Don't Sell Him Short

His face can be seen on almost every prime-time comedy TV show. But Yuval Semo hasn't forgotten the years of soul-searching, depression and doubt. At the start of the new season of the sitcom in which he plays a pilot, he talks about how he stays grounded

In a class at Beit Zvi School of the Performing Arts in Tel Aviv, each student was asked to lie down in the middle of the room. The teacher and the other students formed a circle around him. The task: to recall a moment of particular emotional significance and to try to reenact it. The idea was to preserve the feeling so that it could be given expression onstage.

Yuval Semo, who was in the class, catapulted himself back to the euphoria he had experienced in Goa - he does not elaborate on the details - during a post-army trip. "The idea is to learn how to use your feelings, but not in a pathetic way, not for people to start crying and pitying themselves," he says. "I tried to express happiness, which is hardest of all, because how do you show happiness? A moment of orgasm can't be reenacted, so I went back to the first time I experienced that kind of euphoria, which remained powerfully etched in my memory."

Yuval Semo
Yanai Yehiel

Today things have changed and Semo says he finds happiness in taking care of his children and in his work as an actor. "In the past few years everything has been going great, really," he says. But before that, he had searched for happiness everywhere - spending time in India (for a month, then for half a year ) and in America, exploring psychology and the recesses of consciousness - but he was unable to figure out why he felt so down: "And when things aren't good for you, they're equally not good in Goa and in Los Angeles. From where I am now, that period looks like a different life."

At present, Semo, 40, is one of the country's leading comics. His appearances on the satiric program "A Wonderful Country," which started five years ago, after a gradual journey to the top, vaulted him into the front ranks of local funnymen. The critics were less impressed by his role as a loser pilot in the sitcom "Naor's Friends," but the ratings were good enough for Channel 10 to sign him up for a third season (beginning next Tuesday at 10 P.M. ). Other successes for Semo were "The Strip," a program of skits on Bip, the now-defunct comedy channel; Prozac, an entertainment troupe that he joined immediately after completing acting school; and a slew of other series and film roles.

Two key qualities make Semo what he is: a highly developed sense of timing and his facial features, which are charming and quiet at the zero point, but elastic enough for him to be able to stretch them in any direction, to suit any character or personality type that's called for. It's a gift that also allows him to generate laughter off-screen, even when he wants to be businesslike and detached. His colleagues cite other qualities, too, such as dedication to his craft, industriousness and an easygoing temperament - all of which make Semo a person that people like to work with.

When he's not performing, Semo finds it a bit tricky to decide how to respond to the public's attention. He lives today in Givatayim - to maintain "mini-privacy five minutes from Tel Aviv," and prefers unfashionable cafes and side tables to avoid attracting attention and paparazzi. Not that it helps. A group of giggling girls costumed for Purim comes over and asks for a group photo as we speak; an overly eager waitress tries to strike up a conversation. Semo cooperates reluctantly. He's polite and all, but can't really hide the fact that he's waiting for the unwelcome moment to pass.

"When you're anonymous you die for someone to recognize you," he says, "but when people recognize you or try to take your picture, you try to hide. I used to like walking around in a Speedo with one ball hanging out; these days I go to the beach in pants. Still, it's better when people want to take my picture."

'Wacky and uninhibited'

"A Wonderful Country" now takes up most of his time: four days a week, two of them from early morning until the middle of the night. He finds the crazy schedule a turn-on. Even on the most exhausting of days he looks fresh and jaunty.

Actress Alma Zak is standing by his side in a rehearsal for a skit about the failings of the pre-Eurovision show (she and Semo are playing the two real-life hosts of the show, singer Shiri Maimon and actor Aki Avni ). She's a little taller than Semo, so Semo stands on a wooden platform. "It's because Shiri is supposed to be very small and Alma was wearing high heels, so we were both about the same height," he explains.

Despite the nuttiness that bursts forth from the characters he plays, in rehearsals Semo is serious and focused, like a diligent student. Occasionally he hunches over the script and scribbles a few notes to himself - "characterization notes, such as when to touch my nose, where to add more energy, where to play down the role."

One of his specialties in his years on "A Wonderful Country" has been his impersonations of a panoply of figures at varying levels of eccentricity. They include the singer Eran Zur, Hezbollah's Hassan Nasrallah, Arab affairs commentator Ehud Yaari and MK Uri Orbach. "I was told that Orbach was pleased," Semo says. "I hope Aki doesn't feel offended - it's not personal." (After the broadcast he heard from Muli Segev, the program's editor, that Avni took the impersonation in the right spirit. )

What's the secret of doing impersonations?

Semo: "You bring the vibe, the atmosphere. I get a DVD from the producers with clips of the person and at night I watch it at home and choose certain features: body movements, voice modulations."

What would you recommend to someone who wants to impersonate you?

"I don't know. I can't testify about myself. I am also not sensitive to impersonations, I like to forge characters and create a world for them."

That's what he does in "Naor's Friends," a post-"Seinfeld" sitcom which, like the American source of its inspiration, is sometimes amusing and sometimes feels too much like 1990s' leftovers. Semo plays Dedi, a megalomaniac pilot, who's a loser.

"I am actually not a loser and not pathetic," Semo says of himself, "but it's easy for me to connect with these characters. Each of us has this. If I were to play Brad Pitt and all the girls would fall at my feet, that would not be credible. My outstanding quality is actually shyness, not a loser thing, but maybe people think that about me because of my exterior appearance."

Reviewing the program, Haaretz critic Yaron Frid wrote, "It is simply - how to put this gently? - not the most exciting ride on the fairgrounds. 'Naor's Friends' does not arouse any special desire to want to be friends with the show."

Semo is indifferent to this: "I am not a retard. I know the critics weren't wild about it. So what? It did really well in Channel 10 terms. At first it was also hard for people to accept Naor acting as a director and scriptwriter, too, because he comes from standup."

Do you find the program funny?

"I love the series."

It's not exactly the most sophisticated humor.

"That's the show. You don't find it sophisticated, but others do."

Next year Semo will star in a sitcom called "Zanzouri," on YES (satellite TV ). He plays a driving instructor from Modi'in who discovers, as he approaches age 40, that his life is drawing to a close.

"It's an allegory about the age-40 crisis," says Dafna Prener, content director for Artza, the company that is producing "Zanzouri," and also the program's script editor (the writer is Yuval Friedman ). "The part was written especially for Semo. We simply fell in love with him. He is a captivating man, funny and creative, and he gives his all in work." As usual with characters played by Semo, the hero of the series will be "wacky and uninhibited," in Prener's words.

Aren't you concerned about being typecast as "wacky and uninhibited"?

"No, if the character is interesting and cool, why should I be concerned? And if I get a role as a sensitive guy or as a bank teller, I will do that, too. In 'Maybe Once' I was a computer guy."

Wouldn't you like to do more parts like that?

"It's not what I like, it's what there is: those are the offers I get."

Is the craziness something that stems from you?

"I have craziness, but I can't talk about myself, because I don't see myself from the side. I have done a lot of nutty things, but the press makes a big deal out of it, so I don't want to get into it. I did some nonsense in my life."

Like Dustin Hoffman

Apparently Semo was funny even as a child, which was also when he first knew he wanted to be an actor. "I collected photos of Dustin Hoffman and Steve McQueen and pasted them in a scrapbook. Hoffman reminded me of myself - small, not especially good-looking - and I wanted to believe that maybe I would be as talented as he is; and Steve McQueen - because Brad Pitt wasn't around then - and I guess that's the man I wanted to be."

But Semo had stage fright and instead of going to a drama group, he played soccer with the guys in Kiryat Eliezer, the Haifa neighborhood where he grew up: "Who would have dared to think I was good enough to perform in front of an audience and take it to the professional level? Anyhow, it's not as though there was a drama club in my school."

It's also not as though there was an option in the home he was raised in. He describes a conservative family, with no connection to the world of the arts, which forced him to conform. His relations with his parents had ups and downs. Warm displays of feeling were not their strong suit, so he spent time out in the street, "with the guys. That was good but it also stopped me from being myself."

His father, Yossi, a driving instructor, "was the house nut. He loved planes and motorcycles and was a civilian pilot. In 'Naor's Friends' I play a pilot and in 'Zanzouri' I will be a driving teacher. That's the closing of a circle," Semo says. His mother, Dalia, "who is more of a nerd in character, was a school secretary until her retirement." He is the "sandwich child" - between Ophir, 45, who studied economics but preferred to be a carpenter, and Natalie, 30, a graphic designer.

Semo was a mediocre student, but "not an ignoramus." In his adolescence the family moved to South Africa for two years. "My father tried to get rich there, but he realized that to get rich you need the talent for it. It was hard being cut off from my friends, especially as a teenager. If you misbehaved [in the Johannesburg school], if you were caught talking in class or trying to copy on a test, you were hit on the rear. An English education, you know. I was surprised the first time the deputy headmistress called me in and told me to bend over."

Semo did noncombat military service on a munitions base, after his army profile was lowered "on mental-health grounds. My father didn't understand it at all. I got a strict education at home, with an emphasis on frameworks and the most important thing being what the teacher says. And suddenly someone comes and asks, 'Who said you have to succeed in school? Or in the army? Or work for the Electric Corporation?'

"After the army," he continues, "it drove my parents crazy when I couldn't find myself. It was hard. I know I gave them a really hard time. I believe that I embarrassed and grieved them. I did a lot of dumb things in the army, which rattled my father. Now that I myself am a parent, I understand what they went through. But back then I saw other parents who were open and embracing and ready to accept anything, so I was envious."

After the army, too, "all kinds of psychoses" paralyzed him and prevented him from trying to realize his aspirations. "Lack of self-love, lack of motivation - if I knew how the process [of developing those traits] works, I would have written a book about it," he says. Instead, he tried all kinds of jobs that were far from the stage: warehouse man for the Electric Corporation, salesman for Loreal, banana picker. "Until there was an explosion, a shock, after which I got up and said, 'Yalla, I'm going for it [the stage]. My whole life I felt that this is what I should be doing, but I was shy. I didn't even dare try out for acting school until everything exploded."

How did that happen?

"I had this depression - when you feel you're not whole and you don't accept yourself and don't understand why, and then you realize that part of your personality is lacking. Something internal that I have no explanation for. I saw everything as bad. My father would say, 'Look how beautiful this is,' and I wouldn't know what he was talking about. Like in adolescence, when you think that you understand everything and that nobody else understands anything."

What was it that you thought that only you understood?

"That life wasn't fun and wasn't good. It's not that I was this unfortunate guy that you didn't want to hug. On the outside I was the funny guy in the group. The sad clown."

Semo is not eager to elaborate on what happened, and when asked if his life was in danger at any point, he bursts into sharp, cold laughter, which ends as abruptly as it started. "No," he asserts.

What's so funny?

"My life was in danger ... Once, there was a time. Because I was someone who went all the way, as I went all the way in my profession. If I thought things were not good, then they weren't good."

Did you try to end your life?

"I didn't say that, but I did nonsense. It was a kind of confusion, stupidity, a desire to cope with fears. And after I did crazy things, extreme, complex - what was it all of a sudden to stand up in front of an audience and act? That helped me overcome everything."

Step by step

When the effects of the "explosion" subsided, Semo signed up for Beit Zvi. The comic Adi Ashkenazi, who was his classmate for two years ("until I was kicked out" ), recalls that he was the sharpest person in the class, "because everyone went there at the age of 20 or 21 and he was already 25. He was one of the most talented people there," she says. "We got to work together, because we were both in the 'funny-people department,' but things went a lot better there for Yuval than for me. He was a real character and everyone noticed him."

There was no trace of the crisis that had preceded his enrollment in the school, Ashkenazi adds, "and in any event, that kind of thing was very prevalent there. He was more mature and focused and industrious; he wasn't there to have a good time or for the social life. Everyone knew Semo was a hard worker."

Semo: "I gave up a lot of good times, relationships. Everyone was partying and I stayed home to study. It was only after I graduated that I started to run amok. Fortunately, in terms of a long-term investment, I was right. No miracles ever happened to me, it was all hard work. There's no other choice.

"We have already read maybe 2,000 articles about how people suffered at Beit Zvi, but I was in heaven, because I was engaged in acting from morning until night. It's also a competitive school in the extreme - every two weeks there is a monologue competition for scholarships. That was good for me, it keeps you tense all the time. It taught me professionalism and seriousness."

At that time, Semo moved to the center of the country and during vacations worked for a living: "I was a caregiver for sick people, I cleaned houses, I painted. Whatever I could find."

His parents were not thrilled by his decision to become a professional actor - they wanted him to find a steady job - but they were pleased that he had at least found something to occupy him: "They saw that their kid wasn't working or wasn't satisfied with any job, that there was no point complaining about him all the time, that he was always searching for himself and for happiness ... so they were ready to accept anything, all they wanted was for something to happen."

What did you learn at Beit Zvi?

"How to use my talent. How to get across a real moment, here and now. That the more you are able to touch yourself, the more you will touch the audience. To speak clearly. What to do with my voice. A lot of people didn't believe I was a Beit Zvi graduate, because I am not that type. Beit Zvi graduates are always 'the beautiful and the brave' - tall hunks, and I am the antithesis of that: short, not handsome, more funny than dramatic. At that time I wrote monologues for a range of characters - a man without a neck, an angel who descends from heaven, King David - and I performed them in the open evenings at Tzavta Theater, because I was burning with creativity. These days I don't have the strength to write, but back then I knew that if I didn't write for myself, no one would write for me."

Those evenings in Tzavta, which later morphed into a television program, became the genesis of the Prozac trio, in which Semo performed with Shlomi Koriat and Ofir Lobel for seven years. "At first we performed for free, because we were given a stage and we wanted people to discover us. We also did a lot of TV, but every time there was a peak and then it would disappear again. Dudu Topaz [the late entertainer] invited us to appear, but threw us out after a few programs. We did spots for Adir Miller on his talk show until suddenly, during a skit about dumb kids, waves of laughter erupted from the audience ... After that we had packed houses, people started to commission material, our name became known."

From there, "one thing led to another, one step and then another step. 'The Strip,' 'Naor's Friends,' 'A Wonderful Country.' It wasn't a meteoric rise. It's because of the characters I did in 'The Strip' that I'm in 'A Wonderful Country' - not because of my pretty eyes. And there were also periods when I sat home."

Talent and diapers

Semo attributes his youthful shyness to his exterior appearance, notably his height, a mere 1.62 meters. It's not so noticeable on television, where you can stand on a platform and the camera zooms in on your face, ignoring the rest. "By now I accept it, but I was always the shortest," he says.

Don't the shortest people like to make a lot of noise so they will be noticed?

"I made noise, too. That's to find your place in the world. You want people to remember you, pay attention to you. That is part of me. No one made any fuss about my height on the programs I did, and that wasn't what I built my career on, but it is a comic tool. In the past, it was the first thing that came up. Today" - he adopts a serious tone of voice - "it's 'actor.' The height is part of my work today, in comedy. In any event, I wasn't some ostracized unfortunate. I always had girlfriends."

What attracted them to you?

"I don't know, maybe I was funny and oozed charm."

You did well with girls?

"Within the boundaries that existed. I always had girlfriends after the age of 17-18. One time I came to visit someone, after climbing up the wall of a building and through the window. Once I scared someone at night."

And now women throw themselves at you?

"No one is throwing herself at me. I am not some super-hunk, and people know I am married."

Semo married Dana, also an actress, six years ago. They met at Beit Zvi. It was only after their graduation that their relationship became close, "because during school there is no time for nonsense like that." They have two children: Ran, who is five, and Avigail, one year old.

Is it easy to be your partner?

"I think so. I am a family man. I feel full. Maybe I should be more of a romantic. I am not your normal parent; I think we are a funny home."

Family life ensures that success does not go to his head, he says: "I get up at five in the morning for our daughter, come home from a day of shooting and deal with dirty diapers - what of it? There are days on which I tell Dana: 'I am on the verge of being a real talent, I am not supposed to change diapers."

On that same subject, a year ago Semo starred in commercials for Lily toilet paper. According to Guy Bar, a senior executive at Gitam ad agency, Semo was chosen mainly because he is "a superb comedian who is not controversial: Even if not everyone loves him, he never generates any serious antagonism." The ad itself was about as neutral as the reasons for choosing its presenter.

"It was my mistake," Semo admits. "An ass product? I thought it would be possible to flow with it, do madcap comedy, because it's a product to laugh at. But it came out very conservative, bland. So, it was seen, it was forgotten." ("I have no way of measuring how many people laughed," Bar says, "but whatever the case, the campaign did good work for the client." )

What does it say about you, that you were chosen to advertise toilet paper?

"I really and truly thought I could make comedy out of it. And let's not pretend - I was also paid well."

Semo adds that he is not equally proud of everything he has done in his career. "I did a few lousy things, mainly summer shows ... But making wrong choices is part of the process, a road you have to travel."

Are you afraid of being tiresome, of being considered pathetic?

"No. I will feel it, if it happens. And when people tell me, 'Enough, you are tiresome and pathetic' - I will switch to teaching." W