What’s the most crucial element in a successful comic, say comedians? Good humor. The temperament kind, that is.
“We’re generally nice people,” said veteran comic Elayne Boosler, currently in Israel for the twice-annual Comedy for Koby tour. ““All we do is raise money for other people.”
Boosler, Allan Havey and their host Avi Liberman, who has been running Comedy for Koby for the last 15 years, were sitting in their Tel Aviv hotel on day one of the current tour, gearing up for a day of discovering Tel Aviv before their first performance in Beit Shemesh that night. The fourth comic along for the tour is Tom Cotter.
It was Liberman who first joined forces with the Koby Mandell Foundation, in memory of Koby Mandell, who was killed in a terrorist attack in 2001, when he was 13 years old. The proceeds from the tour, which has brought dozens of comics to Israel, go to the foundation to help victims of terror.
It’s a fairly time-honored tradition for comics to take up causes, noted Boosler, a long-time animal activist. There was Jerry Lewis and the Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon or Danny Thomas and St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital.
“To be a successful comic, there has to be some good in you, and has to be some heart that people can relate to before they even hear what you’re saying,” Boosler added.
See? All that good humor isn’t just about being funny.
Even comics who go heavy on the foul language, like a George Carlin, still have to be decent human beings in order for audiences to fall in love with them, agreed the comedians.
“It has to be funny first,” said Boosler. “The humor has to be time-released, like capsules.”
“There’s so much good in comics, even the ones with all the bluster,” said Havey, who recently spent the last year starring in the last season of “Mad Men” as Lou Avery, the straight-laced guy who takes over for Don Draper as the creative director of ad agency Sterling Cooper & Partners.
Ultimately, it’s about making the audience fall in love with you. Some
comics, noted Boosler, just have that indefinable trait, no matter what their routine is. She remembered seeing comic superstars Dave Chappelle and Jimmy Fallon on stage for the first time, “when they were very young, and the audience just loved them.”
Actor and comedian Freddy Prinze (the father of actor Freddy Prinze Jr.) had the same vibe, said Boosler. He was only 18 when he performed on the comedy stage at the Improv, where Boosler was the MC back in the 1970s.
“I would drive him home to go to school the next day, and he had this big, open face and gorgeous eyes and people would look at him and say, “I love you, I want to adopt you, and maybe have sex with you if the adoption doesn’t go through,” she quipped.
Of course, when coming from abroad to play Israeli, English-speaking audiences, who may or may not know the visiting comedians, the work is a little harder.
But the Comedy for Koby audiences are fairly predisposed to like what they hear. Liberman said he picks comics known for their good audience rapport and with the desire to play this kind of tour.
“Avi’s not going to bring us over to struggle,” said Havey.
Havey, said the other two comics, can be edgy, but he’s not filthy.
“There’s a difference between edgy and dirty,” said Boosler. “Dirty is lazy.”
There are other rules, offered Liberman — stay away from politics, whether American or Israeli politics.
“If you think you’re inundated with American politics in the US, here it’s… some lady raised her hand in the Q&A last year and asked what the comics think of the Arab-Israeli conflict,” said Liberman. “The audience just groaned, so I said, ‘Does anyone have any questions about the Holocaust?’ and that moved it on. They’re here to get away from that, plus it’s complicated here.”
Boosler agreed. A strong supporter of Hillary Clinton, with an active Facebook page railing against president-elect Donald Trump, she pointed out that there’s nothing wrong with picking a side in the US elections, but not when she’s a guest.
“I have standing at home to say no to Trump and make it funny, but I’m a guest here and I don’t know your politics and people here can’t possibly have facts about Trump as I don’t have facts about here and it’s none of my business and it’s none of theirs,” she said.
Shows in Israel going great. Tel Aviv: Kosher tacos, amazing markets. You keep Whole Foods, I'll take Holy Foods.
So the jokes, said the comedians, would be more general, while working in some bits about what they notice in Israel, where all three are visiting for the first time.
Even Boosler, who is Jewish and was raised in a nominally Jewish home in Brooklyn, had never visited, although it was always on her bucket list.
“It’s not that different than being in Santa Monica,” said Havey, where he lives. “It’s a combo of Santa Monica, New York city and Florida,” where he was born and raised.
“Except for the bagels,” said Boosler.
And the shwarma, added Havey, who went out for his first the night before, and was surprised to find it was made of turkey meat rather than lamb. That set everyone off on a conversation about the lamb fat brushed on the skewered meat, ending with Liberman’s promise to show Havey his favorite shwarma place in Tel Aviv.
The tour in Israel is an eight-day trip for the comics – “a menorah,” quipped Havey.
Getting to see other places, to travel and perform their art is one of the great benefits of their work, agreed the three. But it took some time to get here.
“I’m a New York Jew, culturally,” said Boosler, who puts up a Christmas tree for her non-Jewish husband while he bought her “the most beautiful menorah” when they first got married.
Boosler has been to the Middle East before, but to Arab countries, visiting US troops. Ditto for Havey, who feels pleased at where “our jobs take us.”
Boosler, now 64, first hit the comedy stage in the 1970s, where she was the MC at New York’s famed Improv, but she was already skipping school, and heading into Greenwich Village, years earlier.
It was the same for Havey, who grew up Catholic and remembers the first time he heard his voice, which was in 1960 when he was in kindergarten, on a tape recorder that had been brought to school.
“I nailed it!” he remembered.
Havey made his way to New York City and Hell’s Kitchen when he was 23, and never looked back, although Broadway was his first dream. Now he has the “almost perfect” balance of standup and acting, and feels very blessed.
“’Mad Men’ is my favorite show, it was undiluted joy to be on the show,” he said. “The ‘Mad Men’ people said maybe this’ll lead to other things, but standup is everything.”
Unfortunately, said Boosler, “there’s less respect for just stand-up.”
She’s added other items to her resume as well, including a book that she’s been working on for years, an opera and a major role in a CNN eight-part series on comedy.
Times have changed, said all three comics. Boosler regaled the group with stories of dinners with Jackie Mason and post-show chats at the Carnegie Deli, where even Henny Youngman became a fan of the young Boosler.
She also counted Rodney Dangerfield as a mentor.
“He loved me,” she said of the stand-up comic, who helped her as she transitioned from a little known comic to performing on “The Tonight Show,” when that appearance “changed your life overnight. I went from not being able to buy dessert and also leave a tip to $5,000 a week and buying a car for cash.”
“He asked me to stand up and do the shot [“The Tonight Show” bit], he’s sitting on the bed in his bathrobe,” she said. “I did the shot and he says, ‘Tell me something, this works for you?'”
Spending time with older comics, learning the ropes, isn’t generally done any longer.
“There’s less of that now, it’s more about YouTube and how many hits do you have,” said Liberman. “I still view myself as a young guy trying to learn.”
“I remember hearing Steve Martin and laughing for an hour and twenty minutes,” said Havey. “I’ve been funny, but I’ve never been that funny.”
But these three have the lessons they learned from those who came before them. Slowing down their routines is one of the lessons they all echo.
“I write that down in my pad and underline it with exclamation points,” said Liberman.
“Seinfeld said it to me before I went on Letterman,” said Havey.
“You need to listen to the guys that know more than you,” said Liberman.
“Comics today are all about making statements,” said Havey.
“They’re very confident,” added Liberman. “it’s almost like bullying.”
“Yeah, the audiences are all, ‘whoo whoo!” said Havey.
After 40 years in the profession, said Boosler, she finally feels like she gets it. “It took that long, just being up there with no expectations.”
“I embrace the panic now,” said Liberman.
But not to worry, you won’t notice it at all onstage.
The Comedy for Koby tour runs from December 6-12, with tickets left for Modi’in on December 11.