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SHAHAR HASON (right) and Yohay Sponder turn their rapt attention to ‘The Jerusalem Post.’.(Photo by: YOCHEVED LAUREN LAUFER)
Ambassadors of funny
By YOCHEVED LAUREN LAUFER
03/25/2018
Shahar Hason and Yohay Sponder leave their comfort zone to perform stand-up comedy in English.
Shahar Hason and Yohay Sponder are far from new to the stand-up comedy scene in Israel, and their English-language comedy shows have even become popular among ‘olim’ (new immigrants) and tourists visiting Israel. Dishing out the laughs almost every night of the week at various venues, the two have a set comedy show in English every Monday night in Tel Aviv called “Funny Monday” where they perform and host comedians for a night of English-only fun.

Hason says he came up with the idea of performing in English five years ago on a trip to New York after failing to understanding jokes at the comedy clubs there due to the language gap.

“How could I not understand the thing that I love the most?” Hason says, explaining that this frustration brought him to a turning point in his career.

Harder than learning English, though, was finding a place in Tel Aviv that welcomed stand-up acts in that language.

“Sometimes you are the only one that can see your vision,” Sponder says, referring to the initial lack of enthusiasm bar owners had for the pair’s pitch.

“Shahar walked from bar to bar – he was already a known comedian in Israel – to ask if he could do stand-up in English there,” says Sponder.

“The bar owners tried to convince me to perform in Hebrew,” Hason says. “They were excited at first when I approached them, but there’s a love-hate relationship with English in Israel.”

SHAHAR HASON (right) and Yohay Sponder turn their rapt attention to ‘The Jerusalem Post.’

The two eventually found the perfect place to practice their English bits: the Jessica Bar next door to the American embassy. Today, five years later, they perform there and at several other venues weekly.

“This gave a shot of energy to my Hebrew show and motivation to live,” Hason says. The comedian explains that stand-up in English pushed him out of his comfort zone and gave him a higher purpose.

“Stand-up in English isn’t like in Hebrew, where I’m very comfortable on stage and can say two words that have no connection but people understand the association,” he says.

Hason explains that in English he needs to use prepositions and linking words, and when he connects the words he “feels alive after 18 years, and like something happened.”

Hason says he looks up to Albert Einstein, who thanked people 100 times a day for things they have given the world and promised to give the same, and feels that it his mission to “give the world something that wasn’t here before.”

Hason and Sponder’s English stand-up routine is a first for Israel and creates a haven for comedians from around the world, like Comedy Central’s “Roastmaster General,” Jeff Ross, who performed at Funny Monday in early January. Hason paralleled the need for English stand-up in Israel to the need for restaurants in Israel.

“Imagine if there weren’t any restaurants in Israel, people would come here from all over the world and have nowhere to eat,” Hason says. “It is the same thing with stand-up – and now there is a restaurant for stand-up!” The comedic pair not only welcome comedians from abroad but have also ventured to Europe to test out their English material. In August, they flew with another comedian friend to Edinburgh, Scotland, to perform 10 shows under the title “Boycotted.” Little did they know that not everyone knew that they were making jokes about the boycott on Israeli goods, known as the Boycott Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) movement – or that when they called for people to come to their show if “they hate Israel,” that they weren’t serious and were themselves Jewish.

“People didn’t get that it was a joke and when I said that Tel Aviv is a beautiful place, someone stood up and started screaming in Arabic,” Hason says. Not knowing what do and “with no IDF protection, or Wonder Woman Gal Gadot” to save him, he told the heckler “ana behibek,” or “I love you” in Arabic.

Also at a show in Edinburgh, Hason asked the crowd if they had any questions about Israel, and someone asked about the settlements and the settlers.

“I told him ‘let’s talk about beautiful girls in Tel Aviv,’ because sometimes you want to avoid complicated questions,” the comedian says. “I might be on his side but I won’t open a discussion with him because he really wanted to stump us with that question, and we are ambassadors of Israel when we are abroad.”

Sponder explained that he came up with a routine in Edinburgh about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when a British girl said that Israelis are colonizers and occupiers: “You British are the worst, you conquered half the world, so many people speak English because of you, and not just your neighbors. You rowed through oceans. How much hate do you need to have to row across three oceans to [oppress] people you never saw before? Our fight with the Palestinians is childish – but they started it.”

Similar to performing aboard, the content of the comedians’ material in English differs from their Hebrew routines.

“I feel that in English I am more patriotic,” Hason says, adding that he has more criticism of Israel when he performs in Hebrew. “My English routines focus on global matters,” Sponder explains, “there are so many different types of people that come to our shows so the material is relevant to everyone.”

“Sometimes we talk about important things like how everyone thought [US President Donald] Trump was going to bring peace when he was here, about religious people trying to control everything and close supermarkets on Saturdays,” Hason says, adding that it is not the most important thing to make changes to the current situation.

“I want to look at the situation from the outside and make people laugh,” Hason says. Sponder explains that he thinks “a good comic shouldn’t be attached to one opinion because everything is funny,” but instead “take up all of Israel’s messed-up situations and make people laugh at them.”

In addition to their stand-up, Hason and Sponder are currently working on a movie and a television show. The movie, the comedians tell the Post, will be like 2008’s You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, which starred Adam Sandler, but with stand-up instead of a hair salon. The television show, a documentary that will be broadcast on either HOT or YES, is about touring America for a month while trying to land a spot on Conan O’Brien’s Late Night show. “We will use our Jewish and Israeli connections from the industry, because as they say, Jews ‘hold Hollywood by the nuts,’” Hason said.

For tickets to their shows and clips from their stand-up, visit www.sponder-standup.com.

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