TORONTO — Canadian comedy club chain Yuk Yuks is sending a delegation of six comedians to Israel next month to spread some Canuck cheer and learn what makes Israelis laugh.
While there, the comics will be shadowed by a CBC film crew, led by Toronto director Igal Hecht, for a documentary to be released later this year.
The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) is sponsoring the trip and taking care of travel and scheduling arrangements for the comedy mission to Israel, according to Judy Zelikovitz, CIJA's vice president of university and local partner services. She will also be traveling with the comedians.
In a recent interview with The CJN, Yuk Yuks president and CEO, Mark Breslin, said he’ll be making his first visit to the Holy Land along with the standup comedians – three Jewish, three not – and is looking forward to further connecting with his Jewish roots.
The comedians are Rebbecca Kohler, Aaron Berg, Sam Easton, Jean Paul, Nikki Payne and Michael Khardas. The latter is an Israeli Canadian.
In a country that’s experienced its fair share of sorrow and hardship, a comedy trip to Israel seems like a potentially great balm for a perpetually stressed Israeli populace. But Breslin expects that the country will also have a significant impact on his own retinue.
While the touring comics hope to “kill” audiences in Israel, the country and its diverse cultures will likely affect the travelling Canadian comedians and their material, Breslin said.
The weeklong comedy trip runs from May 30 to June 7.
They’ll be doing standup gigs in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Herzliya, as well as meeting with a number of Israeli comedians to share their experiences and engage in a comedic cultural exchange.
Breslin said the idea for the trip stemmed from his anger at the anti-Israel events that unfolded at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). What he witnessed from the boycott, divestment and sanctions advocates at the time – various filmmakers and actors vocally opposed TIFF’s spotlight on Tel Aviv films at the time – sent him into a fury.
“There were some people in the arts who protested and thought it was wrong” to spotlight Israel, he said. “So I thought, what if I did an Israeli comedy festival in Toronto. Would they picket me or was comedy not important enough?”
While that question wasn’t answered, the Israeli consulate in Toronto helped plant the seeds of this upcoming trip.
“I approached the Israeli government in Toronto and asked about what kind of access there might be to English-speaking comics in Israel” with the goal of bringing them to Canada, Breslin said.
He found out that there was indeed an English comedy circuit in Israel that might send some comedians to Canada. But the consulate proposed another idea: sending a group of Canadian comedians to Israel.
Breslin said before that talk, he’d never considered that option.
“Of the seven of us going, only one has ever been to Israel, Michael, who’s one of our fledgling comics,” he said.
The trip is also part of a plan to capitalize on the burgeoning international appetite for English-speaking comedians, Breslin said.
“Did you know there’s a comic circuit in Scandinavia for English-speaking comics?” he asked rhetorically. “And as far as I know, no one has yet taken a look at Israel as a place where people have taken a new interest in standup comedy, which they obviously have. Everyone [in Israel] speaks English, pretty much.”
He cited comedy clubs springing up in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and other towns in Israel.
Breslin said it’s not out of the question that a Yuk Yuks franchise could work in Israel, specifically in Tel Aviv, and it’s something he’ll look into while there.
“If I found someone who could run it, a franchisee, it’s not impossible,” he said.
On a personal note, this being his first trip to Israel, he said now that he’s turned 60, it’s time to make the journey.
“In my assimilated, arty circle, it’s not unusual” to have not visited Israel, he said, adding: “I married a German. Does it get more assimilated than that?”
Breslin said his family has been in Canada since the 1880s, so their connection to Europe and the Middle East was always distant.
Not having led a “traditional” Jewish life, he said during the course of his career he hasn’t had much room to express his Jewishness.
“I’ve always looked for ways to do this. I don’t have a political attachment to Israel. I don’t belong to a shul. My community is less Jewish and more multicultural. But this trip may be one of the ways I can connect with the Jewish strand in my life. I couldn’t [connect] in a conventional way because I don’t do anything in a conventional way,” he joked.
“But in the end, I enjoy being a Jew. I don’t think enough people say that,” he said.
Bringing the conversation back to comedy, Breslin noted that the history of the craft is laden with Jewish influence but the old days of Jewish comedians dominating the landscape of North American comedy – the Borsht Belt circuit being one example – are over. But there is a new flavour of Jewish comedy in the world, and it’s emerging from the Holy Land.
“The history of comedy as we know it is very much the history of Jewish comedy. And the idea that there may be a place in the world now, Israel, that is going to continue on in creating a new tradition of Jewish comedy, really excites me and interests me,” he said.
It will also be an apolitical trip, Breslin said, noting he ensured that all the comedians had “good feelings” about Israel before embarking on the tour.
His goal for the trip to expose people to how “great a country Israel is.”
“It’s a progressive country. The people going on this trip are not religious people, to put it mildly. The Israel we’re interested in is the one that is a beacon of western thought and democracy in the Middle East,” Breslin said.
He added: “As artists, a lot of the time we identify with the outsiders and [one area] where we note this is happening is in Tel Aviv’s huge gay community. Also, there’s an explosion of Israeli filmmaking happening. The political debate on Israel has been going of for so long… there’s a lot of other stuff in Israel that should be seen.”
Lastly, Breslin said he hasn’t let go of the idea of bringing Israeli comics to Canada as part of a cross-cultural initiative.