Did you hear the one about the Israeli comedian?
The answer is probably not. We have all got our favourite Israeli writers, our favourite Israeli politicians, and even our favourite Israeli spoonbenders.
But Israeli stand-ups? Possibly the nearest many of us have come to Israeli humour is comedian Mark Maier’s comic alter ego, Roni Shmoni. When two English girls ask the fictional Israeli soldier for directions to the beach, he replies: “So you want to sleep with me?” (or words to that effect). We find it easy to laugh at Israelis; but can they laugh at themselves?
The fact is that Israeli humour has remained obscure — indeed, many regard the term as an oxymoron. Why should this be? Well, Israel is a very serious place: there are wars to be won and deserts to be greened and terrorists to be defeated.
So the myth has been built of the strong, humourless Israeli who would not know a joke if it arrived waving a flag on an Egged bus.
Is the image unfair? Israelis must have a sense of humour. Why else would they choose basketball for their national game when, as a nation of compact Mediterraneans, they have an inbuilt disadvantage? And why would they continue to enter the Eurovision Song Contest when they know that no one will ever vote for them again?
But seriously, it is not fair to say that Israelis do not do comedy; it is just that, like most things Israeli, they see it as no laughing matter.
Perhaps the greatest name in Israeli humour was Ephraim Kishon, whose style was biting satire, humorous observation and wise reflection — Tommy Cooper he was not.
Neither have Israelis embraced the weedy, nerdy funny stereotype. If there are Israeli Woody Allens, they are making large amounts of money developing software.
Israelis historically have laughed at physical humour. John Cleese’s slapstick effort Clockwise bombed everywhere in the world — except Israel.
There are exceptions. The comedy group HaGashash HaChiver became famous for their elaborate wordplay, and actually influenced the development of the Hebrew language. And the satirical TV show Eretz Nehederet [A Wonderful Country] is required viewing in the way That Was The Week That Was was in 1960s Britain.
However, perhaps the most compelling examples of Israeli humour reflect the country’s parlous existence in a constant state of conflict, like the old man who refuses to leave the air-raid shelter during the War of Independence until he can find his dentures. “What?” says his wife. “You think they are dropping sandwiches?”
Other jokes poke fun at the Israeli reputation for eschewing the social niceties. A reporter stops at a café where an Ethiopian, an American and an Israeli are sitting. “Excuse me,” he asks, “can you give me your opinions on the grain shortage in the Third World?”
The Ethiopian asks: “What’s grain?”
The American asks: “What’s the developing world?”
The Israeli asks: “What’s excuse me?”