Avi Liberman discusses the nuances of Israeli culture at a performance in Tel Aviv (Photo: Viva Press)Avi Liberman had a dream. The Los Angeles-based comedian wanted to give Israelis something to laugh about. He also wanted to bring other comedians who had never been to Israel on a visit.
The dream became a reality last week, as Liberman and three other American Jewish stand-up comedians performed their shticks to welcoming audiences of transplanted Americans and Anglos more than ready to laugh. Venues in Ra’anana, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem don’t usually feature on the standard American comedy circuit map, but according to Liberman, Wayne Federman, Dan Naturman, and Gary Gulman, they should.
“The audiences here reacted the same as those in the States,” says Liberman. “Here specific things even went over better. As a standup comedian you have to cater your act to the audience. Overall the audiences were great.”
Born in Israel but raised in Texas and now a LA resident, the 31-year-old Liberman visited last year and says he “never felt so appreciated as a tourist” as he was during his stay. “I began to think: what else can I do to support the country? My Hebrew isn’t good enough to do stand-up.”
So, he came up with the idea of traveling to Israel to entertain the English-speaking community and Israelis who are fluent in the language.
“I didn’t even hesitate to say, ‘Yes’,” says Federman, 44, about joining Liberman. “I’ve always been curious about Israel and I love doing stand-up comedy. This sounded like a unique opportunity I couldn’t even begin to let pass by. It’s a double love.”
Federman and Liberman often share billings on the LA comedy circuit. They’ve performed at The Improv, one of the most prestigious clubs for stand-up comedy in the US, and have done a few benefits together. Gulman is also a fellow LA-based comedian; while Naturman is based in New York.
“I wanted to get someone from the East Coast to join us in Israel,” explains Liberman as to why he chose someone he hadn’t seen perform before his gigs in Israel. “I wanted a representative from that community to go back there and tell of our success.”
Although Israel might be seen as a world away from the American comedy scene, the visiting comedians had no trouble extracting laughs from local audiences.
“People are clearly up on things here,” says Liberman. “Most of my material is personal… observational and autobiographical,” says Federman. “Ninety percent of
the reactions here were the same as what I get in America.”
For Federman and Naturman, Israel’s hipness came as a bit of a surprise.
“My biggest shock was that on Friday night it was so crazy,” says Federman, who had expected that everything would be quiet for Shabbat. “Friday night is like Mardi Gras in Tel Aviv.”
In fact, with his “American” view of how Jewish people should act and look (rather subdued and conservative), Naturman – who regularly appears on Late Show with David Letterman and Late Nite with Conan O’Brien – says Israelis “are not very Jewish at all. Everyone is so stylish here.”
Federman headlined the performances, as he’s the one with the most experience on the circuit and in showbiz generally. He has appeared on TV shows including The
X-Files and Baywatch and in the films Legally Blonde (2001), Waking Up in Reno (2002), Dumb and Dumberer (2003) and Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (2003).
Gulman, unfortunately, only had time to perform in Ra’anana before being called back home for a family emergency. “He really loved it here,” says Liberman. “He was disappointed that he had to go, but he’ll be back sometime soon.”
Were they scared to be here? Before Liberman and his crew set out for Israel, “half the comedians I told thought I was crazy for coming,” says Liberman. “But now when I go back I’ll tell them it was fine.”
Liberman notes that just as one particularly dangerous neighborhood in Los Angeles doesn’t represent the whole of the United States, the conflict that Americans see on television taking place in Gaza doesn’t represent all of Israel or the territories.
“You’re aware [that there's tension]. I’ve never been wanded (his term for being checked with a metal-detector stick) more,” says Federman. “But I don’t feel unsafe.”
Liberman, Federman and Naturman have all expressed an interest in returning to their new-found fans.
“In the States,” says Liberman, “you sell the idea of stand-up. I think you could sell the idea here. I think it could be a great gig following the Ra’anana-Tel Aviv-Jerusalem circuit. There could be a rotation of standup comics at these venues twice a year.”
Encircled by a satisfied Tel Aviv crowd, Liberman smiles appreciatively and adds: “I don’t get swarmed after a performance at The Improv. It’s fun to be here. I’d come back in a second.”