Why did the Israeli chicken cross the road?
That’s one of the questions I forgot to ask Benji Lovitt when I spoke to him earlier this week.
As an Israeli comedian whose circuit of North America will take him to Hoboken next Saturday night (see box), Mr. Lovitt would be well positioned to answer that question.
Mr. Lovitt grew up in Dallas. But after making aliyah 11 years ago, he found a niche in performing standup comedy about his adopted country.
He promises “a good laugh about Israel,” he said. “It will remind people why we love this magical and crazy country in the first place. It’s not political. I make fun of Israelis, laugh at myself, and by the end they’ll hopefully book their next trip to Ben Gurion.”
New immigrants think names like “Dudu,” “Osnat,” and “Moran” are funny,” he continued. “I’m used to those. I’d hate to move to the States with the name ‘Or.’
“American: ‘Can I ask your name?’
“American: (confused) ‘…..or else?’”
It was 20 years ago last week when Mr. Lovitt first stood up before the microphone to get a laugh. It was in Houston. He was right out of the University of Texas.
Once he turned 21, he had started going to comedy clubs. “The people I watched seemed so cool,” he said. “I just worshipped these guys. I started writing down funny thoughts.”
One time at an open-mike night, he started talking to one of the regulars, who asked him, “Why don’t you come on?”
“When I’m ready,” he replied.
“I used to be the same way,” he was told “Then I grew a pair.”
That did it. “Something was lit in me.”
He prepared a routine, practiced, and did six minutes.
“It wasn’t terrible,” Mr. Lovitt remembers. “It was actually pretty good.”
But he wasn’t an overnight success. He didn’t quit his day job. He moved to Atlanta and then to New York.
He was in one of the centers of the entertainment world. “I went on five times in three years,” he said. “I can’t believe I didn’t do it more. I was busy with work and life.”
Work meant running the Israel programs department for Young Judea, the Zionist youth group he had grown up with in Dallas. When he was a kid, he said, Young Judea was “the biggest thing in my life outside of school.” So it wasn’t a huge surprise that in 2006, “right at the end of the Second Lebanon War,” he made aliyah and moved to Israel.
He was too old for army service. “I was 31, not 18.”
He worked for Young Judea in Israel. He took ulpan, to upgrade his Hebrew. And for fun, he started doing comedy shows.
“I love how Israelis can be completely indifferent to politics but will still argue about their favorite hummus place until they blow an artery,” he said.
“I love that Tel Aviv has a gay beach, a religious beach, and a dog beach. As for the gay, religious dogs, they should have their own political party by 2029.”
The dream of every comedian who goes up to the microphone in New York or Los Angeles is that some television talent scout will chance upon a show and offer them their big break. Here’s how Mr. Lovitt’s big break came about in Israel:
“In early 2009, I was contacted by an aliyah representative for the Jewish Agency,” he said. “He proposed sending me on a six-city seven-day tour to promote aliyah.
“It was amazing.”
Now he comes to the States regularly. His Hoboken gig is part of an itinerary that includes Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Dallas, Milwaukee, and Fishkill, New York.
At home in Israel, he combines stand-up in clubs with its daytime buttoned down equivalent, offering his wry take on Israel through cultural presentations and workshops. “It combines my creative comedic side with my background in informal education,” he said.
There’s a workshop he gives on Israeli history through comedy. There’s cross-cultural training on overcoming cultural differences.
“Israelis often need to know how to work with Americans,” he explained. “Americans think Israelis are rude. Israelis think Americans are fake. It can lead to tension. They’re both right. They’re both right.”
Here’s more Lovitt on Israel: “I love that instead of worrying about kids developing peanut allergies, parents feed their babies Bamba before the doctor has even finished cutting the umbilical cord.
“I love that certain stores advertise their dependability by claiming to be open ‘24/6.’”
So is it time to rebrand Israel as “Stand-Up Nation?”
“Israel is great at laughing even at the dark things,” Mr. Lovitt said. “There’s humor in everything. Jews throughout history have laughed to keep from crying, and nobody does it better than Israelis.”
And here’s a follow-up. I did ask Mr. Lovitt about the Israeli chicken’s road-crossing motivation. Why did it go?
“So many possible answers,” he said. “Most of them too cynical for an American Jewish audience.”
Who: Comedian Benji Lovitt
What: “What War Zone? Israel Through Stand-Up Comedy”
Where: United Synagogue of Hoboken,
115 Park Ave., Hoboken
When: Saturday, November 4, 7:30 p.m.