Learning the language of laughter

Anglo immigrants looking for an audience and Israeli natives seeking to test their English stand-up acts are performing comedy at Tel Aviv’s Jessica Restro Bar.

Stand-up comedian Dado Milman 521 (photo credit: Ariel Zilber)
Stand-up comedian Dado Milman 521
(photo credit: Ariel Zilber)
Usually in these parts of the Middle East, uttering the words “in east Jerusalem, I f***ing killed” conjures up images of bloodshed, terrorism, murder and mayhem – all fixtures of the violence and political turmoil that has engulfed this region. For comedienne Kandi Abelson, however, it takes on an entirely different meaning.
“I was nervous because I didn’t know what to say and what not to say, but I was excited, too,” the Montreal native says while sipping on a cranberry juice-and- club soda mix just minutes before performing her scheduled stand-up routine for some two dozen patrons at Jessica Restro Bar.
Every Sunday night for the past couple of months, this beachfront bar in Tel Aviv has turned into the epicenter of a small but growing community of bilingual comics that is quickly becoming the hot new trend on the stand-up scene. Abelson is one of a number of performers who have graced the makeshift stage at Jessica’s, a welcoming venue for Israeli comedians who wish to improve their English before taking their act international, as well as for Anglo immigrant comedians who just need a place to ply their trade after relocating to the small pond that is Israel.
Abelson, who immigrated from Los Angeles five years ago, has done comedy gigs in English, Hebrew and French.
She was a regular performer on the LA and Canadian comedy scene, routinely opening for top acts like Sam Kinison, the Wayans Brothers, Lewis Black, Norm MacDonald and Robert Klein.
She recently appeared at ZOA House in Tel Aviv, one of the city’s most popular venues for aspiring comics and performers.
Asked how native Israelis received her Hebrew act, she deadpans: “I have a Jewish sense of humor, so it should work, right?” She affirms that “it’s tough when you’re in rooms like [Jessica’s]. What’s tough is not having a community [of comics] and real rooms [for stand-up].”
The fledgling English-language comedy scene first emerged in Jerusalem with the founding of the Off the Wall Comedy Club. It has since spread to Tel Aviv, with the project at Jessica’s as well as the American comedy special at Bib Comedy Club on Ibn Gvirol Street.
While the prospects appear promising for a country with a large number of Anglo immigrants and tourists, there is still much work to be done in drawing larger audiences.
“I’ve worked before crowds of 10,000 people,” she says. “Now it’s four. But I’m not rushing. I’m just happy to have some rooms in Tel Aviv.”
The weekly English-language show at Jessica’s is the brainchild of Shahar Hason, a fixture on the Israeli comedy circuit who has played to sold-out shows in theaters around the country.
Hason, who is often seen on the popular Channel 2 variety comic show Tzhok Me’avoda (Making a Joke of Work), insists on talking to Metro in English. His dogged dedication to learning the language is admirable, and he makes it a point to remind friends that he is a weekly subscriber to The Jerusalem Post Lite. Each edition he reads is dotted with marker ink indicating words that he plans to look up in the dictionary.
For the 36-year-old comedian, who hosts the Tel Aviv show and performs tidbits of his routine in English between the other comedians’ acts, the idea was to create an intimate, “undergroundlike” environment where comedians could improve their mastery of the language before striking it big in front of larger audiences abroad.
“I want to learn English not because I want to go out with American girls, but because I want to do stand-up in English,” he says. “It’s something in my blood.... If you want to reach more people, you need to speak the language that they speak. Today, the entire world speaks English, so you need to do your profession in English.”
When he was in New York, he recalls, someone introduced him at an open mike.
“When I went onstage, I said, ‘I was raised and born in Israel,’ and they laughed at me. I had to first say ‘born,’ and then ‘raised.’ So they laughed, and they told me that I should open every show like this.”
Despite the audience’s laughter, he continues, “I was very sad in my soul, because that’s not the level of comedy that I want to do. When I talk to American or Canadian comedians, I feel stupid [from a comedy standpoint]. I can’t deliver to them what I want to say. I know how to make them laugh, I know how the comedy works, but I feel so small next to them. That’s why I want to have more of a vocabulary, which will let me switch between the languages easier.”
He admits that his English “is not that good.”
“In Hebrew, it’s different. When I was growing up, I was the funny boy who could always point to something and say, ‘Here, look at this,’ and people would laugh. In English, I don’t have the words. I have the gun, but I don’t have the ammunition.... I want to shoot a joke at you, but I don’t have the bullets.”
Hason’s act is just as provocative in English as it is in Hebrew, with no topic off-limits. He makes light of his sexual peccadillos, his poor English and his Yemenite background, which was a dominant theme of a childhood spent in the immigrants’ quarter of Kfar Saba.
“I was born on September 11,” he says. “That’s a joke in my act. It’s a bit of a racist joke. I would always wonder if the reason the American Embassy didn’t give me a visa is because I look like a terrorist. Then a girl in the audience would nod her head, as if to say, ‘I thought I was at a Hamas press conference.’”
His ebullience is contagious. The energy he radiates captivates his giggling audience. When he veers into his Hebrew act, the words exit his mouth at a dizzying rate. His observations are sharp and his delivery is zestful. He commands the stage with a childlike charm that is both irresistible and irrepressible.
He also makes no apologies for the racy and taboo topics that comprise a key element of his act.
“I know that we need to be a little bit racist because that’s the comedy,” he says. “You have to talk about [these] things on the stage, because the stage solves the problems in real life.”
One comedienne who has found a home under Hason’s tutelage is Jessica Fass. A 29-year-old native of Los Angeles, Fass, who is in the country on a work visa, touts an impressive resumé, having spent her early adult years behind the scenes of some of American television’s most popular programs. Her big break came when she got a job as an assistant on The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, a hit sitcom produced by The Disney Channel.
“I was living my dream while I was working on that show, because this is the kind of show that the 12-year-old me would’ve loved,” she says.
After the initial euphoria of working for a hit show wore off, Fass – who had fantasized about making it big in Hollywood as a writer – began to experience the less glorious aspects of the entertainment industry, namely the limited prospects and few plum jobs being coveted by an ever-increasing pool of college graduates.
“I achieved a lot of goals, but I was an assistant, getting crappy pay, and I wasn’t in a union,” she says. “I didn’t want to be an assistant director, because it’s a tedious life of just making schedules, and it’s not creative. I wanted to be a writer, and it’s the hardest thing in the world.”
The turning point for Fass, who was working to the point of exhaustion, came with a bang.
“One time I fell asleep while at the wheel of my car, and I got into a small car accident,” she says. “I said, ‘That’s it, I’m not doing this anymore....
Getting coffee for [The Suite Life of Zack and Cody star] Ashley Tisdale is not worth my life.’” When she saw she was putting her safety at risk by working long hours and having to commute on the LA freeways constantly, she says, she realized that “I feel safer in Israel, because I don’t have to drive here.”
“The day I got fired, I called my mom and said, ‘Mom, I’m going to Israel,’ because I had nothing keeping me [in LA],” she says.
Now she is doing her comedy routine in Tel Aviv, a city that has embraced her with open arms – a refreshing change from the cold, cutthroat, winner- take-all jungle of Los Angeles.
“As an English speaker, my writing skills are more valuable here than the over-saturation of Ivy League kids there,” she says. “Everyone’s so pretentious and fake in my networking scene in LA. Here, I feel like everybody can be family, people don’t judge you as much, it’s very welcoming. I was always nervous and slightly tense in LA, because you’re always trying to keep up with the Joneses.”
She was startled at the ease with which she was permitted to take to the microphone here.
“[This venture is] a good effort,” she says. “I’m honored to be a part of it.
I’m so glad I got in on the ground floor, and I met Shahar Hason. He’s a great person, and a great connection. I just came here and introduced myself on the first night. Here in Israel, you can just go up to people and be like, ‘Can I be in your show?’ and they say, ‘Sure.’ In LA, you have to pay your dues, and you have to audition and prove yourself.”
DADO MILMAN has been doing standup comedy since 1993. After an eightyear hiatus, during which he wrote for television shows, he has returned to the stage, only this time with the intention of taking his routine to audiences far beyond Israel’s borders.
“One of my dreams is to do it in the US,” he says. “Recently, just as I started to do my English act, I wrote letters to a number of comedy clubs around the world. I asked to come and perform there.”
Most of his shows are up on YouTube, he says.
“Before I did stand-up in English, I added subtitles to the shows I did in Hebrew. So I got all sorts of feedback from people abroad, especially women,” he recounts. “There’s this Muslim girl who lives in the Bronx, New York. She offered me to come live with her and do stand-up there. To tell you the truth, I have no idea if she wants to sleep with me or to kidnap me.”
Milman has always been enamored of American comedy, and his English-language routine is a natural continuation of a years-long romance with the art of making people laugh.
“The stand-up artists that I admire are Americans,” he says. “I was raised on American stand-up. The difference between stand-up artists in Israel and those in the US is that American comics allow a great deal of leeway to express a message and to make a social statement. There seems to be a desire on their part to change the world. Here in Israel, it’s less accepted, but for years I’ve been doing [American-style] standup.”
As such, he says, “I understood that the day would come when I would want do shows in English in the US.
[But] it’s impossible to just go there and start doing shows right away. First, the idea is to practice it here, and evenings like this allow me to prepare myself for this journey. Most of the Israeli standup comics who perform here are doing this as preparation.”
Besides offering a platform for English-speaking olim to continue doing comedy, he continues, projects like Hason’s also “boost the quality of Israeli stand-up comics who perform here. There are many jokes that can’t be translated. The fact that you could think about something and turn it into a joke in any language makes you a better comedian.”
Having this kind of opportunity has opened up an entirely new dimension for Israeli comedians, he says. “We are the types of characters who like to reach new heights. If we weren’t standup comics, we would most likely be mountain climbers or something like that.”