Israel has been in the news a lot lately—and by "lately" I mean for the last 70 years or so—but generally not for its sense of humor. We sat down with Tom Yaar, (תום יער), one of Israel's most interesting new comic voices to talk about creating comedy against a backdrop of conflict.
Yaar, 28, tours across Israel performing stand-up in packed venues. She's a regular on the radio and well known for her social media presence, with which she takes on Israeli clothing retailers, cell phone carriers, and public figures. We wanted to talk to Tom to get a different kind of perspective on Israel than that which is normally presented to Americans in the headlines. She spoke of an Israel shaped by conflict but not defined by it. Our conversation spanned from Benjamin Netanyahu to Russell Brand.
"Just don't call me 'Israel's Lena Dunham' in the headline," she insisted. "People here are always doing that for some reason."
Broadly: What's your act about?
Tom Yaar: I talk a lot about body image, relationships, technology, Tel Aviv. But mainly it's about the way we see ourselves, the way we hate ourselves and who we are. I used to think it would be boring to talk about how I hate my body. I thought that nobody cares about how I look or how they look. They just want to laugh. That was something that, with time, I understood was incredibly wrong. People hate themselves and want to hear about how other people hate themselves, too.
When I was first getting started, though, I was trying to do what other comedians in Israel were doing, which was a more 80s kind of comedy. I was convinced that this is how stand up should look: you speak about what's outside you, you don't talk about yourself. You don't look inside.
I thought, OK, we live in a place where the audience wants escapism and a break from reality. I had that in mind. I wanted to be very fast, very funny, very shocking. All my dirtiest jokes—the ones about sex and poop—they didn't have another layer to them. It was just me wanting to be funny. People kind of liked it.
But then I started to go deeper. I realized that although there is terror and violence here, eventually it just starts to be your life. You say, "all this shit is going on around me" but you're living your life all the same and you need comedy—actual comedy.
In the past two years I've started to build an audience because I started to be honest. My audience is women with my level of self-esteem and lower, and also gays. Once you talk about how you hate your body you're going to lose some straight guys.
I feel like there are a lot of female entertainers, like Tina Fey and Lena Dunham, who derive comedy from a lack of self confidence and with self deprecating jokes. I always wonder if, when they achieve a good response from these acts, it builds their self confidence in a way that takes them away from the material. Has gaining recognition built your self-esteem?
No. It's unbuildable. That something universal for all comedians, whether you're in Indonesia, in the UK, in the States, whatever. It's a hole inside of you—I know that's a cliché but it's how it feels—and you can't fill it with anything. When I get laughs or compliments or applause it fills me up for one second and then its gone.
I do feel confident in my show, though, and that's a difference. I know it's funny. But I don't have confidence about myself or my life. The act is still relevant for me in that way. It doesn't matter how I woke up that morning, confident or not confident. When I talk about these issues, I feel them.
I used to touch more explosive subjects in the past like rape, drugs, the Holocaust, race. I did it just to shock. That routine was more my actual lack of confidence. That was me thinking that the audience didn't actually want to know anything about me and that they just want a quick laugh.
When did you know that this was what you wanted to do?
Pretty much from the start. I knew that I was funny. I knew that I could make people laugh and that I loved the feeling of it.
When I started out I went to this horrible venue and the guy looked at me and said, "Oh, I'm sorry. I don't take girls." He said it smiling, like it's the most common thing. This was 2010. I asked him why and he said, "It's a big stage, I don't want you to bomb, and women tend to bomb." I said, "Are you insane? How can you not realize that this is the opening scene in the movie of my life?" I ended up getting on stage somewhere else but still no movie of my life.
Of course, there was the big discussion in the States about whether or not women are funny. This was in headlines a lot a couple years ago. I always assumed that this discussion wouldn't make it to Israel because there is such an appreciation in Jewish culture of funny women.
That discussion was here too. It's always coming up and I've been asked to say something about it before but I don't want to. It's not even that it's insulting. It's just old. It has a beard. It's my grandmother. And she was also very funny. I've said this many times: Not all women are funny. Not all men are funny. When a woman is funny she is funny. When a man is funny he is funny. It's 2015 and I would be very happy if everybody in the world could acknowledge that a woman is a human being.
Now that's my naïve answer. My less naïve answer is that I know there is a difference between women and men. Men can be funny, but when a woman is funny she is funnier than any guy ever. She is insanely funny.
Maybe to Americans it seems like in Israel you would have to talk about these things all the time, but once you live here it's just life.
Hearing all of that I'm curious to know who your favorite comedians are.
My all-time favorite is Russell Brand. I think he's the best comedian in the world. Obviously, I acknowledge and recognize and admire the work of Amy Schumer, of Louis C.K. But I think Russell Brand is God in the form of a human being. Do you know him?
I've never seen his stand-up.
But you know who he is?
I know who he is mostly because he was with Katy Perry.
He has never seemed very funny to me.
He's insanely funny. He's extremely interesting. He's a combination of everything I just said. He's straight. He's a guy. He's a women. He's a whole persona, a whole comedian. He has something to say, a way to say it, he has his own fingerprint. And he's British, which is always just funnier.
Louis C.K. did something incredible for me too. His work gave me approval that I can just talk and be honest and say what I want to say and that sadness can be funny.
And then there are people I love here in Israel, but you wouldn't know them. Sarah Silverman is amazing. And of course the girls of Broad City. Jews!
Do you think most comedy in Israel plays off the political situation here?
Sometimes yes, sometimes no. The new generation is not talking about these issues so much. We are a generation that was five to ten years old when Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. I think that's one of the biggest influences on our generation of artists and entertainers because most artists I know are leftists.
Maybe to Americans it seems like in Israel you would have to talk about these things all the time, but once you live here it's just life. It's like: I imagine having cancer and I see myself sitting at home, drapes closed, crying, diarrhea: cancer. But people with cancer live their lives. They sometimes go to work. They have children. They read the paper. They eat. They fart. Whatever. This is life in Israel.
You said that a lot of artists in Israel are leftists. That's probably true of most places. But in Israel, where the left is so concentrated in Tel Aviv, does it make it difficult to take your act outside of the city?
My act is not political so I have no issue with that. It's not political but it is cultural. I think good comedy has roots. I'd love to be American and to be a native English speaker, but even if I were completely fluent in English I couldn't do my act in the States because I don't have roots there. I'm happy I'm Israeli because things are interesting here and it's a good ground for comedy. What other country is like this? What is this place?
In Tel Aviv, we look up to American culture so much. We love SNL without understanding some of the references. We write columns for the newspaper about Broad City two years after it's aired and think we're so smart. It's so third world of us. I'm part of it and it's hilarious to me.
But a lot of what you talk about, which is so culturally relevant here, would also be relevant in the States. I'm thinking specifically about how you write about—
I've fought a few fights online. I wrote about Urbanica, a new clothing line that didn't make clothing in plus sizes. Their largest sizes would have barely fit my niece. I made a video about Castro, which is the number one clothing retailer in Israel, after their CEO said that they don't make plus size clothing because it's not beautiful. This is a female CEO, by the way. And then I've had some issues with how people react to my posters. When [designer] Matan [Shalita] makes a poster for my shows, we recreate famous cultural images. I've recreated [the rose scene from] American Beauty, and Janet Jackson's cover of Rolling Stone, and the cover the Nirvana Nevermind album. An internet recap show posted that one online and asked for comments. Well the comments ranged from horrible to insane. "Fat fat fat fat body shame fat fat fat fat fat."
I feel like I need girls to be exposed to other kinds of bodies aside from the body that Bar Rafaeli has. Bar Rafaeli's body is the body that we see printed and televised in Israel more than any other body. The bodies that I see and that you see and that the world sees in print never look like me. In print, one body in a hundred looks like mine. But on the street only one body in a hundred looks like Bar Rafaeli.
That kind of issue, obviously, is relevant in the States as well.
It doesn't matter if it's relevant in the States. My act is in Hebrew and I can't take it abroad, though I imagine myself going to the U.S. and the U.K. and being this cultural ambassador for Israel. Everyone thinks we're the bad guy. But I don't feel like the bad guy. I feel like my family is doing this embarrassing thing and I'm just the cousin, the black sheep, wondering what is wrong with my family.
One thing that Israelis don't do is speak Hebrew when we're abroad. We're told not to from a young age. It's not like you guys when you're abroad. [imitates American accent loudly] "Ummm, Jessica! We're over here!" No one is going to harm you for being American in Paris or in Israel or in London. They'll just try to sell you expensive things. But we're scared because we know we're doing something wrong here. I don't want to do bad PR for Israel. I think it's a gorgeous place and, like with all problematic places, it has another side to it. There are great people here and there's culture. But I think we have a conscience and we know we are doing something wrong.
Bibi [Benjamin Netanyahu] does the worst PR for Israel. People vote for him because we don't have another option. I dream that another option will come to us.
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Do you see that better option coming any time soon?
I don't see it. I hope for it and maybe that's naïve but sometimes fairytales come true. Look at Yigal Amir. He had an amazing dream. He said, "I will assassinate this lefty prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, and there won't be any others after him and I will put an end to the entire Left." That's insane. You can't do that. You can kill a person but the Left will continue. But sometimes dreams become reality and [this dream] happened. There hasn't been a leftist or even a moderate Prime Minister since and it's a nightmare.
What are we going to talk about when there is no war?
Bibi, unfortunately, is the natural father of Israel. A shitty father. The type where you grow up and say, "My father was a hard man." I don't think we need a hippie father either. Just someone who isn't a liar, who speaks and listens and sees like a human being. Not this weird guy with purple hair.
He has purple hair?
Google him now.
[Looking at pictures of Netanyahu.] OK, it's lilac. Wow. It's very lilac.
I got a call last year from this non-political party of young people who just want to replace Bibi. They had no candidate to promote over him. The whole philosophy was just "Don't vote for Bibi. Vote for anyone else." So I did a video for them. It shows me watching the news here, and I'm getting more and more distressed until I just get up, go to the airport and fly to Amsterdam. In Amsterdam I dance around, I have an amazing time, I feel free from all these issues that Israel has, and I just can't understand why it's so great here and so terrible at home. So I sit down with one guy and asked him if Bibi is Prime Minister of Amsterdam as well.
It didn't work because he got elected again.
But I like seeing that young people care. Now I'm reminded that you asked me what made me a comedian, and I want to say that a large thing for me was the 2011 Social Justice Protests here. It was the best thing that happened in Israel. The protest was a Woodstock of young people. It was wonderful, orgasmic. What's insane is that Bibi was elected again after that. I know it's not the people's fault. We have no other option. It's like waiting for the messiah. Even the people who vote for Bibi are waiting for this other option.
I want to see what happens when we work out the situation here. What are we going to talk about when there is no war? To go back to the metaphor of someone with a disease, like cancer, once you get cured you need to find yourself again. I want to know—who are we?