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Stand-up for a cause

Now in its seventh season, Comedy for Koby continues to make sides split -- and wallets open -- for victims of terror

Debra writes for the JTA, and is a former features writer for The Times of Israel.

Avi Liberman on stage in Comedy for Koby. (photo credit:  Yissachar Ruas)
Avi Liberman on stage in Comedy for Koby. (photo credit: Yissachar Ruas)

Koby Mandell was 13 years old on May 8, 2001, the day he decided to skip school with his friend Yosef Ishran and instead go hiking in a dry riverbed near his home in the Israeli settlement of Tekoa.

He and Yosef were both killed that day by Palestinian terrorists, their skulls shattered with massive rocks and their bodies stabbed, bludgeoned and then dragged into a cave in the Judean desert.

Even one year into the Second Intifada, with Israeli buses exploding every week and helicopter gunships buzzing over Gaza, the brutal murder of these two boys sent Israelis reeling.

Koby’s parents, natives of Silver Spring, Maryland, who had moved to Israel a few years before, stood on the edges of the commotion – the political condemnations of violence, the newspaper interviews and the whizzing missiles and bullets of tit-for-tat retaliation – and stared down the gaping hole in the middle of their lives. The impossible task for them, now, would be trying to fill it.

In the years since, they have established the Koby Mandell Foundation, which runs camps and therapeutic counseling events for family members who have lost loved ones to terrorism. And this week, when the bi-annual stand-up show Comedy for Koby returns to Israel for its seventh year of side-splitting fundraising in the name of the Koby Mandell Foundation, they will also do something Koby always loved: laugh.

Koby Mandell. (photo credit: Courtesy of the Koby Mandell Foundation)
Koby Mandell. (photo credit: Courtesy of the Koby Mandell Foundation)

Produced by the Israeli-born, Texas-raised stand-up Avi Liberman, Comedy for Koby brings American comics to Israel twice a year for a nationwide tour that has raked in more than a quarter of a million dollars for the Koby Mandell Foundation.

Comics with credits including Comedy Central and “The Tonight Show” are flown to Israel and put up in a Tel Aviv hotel, and then paid significantly less than they could earn back in Hollywood or New York to do a multi-city run around Israel in cities including Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh. Thanks to backing from a number of sponsors both public and private the vast majority of proceeds go right back into the foundation, Liberman said.

“Koby was very funny, so it fits to run comedy shows,” says Koby’s mother Sherri Mandell. “Even during the shiva we were laughing at some of the absurdity, and we find that while sadness needs to be expressed, there is a parallel need for laughter and happiness.”

Comedy for Koby’s latest tour kicks off on Thursday night in Gush Etzion and features Gina Yashere, Kevin Meaney and Bobby Slayton. Liberman, a mensch of a guy who says he dreams of moving to Israel for good but has carved out a successful acting and comedy career for himself in Los Angeles, will return as master of ceremonies.

Bobby Slayton. (photo credit: courtesy image)
Bobby Slayton. (photo credit: courtesy image)

That means Liberman needs fresh material every six months, a challenge that is especially daunting because Comedy for Koby often has repeat audiences and they expect fresh material each time.

“These guys are so funny that they can just pull their greatest 20 minutes,” he says of the touring comics. “I get way more stressed. Jews remember everything, so any time a joke hits me and I think it could possibly work in Israel, I put it on a piece of paper with the date and hold on to it.”

In addition to polishing up a new opening act, Liberman is in charge of recruiting the talent for Comedy for Koby, a challenge, he says, that depends a lot more on fellow comics’ word of mouth than on his own skills of persuasion.

Gina Yashere. (photo credit: courtesy image)
Gina Yashere. (photo credit: courtesy image)

“These guys sacrifice a lot, especially the ones who are more famous. They could make a lot of money over a weekend,” he says. “You’re not going to get talent at this level because you ask them to come. You’re going to get them because they heard from their colleagues what a great trip it is.”

For the gravel-voiced Slayton, whose Jewish background has earned him the nickname “Yid Vicious,” this tour marks his first-ever trip to Israel. He asked to fly in two days early so he could catch the Rolling Stones in Tel Aviv, and he’s been spending his down time before the first performance covering as much of the city as he can on foot and testing out his trademark sarcasm on the locals.

Asked how he negotiates wisecracks at an event raising money to help families of terror victims, Slayton says it’s natural.

“Jews have always found a way to laugh at everything,” he says. “Jews have always done comedy, and that’s why we excel at it.”

Kevin Meaney. (photo credit: Courtesy image)
Kevin Meaney. (photo credit: Courtesy image)

Slayton says it’s been a challenge to write material that will work for Israeli audiences, largely because he tends to crack jokes on the dirty end of the spectrum, and he’s been advised here to keep it at least relatively clean. Strolling around Jaffa on Wednesday before the Rolling Stones show, he says he came up with a few zingers already, so audiences should strap in and get ready for his ribbing on Jews and Arabs.

“I never phone it in,” Slayton says of his work style. “When I get into a town, I use it for my material. I was in Texas last week and I had some jokes about BBQ and about the death penalty. But Israel is a whole different ballgame.”

First-time ticketholders should know that while Comedy for Koby is laughter for a good cause, there are no limits to what the comics are willing to wisecrack about. Often comics will weave in one-liners about Israel or the Jews, but this tour also gives them the opportunity to whip out their best and most loved laugh lines and try them out on a new crowd.

“It’s almost like eating after a funeral,” Slayton says. “Nobody has been persecuted and tormented more than the Jews, and humor is something that keeps people alive.”

Comedy for Koby runs June 5-12 in various cities throughout Israel. 

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