Israel’s Alt-Comedy Scene Gains Traction

Finding Humor in Bureaucracy, Occupation and Stereotypes

Stand-Up: Idan Mor is among a new wave of alternative Israeli comedians.
Courtesy of Idan Mor
Stand-Up: Idan Mor is among a new wave of alternative Israeli comedians.

By Joel Chasnoff

Published November 13, 2011, issue of November 18, 2011.
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My favorite bit was one by 31-year-old Elad David:

So they say the Israeli army is a moral army because unlike other armies, we don’t rape the women we’ve conquered. This is true. But honestly — have you taken a good look at who we’ve conquered? Now, send us to war against Sweden….

I laughed at this, despite — or maybe because of — how wrong it was. But it was just the kind of edgy humor that Birenboim, Mor and the other Sublime comics shoot for.

“Ethnic humor bores me,” Birenboim explained. “And it was hurting my career. There’s only two clubs in the whole country, Camel and Comedy Comedy, and neither one will put a guy onstage unless he’s doing song parodies or the usual Moroccan-Persian-Yemenite stuff. Club owners need to make money, and they think this is what people want to see.

“So, four years ago I started Sublime. There were 25 people in the crowd. Tonight there were 200, and it’s like this every week.… At Sublime, nothing’s out of bounds.”

Back at Mor’s apartment after the show, over cigarettes and Turkish coffee, the comic, who began performing in 2005, elaborated: “Jerry Seinfeld would get his ass kicked in Israel.”

Because Seinfeld is one of my favorite comedians, I was naturally curious why he’d get his ass kicked.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Mor said. “I love Seinfeld. But Israelis would never tolerate a guy like that. He’s too slow.”

I pressed him for more.

“Look,” he said, “since 1948, Israel’s had a war every 10 years. So there’s never been a generation that knew how to relax. No matter how good things are, any minute it could blow up. You can be 35 years old, president of a high-tech company, making a billion dollars, and a week later you’re in Lebanon, dodging grenades.”

I asked him what this has to do with Seinfeld.

“Bottom line, Israelis don’t have patience. We drive fast, our food is fast: ‘Hummus-chips-salat, yallah, yallah!’ And when we go see comedy, we want jokes, immediately. No life stories, no politics, nothing intellectual. We want to make fun of people, and we want punch lines — not Yad Vashem.”

Upon leaving, I shook hands with Mor. “People all over the country talk to me after shows, or write and say they’re happy to hear someone talk about something else for a change,” he said. “It’s not enough just to be funny — not in Israel. We’re still evolving, you know? Stand-up didn’t start here until ’93. We had sketch groups and comedy duos, but not stand-up. Never just one guy, onstage with a microphone. Alone.”

Joel Chasnoff is a New York-based comedian and author of the comic memoir “The 188th Crybaby Brigade” (Free Press, 2010), about his year in the Israeli army. Visit his website at www.joelchasnoff.com.


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