LONDON — Yohai Sponder’s “at rest” face is not naturally sunny. But as soon as the 35-year-old begins to speak about the art of comedy, he lights up.
Sponder and his fellow comedians Yossi Tarablus and Shachar Hasson have much to be cheerful about. The three have just completed two successful appearances in London, performing quick-fire stand-up comedy in English — way out of their usual comfort zone.
The trio performed one scheduled show in Covent Garden in central London, and an earlier, separate event at the capital’s Comedy Club which was deliberately not advertised.
“We didn’t want an Israeli audience,” explains Tarablus. “We asked the Comedy Club to organize the audience for us and perhaps one couple was accidentally Israeli. We wanted to touch an international audience and in London that’s what you get, people from all over the world.”
“We’re willing to fail in front of locals in order to learn what we’ve got to do,” says Sponder.
Certainly as evidenced by the Covent Garden gig, failure was the last thing on the menu. In fact all three comics — none of whom has a native English speaker in their families — presented a very funny evening, with deft and hilarious rapid-fire responses to the interplay from the audience.
“Evacuate the premises!” snapped Tarablus when two pretty girls sitting up front identified themselves as being from Iran — and the girls, together with the rest of the audience, rocked with laughter.
Later, he told The Times of Israel that the gentle jokes he was able to make about the presence of the Iranians, plus a German woman sitting further back, “all told me that there is a God.”
All three comics specialize in observational comedy, with 41-year-old Hasson — said to be one of the best stand-up performers in Israel — making a virtue out of his slightly less than perfect English, rushing in to laugh at himself as part of the joke.
For those wondering whether Israeli and British audiences laugh at different things, Tarablus, Sponder and Hasson provide a useful litmus test, since their English-language acts appear to be a direct translation of what they do in Hebrew — the difference being that they need to explain a little more about Israeli society for their London audiences.
Tarablus is 40, married with three kids, and has an MBA in marketing. His act is almost entirely about the comedic horrors of family life.
Based in Ramat Hasharon, he has worked in stand-up for 19 years and says he has a knack for languages, which led him to explore the possibilities of rendering his act into English.
“I was influenced a lot by comedians like Chris Rock, Louis CK, and, of course, Seinfeld. And I performed a little bit in New York, a little bit in Paris. I was in Last Comic Standing in 2008 [he was the first Israeli to be invited on to the NBC show].”
Comedy was a hobby for him after he left the Israeli police, where he did his national service, and he worked primarily in hi-tech.
Sponder is originally from the Golan and now lives in Tel Aviv. Single, he has built his act about dating and less than successful relationships.
“I think comedians should talk about everything, but you have to have something to say. My crowd might not agree with me, but they have to know I am saying it because I have an opinion,” he says.
For Tarablus, whether he is performing in Hebrew or English, “the core of my act is the same. I’m still 40, I’m still married, I’m still a father. There are modifications, because of cultural references. I have one joke in my act that I change for every country, because every country has a different cheap supermarket. So the audience laughs at the same joke, but I change the name because I want to avoid losing them in translation.”
To do a show in a language that we don’t speak, there’s nothing more Israeli than that
Part of the charm of seeing the three Israelis in London is watching them unpack Israeli society for an audience that might not be so familiar with the country.
Sponder, for example, has a hilarious riff on how Israelis assume they know everything, channeling his inner Donald Rumsfeld when he tells the crowd, “We [Israelis] don’t know that we don’t know.”
Sponder makes his point by starting his act with the acknowledgment that he doesn’t really speak English. (He does, of course).
“To do a show in a language that we don’t speak, there’s nothing more Israeli than that,” he says. “Regular people, they know what they know, and they know what they don’t know. Israelis, they know what they know, and they don’t know what they don’t know — and they don’t care.”
A grinning Tarablus chips in, “That’s why we are the start-up nation.”
He’s not altogether joking. Inventions such as Waze were devised because, he thinks, Israelis didn’t know that there were limits.
“We’re not good with borders,” he deadpans. Besides, he adds, “once people are laughing, you can do what you want. You can’t be pissed off with someone who makes you laugh.”
In Sponder’s skillful hands, the arrogance of ignorance becomes funny rather than plain annoying.
So what are their expectations when they bounce on stage and tell a British audience they are from Israel?
Tarablus acknowledges: “Yes, Israel’s reputation is sometimes problematic. There is an elephant in the room, and it’s our responsibility as comics to kick it out.”
Tarablus says that Sponder deals with it perfectly.
“Well,” says Sponder, “I just say, ‘When I tell people I am from Israel, you don’t hear anything back, you just hear noises, grunts, yawns…'”
It’s funny because it’s true. And Sponder, like fellow comedians Hasson and Tarablus, is quick-witted enough to turn any heckling to his advantage.
Hasson in particular adopts a fighter’s stance, often folding his body in laughter as he sketches out his poverty-stricken Yemenite childhood and reaching — often in vain — for the most appropriate English word. But he is so empathetic that the audience is endlessly ready to help him out.
“Comedians are fighters,” believes Tarablus, showing that Hasson’s pose is no accident. “We are fighters, we fight 250 people every night, alone.”
And all three agree on the “unbelievable” camaraderie they have discovered among fellow comics in the UK and elsewhere outside Israel — “they are our peers and we are fighting in the same trenches. And we are part of the same brotherhood.”
The three are particularly proud of helping establish English-language comedy in Israel. Slightly tongue in cheek, they say that since it is now possible to see English-language acts in Tel Aviv up to four nights a week, it could well be an incentive for comics from the US, Canada, South Africa or the UK to make aliyah, knowing that they will be able to work in English.
“The dream,” says Tarablus, “is to be an international comedian. I’m working and busy in Israel, everything is good — but it can always be better. And if you work elsewhere in the world, you can always take it up a notch, push the boundaries.”
Sponder adds, “There has never been a better time to do comedy than today.”