The last laugh
He has tens of thousands of loyal followers on Facebook, enjoys rave reviews and was spurred by a violent and traumatic event to pursue a 'spiritual calling': making people laugh. A rare and revealing interview with media-phobic stand-up artist Yaron Berlad.
The following article did not come about easily. And the road to it began a long time ago - in midair. On the transatlantic flight that brought me back to Israel after years spent in the United States, I sat next to a pleasant man who introduced himself before takeoff as a former Israeli-cum-Hollywood film producer. Throughout the long flight I kept trying to catch some sleep, when suddenly the plane was rocked by gigantic waves of laughter: The producer beside me was in the throes of a raucous laughing fit, accompanied by some serious coughing and spluttering.
Seconds before the flight attendant would likely have hooked him up to the emergency oxygen mask, the circumstances became clear: My neighbor was watching a performance on his laptop of a young Israeli stand-up comedian named Yaron Berlad. Once he had calmed down a bit, with tears of laughter in his eyes, the man explained that he used to be a business partner of Lorne Michaels, legendary producer of the famous American comedy show "Saturday Night Live." That was back in the golden age of the long-running television program, when it featured such wild, young comedians as John Belushi, Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd. He swore that not since Belushi had he seen such a great comic talent as this Yaron Berlad.
I myself had never heard of Berlad, but in view of the producer's enthusiasm I tried to conceal my skepticism about the Israeli stand-up scene. When the plane landed at Ben-Gurion, I was forced, at his explicit request, to vow that I would overcome my prejudice and go as soon as possible to see a performance by this promising Israeli talent. "I'm doing you a huge favor," the producer assured me. "You won't be sorry."
Two years went by. In my lengthy process of reacclimating to life here, I had forgotten all about that promise, as about many others. But this past summer I was abruptly reminded of that flight. First, I kept on seeing people all over the city in shirts with bizarre slogans on them that I did not understand, such as "Yamina ta'tzalam" ("Move the cameraman to the right" ) or "Shvita? Tathilu la'avod!" ("Strike? Get to work" ) and also "Shalom, Dana babayit?" ("Hello, is Dana home?" ). Then I noticed people doing impressions in public places that included grunts accompanied by twitching and loud laughter, which likewise were a mystery to me. Then I arrived at the source: the nightly satirical program "Buba shel layla" on the Sports Channel. And who might be its rising star and the definitive factor in its unexpected success? That's right - the very same Yaron Berlad, who plays the role of basketball commentator Shimi Riger, among other characters.
Berlad has become a viral YouTube sensation that has attracted hundreds of thousands of Web surfers. His stand-up shows draw crowds of fanatic fans, he has tens of thousands of loyal followers on Facebook, reviews of him in every newspaper are glowing, tempting job offers with astronomical salaries are laid at his door (he makes a point of rejecting them ), and countless mimics quote every wild retort and expression he spits out. And that is just the professional side of Berlad. His personal life story is even more astonishing.
I decided I wanted to keep my promise finally to that producer on the plane, and much more. The only hurdle I faced in bringing Berlad's story to print was the complete refusal - so unusual in showbiz - of the meteoric comedian in question to grant interviews to all the media outlets that eagerly pursue him. The logic behind this would become clear to me, but only much later. So, despite the comic's refusal to meet me, and the slim odds of interviewing him, I embarked on a strange odyssey in the wake of that old promise, in an attempt to decipher the enigmatic figure that is Berlad.
This quest was occasionally frustrating and exhausting, but always challenging and rewarding. It included staking out the door of the TV studio for lengthy periods; waiting outside auditoriums; and walking up and down the street under his apartment; it included repeated pleas for an interview; freaky phone calls in the middle of the night; a moving encounter with Berlad's parents; nocturnal wanderings with him in a kind of never-ending performance, in which comedy not only stands up but begins running like crazy, until sunrise; nighttime meals that included at least 15 slices of pizza - consumed by him alone; and eventually a transformation into a sort of guinea pig and lightening rod, being on constant call and ready to hear some of Berlad's more extreme material, and no-less extreme confessions. Because you can't say no to this guy, nor did I want to.
Things fall apart
One cliched perception of comedians is that making people laugh is for them a psychological survival mechanism - their psyche's response to traumatic events experienced in childhood. Woody Allen, for instance, suffered from the thrashings of a terrifying mother; Groucho Marx was forced from the age of 5 to realize his brutal and ambitious mother's broken dream of a career in comedy, and suffered nightly blows at the Vaudeville theater where he was compelled to work; and Charlie Chaplin's miserable childhood in the shadow of a mentally ill mother is known the world over.
But Berlad, who was born in 1976 in Ramat Hasharon, had a wonderful childhood. His teenage years during the '80s and '90s were also pleasant: He was a pampered youngest child, an outstanding athlete and promising basketball player. He was a good-looking young man who attained social success and the attention of the prettiest girls in this well-off suburb. The future looked rosy, the odds of success were high, and there seemed no limit to what might be expected from life. Until everything turned topsy-turvy and fell apart.
At 9:30 P.M. on September 29, 2000, Berlad and his father, Yaakov, were driving in their new Hyundai to a family dinner in the Berlads' home. The rest of the family was already there: his mother, Varda; older sister, Karni, now 45, a computer specialist; and older brother, Ido, now 41, a cinematographer. The parents were living at the time in the Sharon region community of Matan, where they moved from Ramat Hasharon when the 21-year-old Yaron finished his military service.
The previous day, Ariel Sharon had gone up to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The second intifada broke out, though it wasn't called that yet. Near the Jaljulya intersection in the West Bank, several hundred protesters were burning tires on the road - and Yaakov Berlad drove straight into the ambush.
Yaron remembers that a Molotov cocktail was hurled into the car, and that a masked man bashed his father's head in with a concrete brick, over and over again. Even when Yaron's father lost consciousness, the assailant went on beating him. When Yaron reconstructs today what happened, he describes finding the superhuman strength to rip off the seat belt and to unhinge the locked car door by pushing it with his shoulder. After fleeing the burning Hyundai, he picked up a big stick on the ground and ran back to the car, in an attempt to rescue his father. A masked man who was on the roof of the car leaped at him, smashed him in the face with a brick, and shattered his teeth.
The father and son would likely have been murdered had it not been for several armed Arab men who scared off the attackers with gunfire. The men got Yaron and his father out of the area, and called for help. An ambulance and an Israel Defense Forces vehicle rushed them to Beilinson Hospital. The father underwent emergency surgery; Yaron's mouth was treated and prepared for dental implants. Just a few days later, Yaron was persuaded to do an interview on Rafi Reshef's television talk show. He remembers himself, bandaged and dazed from painkillers, being interviewed in the studio, and afterward being driven in a cab to his parents' house in Matan. When he got there, he went into the small security room in their house, and did not emerge - except on rare occasions - for nearly four years. And when he did eventually come out of there, he was a different man, both physically and emotionally.
Yaron Berlad, good evening.
"What's so good about it?"
The fact that you have finally agreed to an interview, for example.
"What difference does it make? In any case I'm going to kill myself tonight."
Are you serious?
Okay. At your shows you also threaten the audience that you will commit suicide at the end of the evening.
"Yes. It always makes them laugh."
Do you have suicidal thoughts?
"There were lots of them, over the years. Recently it stopped."
What caused the change?
"Now I am finally ready."
Ready for what?
"To carry out my spiritual calling."
"To make all Israelis laugh. All of them."
That is a spiritual act in your eyes?
"It is a spiritual act of the highest order."
"Because when people laugh, they are free."
Free from what?
"From the constant fear of dying."
And you are the one who releases them from this fear?
Were you chosen for this mission?
"I don't know. Maybe. It doesn't matter. It's what I do and that's that."
How did you come to this spiritual insight about your calling?
"I searched for a long time. In my soul."
During the period when you closed yourself up in the security room?
"Then too. And also when I left it."
Did you read books on the subject?
Which books for instance?
" [Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh ] Osho. I've got all of his books."
He influenced you?
"Very much. He was a huge guru, interested only in spirit and not in materialism."
Were you sorry when he died?
"Obviously. I wanted to meet him and ask him to give me one of his 50 Rolls Royces."
What would you do with a Rolls Royce?
"I would take it apart, for props for my act."
What other books did you read?
"'The Secret.' A very important book for humanity. It tells about a secret, cosmic way to make wishes come true."
"You have to dispatch your wish to the universe, and the universe will fulfill it immediately."
And this really helped you?
"It only screwed things up more for me."
"This morning, for example, I dispatched a wish to the universe to find parking in front of the house when I got back from filming at the studio."
And what happened?
"See for yourself - 10 garbage trucks are blocking me now."
This conversation with Berlad, like many others, took place at a cafe near his apartment, for the simple reason that he and I together cannot, physically, enter his place and talk there. It is tiny, like a solitary-confinement cell or catacomb, and is located at the end of a narrow, dark and filthy hallway, in a crumbling building on the fringes of the Shapira neighborhood in south Tel Aviv. This is the backyard of Israel's backyard. Berlad's neighbors in the building are junkies, Palestinian collaborators, refugees, migrant workers on the lam, eccentrics of every stripe, and prostitutes of every sex. Shouting, cursing and the sound of shattering glass are the local soundtrack.
How long have you lived in this apartment?
"Next month it will be five years."
How much rent do you pay here?
"I get NIS 700 a month from National Insurance and that goes to the landlord. I've never seen him, by the way. He's got this courier who looks like Gollum from 'The Lord of the Rings,' who crawls in here sometimes and collects the money for him."
How do you get along with the neighbors?
"Splendidly. There are great characters here. It's superb material for me."
How do you sleep here? There is terrible noise in the building.
"I did once go up to a criminal who hangs out in the backyard. He asked me what I wanted from him. I told him his chicken was preventing me from falling asleep. So he pulled out a huge knife, slaughtered the chicken in front of my eyes, and yelled at me to go to sleep."
And you find that funny?
"Do I have a choice? You're better off laughing."
How is your health?
"Fine. I haven't touched alcohol or drugs in three years."
And what about your being overweight? Have you seen a doctor?
"No. I'm trying to get fatter."
"It's helps with my act. Some of the jokes are just funnier when I'm fat."
Is everything with you part of an act?
"Everything. Comedy is everything. This is all I live for."
Even at the risk of endangering your health? Doesn't that scare you?
"I am beyond danger and beyond fear. What could possibly scare me after everything I've been through?"
Aren't you afraid the audience won't laugh at your jokes?
"That is definitely not a matter of fear. I want to help the audience. I'm only scared that I won't be able to."
Robin Williams said the silence of an apathetic audience that doesn't laugh is the sound of death. Do you relate to that?
"Very much. If we don't laugh, we'll die."
'You can't fake comedy'
Before the terror attack, Berlad would appear from time to time in improvised stand-up shows before a supportive audience of friends. In the course of the few times he ventured out of the security room, and especially after he left his parents' home, this pastime turned into a profession. It could have been a particularly lucrative one if he had not rejected just about every offer he got since word of his immense comic talent got around the industry.
The offers that Berlad got were indeed tempting, even very tempting. One was to play a character that was actually inspired by him and bore his name, in the sitcom "Mesudarim" (literally, "Set for Life" ) on Channel 2. The show, which garnered high ratings, dealt with the fabulous world of young Israelis who make a killing in high tech, and the role wound up going to Maor Cohen. Because Berlad turned it down.
The real-life Berlad, who nearly made an exit from life itself, is anything but an Israeli who does what it takes "to be set for life." While his fellow comedians are doing prime-time programs and commercials and buying fancy penthouses, Berlad scours the country in his jalopy - the same torched Hyundai that was rebuilt after the attack - and crams into it bunches of wilted flowers, broken blinds, punctured balloons, rusty faucets, abandoned pigeon's nests, slats from old fences, and other random items that he feverishly collects in fields, streets, other people's homes, and so on. All are props for his act. All are physical parts of an Israeli reality and landscape that went to pieces before his eyes on that cursed night, which he is trying to put back together onstage through playing and jumping around and making sounds and jokes at a dizzying pace - in short, by tossing out uproariously funny, breathless punch lines to stunned audiences at every show.
With the help of simple items that he whips out of his enormous and bottomless props box (his trademark ) Berlad creates onstage brilliantly absurd comic situations from the little moments in our routine lives. Wild slapstick, nonsense, profoundly glorious impressions - all are used to get a laugh, in other words to regain control over his life. Not to fall, to be helpless, ever again.
Why did you shut yourself up in the safe room?
"What do you mean why? I had safety there."
What sort of safety?
"Physical safety. Even a bomb couldn't kill me there."
When you came out at times, why did you do it and where did you go?
"I came out for two purposes only: first of all to gather props for my act. At first I went around collecting things nearby, in Matan, and [as] I gained confidence, outside the community too."
What was the second reason?
"I went out to do little stand-up performances in all kinds of weird places. God help me, the dives I played."
And on these outings you weren't afraid of what would happen to you?
"No. I felt like I was being watched over from above. As though nothing could happen to me if I'm doing it for comedy, to make people laugh. I still feel that way."
How did you pass the rest of the time in your hideout?
"I ate and slept. I mean, I tried to sleep. I sucked my thumb even in my sleep, all night. And I ordered pizzas to the security room. My dad flipped."
"Because it cost him a fortune. I wasn't earning a shekel all those years."
There's a hilarious bit on YouTube where you imitate him scolding you to get out of there and to go to work or study.
"Yes, he didn't understand what I was doing in there all the time."
Did you ever seek professional help?
"Once. National Insurance forced me to see a psychiatrist and get an assessment from him. The psychiatrist found me so startling that he didn't know what to do with me. He asked me to do a little stand-up routine in his clinic. He wanted to know what my material was about."
And did you perform?
"Obviously. Would I say no to something like that? I did a two-minute routine for him. And then he wrote for me on a piece of paper that I'm mentally ill, and kicked me out of the room. You wouldn't believe how hard I laughed. After that I refused to see any psychologist or psychiatrist. Never."
And before the terror attack, did you work for a living?
"I worked a little and made a lot. In those years, when I was younger, after so many friends and photographers suggested that I become a model, I decided to open my own modeling agency instead. I had an office in Netanya together with a partner."
What sort of agency?
"Representing young talent for commercials and auditions. We did pretty well for two years, but we wanted to grow, we wanted more money. And then we found a very special niche. We specialized in locating talent in the Arab community."
You got along with the Arab clients?
"I got along with their money. We sold dreams back then. That is why we were successful."
Describe your success at the time.
"Before the terror attack I would sleep in bed covered in NIS 200 bills, like a red sheet. That's not some image; it's what happened. That is how I lived then. Truly disgusting. Not to mention all the girls I had back then. Endlessly. I went wild. It was like a strange dream. I myself couldn't believe that it was really happening to me."
This is a good opportunity to talk to you a little bit about making a living now.
Because it isn't funny. How many job offers have you turned down since you started to perform regularly?
"I've stopped counting."
Who made you offers?
"Who didn't? Directors of commercials, radio, cable, Channel 10, Yair Lapid's program, Dudu Topaz - should I continue? It will go on like this for hours."
Are you aware that stand-up comedians who took these offers in your place became rich?
"Yes, I know everything. I have no problem with it. Let them enjoy it."
It doesn't make you sad, even a little?
"It makes me laugh."
You had a special connection with Dudu Topaz.
"We were good friends for a while. He wanted to help me become a star ... because I made him laugh. All day and all night. It made him happy with all of his hang-ups. I tried to help him."
And he offered you a job as well?
"Constantly. In the beginning he wanted me to present a regular feature on his [weekly entertainment] show. When I declined, it drove him nuts. He offered me serious sums of money, and each time I refused he raised the amount. He was in a frenzy. He was willing to pay me out of his own pocket too - he waved his wallet around in front of me - so long as I took the job."
How did it end?
"He lost his mind: In the end he offered me a job as cohost of the show - three nights he opens, three nights I open. He wanted to give me NIS 40,000 a week, with a closed contract for three years. And he was also prepared to go higher. He fought. But I didn't consent. I'm stronger."
How do you turn down sums like that?
"Because all of that money and the lifestyle that comes with it would have hurt my truth."
What is your truth?
"That I am forbidden to fake it. You can't fake comedy."
Everybody fakes it sometimes.
"I am not everybody. If I don't make people laugh I'll regress, sink into the depression, the nightmares, the lies. And that was my prison."
In other words, the big money would put you back in prison?
"That is what I believe. I am free now, and I worked awfully hard on this freedom. I can't be sad anymore, it's too dangerous for me. From now on I only race forward. I've got work to do."
Even if readers are under the impression that the conversation with Berlad is straightforward and fairly serious, in actuality the comedian offers his laconic replies accompanied by bursts of thunderous laughter, in a deep baritone that shakes every space he inhabits, while adding various gestures and twitches, and changing expressions at the speed of light. This is also how he does an exaggerated and extreme impression of his father, with whom he is very close. The outsized father and son bear a remarkable resemblance; the metamorphosis Yaron has undergone is now complete.
Yaakov Berlad, 70, is a retired civilian employee of the IDF. His final assignment was to supervise the dismantling of an El Al plane that had brought Egypt's president, Anwar Sadat, on one of his peace flights to Israel, in order to sell the parts to scrap-metal merchants. He is an impressive man, with a booming voice, a devout Revisionist of the old generation, a man of pathos and patriotic ideals that appear to have disappeared from the world. He was a decorated combat soldier in the Yom Kippur War, in which he crossed the Suez Canal in the same rubber dinghy, shoulder to shoulder, with his revered commander and hero - his spiritual father, Maj. Gen. Ariel Sharon.
Why do you refuse to do most of your jokes about your father onstage, but rather only in private?
"I think that he's been hurt enough in his lifetime. Just so you know, I agreed to do this interview for him, so he would finally have some satisfaction after everything that I put him and my mother through. I am talking to you now only because of that. Write in the newspaper how much I love them, do you hear me?"
What precisely did you put your parents through?
"Well, briefly, three years ago I overdosed on drugs and alcohol. I took a lethal cocktail. It happened right in front of my parents at their house. I started twitching on the floor; I had white foam coming out of my mouth. From there they rushed me to intensive care. I stayed in the hospital for a month. It was pretty funny, actually."
I guess your parents weren't laughing.
How old were you at the time?
Are you aware that John Belushi died of an overdose at exactly that age?
"Today I am aware of that. Belushi is my hero, ever since childhood. I have all his DVDs. I worship Belushi; he's a champion .... [What I did] wasn't done deliberately. Just a year ago, some friend explained to me that I was the same age then as Belushi was when he died. I was merely trying to find the quiet through the drugs and the drinking."
What sort of quiet?
"Let me tell you something wild, listen up: That terror attack wasn't brief. It went on for a long time. And there was this one moment, when I ran to save my father - amid all the crazy noise of the shooting and shouting and the Molotov cocktails with all the fire and everything - when suddenly there was this insane quiet in the air, a terrible quiet. Time seemed to stand still. And then everything was suddenly clear to me. Everything fit."
What was clear?
"The entire situation of the world was clear to me. Everything was laid out before me. Like on a stage. Life, death, crying, laughter, stupidity, idiocy, deception and lies, and also love and sex and pride - everything. I swear to God it was like that. Do you believe what I'm telling you here?"
I do. And this quiet is what you are trying to reconstruct?
"All the time. I am trying to reach that balance again. Because that was the moment I discovered, I don't know how to explain this, in the middle of the terror attack, that I can always choose whether to live or die, and whether to laugh or cry. Like it's in my hands. And I choose to laugh."
You're seeking this quiet and balance here in this noisy and scary building?
And to gain the quiet and the balance, you make such a racket in your show?
"Precisely. Because laughter frees from reality. Laughter is the only real thing there is. I want everyone in the country to laugh and be free."
The Arabs too?
"Mainly the Arabs."
Is that your revenge on them? Showing them that you are alive and successful?
"No! Don't put words in my mouth. I don't want to take vengeance on anyone. By the way, did I tell you that there were 400 Arabs involved in the terror attack? Four-hundred people is exactly a full house at the ZOA House, where I'm performing tonight! That's awesome!"
Don't you dream sometimes about taking vengeance on those who nearly murdered you and your father? On those who ruined your life?
"Quite the contrary: I aspire to be free of dark feelings of vengeance and anger and fear. After all, these Arabs did not come to kidnap my father and me; they didn't come to take prisoners. They came to kill. So how can I take vengeance on a thing like that? Or even be angry? Instead of that I invite them and everyone simply to laugh. That is why I perform. That is my sole drug from now on."
What do you want to achieve by performing?
"I want to liberate other people. That's all. Just so you know, the community of Matan gets its name from the verse from Proverbs, 'A man's gift maketh room for him.' It means that when a person gives to another his heart expands, he becomes a better person. And the Palestinian village that is across the fence from Matan, Ras Atiya - its name means 'the height of the gift.' That is what I want to do: to give to others. To take people out of the harsh reality in this country and make them happy. Because happy and free people do good deeds for each other. That's been confirmed."
How does this happen?
"Because only when you laugh, everything works out for you the way it should. Laughter topples all barriers and fences. It's even more than sex. You can float. You're weightless. Like the wind. Because you're happy."
Weightless? You weigh 160 kilos.
"Precisely. I'm fat because it's funny. And because of this I can sort of cut loose and float. There's a Zen proverb that tells of a holy monk who was a fat buffoon, the clown of his monastery in India. And he is able to walk on the water in the stream, like Jesus, because he laughs and makes the other monks laugh. It is a huge privilege to make people laugh, and that monk attained it."
Are you the Israeli version of that monk?
"I dream of becoming that."
The road to consensus
Most of the questions have been answered. But one final paradox remains to be resolved in the complex, tortured, cheerful, satisfied-with-his-lot personality that is Berlad. After all, comedy, as you know, is a very serious business.
Do not let his loud, wild, and seemingly spontaneous performance mislead you. Onstage and off of it, every word and every gesture of his, every joke, is incredibly well thought out, meticulous and reasoned. Because as a total comedian, Berlad is determined to succeed. In his show, in his head, he goes all the way and then returns to the beginning, as it were, to finally take control of his fate.
During the long years he spent in tiny and suffocating spaces, Berlad refined his tremendous humor. With palpable pride, he admits that for countless days and sleepless nights he drew detailed diagrams and intricate flowcharts in a journal that he kept, which contained all the many variables of his life, of our lives. That is, all the pieces of the chaotic Israeli puzzle: tears and laughter, idiocy, deception and lies, and also love and pride and sex that motivate us all. The goal was for him to be able to crack the riddle of the absurd, tragicomic, paradoxical existence of life in Israel, so as to answer the biggest question of all: What the hell makes us laugh?
This story has a happy ending. With an incredible effort, Berlad overcame the demons that haunted him, and managed to tame them and step out of total darkness into the spotlight. Every evening onstage, he virtually risks his neck to salvage the spirit. Just as Brian, Jesus' comic counterpart, sings at the end of the Monty Python movie, as he is being crucified on the Jerusalem hill of Golgotha: "Always look on the bright side of life." Just like him, Berlad, too, has opted for laughter. And in order to liberate us along with him, he doesn't look back, he takes no prisoners.
Recently he has also found true love, for the first time in his life. Her name is Mor, and she is a novice stand-up comedian. The immense love between them easily survives everything, even Berlad's apartment. The Sports Channel's management has recruited Berlad for a third season of its show, and earlier this month he was informed that his personal manager had accepted on his behalf the most tempting offer of all: to join the cast of "A Wonderful Country," Channel 2's flagship satirical program and the very symbol of the Israeli consensus.
Along with fame, money has also begun to flow in Berlad's direction. But he prefers to continue living in his microscopic apartment, to stay clean, keep it real, and not fake it. The money is deposited with his manager, while Berlad takes only a modest sum each month, enough to pay for his enormous meals and to put gas in the car that ferries him throughout the country on forays to gather props for his show, to complete the puzzle, to get more laughs - gas for the greatest comic engine of his era.
Because Berlad, in his original, peculiar, spiritual, astonishing way has opted not to be, by any means, a victim. With a clear mind and a huge heart, in the best spirit of Jewish comic tradition, he chooses "And thou shalt rejoice." Chooses life. And you have to admit, it's terribly funny.
No holds barred
In the summer of 2007 I arrived for a work meeting at the offices of a tiny and subversive production company. The “offices” consisted of a small room and another half a room, in a tall and boring building in the heart of Tel Aviv. The two producers sat there in shorts and sandals, trying to get a low-budget and high-energy production off the ground. They were expecting to interview a “young and fat” comedian (so they described him) for a part in the show.
Half an hour late, a shy guy carrying a schoolbag on his back showed up. I was happy to discover that the weight of the “young fat man” was completely average, since it was already overcrowded in the room. The guy, Yaron Berlad, looked frightened − like a pigeon trapped in a small place. In retrospect I realized that a pigeon impression is Berlad’s trademark. Within a minute he loosened up and gave a wild performance of gags, using props that he whipped out of his schoolbag. Those were some of the strangest jokes I had ever heard in my life. This frightened guy gave a perfect audition in front of four people in a room that could contain only three.
The two producers had already heard about Berlad’s repertoire and were on edge lest he spray them with water and get their computers wet. And the comedian, who swore to be careful, was unable to resist: At the climax of the routine he did an impression of a faulty water fountain and a jet of water shot out of his plastic bottle straight onto the computers. I was watching and realized two things: a) the man’s a genius; and b) there is no place for him on commercial television.
Four years later, I was sitting in the audience in the Sports Channel studio. Around me stood 30 avid fans of his show. In front of them, around the table with the puppet-characters of sports figures Shlomo Scharf and Eli Luzon, sat such comic stars as Eli Yatzpan, Asi Israelov and Shalom Michaelshvili. They would be joined a few weeks later by actor-comedian Asi Cohen, arguably the most popular guy on TV in Israel. But the fans weren’t interested in all these other talents: They had come to see Yaron Berlad, exploding with laughter every time he crossed the studio in too-short shorts (rumor has it that he gained back the weight he’d lost because it’s funnier) with only his gigantic belly concealing his package.
Yaron Berlad is truly a brilliant comedian, one of the few in the country on whom that title can be bestowed. His vulgar and outrageous humor manages to surprise even when he repeats the same gag over and over. And that is really the key word in humor: surprise. His humor succeeds in arousing astonishment (and shrieks of wild laughter) because he is free of any local context. The 1980s Paul Young hit song “Love of the Common People” does not awaken in Israelis any specific collective memory, and certainly does not contain obvious comic potential. And yet Berlad makes a point of singing it while he does his famous pigeon impression dressed in weird pants, and the result is the funniest dance on TV.
Berlad is an unbridled comic purist in the Andy Kaufman style. He doesn’t try to please the audience by any means; he first and foremost wants to share with it the things that he finds funny. Berlad’s comedy is uncompromising, with no holds barred. It is utterly nihilistic and contains no satiric message or ideological moral lesson. He doesn’t do impressions of Benjamin Netanyahu or Ehud Barak, but rather of a pigeon at Bloomfield Stadium. Berladian comedy is totally pure because it cannot be explained. To explain to a person who sits there with a blank face what’s funny about an impression of a pigeon at Bloomfield is like explaining to an anosmic what vanilla smells like.
When we see Yaron Berlad put a pair of panty hose on his face and announce that he is doing an impression of soccer commentator Saggie Cohen, either we burst into raucous laughter or we don’t; there is no room here for “gray laughter,” a mere guffaw confirming that you got the joke and found it pleasant.
Berlad’s humor is not pleasant; it’s aggressive. It isn’t intellectual humor along the lines of the Cameri Quintet, where you laugh inside and think to yourself, “Hmm, this is smart, this is funny. This compliments my intellect, I like this” − while on the outside you look as if you’re watching a Bergman film. Berlad’s humor is passion-fueled, and in a country of predictable punch lines in mediocre sitcoms, his jokes come at you from the most unexpected places.
The closest precedent for Yaron Berlad is actor-comedian Tal Friedman, in his earlier days. There is great similarity between the Friedmanesque craziness back then and the Berladian version, and the audience response is also identical. Young people gazed at Friedman with glittering eyes, knew every comeback, and roared with laughter when all he did was ask what time it was. Friedman was just as unbridled as Berlad and still managed to find his way to the very heart of the mainstream. Friedman mellowed over the years; that is a price to be expected when you turn into a household name.
I am skeptical about Berlad’s ability to make the leap to mainstream. He seems too much of a purist and too restricted in his professional-ideological flexibility. Also, the appeal of his brand of comedy to the general public is in doubt. Moreover, I hope that he will not make this castrating leap. If he stays in his little and respectable niche, with a zealous clan of followers, he may prove that not everyone has to sell his soul to a franchise holder, and that perhaps there is room in Israel for alternative culture. It is important to create a space in the country for the fringe, even if it is narrow and hasn’t room in it for more than one fat comedian. (Moran Sharir, Haaretz TV critic)
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