Yuk Yuk’s comics create controversy in Israel
June 15, 2012 | Atara Beck - Israel Correspondent
Mark Breslin (left), founder and CEO of Yuk Yuk’s, brought six of his top comedians to Israel to “begin a cultural exchange between the two nations through the universal medium of comedy.” (Photo: Atara Beck)
JERUSALEM – A visit here by popular Canadian comedians meant to enhance Canadian-Israeli friendship turned controversial in more than one way.
Mark Breslin, founder and CEO of Yuk Yuk’s, Canada’s national standup comedy company, brought six of his top comedians – Aaron Berg, Nikki Payne, Rebecca Kohler, Jean Paul, Sam Easton, and Michael Khardas – to perform for an Israeli tour from May 30 to June 7, sponsored by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) and several supporting contributors, with co-sponsorship from the Israeli foreign affairs ministry.
“I’m hoping that this can begin a cultural exchange between the two nations through the universal medium of comedy,” Breslin told the Jewish Tribune in an interview following a performance at the Jerusalem branch of the Association for Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI).
He also warned: “What we’re doing here might really shock people; it’s uncensored.”
“I’m ridiculously excited,” comedian Paul told the Tribune. “I hope to come back even longer. There are so many different types of people, food, dress…. It’s beyond my expectations, and that’s not even 12 hours into the trip.”
Yet a few days later, performing at the Legacy Hotel in east Jerusalem, the experience with a Palestinian audience turned unpleasant, according to an op-ed in the Jerusalem Post by Canadian Professor Gil Troy.
“They put on a raunchy, funny show – for free – showering the crowd with dirty words – and descriptions of dirtier actions. But, as Breslin explains, ‘while we thought we might get into trouble over the darker stuff we do about sex, death and bodily functions, that’s been no issue. It was one word, one word, that got everybody up in arms. And that word was ‘Israel.’”
Comedian Rebecca Kohler “was ‘accosted in the bathroom’ and told to remove her Canada-Israel flag pin,” Paul said.
Easton, the comedian who initially inflamed the audience by saying they were all having a great time in Israel, apologized, according to the Post story. “This is a very confusing city,” he said. “I am sorry if I insulted or offended anybody.”
Even the Canadian diplomats there claimed that Israel stole Palestinian land, Breslin told Troy, adding: “We weren’t trying to make a political statement. There was just a little bit of ignorance on our part.”
The tour also forms the basis of a documentary by award-winning, Toronto-based Israeli-Canadian filmmaker Igal Hecht, exploring the role of culture and comedy in Canada and Israel as well as the trip’s impact on the comedians. It will first air on CBC.
“It’s a fish-out-of-water story,” Hecht told the Tribune, citing the culture clash.
Canadian-Israelis nostalgic for the “old country” had been delighted to hear that Yuk Yuk’s was coming to town. But the event – not a free performance – upset several among the audience at AACI for a different reason, and four people left in the middle.
American-Israeli Nomi Gutenmacher claimed that none of the advance publicity “alluded to the fact that the attendees would be exposed to pornography. I’m not even talking about the vulgarity, or the altogether not-very-funny performances. The last gig was absolutely pornographic, by any standards….
“Mark Breslin said that he brought this group to Israel because his Jewish identity is tied up with his humour. I have no idea how this ties in to being Jewish in any way.”
“Performed by George Carlin or Lenny Bruce, potty mouth can be brilliant,” said Toronto native Ruth Warzecha. “It makes the listener think. Performed by a low-talent exhibitionist, it’s just embarrassing and awkward to sit through.”
Faygle Train, a young immigrant from Canada, said the show “was definitely pornographic; I’m not going to deny that. But it was a great experience to witness very North American-style humour within the context of Jerusalem. It was also amazing that these Canadian comedians have been given the chance to support and learn about the country. They also gave a free performance to a group of North American Hasbara [pro-Israel PR] Fellowship students, and all of them thought it was really funny.”
“I’m not religious; I’m a cultural Jew,” Breslin told the Tribune, explaining that his “own Jewish expression is through humour. Comedy is like Jewish jazz, the way our people express themselves at their finest.”
It was his first trip to Israel. Asked whether he’s a Zionist, he replied:
“I never give myself any ‘isms.’ I’m not a political person or religious, but obviously I feel strongly about Israel or I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t have thought of the idea.”