Comedy for Koby’s Dan Ahdoot: Why Falafel Phil and over-tipping hold the keys to peace

Probably the first Iranian-US-Jewish stand-up comedian to play Israel tells ToI about failing to visit the Temple Mount, pro-semitism, and his impossible quest for parental approval

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).

Dan Ahdoot, in his New York baseball cap, in Jerusalem, June 3, 2023 (DH / Times of Israel)
Dan Ahdoot, in his New York baseball cap, in Jerusalem, June 3, 2023 (DH / Times of Israel)

Dan Ahdoot, New York-born son of Iranian Jewish immigrants, was well on his way to becoming a doctor. He had completed all the pre-med course requirements at the prestigious Johns Hopkins University, received his acceptance letter to medical school there… and turned it down.

He turned it down, that is, for comedy. Turned it down to play, among his most memorable early roles, restaurant owner Falafel Phil in the Disney kids comedy “Kickin’ It.”

And his parents, amazingly enough, were “very, very supportive.”

Ahdoot told me this over coffee in Jerusalem this weekend. He said it straightfaced, looking directly at me. And I believed him. Wow, I thought, that’s remarkable. How broad-minded of them.

After all, I responded, “They were probably very invested in you succeeding in America, right?”

Dan Ahdoot’s parents were not remotely supportive of his career choice. They were, in fact, Ahdoot quickly explained, “extremely unsupportive.” Looking at me a little pityingly, the visiting comedian clarified that he was “being as facetious as I could possibly be.”

Thing is, the noble medical profession’s loss is emphatically comedy’s gain. Ahdoot is supremely funny… and endearing, warm and empathetic. Which, as the audiences at this month’s semiannual series of Comedy for Koby tours across Israel can testify, is pretty good for our health as well.

At the Jerusalem leg on Thursday night, Ahdoot offered what can only have been a brand new bit about being barred by the cops at the entrance from visiting the Temple Mount for Muslim prayers — calling it the only time he’s ever been the victim of antisemitism. He walked a comedy high-wire by asking us all how we old we were, honing in on the oldest member of the audience — a man in his early 90s — and then protractedly ribbing the gentleman in question and his wife. And he lampooned his own mother, perfectly capturing the gentle, lilting rhythms of her Persian-accented English. He did all this with such absolute self-confidence and charm that, had his mother been in the audience, she doubtless still would not have approved of his chosen profession, but she’d have laughed a lot.

Comedy for Koby has been going for more than 20 years — initiated by Sherri and Rabbi Seth Mandell in memory of their comedy-loving son Koby, 13, who was murdered with his friend Yosef Ish Ran by Palestinian terrorists on the outskirts of their home settlement of Tekoa on May 8, 2001. The comedy tours, short sets by North American comics emceed by Israel-born, Texas-bred stand-up Avi Liberman, raise funds for the Koby Mandell Foundation, which organizes summer camps and other programs for relatives of people killed in terrorist attacks and other tragedies.

Ahdoot, who is joined on the current tour by Erica Rhodes (making a first visit to Israel) and Bob Zany (a comedy veteran and a Comedy for Koby veteran), had visited Israel three times before, including on Birthright. Our conversation touched on his Iranian roots, the challenges of doing stand-up for some fairly conservative Israeli audiences, Falafel Phil and over-tipping as the keys to Middle East peace… and that ongoing quest for parental approval.

We began with his name — Ahdoot, the Hebrew for unity. How appropriate for these divided times. Except, of course, it’s not a Hebrew name…

The Times of Israel: I thought you were really funny [on stage in Jerusalem] and that your personal story was probably quite interesting. So thanks for agreeing to meet. First of all, your name…

Dan Ahdoot: A lot of people here are like, You’re not Iranian, your last name is Hebrew. Ahdoot is probably one of the most Iranian Jewish names that you could have. If your last name is Ahdoot it means that you’re a Jew from Esfahan; you will not meet an Ahdoot who’s not from Esfahan.

Tell me a little about the family.

I made that bit [onstage] about how, within the Jews, who are maligned by the world for being cheap, they say that the Persians are the cheap ones. Within the Persians, they look at the Esfahanis, and say that they’re the cheap ones, the worst of the worst of the worst. Which is why I always tip 40%, just to try to undo [that stereotype].

I went to the Dead Sea yesterday, and this guy was the nicest. He was helping us out with hookahs and beers and whatever, and the bill came out to, like, $7. And I gave him a $40 tip. A Palestinian dude from Jericho. It brought him to tears. I’m telling you, I can create peace just by tipping people, by over-tipping.

You guys went together?

Yeah. Me, Avi and Erica.

The current Comedy for Koby lineup. (Courtesy)

So what does Avi do? He organizes? He takes you around?

Kind of unofficially. It is nice. He shows us around, and then we have time where we can go off on our own.

He took you to the Old City the other day, to the Temple Mount, or you wandered on your own?

Temple Mount, I went by myself. I went the first day I was here, but we went another time with him [to the Old City].

Your parents were born in Iran?

Yeah, both born in Iran. My family is from Iran from forever, except for my generation. Everyone in my family was conceived in Iran, and I was conceived in Queens. My dad actually came to Israel first, in the late 60s, post-Six Day War. And then my mom came here. They dated for a week, and then he asked her to marry him. She was like, It’s too soon. And then, three weeks later, she was like, Okay, fine, now we can do it.

They lived in Israel for three years… She said the thing that made her realize they needed to move was they went to a friend’s brit mila, and someone raised the baby in there and said, “To the next general of this great country,” and she was like, we gotta get out of here. She was too wussy to send us to the army.

I thought your bit imitating your mom was so funny, and loving. It’s a beautiful language, right? Do you speak Farsi?

Yeah, I do. It’s very poetic sounding. It’s funny that people think that Arabs and Persians are in the same bucket, and it couldn’t be more different. Language-wise, [Farsi] is a lot less hard consonants, very kind of loosey-goosey. It’s like you took an Ambien and you started talking. Arabic has all the guttural kind of sounds.

Also, culturally, every time there’s a protest in the Middle East, in the Arab Middle East, it’s always the men out, and every time there’s a protest in Iran, it’s always the women out. So it’s a lot more of an egalitarian society, too. I guess the irony being that they’re the ones living under a theocracy.

Yes, the women were at the forefront of the moves to oust the shah. They thought they were going to get democracy. You can’t go to Iran, correct?

It would be pretty risky.

You have family still there?

No, I don’t think so. Maybe very distant.

So you grew up in this Iranian-Jewish enclave.

In Great Neck.

And you were very smart. You completed pre-med…

I went to Johns Hopkins and did all the course requirements to go into med school. And that’s when I decided not to go.

It would have been another, what, three, four years to be a doctor?

Another four years, and then three years of residency.

And you decided not to do it because…

I was well on the way from Johns Hopkins — the best school to do it at. I have to brag for my alma mater because a lot of people don’t know that. I had a “nervous breakdown.” Put that in quotes. It wasn’t a real nervous breakdown, but when I got my acceptance letter to med school, I wrote I couldn’t…

Because it was too much work, too much stress?

No, it wasn’t that. I was good at it, too. It was just not what I wanted to do. And I know that’s so clichéd to say: I just wanted to follow my dream. But the only thing that I really loved to do was comedy.

What comedy had you been doing at that point?

I had been doing the improv troupe in high school and in college. I started to do some stand-up on the side in college, and I loved it. I got bit by the bug real hard.

The joy of making people laugh?

Yeah, I guess so. There’s something sort of self-serving about it, too. It’s the joy of making people laugh, but it’s way more the joy of getting laughs.

It makes you feel good because, hey, I got the laugh?

Yeah. It’s not as charitable sounding as, I need to go out like a “laugh evangelical” and just give laughs to people. But it was absolutely what I had to do.

And every show, it’s the same? If there’s a bad show, it’s a disaster? If it’s great, it’s great?

Not anymore. In the beginning it was like that. But now, honestly, the beautiful thing about stand-up is that you’re getting real-time feedback in your profession. You know right away if something’s working or not. So even if you have a bad show, I think it’s fine. You’re just learning to do things differently. What other professions can you say that about? That you are in real-time getting authentic feedback.

And how and when did you get the break?

Well, I started doing comedy, and luckily for me, my parents were very, very supportive.

I should have asked you about that. They were probably very invested in you succeeding in America, right?


And then you’ve gotten into med school and you’re not going to do it. And yet they were fine?

I’m being as facetious as I could possibly be. (Laughs, heartily, at my foolishness.)

I thought, wow, that’s so impressive.

No way. They were extremely unsupportive!

You’ve turned down the noblest profession. “After all we’ve done for you.”

They were very unsupportive.

But here’s the thing. I completely understand why they would be unsupportive. I think they shouldn’t have been supportive. There’s a glut of too much support going on that needs to be shut down. And especially in professions like comedy. I think you don’t want your parents or your family to be supportive, because the way that it should be is: You want to do this. It’s the only thing you want to do.  Everyone is telling you you shouldn’t do it. If you still have to do it, then you should do it. But now you’ve got people who are just, like, I don’t know, I’m thinking of doing comedy. And the parents are, like, whatever makes you happy.

It’s such a struggle to be successful at this career that unless you have that kind of fire under you, you’re just going to waste your time.

Exactly how unsupportive were they?

Very. Extremely. Thankfully. They didn’t kick me out, but I was living at home, and it was like, you’ve got a year. You got a year to try this.

And if not, what if you persist after a year? “We won’t…” what?

They weren’t supporting me financially. I got myself a shitty day job. It wasn’t a financial threat. It was more just, we’re disappointed in you, which is worse than any financial threat.

And now they’re okay?

Yeah. Because I make more money than my doctor friends. (Laughs.)

Not because you were on a Disney show as Falafel Phil?

I think it’s a success thing, too. I do think that once I surpass my doctor friends in income, that definitely helps.

Dan Ahdoot as Falafel Phil in Disney’s ‘Kickin’ It’ (Courtesy)

The big break was Disney? Or there was stuff before?

There was a bunch of big breaks, but I’d say my first big break was this [reality TV] show, “Last Comic Standing.”

But everything ends up leading into something else. I wrote a book this year that just got published, and that’s probably the most highbrow thing I’ve done thus far.

So I don’t know. In a weird way, I just keep trying to impress my parents, because they will never really be impressed, because they don’t really get what I do. It’s just constantly trying to get that validation that I’ll never get.

I’m the host of a show on the Food Network, which has been a dream of mine forever. When I called her, and I was like, Mom, I finally got the host of my own show, [“Raid the Fridge”] on the Food Network. she goes, Oh, that’s cute. I was, like, “That’s cute”? I’ll keep going. That’s obviously not good enough.

So what would be good enough?

Giving her grandkids. It’s shifted to that.

But the Disney show, “Kickin’ It,” was a huge thing? Every kid in America of that age has watched it?

Yeah, everyone in America watched “Kickin’ It.” And here, too. I’m telling you, I’ve gotten stopped by Jews and Arabs. Falafel Phil, the key to Middle East peace.

And you said you’ve never encountered antisemitism, but typecasting?

Yes, it’s never been Jewish. It’s always been Middle Eastern.

Because you’re slightly darker-skinned…

I’m slightly darker-skinned. I mean, in Hollywood, especially now, they’re just obsessed with your 23andME. They’re like, if you’re playing this role, you have to fit into this box. It’s become a real obsession, to the point where it has become patronizing in a way. I’ve turned down jobs where they’re like, Well, we’re hiring you to be a writer on this show because we need a diversity hire. And I’m like, Don’t hire me for diversity. Hire me if you think I’m the funniest writer. So I’ve lost a lot of jobs that way.

I had been typecast a lot. It’s less and less now. I also think that Hollywood is changing in terms of the way that they depict Middle Eastern roles. Like, they’re not as cartoony.

In “Cobra Kai,” which I’m in now, the name of the character is Anoush, but it has nothing to do with his ethnicity or whatever. I guess that’s called progress.

You’ve been to Israel twice before?

Three times before, as a tourist. Once was Birthright. The last time I was here was, like, seven years ago.

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

How does Avi find people to come? How did you connect with him?

I feel like Avi has a very good Rolodex of comedians in America, and when it’s your turn…

He reached out to you out of the blue?

Elon Gold runs this Christmas show, and it’s like a packed show of Jews. And Avi was there, and I did really well. So he was like, What are you doing in June? And here we are.

How does he prepare you for it?

He says you’re going to be performing mostly for Americans, mostly a little more religious, so don’t curse, watch your content. It’s going to be a great crowd. And he told me specifically, Just so you know, the non-Jews have a leg up on us because they’re exotic and different, so the non-Jews usually do better than the Jews. And I was like, Ooh, I’ll show you.

The fun thing about these crowds is that they’re very excited to have us here, which I get. If you’re an expat and you’re living here, it’s pretty cool.

It’s a fantastic cause. It’s been going for years and many people have been many times. They love the fact that comics make the effort to come and I suppose, yeah, they’re more appreciative of the non-Jews because that’s like a real wild thing.

They’re appreciative. They are. I’m definitely the first Iranian Jew [to do the tour].

Did Avi tell you, in Jerusalem and Bet Shemesh, you’ve got to be really conservative, whereas in Ra’anana and Tel Aviv you could probably let it go a little bit?

Every joke that I run by Avi, if it’s too far, he’s like, Save it for Tel Aviv. And I’m like, what’s going to happen in Tel Aviv? I’m just going to come out naked on stage in Tel Aviv.

The funny thing is, last night we went to Shabbat at this rabbi’s house who invited us all, and they seemed to be on the conservative side of American politics. And they were like: So what’s it like in America? Do you feel like because of woke culture and stuff, you have to change your act, and because of the political correctness? And I was like, Not really, but we’ve been changing our act a lot for you guys!

It’s swearing and stuff about sex that you tone down?

Yeah. Although apparently I mentioned a non-kosher restaurant [in Jerusalem] and that got a weird reaction… People were whispering…

You said [onstage] that you’d never really encountered antisemitism until you came to Israel, which is a good line. Is that true?

It’s pretty true. All the antisemitism that I’ll get [in the US] is, like, pro-semitism in a way. It’s like when the Chabad guy just zeroes in on you on the street and he’s like, You, you’re Jewish, put tefillin on. It’s not antisemitism, but it’s hyper-semitism.

You could say that the guards at the Temple Mount who said, You’re not coming in here, were actually being philo-semitic as well?

Yes. They were protecting me. I understand that.

I’d have thought you could have got away with it. Had you blended in with the crowd, or were you kind of waiting for them to stop you?

No, I was blending in with the crowd. They zeroed in on me. It was very impressive.

They were Jews, or Druze?

I think it was a mix. The main dude, a police officer, his Hebrew sounded fluent. His Arabic sounded fluent. His English was good. I was like, This guy!

Dan Ahdoot tries for his serious face, in Jerusalem, June 3, 2023 (DH / Times of Israel)

It’s funny. There’s [sometimes] a fine line between antisemitic and philo-semitic, right? Within the Jews, we’ll be like, Can you believe it? We have so many Jews in the government. It’s wonderful. And then, an antisemite will be like, can you believe it? There’s so many goddamn Jews in the government.

There’s an ADL survey with questions about, Do you think the Jews have a disproportionate influence? And when people say, yes, that’s considered antisemitic. Not necessarily.


Maybe it’s good: Look at those impressive Jews?

Exactly. It’s like they were on the brink of extinction, and yet they still managed to pick themselves up. I think that is inspirational.

And what is your goal now? What have you not achieved [in comedy] that you’d like to achieve?

Getting onto the Temple Mount. I will figure out a way. I’m going to get a keffiyeh and a prayer rug and try again. (Laughs.)

What I realized on this trip is I could not be an actor on “Fauda.” I could not be in the Mossad. I could not be Eli Cohen 2.0.

Because you’re too what?

Because these goddamn Jews knew right away that I was a Jew.

I mean, look, I was also not dressed very Arab-like. I was wearing my baseball cap.

This New York baseball cap?

Yeah. The funny thing is, right after, while I was being detained or questioned, another dude was walking up and he got the same treatment from the guy [at the entrance]. But he was Muslim [and he answered in Arabic], and the cop was, like, Okay, go ahead. And that Muslim did look Jewish! (Laughs.)

More Jewish than you?

Yeah. His nose…

There’s nothing outlandish about your nose whatsoever.

Well, go tell the guard at Temple Mount, because he made me feel very insecure. I’m going to go straight to the plastic surgeon when I get back to Beverly Hills. And then I’m gonna come back seven years later.

Not wearing a New York baseball cap. Were you worried to come on this trip? Were the others worried? There was a recent flare-up in Gaza…

Look, if you’re not going to come to Israel when something’s going up, you’re never going to come to Israel… That Iron Dome seems to be working out pretty well for you guys…

I posted that I was coming to Israel and you should see how many “Free Palestines” I got on my comment section. I usually try to write a little funny retort back. But with these, initially, I was just going to delete them all. Then I decided I’m actually going to keep them, so that people can see how ridiculous it is: You’re doing a comedy show in Israel. It has nothing to do with politics. And the “threat” is just going to be “Free Palestine.”

So how did you respond?

On some I wrote: I’ll try, but I’m only there for six days.

June’s Comedy for Koby tour has played in Beit Shemesh, Jerusalem and Gush Etzion. It concludes in Tel Aviv (June 4), Ra’anana (June 5) and Modiin (June 6). Tickets here.

Comics Erica Rhodes and Dan Ahdoot, in Jerusalem for Comedy for Koby, June 3, 2023 (DH / Times of Israel)

Emceed by Avi Liberman, it features Dan Ahdoot, Bob Zany and Erica Rhodes. (Rhodes arrived at the tail-end of my conversation with Ahdoot, pulled up a chair, and said, “I just want one line in The Times of Israel.” Happy to oblige.)

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