Reporter's Notebook: Anatomy of awkward

Jerusalem Film Festival audience rebels during surprise stand-up show before screening of ‘The Big Sick’.

KUMAIL NANJIANI (left) and Holly Hunter in a scene from ‘The Big Sick.’ (photo credit: APATOW PRODUCTIONS)
KUMAIL NANJIANI (left) and Holly Hunter in a scene from ‘The Big Sick.’
(photo credit: APATOW PRODUCTIONS)
The guerrilla comedy spirit of Andy Kaufman was alive and well Thursday night at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, although that was not the intention.
At The Jerusalem Film Festival screening of the charming Judd Apatow romantic comedy The Big Sick, about and starring Pakistani- American stand-up comic Kumail Nanjiani, the audience was packed with the mostly well-heeled older Ashkenazi society types that generally frequent the Cinematheque along with a healthy representation of American- born, knitted kippa-wearing south Jerusalemites.
The festival organizers thought it would be a good idea to introduce the film by presenting short sets by a couple Israeli comedians.
Not a bad idea, actually – if the comics fit the audience.
First up was a young, bearded Tomer Fishman, a good-looking, affable type who seemed like he had wandered in from picking up milk at the nearest corner store. The problem was, he wasn’t very funny. And his topics veered to the margins of acceptable material, especially when he talked about his dating options growing up including the fall-back of sex with his mother.
The audience, anxious for the movie to begin and uncomfortable at the bomb taking place before them, squirmed nervously in their seats. Fishman, apparently feeling their discomfort, decided to push the boundaries of taste and began a bit about the size of his mouth.
“It’s way bigger in proportion than the rest of my head, my lips especially. Sometimes I look in the mirror and just stare at it,” he said, before offering a graphic description of a sexual act involving the orifice.
Well, that broke the dam for the crowd of usually polite, erudite Jerusalemites, more used to seeing foreign documentaries and reading David Grossman than contemplating homosexual fellatio. The kippa wearers were mostly too shocked to say or do anything, but native Israelis in the crowd made their views loudly heard.
“Get off,” shouted one middle-aged secular- looking woman. “Enough!” yelled another audience member, as others began stamping their feet on the ground and hooting. It seemed like we were in the Comedy Basement in Brooklyn, rather than an oasis of highbrow culture.
Fishman seemed delighted, and even brought his mic down to the crowd to confront the heckler. But she shooed him away and began vociferously demanding to a Cinematheque rep that Fishman be taken offstage.
“No, I’m going to continue,” a defiant Fishman said from the stage, and most of the audience sat riveted by the spectacle taking place onstage and in the crowd. But by then, Fishman’s mojo had dissipated. Amid more catcalls, he said reluctantly announced that he was stopping and introduced the next act.
It was a woman who played piano, interspersed with halfway decent, droll Steven Wright-like observations. She could have been the second coming of George Carlin, but there was no way the audience was willing to sit through another stand-up routine.
After also truncating her act, she said to the crowd: “It’s interesting that you all came to see a movie about stand-ups.”
The film was great, and I’m sure that everyone walked away satisfied. But I’d bet most of the audience on their way home dissected the pre-film fiasco as much as the movie, and discussing if perhaps it was a premeditated Kaufman-inspired piece of performance art.
Most likely, though, it wasn’t, just bad comedy.
Lessons to be learned for the Cinematheque include that just having a good idea isn’t enough – it must be implemented properly.
In this case, that meant finding comedians who do appropriate routines for the audience and are actually kind of amusing.
And a lesson for aspiring comics: if you get a gig at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, never include a routine about graphic oral sex, unless it’s really funny.