David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).
Louis C.K. appears onstage at Comedy Central's "Night of Too Many Stars: America Comes Together for Autism Programs" at the Beacon Theatre on February 28, 2015 in New York. (Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)
Quite early in his Jerusalem show on Thursday night, Louis C.K., hitherto a big, balding man in a nice navy suit telling some pretty good jokes, performed an imperceptible act of comedic alchemy.
He was still — as he would doubtless want me to clarify, comedic pedant that he proved himself to be — a big, balding man in a nice navy suit. But in highly unpropitious circumstances — appearing in a vast and soulless arena, speaking rapid-fire, nuanced English in a country that, er, doesn’t — he transformed himself from a stand-up comedian working to make us laugh into a likable, funny, easygoing guy taking us to some of life’s darkest places and rather brightening them. A guy you’d want to listen to all day.
Stand-up comedy can be a strain — on both sides, for performer and audience. You can feel, as you certainly did with Jerry Seinfeld when he appeared in a similarly unwelcoming arena in Tel Aviv eight months ago, that the man on stage is pulling out all the stops to make you laugh. You worry for him. Is he going to manage? You worry for the people you’re with. Are they going to like him? Are they going to laugh? With Seinfeld, such a pro, so famed for endlessly polishing his material for maximal hilarity, you didn’t worry for long. You knew you were in good hands. You could relax.
Louis C.K. on stage at the Pais Arena in Jerusalem, August 18, 2016 (Facebook)
With C.K. (is that what we should call him on second reference?), though, there was even less worry time. Pretty soon, like I say, he hit the point where if he was working, it didn’t come across that way. It was an “act.” Well of course it was an act. You don’t get up there and talk for well over an hour, without hesitation or repetition and with plenty of deviation, on a whim. You practice. You hone. The audience knows this. The audience, usually very consciously, measures how well the performer is faring. Not with C.K.
His Jerusalem-specific material was top-drawer stand up. But still stand up. The two dead cats he saw in the city; the bar-mitzvah he said he ran past on a corner. He had a good bit about how everybody told him, before he came, that Israel is crazy, tense, too much. But now he’s here, and it’s… crazy, tense, too much. (Don’t worry: I’m not going to quote a lot; the ubiquitous “no filming, no recording” warnings underlined how rightly paranoid he is about his gems getting dulled by exposure.) And he won over any doubters by remarking, carefully, in response to those who’d said he shouldn’t come to Israel because “we’re mad at them,” that if he didn’t play in countries that had ever inflicted harm on anyone, he wouldn’t play in America.
He ventured deep into bleak and offensive territory, inoffensively
But about the time he got into his suicide bit, his long and life-affirming suicide bit, the alchemy kicked in, and the show just became a delight.
I’d anticipated he might be grouchy. I knew he’d be rude. I’d wondered if he’d be offensive. In fact, he was genial. I was pleased one of my kids had gone to his earlier Thursday performance, and that another of them was with us now. He was rude, but necessarily so. Graphically rude — penises and fingering and suppressed homosexual urges — but, somehow, not embarrassingly so. He ventured deep into bleak and offensive territory, inoffensively.
The most sustained applause came when he twice took a few seconds’ break to sip water from the glass on the chair that was all he had with him on stage (and that he toyed with semi-obsessively when not drinking from it). It was as though nobody had wanted to disturb him in full flow with anything so intrusive as applause, and so we took the rare chance to make our appreciation clear when we wouldn’t be interrupting.
It’s a rare comedian who can get an audience, in Israel, laughing about the Islamic State terror group. Not just the Islamic State, but being beheaded by the Islamic State. And then laughing about the worst thing about the moments immediately after being beheaded by the Islamic State. And about what you can do, if kidnapped, to avoid the worst thing about the moments immediately after being beheaded by the Islamic State. C.K. is that comedian.
In the course of his performance he covered everything from conception, to delivery, to first dates, marriage, parenting, divorce, aging, death, much more death, and the afterlife. And marriage in the afterlife. He ventured way back before Jesus — “nailed to a cross about 20 minutes from here,” he noted helpfully. He taught us a little Greek mythology, and a lot about his own family. All true, too: The one-legged, fiddle playing, Hungarian, secretly Jewish, doctor, grandfather. The father who converted “back” to Judaism, when C.K. was 10. All true. (Actually, I don’t know for sure about the leg. Or the fiddle.) And in his deft control, all quite wonderful.
If you’re reading this, Mr. C.K., my daughter most loved the nine eleven deniers. I loved the whole nine yards. “Quite a singular experience for me to be here,” you said at the end? Our pleasure.