Chris Rock Turns Social Sermons Into Explosive Laughter in Tel Aviv

The comedian delivered a killer set on Tuesday night, offering a fast and furious take on sex, relationships, racism and more sex

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Chris Rock in 2014.
Chris Rock in 2014. Credit: REUTERS

Stand-up comedy has made a huge leap forward in Israel over the past three years. This is true both with regard to local stand-ups – who are blossoming like never before – and, no less important, overseas comedians performing here. Do yourself a favor and go see a stand-up night with local performers: one of them is sure to get some yuks out of you.

Since U.S. comedian Todd Barrys performances at the Zappa Club in June 2015 (a minor yet pivotal event), weve seen a variety of comedy giants perform here like Jerry Seinfeld, Louis C.K. (when it was still acceptable to love him), the sophisticated British comic Eddie Izzard and the dark Aussie Jim Jefferies (who is returning soon). And now we have Chris Rock, the first great (actually, first period) black comedian to perform here.

While the influence of all the others, each in their own way, is evident in the new generation that has grown here, Rock is an example of someone who has no real connection with Israeli humor (if anything, it could be argued that he should be performing in Arab communities).

His politics are furious, full of reproach and pathos, which he picked up from his preacher grandfather. When he tells jokes about the difficulty of being a black American (with frequent use of the N-word), you sense a very real, very raw pain. He speaks from the pained heart, as someone who still suffers racial discrimination despite being rich, famous and successful.

His comedy is rational, reasoned, surgical and charismatic. He displays perfect timing and comic presentation (except for one gag about Trump and Bush that bombed), which turns his social sermons into explosive laughter.

What do you mean, there are only a few rotten apples in the police force? he screams, highlighting what he sees as the built-in racism of the American police force (which has frequently been recorded shooting innocent, unarmed black men in recent years). There are some jobs where you cant have a few rotten apples! Take pilots, for example. Imagine what would happen if American Airlines announced that most of their pilots are good, except for a few rotten apples who crash their planes.

The current U.S. president wasnt spared Rocks scabrous wit. Can you still tell Trump jokes that havent been told before, or that he himself generated – making parody or satire redundant? Rock can, with his superlative performance skills, though he prefers not to dwell on them. His contempt for Trump is so deep, he doesnt want to give him center stage, preferring instead to marginalize him to a routine about the need for thugs in any society or the challenges he himself faces as a parent.

He then moved on to what is perhaps his trademark material: relationships and sex, all told with the filthiest of mouths. Of all the overseas comedians weve seen here, no one else ever said the words fuck, suck, lick, dick or pussy with such regularity. And it was great!

He offered advice for couples, dissected male and female attitudes, and admitted to a porn addiction, all while walking a tightrope stretched between offensive sexual stereotypes (men only want women with beautiful bodies; women only want men with money – I admit there were moments I was squirming with embarrassment). There was also a total dismantling of clichs and even some touching monologues about his divorce, which was the evenings final routine.

Rock wasnt the only great performer at Tel Avivs Menora Mivtachim Arena on Tuesday night, with the comedians below him on the bill also impressing.

Anthony Jeselnik, one of my favorite comedians, delivered a performance of dark, disturbing and laconic comedy at its best. Michelle Wolf (from The Daily Show) offered a topical feminine perspective, with a few #MeToo jokes. And Jeff Ross was an effective host, repeating one of my favorite jokes of his (the original went Tommy Lees dick is so big, it has an elbow – this time addressed to Tony, one of the security guards at the arena).

There was one odd moment (neither positive nor negative, merely puzzling): When Ross, a comedy-roast specialist, brought several audience members up to the stage in order to roast them one by one, the audience cheered enthusiastically for a participant who said he was a soldier. A few minutes earlier, when Ross asked who had served in the Israeli army, everyone clapped and whistled as if they had just taken some military outpost together.

Ive done my military service but, seriously, have we reached the point where even in a performance by a black political comedian from the United States, we feel the need to express our love for the Israel Defense Forces? Cant we just for one evening forget the most moral army in the world and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and devote ourselves to a different comedy? Its not as if the audience was from the settler heartland: When Ross asked Who here is Muslim? and received a very muted response, he immediately added, I guess theyre all still detained by security – shaking the rafters as people roared at the punch line.

Happily, Rocks virtuosity soon made you forget this peculiar interlude. At the end, with the symbolic dropping of the mic, the images of deceased comedians who are Rocks heroes appeared on a screen behind him – from Richard Pryor, through Garry Shandling to Joan Rivers – thus ending a great evening of comedy.