When the Toronto International Film Festival decided to spotlight Israeli films at its annual event four years ago, a large group of prominent filmmakers, artists and academics responded with a much-publicized letter of protest.
For Mark Breslin, a well-known Jewish-Canadian stand-up comedian, it was a wake-up call. The founder of Canada’s popular Yuk-Yuk’s comedy club chain decided his response would be to take his first trip ever to Israel and, for good measure, bring along some of the country’s best-known stand-up acts.
“There’s nothing that stand-up comedians hate more than censorship,” explains Israeli-Canadian documentary filmmaker Igal Hecht. His latest film is about this trip, which took place last summer. “This initiative to boycott artists solely on the basis of where they come from – that was extremely disturbing to Mark.”
If anything “A Universal Language,” which premiered at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival and on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary channel earlier this month, proves that comedy is not necessarily a universal language, at least not in the overheated environment of the Middle East.
When Aaron Berg, a former stripper, recounted his experiences at a gay club to a group of largely Orthodox retirees in Jerusalem at the group’s opening show, it did not go over well. The camera captured many audience members squirming in their seats and others walking out.
It turned out to be no less challenging getting a laugh out of audiences on the other side of town. When Breslin and company opened their act at a restaurant in East Jerusalem they discovered, much to their surprise, that they weren't in Israel anymore. The clueless comedians soon learned that it was their reference, a little way into their set, to the mainly Arab part of the city as being in Israel that prompted half of the room to storm out.
They were even more baffled to discover that the audience members who were most offended were foreigners – mainly Americans and Europeans, rather than Palestinians. Which prompted Jean Paul, a black member of the group, to note: “When people tell me they’re offended on other people’s behalf, I find that offensive because you are offended for other people who aren’t even offended.”
To be sure, these were not the audiences the Canadian comics are used to from back home. Their no-holds-barred humor and off-color jokes, mostly unfit for print, clearly did not go down as well in the Holy Land, and that in itself made for some rather amusing moments.
Opening the tour in a city known best for its holy sites did indeed provide interesting contrasts. “Religious fundamentalism has always been antithetical to comedy,” Breslin mused after one particularly tough show.
Hecht, who has worked on more than 40 documentaries, many of them Jewish-themed, found out about the comics' travel plans from his father, a building contractor in Canada who happened to be renovating the home of Breslin’s brother. But it took several years to put the trip together.
The six comics, only two of whom were Jewish, did seven shows in Israel and the West Bank over the course of two weeks in May and June, 2012.
Hecht, in Israel this month working on a new project, notes that Israeli stand-up humor is very different from its American and Canadian counterparts.
The Israeli comics, he says, “don’t talk about sex and rarely about politics because they live that every day. Stand-up comedy in Israel is more focused on family jokes and ethnic jokes. There’s a lot more self-censorship.”
Even in Israel, though, audiences vary. “In Tel Aviv, nobody walked out of our shows. They simply didn’t care. And the amazing thing was that you could tell from their responses that they got all the jokes.”