A strange way to make a living

A brave few are taking the art of making people laugh very seriously.

microphone good 88 (photo credit: Carl Hoffman)
microphone good 88
(photo credit: Carl Hoffman)
Stand-up comedy is transient. History shows that you can stand up for so long; after that, you're asked to sit down - Steve Martin Laughter: the more you think about it, the weirder it seems. Webster's Third International Dictionary defines it as an "audible expression to an emotion (as mirth, joy, derision, embarrassment, or fright) by the expulsion of air from the lungs resulting in sounds ranging from an explosive guffaw to a muffled titter and usually accompanied by movements of the mouth or facial muscles and a lighting up of the eyes." More to the point, the Encyclopedia Britannica calls laughter "rhythmic, vocalized, expiratory and involuntary actions." Neurobiologists and physiologists inform us that laughter causes 15 different facial muscles to contract, along with the stimulation of the zygomatic major muscle, which raises and lowers your otherwise stiff upper lip. Laughter also disrupts the normal functioning of the respiratory system by causing the epiglottis to partially close the larynx, leading to irregular intake of air and gasping. Laughter furthermore activates the tear ducts, so that while the mouth is opening and closing, "rhythmic vocalizations" are continuing and the struggle for oxygen intake becomes more intense, the face becomes moist and often red. As if this weren't weird and wonderful enough, there are actually people whose job it is to cause all of these things to happen - people who earn their living trying to make others laugh. No fewer than five of these social desperados were seen recently as the Jerusalem-based Off the Wall Comedy Empire staged its first stand-up comedy evening at the Dancing Camel, a trendy beer brewery and nightclub in the heart of an appropriately disreputable-looking neighborhood in Tel Aviv. A motley group of comedians, the five ranged in age from mid-20s to the shady side of 60, represented both sexes and came - as one would expect - from the US and Canada, along with one Israeli. Acting as MC, Off the Wall's founder and leader David Kilimnick kicked off the evening with a hilarious take on living in Jerusalem, followed by a series of put-downs of audience members unwise enough to live anywhere else. "It's great to start off the night by getting everyone on my side!" Kilimnick said, grinning at the crowd. He then explained why he chose to make aliya and settle in Jerusalem. "It was a choice between living in Jerusalem with Americans or living down in south Florida with Israelis." After a few acerbic remarks about Israel and Israelis, the burly Kilimnick rocked the crowd with a physical sketch about trying to use Israeli bathrooms, which are notoriously small, with doors that open inward. Next up was rookie comedian Hani Skutch, who, after getting the audience to welcome her onstage with thunderous applause no fewer than three times, focused on marriage, children, and still being dominated by her mother at age 47. She informed the crowd that after 11 years in Israel, her Hebrew is still so bad that even when she dreams in Hebrew, someone says, "Never mind, just say it in English!" Canada native Kandi Abelson was up next, solemnly informing the mostly-young audience that one of the worst things about getting old is needing reading glasses to roll joints. This led to a raucous new interpretation of certain Biblical teachings - specifically that the burning bush was actually a marijuana plant, and that Moses was stoned. "Why do you think he dropped the Ten Commandments?" she asked, spreading her arms." The applause for Abelson had barely died down when the group's only native Israeli, Yossi Tarablus, took the stage to wonder aloud how haredim could be so hung up about sex and still have 17 children. Tarablus's relatively short monologue left the audience clamoring for more. The evening climaxed, as it were, with the comedy of Benji Lovitt, who immediately informed the audience that he lives in Tel Aviv, the City that Never Sleeps. "And no wonder, with all the coffee consumed here," he said. "There's a café here everywhere you look. I leave home for 15 minutes, and they've opened an Aroma in my kitchen!" Other bits followed, including an out-of-the-box monologue about the Facebook social networking Web site. Despite their diversity, all of the comedians had a lot to say about life in Israel and the "classic" Israeli personality, all employed an American-style delivery, and all visibly basked in the audience's laughter and applause. And, while one or two of the comedians acknowledged having day jobs, all seemed very serious about comedy and appeared to regard it as their true profession. A strange business, this stand-up comedy; and it has an even stranger history. Stand-up comedy as we know it today - a lone comedian on a bare stage, usually without costume or props, telling a series of jokes through a hand-held microphone - is essentially an American phenomenon. Its roots twist and turn backward through time, through comedy clubs and late-night TV; back further through radio, vaudeville and burlesque theater; all the way back to 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 African Americans. These shows - consisting of song and dance numbers, humor and light comedy sketches - were characterized by the simultaneous use of crudely insulting stereotypes of black Americans, coupled with an almost grudging admiration and affection for them and their unique idiom. Judged by today's standards, these performances were bizarre and repulsive, constituting a dark and best-forgotten chapter in the history of American popular culture. At the same time, however, a few faint traces of 19th-century minstrelsy can be discerned in contemporary entertainment. Most noteworthy of these is what was called the "stump speech." A traditional minstrel show was divided into three acts. The first was made up of lavish musical comedy production numbers, and the third act usually consisted of a comedy sketch. Both of these required the use of the full stage. The second act, called the "olio," was performed by the cast in a semi-circle in front of the closed curtain, behind which the stage was being set for the third act. A genteel "interlocutor," acting as a sort of host, would say, "Gentlemen, please be seated!" The performers would sit, with the interlocutor in the center, and various stock characters took up special positions in the semi-circle. The most important of these were the "corner men" at either end - Mister Tambo, who played the tambourine, and Mister Bones, who played two bones by rattling them in one hand against his body. Performers would get up to sing, dance, do acrobatics or display other talents - all at the invitation of the interlocutor, who would also trade jokes with the corner men, Bones and Tambo. The high point of this act occurred when one of the latter 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 a satire of black dialect, heavy with puns and malapropisms, and with an innocent mien of not really understanding what he was talking about. Hiding behind this fool's mask, the actor could often dish up trenchant satire of unpopular issues and biting social criticism without offending the audience. Without too great a strain on the imagination, we can see how the minstrel's second "olio" act evolved first into burlesque and vaudeville, and later into radio and television variety shows. With perhaps a bit more effort, we can understand how historians of American mass culture see the "stump speech" as evolving through time into the monologue of today's stand-up comedian. And, as the blackface minstrel show corner man slowly gave way to the "baggy-pants comic" 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 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 already begun to take root here in Israel, the Jewish state. What is surprising, perhaps, is how long it has taken for this to happen - starting as recently as 1993 with the opening of the Camel Comedy Club in Tel Aviv, Israel's first full-time stand-up comedy venue. In the years since, other comedy clubs have opened and closed, groups of stand-up comedians from America and other countries have performed in Israel, while other comedians who settled here perform monologues based on their often colorful experiences as English-speaking (known in Hebrew as "Anglo-Saxon") immigrants. Other new venues for comedians have appeared, like the ZOA Comedy Bar in Tel Aviv, and the Off the Wall Comedy Empire in Jerusalem. In addition to functioning as a comedy club, with its own stable of some 25 comedians, Off the Wall serves as a production company, supplying comedians for occasions ranging from weddings, anniversaries and bar mitzvas to "camp things," "synagogue stuff," corporate layoffs and shivas ("Okay, that wasn't funny. See? We know comedy!" proclaims the advertisement on their Web site). With almost missionary zeal, Off the Wall also offers courses for aspiring stand-up comedians. Can you really teach people how to be funny? Off the Wall founder, director and course instructor David Kilminick answers: "Well, first I try to give them a sense of what a joke is. What's a joke? It's figuring out how to get into someone's head and know what he's thinking - and then change it. That's really what a joke is - changing a concept in someone's mind. Then I try to help them bring their character to the joke, and the joke to their character, so that they've learned to form their own delivery. I teach them how to take over a stage and make it theirs. I teach people how to do all that in their own way, and then all of a sudden they become their own unique comedian." So what kind of people want to spend their lives making other people laugh? Rochester, New York native Kilimnick, 30, grew up with a sense of humor. "My father is a funny man. He's a rabbi, and he has even MC'd for me a few times. Everyone in my family has a good sense of humor. As a kid, people laughed at my stuff, and I liked being the center of attention. But nobody used to listen to me at the dinner table, so I knew I needed to be on stage." Kilimnick's first stage appearance came six years ago, while he was a rabbinical student in Jerusalem. Merkaz Hamagshimim, Hadassah's famed absorption, community and cultural center for college-age youth, was planning an open-mike night. Kilimnick put a routine together, took the stage, and began his career in comedy. Will he do this forever? "Yeah, I love it!" he replies. "I love the challenge, and I'm a possessed person. It's a passion!" Equally passionate about being funny is rookie comedian Hani Skutch, a resident of Rehovot by way of Toledo, Ohio; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Skutch's life as a professional stand-up performer began a year ago in one of Off the Wall's courses for budding comics. "I knew I was funny, I've always been funny," she recalls, "but it's one thing to be funny in front of your friends; it's a different thing to write a joke that you can get up on stage with and tell." When not on stage telling jokes, Skutch is busy with "four kids, one dog, two cats, one husband and a lot of fleas." She says, "I'm a mom, and wife and dog-walker and other things parents do - I mean I walk our dog, not other people's dogs." Although relatively new to the comedy club scene, Skutch has already had a lot of experience in front of audiences; enough to say: "Every audience is different. You can go in on a night and just for some reason connect with them from the beginning. You have them and they have you, and it's magic and beautiful. And you can have another night with what looks to be the same kind of audience, the same kind of people and the same amount of people, and you're telling more or less the same jokes, and you've got the same energy, and they're just not with you and you can't get them." Audiences are generally good-natured, however, and heckling is rare, Skutch says. She once shut some hecklers down by threatening to play "strip heckling." She recalls, "I'm kind of overweight, so that just shut them all up right away." Obviously in love with her new profession, Skutch says, "It's mind-boggling that I'm doing this. I'm amazed that I'm doing this." When asked if she could have imagined 10 years ago that she would be on stage telling jokes now, her answer is unequivocal: "Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope!" Dallas, Texas native Benjy Lovitt, 33, was on stage telling jokes 10 years ago and has been knocking around comedy clubs ever since, both in Israel and the US. Now performing mostly in Israel since coming to live here a year and a half ago, his monologues focus largely on the frustrations of being a new immigrant. "Right now, most of my comedy is observational, making fun of this ridiculous country. It's almost like a release, like venting, you know, like when I get cut in line. There's a lot of psychology behind it." Although he describes his Hebrew as "okay," Lovitt admits that Israel does not yet make sense to him. "Does it make sense to Israelis? I don't know? If it did make sense, I don't know what I would joke about." When asked whether his parents back in Dallas support his choice of a career, he replies, "Hey, I live in Israel. What's more shocking than that?" Unlike many professional comedians, Lovitt holds a day job, working as a content writer for an online marketing and advertising agency. Can one make a living from doing comedy in Israel? "Are you kidding? You can't make a living doing anything in Israel," he says, laughing. Also unlike other comedians, Lovitt does not remember being funny his whole life. "I don't remember being this way until high school or college. I was a shy kid in school, on the fringes of social circles. I think Rabbi Joseph Telushkin said that you laugh to keep from crying. So you start to develop a defense mechanism, along with some interesting viewpoints of the world. I don't know… maybe that's where I came from." Lovitt probably speaks for all local comedians when asked whether having a sense of humor has anything to do with being Jewish. He answers, "Hey, it can't hurt!" It thus seems a safe assumption that stand-up comedy has found a promising new home here in Israel.