white men in blackface, lampooning the speech, customs and music of real American Black people. A minstrel show was divided into three acts. The first act was made up of usually lavish musical comedy production numbers. The second act, called the “olio,” was performed by the cast seated in a semicircle in front of the closed curtain, while behind the curtain the stage was being set for the third act. The high point of this act was known as the “stump speech,” in which one of the cast would get up from his seat, mount a tree stump and deliver an extemporaneous speech or lecture about some topical issue of the day.
Dressed in “Jim Crow” costume and made up in blackface, the white actor would deliver the stump speech in satirized Black dialect, heavy with puns and malapropisms, with an innocent mien of not really understanding what he was talking about. Judged by today’s standards, these performances were bizarre and repulsive. However, while hiding behind this fool’s mask, the actor could – and often did – present some truly biting commentary about unpopular issues and caustic social criticism, hopefully without offending members of the audience.
Without too great a strain on the imagination, we can perhaps understand why historians of American mass culture see the minstrel-show stump speech evolving through time into the monologue of today’s stand-up comedian.
As the blackface minstrel-show corner man slowly gave way to the baggy-pants comic of vaudeville and burlesque at the turn of the 20th century, a fascinating thing began to happen: The ranks of American comedians began to swell with the children of Jewish immigrants. By the time that network television got up and running in the late 1940s, comedy in America had become a preponderantly Jewish art form.
It should thus be no surprise that American-style stand-up comedy has begun to take root here in Israel, the Jewish state. Throughout Israel – particularly in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and recently Netanya – standup comedy has become a “thing,” with established stars such as David Kilimnick, Benjy Lovitt, Grant Crankshaw and Diana Cass performing regularly in show bars and comedy clubs.
A noisy new kid on the block is Yuval Haklai, whose website declares him to be “one of the top comedians in Israel, performing worldwide.” Haklai, 29, grew up in Ramat Gan, served in the IDF and spent a little time in law school before realizing he was born to do something else. He has hosted and written for Israeli TV and radio shows such as What a Night (Buba shel Layla) and Big News-Small Times. Last year he was the host of Settling the Tab (Soger Heshbon) on Channel 10.
He has made two comedy performing tours of the US and is planning another tour soon for Europe.
He is currently in the midst of making a series of highly charged political and social comedy videos, available for viewing on YouTube, Facebook and on his website (www.yuvalcomedy.com) called Voices of the Middle East”—Making Light of an Explosive Situation. He has authored and performed a frankly hilarious music video, Cause I’m a Jew Guy, sung to the tune of Afroman’s “Cause I Got High.”
We recently caught up with Yuval Haklai and asked him a few questions.
1. When did you first realize that you were funny?
I guess it was in high school. I was always “the smart guy.” I kind of got sick of that because girls don’t like ‘smart’ at that age. So I started being a “smart ass.” And it was funny. And I became more successful with the ladies. And I stayed funny, I guess – some people think. It wasn’t so useful to be funny in the army, to say the least.
2. Jay Leno used to say his career began one day in school when his teacher caught him entertaining fellow students in the back of the class. The teacher told him that if he’s going to be so “funny,” he should come up to the front of the room and talk to the entire class. He did, and within two minutes, “the teacher was out in the hall charging $10 admission and a two-drink minimum.” Was it something like that for you?
Exactly! But in Israel it’s 10 shekels, not dollars.
3. When did you decide to become a professional stand-up comic?
I was doing stand-up comedy before I acknowledged being a “stand-up comic.” It was hard for me because I’m kind of the black sheep of my family. My mom is a biologist and professor at Tel Aviv University. My dad is an accountant, my sister is an accountant, my grandfather is an accountant. We are a very Ashkenazi Polish Jewish family. And then me deciding to do comedy? It actually took me a while to say that’s what I’m doing. Here in Israel, people don’t look at comedy as something serious. In Israel, comics are more jokesters, funny men. In America, stand-up comics are smart funny men.
Comedy is serious – or it can be serious. My series of videos on the Middle East are very serious; they’re about serious subjects.
And I think nowadays in this PC culture we live in, the only way to address these subjects is through comedy. So to get back to your original question – sorry, my ADD is everywhere – it was very hard for me to say that comedy is what I’m doing. My mom still thinks I should go back to university. I went to law school, but I quit in the middle. I should go back to law school. My mom gives me hell about ‘being a clown,’ but she brags about me to her friends.
4. Some might call your material a little raw. Do people get offended by your humor?
Yes. I did a political comedy bit about the show Game of Thrones in front of a Birthright group, by accident.
And I uploaded it to YouTube and Facebook. Peter Dinklage, the midget actor on the show, shared it on his page, and it reached a huge audience. The bit was a political joke about what Game of Thrones would look like in today’s world. And a lot of comments were like, “You are a Zionist pig!” “You’re from Israel, you can’t say that,” “You’re from Israel, so of course you’re saying that.” It’s a problem when you’re dealing with politics. Sometimes it becomes more important who says things rather than the things themselves.
And I’m Israeli, so right away there are things I’m not supposed to say. Political correctness has become a major problem, more so in the US than here. Trigger warnings, safe zones. Life is not safe. So I’m trying in my web series to be less PC.
My second episode is about the world media. My insight about it is that I think they have good intentions. They want to do good. But by obsessing so much about the Middle East, I think they’re doing wrong to us, to everyone here, and just adding fuel to the fire. I’m saying that the Middle East is like the rock group Coldplay or U2. Once it was good and innovative and creative.
But for the past years, it has been putting out crap to the world.
But the world media is still following us and buying our albums.
So maybe if they stop doing that, we could go back to producing “good music.”
Listen, it’s the Israeli way to say what you think. It’s risky, but I hope it will be refreshing.
5. Aside from posting large amounts of your comedy on YouTube, Facebook and your website, do you also perform live?
Yes, every Saturday night I have a live show in English at Dailyz Bar at 268 Dizengoff in Tel Aviv. On Wednesday evenings I’m part of LiAmi Lawrence’s Holy Comics of the Holy Land, at the Dancing Camel on 12 Hata’asiya Street. The English comedy scene in Israel is getting very big. We are Israelis, so we think we know everything. I think we are bringing a decent vibe. Look, we’re all Jews. We’re funny! What the f--k did we expect by putting the Jews in one place? Of course we all try to f--k each other because that’s what we do. Is that an anti-Semitic thing to say or is it okay because I’m Jewish?
6. You are Israeli, but you’ve got all the standard American moves and mannerisms on stage. You look like an American stand-up comic. Who are your influences?
I love Louis C.K. He is a genius. But I love the British humor, too.
Like Ricky Gervais. Also the political satirists on American TV, like Jon Stewart, until he lost it. John Oliver is amazing, also Stephen Colbert. These are my influences. And on the Israeli side, Eretz Nehederet, which is the Israeli SNL, is pretty good and pretty brave.
Israeli humor is in your face, whereas American humor is different.
I’m trying to combine the two. Being Israeli but with the American style. My accent does kind of throw me off though, right?
Not really. So where do you see yourself and your career in a couple of years?
My dream is to have a late-night comedy TV show like Stephen Colbert. But I’ve got a long way to go.
To see Yuval Haklai in action: www.youtube.com/channel/UCxRsv_PpOw-IOoFY1BNAXvA