Jokes about the Holocaust? Maybe. But no F-bomb, and ‘Goddammit’ is out of the question

Avi Liberman, host of the biannual ‘Comedy for Koby’ shows, muses on the gentle art of doing stand-up for Israeli Anglos, and makes a pitch for some new financial backers

David Horovitz

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).

Avi Liberman performs at Comedy for Koby (photo credit: Yissachar Ruas)
Avi Liberman performs at Comedy for Koby (photo credit: Yissachar Ruas)

In Jerusalem, Avi Liberman warns the fellow American stand-up comedians he brings here twice a year, “You don’t drop the F-bomb and you don’t talk about your d*ck.”

In Ra’anana, he urges them “to include some fresh, local material” — because the Ra’anana shows usually open the tour, before the visiting comics have seen much of Israel, and the audience thinks it’s getting a raw deal.

Avi Liberman performs at Comedy for Koby (photo credit: Yissachar Ruas)
Avi Liberman performs at Comedy for Koby (photo credit: Yissachar Ruas)

And in Tel Aviv? “Oh, in Tel Aviv,” Liberman tells me over coffee in a Jerusalem cafe this week, “I tell them they can joke about anything.”

Touring Israel as an English-language comedian for charity — raising funds, year after year, under the “Comedy for Koby” banner — has given the LA-based Liberman a good few insights into the humor preferences of the Anglo immigrant.

“On the whole,” he says, “these are crowds that don’t like dirty. And you know, when a routine’s not working, the comic’s instinct is to go dirty. I stood at the side of the stage a few years ago and one of the comedians — I won’t say his name — wasn’t going over well, wasn’t getting any laughs, and he started telling this joke, a dirty joke, a joke I knew. And I was thinking, ‘Oh, no, don’t do this one. Don’t do it.’ Well, he did it.” Liberman shakes his head ruefully at the memory. “Not good. Silence. No laughs.”

So no dirt for those English-speaking Israelis — except in Tel Aviv — and preferably no politics either. What about the Holocaust? That’s off-limits, too, right?

Well, not necessarily.

At the end of each night’s showcase, Liberman invites the audience to put questions to the stand-up comedians they’ve (hopefully) just been wowed by. “One time,” Liberman recalls, “a woman got up and asked, ‘What do you feel about the Israeli-Arab conflict?’ The whole audience booed.

“I came back with, ‘And while we’re at it, anyone got any questions about the Holocaust?’ And that got a huge laugh.”

Seth and Sherri Mandell at Camp Koby (photo credit: Dena Wimpfheimer)
Seth and Sherri Mandell at Camp Koby (photo credit: Dena Wimpfheimer)

Provided joking about the Holocaust doesn’t come back to haunt him, the high-energy, fast-talking Liberman seems assured a prominent slot on the stand-up circuit of the world to come, since he’s been visiting Israel for about a decade now to do comedy shows for charitable causes.

His make-us-laugh mission began during the second Intifada. “It was 2002. I hadn’t been to Israel for about 10 years, and I came on a holiday,” says Liberman, who grew up in Houston, went to yeshiva day school, studied theater at Binghamton University, and quickly moved to Los Angeles to enter the acting and stand-up world. “There was no one here. The hotels were empty. No tourists. Bombs going off.”

It occurred to him that maybe he could do a comedy show as a bit of a morale boost, and he got in touch with a leading Israeli promoter — a heavy-hitter who’s brought big music acts to Israel over the years. “He told me, ‘Well, I’ve got no other business at the moment, let’s see what we can do.'”

That first foray grew into a regular series of comedy tours, “Stand Up for Israel,” that raised funds for the Crossroads Center, which runs programs to help at-risk English-speaking youth in Israel. And in the last four years, Liberman and the guest US comedians he brings here have partnered with the Koby Mandell Foundation, which runs programs for terror victims in memory of Koby Mandell, a 13-year-old who was murdered by Palestinian terrorists in 2001, along with his friend Yosef Ishran, in a cave near his home at the settlement of Tekoa.

Koby loved comedy, his US-born parents always tell the audiences, and these stand-up tours raising money to help terror victims seem like the finest way to honor his memory.

Liberman — “I’m 41, but feel free to write that ‘he looks much younger'” (he does) — believes the trips to Israel keep him grounded. He’s been doing stand-up for 17 years, and is working steadily, but says organizing “Comedy for Koby” ensures a sense of perspective.

In LA’s entertainment industry, he says, people can become obsessed with success and with their careers to an absurd extent. “You have folks making $70,000 a week on a sitcom who are drinking themselves crazy because they’re not being taken seriously for a movie role,” he reflects. “These shows are a good thing. Beneficial to other people. I enjoy doing it,” he says. “And it’s fun for me to watch these guys work. They are so good!”

He admits to a “mini-ulterior motive” — which is introducing non-Jewish comedians to Israel. “I know when they go back, they’ll spread the word, that Israel is not, you know, a Gaza Strip.”

Bruce Bradley performs at Comedy for Koby (photo credit: Yissachar Ruas)
Butch Bradley performs at Comedy for Koby (photo credit: Yissachar Ruas)

He’s brought some outstanding comedians over the years, including Jeffrey Ross, Michael Loftus and this writer’s particular favorite, Butch Bradley, who did a wonderful routine on a trip three years ago marveling, having just come back from the Old City, that “You’ve got cars in the castle!”

The visiting stand-ups get paid “a stipend” to play here. “Otherwise they couldn’t afford to do it,” Liberman says. “Guys with wives, kids, they couldn’t just take a week off work.” But it’s not big bucks. On the early tours, he says, it was barely enough to get something to eat.

He rarely gets turned down. “There’s a comedian now who was going to come, but his wife was worried” about security. “So he won’t do it.” On the whole, though, it works, and works well, by word of mouth: “They come here, they have a great time. Word gets out that it’s a good gig.”

Working with Koby’s parents is a powerful factor, too. “They are such terrific people. Seth’s a rabbi. Sherri wrote this amazing book [The Blessing of a Broken Heart, about the loss of her son]. Mike Loftus read her book in one sitting and told her, ‘Anything you need, any time, just call me.”

Liberman has plenty of family here — “the cousins I’m closest with” — and usually visits over Sukkot, as he’s doing this year, in part to plan the Comedy for Koby December shows. The finances of the tour are a little more complex now than in the recent past because a key sponsorship has ended. “We had a grant from a donor’s foundation that’s restructuring now. He may not even know. So we’re looking for additional financial help. The more expenses we can cover, the more of the proceeds that go to charity. A hotel, a flight, it all helps.”

The Koby Mandell Foundation, which organizes summer camps for young terror victims, has expanded to welcome young kids who were victims of other tragedies, such as kids who’d lost parents in car accidents. “Obviously, I want the foundation to make as much money as possible,” says Liberman.

Liberman is the real fulcrum for the shows — the now-familiar host, the experienced Jewish comedian who understands the crowd. He says he does a lot of Jewish work in the States. “When they need someone to do 40 minutes of squeaky clean material in front of Orthodox Jews, there are four others and me,” he says.

Israeli audiences know they’re in safe hands with Liberman — he riffs with insider’s ease about the peculiarities of our zany Jewish festivals or the bizarre names of the Old City gates, and does sometimes tiptoe into current affairs, if only to deflate ridiculous regional news items like the Egyptians’ contention that the Mossad had dispatched “a kippa-wearing shark” to frighten the vacationers of Sharm e-Sheikh.

He’s so smooth and in control, in fact, that it’s the other comedians — the Israel first-timers who might just go off the rails, not merely thinking the unthinkable but actually saying it — who add the frisson of danger that makes stand-up comedy evenings unpredictable.

Seth and Sherri Mandell with Koby in the months before his death (photo credit: Courtesy the Mandell family)
Seth and Sherri Mandell with Koby in the months before his death (photo credit: Courtesy the Mandell family)

In a few days, Liberman will be heading home. He has a gig in Vegas coming up, he says. Not long from now, though, he’ll be gearing up for December’s Comedy for Koby trip, telling another batch of comics that they’ll be playing to audiences for whom “saying ‘sh*t’ is not nearly as bad as saying ‘Goddammit’.”

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