‘THE CONTROL Games’ wild and woolly comedy treads a fine line between love and domination.  (photo credit: Katerina Elior)
‘THE CONTROL Games’ wild and woolly comedy treads a fine line between love and domination.
(photo credit: Katerina Elior)

Tributes and laughs at 2nd Israeli Comedy Festival


Ephraim Kishon would surely have had a field day. The master of satire would, one assumes, have gone to town on the current political shenanigans, particularly with the ongoing mass protests over the precarious state of Israeli democracy.

That, presumably, will feature front and center in quite a few of the stand-up comedy slots in this year’s sophomore edition of the Israeli Comedy Festival, named after Mr. Kishon, who died in 2005 at the age of 80. 

The festival was initiated by the Incubator Theater and members of the Kishon family. This time out it will run at various venues across Jerusalem from August 20-24, such as the Mazia House home base; the Nissan Nativ Acting Studio; Planet Jerusalem; and Liberty Bell Park, all under the stewardship of artistic director Yiftach Leibovitch.

A tribute to Ephraim Kishon, an Israeli comedy legend

The eponymous man of letters, a Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor, made a name for himself here and across the globe as an author, dramatist, screenwriter, and film director. In the latter capacity, Kishon was twice nominated for an Oscar and won two Golden Globes. He also received the Israel Prize. Hence, it is a little surprising that it took so long for an event that draws on his wit and gift for capturing the darker humorous side of everyday life – particularly the ludicrous vagaries of bureaucracy – to gain a regular annual hold. That was probably down to basic good old financing. But, with the second rollout primed and programmed, the festival now seems to be a welcome fact on the national cultural ground.

All told, the extensive agenda comprises over 60 events that feed off the multi-stratified Israeli comedic heritage, and there are a lot of up-and-coming entertainers on the roster. 

 ‘FAMILY ON a Train’ takes humor to its absurd extreme. (credit: Katerina Elior)
‘FAMILY ON a Train’ takes humor to its absurd extreme. (credit: Katerina Elior)

There are salutes to late writer, poet, satirist, and playwright Yehonatan Gefen and to Kishon himself, lectures, an exhibition, live music courtesy of the likes of rapper Echo and singer-songwriter Aya Korem, family-friendly workshops, and a slew of outdoor screenings of Israeli classics such as Halfon Hill Doesn’t Answer, Snooker, and Kishon’s 1967 satirical film Evrinka starring Chaim Topol and Gila Almagor. 

It would have been interesting to get Kishon’s take on the younger crop of stand-up comics who work off a different reality to the officialdom state of play, street-level mores, and political machinations that colored life here in his day. 

Gidi Livneh is at the forefront of the contemporary crowd, seeking to impart some of their observations about how things operate around here and, possibly, what we might do about it. All, naturally, delivered with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. Thirty-something Livneh makes a crust as a stand-up comedian, as well as a magician and illusionist. All three crafts will come into play in his Kof Metziltayim (“Jolly Chimp”) slot in the festival, with two shows on August 22 and two more on the morrow (7 p.m. and 9 p.m., both days).

Livneh says he has a soft spot for Kishon and gets his left-field sardonic view on life. 

“Kishon is all about getting around things and screwing the system. That’s my work too,” he laughs. “I strongly identify with all three fields I work in. They all involve concealing information in order to create surprises. That can be comedy, verbal manipulation, or lies and illusions.” For some reason that put me in mind of the political theater of operation. It is more than likely that Kishon would have got that correlation as well. 

Considering Livneh was born long after Kishon’s best-known movies, such as The Policeman, which starred Shaike Ophir and brought the satirist-director an Oscar nomination in 1971; and the quintessential jab at the official Israeli way of doing things Sallah Shabati, starring Topol, which garnered the nomination seven years earlier, it is more than a little surprising that he harks back to humor from such bygone days. 

However, it appears that the young stand-up comic imbibed some of the Kishon ethos with his mother’s milk, so to speak. 

Livneh learned of the existence of the internationally celebrated satirist from The Package Has Arrived  board game Kishon created in the 1960s. The premise for the game was the bureaucratic minefield Israelis had to negotiate in order to get their hands on items mailed via the Israeli postal service. Players rolled the dice, advanced their markers on the board, and followed the instructions in the hope of amassing all the necessary documents – not to mention the monetary wherewithal – required to eventually collect the parcel that was dispatched their way at some distant juncture in the past. With Israel Post not exactly covering itself in glory in recent years, it appears that Kishon’s view of efficiency here is still pretty relevant.

“I can’t claim that Kishon and I go way back,” Livneh jokes. 

“My parents are, more or less, the generation that grew up on Kishon. They got me The Package Has Arrived. That is based on the typical Kishon-esque humor and parody on bureaucracy.” 

Mind you, it wasn’t as if the youngster got the subtleties of Kishon’s fun-making from the outset. But a few years down the line, when real-life challenges slapped him in the face, some of that childhood leisure time play came out of the temporal woodwork and helped him get through it in one emotional piece. 

“The game turned the bureaucratic process into a joke,” he recalls. “When I grew up and I had to deal with the income tax authorities and National Security and that sort of thing – and the coronavirus grants, for that matter – I suddenly understood the irony. Later, I also appreciated Sallah Shabati and [1971 Golden Globe nominee] Blaumilch Canal.”

 ‘A MONKEY in cymbals’: The new show performed at the comedy festival is named after Kishon, by and with the participation of comedian-illusionist Gidi Livneh (pictured). (credit: Katerina Elior)
‘A MONKEY in cymbals’: The new show performed at the comedy festival is named after Kishon, by and with the participation of comedian-illusionist Gidi Livneh (pictured). (credit: Katerina Elior)

AROUND 10 years ago, writer and painter Yoram Kaniuk, who was born in Israel, told me that he learned how to handle the system from olim and Holocaust survivors who, he said, had to adopt all sorts of chicanery – barefaced lying and cheating included – simply in order to survive. I asked Livneh if he thought the same applied to Kishon, and possibly humor across the board. He begged to differ on that point but happily confessed to flying in the face of accepted behavior at any given moment. 

“There are people who adhere to some sort of the dogma about what theater is supposed to be. And there are magicians who are dogmatic about what a magic show should entail. None of them felt that what I do matches their understanding of those disciplines, which gave me the feeling that I was on the right path,” he laughs.  

I returned to the aforementioned survival tactics and pressed Livneh to relate to Kishon as a satirist who developed a particular viewpoint of life, and how best to manage it, in the wake of his traumatic experiences during the Holocaust. 

“I think ‘cheating’ and ‘lying’ are tough words to use, but maybe in the particular historical context perhaps they are appropriate. And perhaps they did color his humor.”

The surrealistic aspects of Kishon’s oeuvre resonate palpably in Livneh’s work. He says he gets a lot out of playing along the fine line between the tangible and the imagined, and mining the rich entertainment seam that strays into the gray areas in life, as well as social niceties and the PC domain. Then again, there are limits. I caught up with Livneh by phone at a magicians’ convention in Las Vegas. He cited the local operational tenet. “You know what they say here? The house always wins.” 

That may be the case, but perhaps we can at least allow ourselves the fantasy of the odd minor battle victory here and there, even if we may not ultimately come out on top in the broader picture war. And with folk like Livneh around, we can have a laugh or two – including at our own expense – while we’re at it. That definitively follows the incisive Kishon line of thinking.

THE UNDERDOG is a leitmotif in the Kishon body of work, the hapless chap on the street looking to extract some justice from the powers that be. I suggested the example of Jewish Danish-American stand-up comedian and classical pianist Victor Borge who, for eight decades, delighted audiences with his slapstick humor which often portrayed him as a clueless instrumentalist when, in fact, he was a richly gifted musician. Livneh says he identifies with the hoodwink strategy to get the audience members on his side. “One of the running gags in my shows is something I call ‘magician in trouble.’ I convince the audience not to believe me when I flop.” Still, Livneh doesn’t want to force the issue. 

“I don’t like showing weaknesses in an artificial way. That’s an insult to people’s intelligence. I lay everything out on the table and tell people that’s my shtick and I think it will make them laugh. Then they don’t know when I fail and when I don’t. I also find that amusing when I am performing,” he comments.

That helps to soften the edges a little as well, as Livneh so deftly portrayed, for example, in his TV slot Hai Be’ashlayot (“living under an illusion”): “That puts it in the context of a game and not making fun of people.”

Livneh clearly wants to keep us guessing while he dips into all kinds of facets of everyday life, including the more challenging kind. Caution may be required when straying into the more feral areas of entertainment. “My principle is that if you take on a tough subject to talk about [in stand-up comedy], you’d better be funny.”

The boundaries of what constitutes fair game for stand-up comics these postmodern days are way beyond what was considered acceptable, say, when the likes of Kishon started out, or even when feted Scottish funny man Billy Connolly first unleashed his outlandish gags and observations of life back in the 1960s. 

Even so, there are some red lines which demand a sensitive hand on the jocular tiller. You also have to know your audience and when you might be in danger of stepping over acceptable bounds. With his professional experience in the United States and here, and having spent a chunk of his childhood Stateside, Livneh knows how to keep his finger on the cultural pulse. 

THAT INVOLVES taking local sociopolitical references and sensibilities into account. In the States, for example, political correctness tends to feature more prominently in daily life, thus comedians there may have to tread a little more warily around potential minefields of perceived poor taste. And how many Israeli comics venture into Holocaust-related climes?

Kishon, for example, didn’t go there in his professional capacity, even though he once remarked that “Hitler turned me into a satirist.” But that was as far as he went with that traumatic passage of his life. 

“I am cautious with that sort of humor,” Livneh notes. “And I know that if I do engage in that, there is a payoff.”

One presumes, then, that Livneh might crack a joke or two about the Holocaust here but steer a wide berth around it in the States.

“I’m not sure about that,” he surprisingly muses. “There is dark humor that has more of a shock value, which is designed only to shock people. That also has its time and place.”

As far as Livneh is concerned, the Israeli Comedy Festival certainly has its time and place, and he is delighted that it is a going concern and that he is involved in this year’s program. But despite the fundamentally subversive core of stand-up comedy, he believes there are some unwritten rules to be followed. That is partly due to bread-winning practicalities. “Israel is not a large country, and the stand-up comedy audience is even smaller, so you have to be careful about alienating people. You have to stick to certain parameters. And, even if you stray from them, you can’t go too far. Then you end up on the margins of society, and they are very small in our country.”

Still, there are some existential factors that inform the rib-tickling equation. 

“Part of the defense mechanism of our generational survival is the ability to laugh – at everything. Jewish humor doesn’t have many borders, in contrast with Israeli humor. That is a different story. Israeli humor has a lot of boundaries. Israel is a tense country with an abundance of problems.”

Kishon’s legacy, he feels, can help to assuage that. 

“I see that as the contribution of the festival. Israeli humor is very escapist. I may have had a tough day at the office, and then the news depresses me, and then I want to go to see a show in Tel Aviv – and pay for the ticket, fuel, parking lot, and a babysitter – so I can spend a couple of hours laughing and not think about anything.”

Getting into the Kishon line of thought can also help in that regard. “He has a very important place in Israeli comedy,” Livneh says. 

“People compare his humor to Kafkaesque humor, and there is also [British The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author] Douglas Adams. At the end of the day, they all ridicule the same thing – that the world is stupid, with bureaucracy and all that.” 

Monty Python, naturally, fits seamlessly into the lampooning bracket. You could also add the likes of Kaveret band member Danny Sanderson who, like Livneh, spent some of his formative years in the US; and there is the iconic Nikui Rosh satirical comedy team from the early 1970s. It is more than likely that none of them would have emerged without Kishon laying the requisite groundwork.

Livneh is in good company in the festival stand-up comedian lineup, with the likes of Asi Cohen, Shir Reuven, Talya Bartfeld, and Nelly Tagar also on the Jerusalem roster. ❖

For tickets and more information: comedy-festival.co.il/

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