At the end of the new documentary “Comedy Road,” Avi Liberman’s simultaneously sidesplitting and poignant account of more than a decade’s touring Israel with an endless roster of America’s finest stand-up comedians, a set of statistics flashes across the screen.
Since the Israel-born, Texas-raised, Los Angeles-based Liberman began bringing comedians to Israel to raise morale and money 15 years ago, the tours he’s put together have featured 30 comedians, at 100 performances, selling 20,000 tickets, and generating a quarter of a million dollars — much of it for the Comedy for Koby charity.
Those figures are probably an underestimate; there’ve been a few more visits since the filming was completed. What they summarize is something beyond implausible. From thousands of miles away, a rising young Jewish comedian decided not merely to devote much of his own career to regularly visiting Israel in order to entertain a nation battered by terrorism. Liberman also (initially) implored, cajoled and (subsequently) encouraged his professional colleagues — Jews, Christians, white, black, whatever — to join him on this adventure. To leave the comfort and safety of America and come to a distant country few of them had ever so much as thought of visiting; switching talk show spots for Tel Aviv, movie roles for Modiin. To put themselves out on stage in front of audiences that might or might not speak their language. That might or might not get their comedy. And that might or might not be in the midst of a war or a wave of terrorism.
Using microphones that (initially) might or might not work.
Not everybody who Liberman approached to perform in Israel said yes. But once TV and film regular Wayne Federman became the first to take the plunge, lots of really funny, and very lovely, comedians did. And while we’ve been treated to their talents once or twice a year, “Comedy Road” shows what it’s been like for them — what they did with their off-stage time, how they got on with each other, the sights they saw, the effect that Israel had on them. As Liberman says in the movie, once they’re in Israel, he can “sit back and let the country entertain them, and they in turn entertain the country.”
The film is a joy. How could it not be? Parts of it were filmed at the shows, so it’s comedy gold. And other parts were filmed as the comics made their way around Israel — and showcase their banter, their interaction with Israelis, their developing understanding of our conflict and our history, their thoughts on divine power, on comedic power.
As someone who’s seen a lot of the tours, I still cracked up afresh at the familiar stand-up material, and loved the unfamiliar stuff. There was one particularly great Gary Gulman routine about anti-Semites boycotting the Jews that looked like it was heading into predictable pro-Israeli propaganda territory, but wound up careening into a gloriously over-the-top rant about Nazis and polio and working on Saturdays and black-and-white TV.
Watching these savvy, observant outsiders touring Israel was also revelatory. The scenes when two of the comics go to rocket-blighted Sderot and attempt to freely spend the US dollars various well-wishers have given them, and to refuse the storekeepers’ efforts to give them any change from their purchases, are both hilarious and very moving. Hilarious because all Dan Naturman‘s pre-trip basic Hebrew training goes out the window the minute they enter the shops, cueing some delightful confusion. And moving because of the warm, gentle appreciation they get from the Sderot shop-owners (even if a lingering camera in one establishment shows an amusing mini-argument between the duo at the cash register over who gets to keep the extra cash).
What’s most likable about this film, though, are the comedians themselves. These are showbiz types, presumably ambitious folks who are supposed to be self-interested egotists. Not one of them comes across as anything but gracious and grounded. They agonize about ensuring they don’t offend their audiences. One has a teary telephone conversation with his devout Christian mother — who has spent so many hours in church that, he jokes, the whole family now have free passes to heaven — about the holy places he’s been privileged to see. Another seems to be spending much of his trip recalibrating his relationship with God.
Maybe stand-up comedians are a special breed of performers, some kind of social workers with microphones. Or maybe Liberman, and the cause, just attract some very special people. Far from feeling that they are doing anybody a favor, the visiting comedians often finish up their trips promising to come again — and several have done just that — and are exuberantly grateful to Liberman for bringing them.
Liberman is hoping that “Comedy Road” will get picked up by HBO or somesuch, and that it will also play at Jewish film festivals. Festival directors, if you’re reading this, snap it up. It’s a feel good, doing good film that your audiences will love. Who could ask for more?
When “Comedy Road” premiered at Jerusalem’s Cinematheque on Thursday night, Liberman was on hand to answer post-screening questions from a packed audience, just like he and his colleagues take questions at the end of every show they do here. He talked a little about how the tours developed, highlighting a moment after one early performance at the height of the Second Intifada terror war, when a young woman came up to thank him, and told him: “I haven’t had anything to laugh about in more than a year.” It was then he realized, Liberman said, that perhaps these shows were more important than he’d thought, and it is since then, he said, that he’s become “the guy who brings the comics to Israel.”
Twice on Thursday, members of the audience, well aware of the spirits and funds the tours have raised, made the effort to thank Liberman personally. Twice, Liberman modestly moved swiftly on.
If anyone’s earned a free pass to heaven, it’s him.
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