It is often said that laughter is the best medicine to cure all ailments. Of course what one person finds amusing can be deemed hurtful and insulting to others. The subjective nature of comedy is what makes being a comedian one of the hardest jobs around. Unlike other art forms where it can take a few days for critical feedback to reach the artist, the response for a comedian is instantaneous. One seemingly harmless joke can either inspire fits of laughter or cause immediate walkouts.
There is also a cultural relevance that comedians must also take into account when performing. While there are basic human traits that we all subscribe to, there are many things that only specific groups will identify with. For example, a joke about a mayor’s alleged drug use will play far better in Toronto than parts of the Middle East. However, this is not to say that comedians will back away from attempting these jokes regardless. In fact most see it as a challenge. As the quote from legendary comedian George Carlin, referenced at the beginning of Igal Hecht’s documentary A Universal Language, states “it’s the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn and cross it deliberately.” If there is one thing to be said about the comedians featured in Hecht’s film, it is that they bravely cross that line on numerous occasions.
Inspired by the anti-Israel protests that occurred at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival, as a result of Tel Aviv being selected as the featured city in the festival’s City to City program, A Universal Language sets out to prove that laughter is what unites people worldwide. At the centre of it all is Mark Breslin, the creator of Canada’s largest comedy club chain Yuk Yuk’s, who decided to respond to the protest by conducting his own social experiment. Breslin initially wanted to host an Israeli comedy festival at his club to see if prominent figures would call for a boycott of Yuk Yuk’s the way they were for the film festival. Instead Breslin settled on the idea of recruiting a diverse group of Canadian comedians—Aaron Berg, Sam Easton, Mike Khardas, Rebecca Kohler, Jean Paul and Nikki Payne—and taking them to Israel to perform a series of shows. The purpose of this experiment was not only to show that comedy transcends borders, but to also generate open discussion about cultural differences.
Adding an interesting twist on the classic fish out of water narrative, Hecht’s film showcases the highs and lows the comedians experience in a land that is defined by spirituality. While the film does a good job of touching on the difficulties the comedians have during their acts, most notably the stark and heated reminder of the Israeli / Palestinian conflict while in East Jerusalem, it is Israel itself that is the real star of the film. A Universal Language provides good insight into the religious significances of the country, the cultural history, and the social differences between Jerusalem, East Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Hecht also illustrates how the trip impacts the comedians on a personal level. Each person has his or her own moment of either personal or spiritual reflection while on the journey. The two comedians in the group with Jewish heritage in their bloodlines end up being profoundly moved by the experience.
A Universal Language’s most intriguing moments come when Hecht looks at how religion has shaped humour, and life in general, in Israel. It is fascinating to hear from Israeli comedians such as Kandi Abelson and Yisrael Campbell, and Palestinian comedian Adi Khalefa as they talk about their struggles to push the boundaries of comedy while still adhering to the religious and ethnic sensibilities of the region. Despite the cultural differences, the desire to brighten up people’s day for a few hours is what unites comedians all over the world.
Entertaining, insightful, and most importantly funny, A Universal Language is an effective film that reminds us that regardless of our diverse backgrounds, we all need a good laugh every now and then.
A Universal Language plays NXNE on Sunday June 16th at 6:30 PM at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.