Funny girls
Stand up

Funny girls

What’s the story with female humor? Can women joke about the Holocaust, or does it all have to be about birthing and dating?

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

A view of Debi & Nuli, a successful female comic duo that hit the stage during the late 1980s and early 1990s (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash 90)
A view of Debi & Nuli, a successful female comic duo that hit the stage during the late 1980s and early 1990s (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash 90)

Are women funny? Of course they are. Well, okay, when they want to be. But really, c’mon. It’s a question that should be superfluous in 2013, and yet, and yet, the question persists.

The issue of whether women are funny, or as funny as men, gets discussed more often than you’d think. One particular homage to the subject was written by the late, renowned, British-American writer Christopher Hitchens, who wrote, famously, in Vanity Fair magazine:

“In any case, my argument doesn’t say that there are no decent women comedians. There are more terrible female comedians than there are terrible male comedians, but there are some impressive ladies out there. Most of them, though, when you come to review the situation, are hefty or dykey or Jewish, or some combo of the three.”

He was firmly put down a year later by fellow Vanity Fair writer, Alessandra Stanley, who pointed out the welcome advent of truly funny ladies, women who don’t just act but also write their own material, naming “30 Rock” creator Tina Fey, her fellow “Saturday Night Live” alumnus, Amy Poehler, comedian Sarah Silverman, and a whole slew of others. These, wrote Stanley, are women who have surely put to bed the antiquated notion that female comics can’t compete with their male counterparts. And for those who say women don’t have the ability to joke about harsh subjects, Silverman jokes about the Holocaust, racism, even rape. Rape!

And then Stanley quoted the late, great writer Nora Ephron:

“‘There is no question that there are a million more funny women than there used to be,’ says Nora Ephron, the writer and film director. ‘But everything has more women. There are more women in a whole bunch of places, and this is one of them.’ Ephron knows exactly why female comedians are currently much more successful than they used to be. ‘Here’s the answer to any question: cable,’ she says. ‘There are so many hours to fill, and they ran out of men, so then there were women.’”

Okay, so, sure, women are funny in the United States. But what about Israel?

It’s a question, which, most recently, niggled a group of local feminists.

The feminists in question were staffers at the New Israel Fund, an organization dedicated to religious pluralism and civil rights. They were brainstorming ideas for an evening dedicated to the campaign against hadarat nashim, the ongoing exclusion of women in the public sphere, a religious problem that doggedly persists particularly in Jerusalem, where NIF is headquartered.

“The idea was to put women onstage, but then we asked ourselves, ‘How is it that there are not enough women comics?’” said NIF’s Hadar Hasson, the evening’s organizer, pointing to the relatively short list of known Israeli female comics. “Not many names pop into your head, even though women are so funny. The women are always the sidekick to the man. They’re never the main attraction.”

Now you’re going to start naming female Israeli comics out loud. So, sure, there’s Adi Ashkenazi, who just performed at President Shimon Peres’s 90th birthday party, and Orna Banai, and er, Rivka Michaeli and Tzipi Shavit and of course Keren Mor, but they’re more entertainers, not exactly stand-up comics.

Orna Banai (left) and Eyal Kitzis of 'Eretz Nehederet.' (photo credit: Flash90/file)
Orna Banai (left) and Eyal Kitzis of ‘Eretz Nehederet.’ (photo credit: Flash90/file)

Never mind, the gauntlet had been thrown, and NIF began organizing an evening of female comedy, headlining stand-up artist Banai, one of the comics on the popular satirical entertainment show “Eretz Nehederet,” as well as a performer whose voice is so well-known she can be heard hawking kids’ products on the radio.

The question, however, was who would warm up the stage for her. How about some young, unknown, female comics, conjectured the NIF crew. Let’s give ‘em some stage time.

Working with Beit Hillel, the campus student organization at Hebrew University, NIF posted flyers advertising auditions for the event, with an accompanying photo of Lucille Ball, possibly the first and best-known lady of female comedy.

In the end, however, only a small handful of women auditioned, which meant that nearly every single one of them — the settler, the two secular and one religious single women, the unemployed young married, and the pregnant immigrant — ended up on stage. That’s all, because there weren’t really any other candidates. And for some of them, it was their first time going solo in front of an audience.

“Me?” said Maya Boodaie-Freedman, an unemployed 29-year-old in a pink wrap dress. “This is my first time. I’m terrified.”

NIF's 'standupists,' with Orna Banai in the middle (Courtesy NIF)
NIF’s ‘standupists,’ with Orna Banai in the middle (Courtesy NIF)

So there was Boodaie-Freedman, forthright and seemingly nerve-free, joking about Israeli mothers who rewrite their kids’ CVs; Shani Segev-Menashri, a sweetly aggressive former settler in a boldly strapless mini-dress; Inbar Amir, a single 30-year-old with a Tel Aviv attitude; the religious and single Tamar Mamet (she’s not sure she’s related to theater wunderkind David Mamet), who complained how long it takes women to get dressed but was donning Teva-Naot scuffs; and Rotem Ziv, a blond, lithe 33-year-old, also single, whose pithy one-liners about birthdays belied a sometimes awkward stage presence. And, finally, the sole Anglo, Molly Livingstone, a former Californian who recently gave birth to her second child and was terrified of leaking while onstage.

Livingstone, a member of the local HaHafuch comedy troupe, and Segev-Menashri, with an undergraduate and masters degree in comedy, were probably the most experienced of the group, yet still anxiously aware of taking the stage solo. All six, however, amply filled their five to seven minutes of stage time, offering well-practiced, original material rife with anecdotes about their personal lives, some delivering with more jangly nervousness than others.

Shani Segev-Menashri, the settler with a master's in comedy (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Shani Segev-Menashri, the settler with a master’s in comedy (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

“I’m a settler,” said Segev-Menashri, shod in a pair of four-inch, pink stiletto heels, hip jutting out. “But settler ‘lite.’ People look at me and say, “You’re a settler?! Why aren’t you pregnant and where’s your Uzi?”

“It’s fun being single,” deadpanned Amir, commenting how she prefers going out every night rather than putting screaming kids to bed, like her married friends. “But what’s better is to be a 30-year-old single whose grandmother married at 14. I’m not kidding. She was married before she had her period.”

Mamet, the religious single in a modest, elbow- and calf-covered dress and sandals, bemoaned the particulars of being an over-30 single. “It’s a holocaust from every perspective, it’s like being the only one left at the pre-school at the end of the day.”

As for Livingstone, the married American immigrant with a toddler and a newborn, she worriedly chose to deliver her piece in English and focused on the ironies and ignominies of life in a strange land.

“I married a Yemenite and now my last name is Tanaaaaami  —  did you hear the ayin?” she prompted in a put-on, nasal accent. “I didn’t. I’ve tried really hard to get there but it’s not gonna happen.”

Livingstone, who ended up in Israel, married to an archaeologist-in-training by way of a chance college trip with Birthright, had her husband to thank for bringing home the Lucille Ball-adorned flyer from the Hebrew University campus, knowing the deep and abiding love his wife has for Ball’s shticky humor.

“Lucy was my example for a woman in comedy, and she was so damn successful,” said Livingstone, who wants to create the local version of “The Jon Stewart Show” and has successfully made inroads to the Israeli comedy scene. “She gave me the confidence to say that women can be as funny as men.”

As the Anglo representative at the NIF evening and the newbie among the natives, Livingstone’s take on sabra comedy tends to relate more to the immigrant-Israeli divide.

“Israelis aren’t friers the way we are,” she said, referring to the hapless immigrant grappling with the quintessential Israeli term for anyone who gives way rather than being stubborn and aggressively insistent.

But while her primary focus is on discerning what makes an Israeli audience laugh, Livingstone loves how local comics poke fun at the serious stuff, from the Holocaust to the army and war.

“When I talk to Birthright students after they’ve been to Yad Vashem, the Americans get all serious, while the Israelis poke fun at it,” said Livingstone. “That’s what humor is, saying truthful things. I love comedy because you can say controversial things.”

For Shani, 31, the “settler” in a mini-dress and stilettos with two degrees in comedy and a yen for a PhD as well, the challenge is also about twisting the nation’s most heart-wrenching issues into a joke. The fact that she’s a woman? Inconsequential. Or at least she’d like it to be.

“Men do penis and boobs,” she said. “Women have to make you think.”

Even Orna Banai, said Segev-Menashri, returned to pure standup only recently, and when Segev-Menashri listened to her during the NIF evening, she understood that Banai’s routine was “very female,” about matters as mundane as makeup and as personal as Banai’s coming-out-of-the-closet story, a bit that Banai has brought to a variety of stages and television shows.

“We brought our female issues to the stage, like singlehood and marriage, and it cracked up the men, because they’re everyone’s issues,” said Segev-Menashri. “It’s like Orna [Banai] said, ‘I come here instead of going to the therapist.’”

Then again, perhaps it’s exactly that thorny point, the fact that female comics are sharing “too much” of their personal lives in their monologues, that has made it tougher for local women to succeed in this still overwhelmingly male field, mused Henriette Dahan Kalev, director of gender studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Much like Israeli female rockers, who took longer to break into that typically male territory as well.

“There is this myth that women lack a sense of humor, but it’s just that, a myth,” said Dahan Kalev. “You can’t have good stand-up if you don’t put your personal life in the middle of it. But women who joke about their lives are trespassing some kind of a line.”

“When men go out telling personal stories, they’re praised,” she continued. “But when women do the same, they’re condemned — shamed for telling her story, for exposing her family to vulnerability.”

Tamar Mamet, bemoaning the dating life which she likens to a 'holocaust' (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Tamar Mamet, bemoaning the dating life she likens to a ‘holocaust’ (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Humorous women are threatening to men, agreed Mamet, the religious single comedian. “The woman is making noise, it’s not feminine,” she said. “Women have a harder time laughing at themselves.”

But when they do, they can get the whole crowd to crack up, pointed out Segev-Menashri.

“Men know that we shave our legs, and if we talk about it in a funny way, they’ll laugh,” she said. “People get scared that men won’t understand that humor, but I know it’s funny.”

And yet, this comedic academic still gets stage fright.

“Even after the success of the other night, I’m scared to do it again,” said Segev-Menashri, whose Gmail photo shows her adorned with a clown nose. “I’m still scared it’s too female.”

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