Life & Culture

The Israeli comedian finding humour in his country’s darkest days

Israeli stand-up Yossi Zabari is performing in London for a hostage fundraiser this weekend


Yossi Zabari is a triple threat. He sings, he dances, and he performs one-man stand-up when he gets the chance. It makes sense. “Growing up, my idols were actors like Danny Kaye, Sammy Davis Jr., and Fred Astaire,” he tells me. “They were entertainers who could do it all - sing, dance, and make the audience go crazy with laughter”.

But Zabari doesn’t just perform for performance’s sake. “I needed to be able to express myself freely, addressing issues that were important to me – both political and social,” he says. “And what better way to do that than through comedy?”

He will be doing just that this weekend, when he will be performing in London for the first time in a charity stand-up show. All proceeds will be going directly to the Hostage and Missing Families Forum. “Post-release, these people will require extensive emotional and psychological support to help them rebuild their lives following such a traumatic experience,” Zabari explains. With his show, he hopes to “raise awareness internationally and keep the issue burning”.

The comedian’s idea for the fundraiser came from a sense of helplessness in the wake of the October 7 attacks. “I have been active in civic struggle for many years.” Zabari tells me. But having moved to Switzerland, attending protests wasn’t enough. “I genuinely envied my friends who were helping farmers in the Gaza envelope or performing in hotels to encourage those who survived the ordeal,” he says.

Hostages have now been kept in Gaza for almost 100 days. “It’s incomprehensible,” Zabari says. “And every passing day, their chances of returning alive decrease, whether due to medical treatment, health conditions, or IDF operations. I believe it's safe to say that they won't come back healthy”.

But he’s optimistic, and hopes this fundraiser will – at the very least – raise awareness for the hostages still captive. “There's a sense that public opinion has somewhat forgotten about them, or at least moved the issue to second or third place in priorities,” says Zabari. “In my view, the most crucial thing is to bring back the kidnapped and the hostages. To do anything and everything possible to bring them home today”.

Taking on a solo show pro bono would be a daunting challenge in and of itself, but Zabari is going a step further. “It’s my first show in London,” he says, something which has meant the Israeli comedian has had to start working in English.

“Hebrew is my language,” Zabari explains simply. “I write in Hebrew, think in Hebrew, and dream in Hebrew. I understand its nuances, rhythm, and musicality”. So what drew him toward English? “In the last couple of years, I've felt the desire to reach out to a different audience, to teach them something they didn't know about us Israelis,” he says. “I want to bridge the gaps and tap into something deeper than geographical definitions, showing the parallel lines we share as human beings. How mundane and even comical the differences between us can be. So, I started creating in English, and I have to say, I really enjoy it”.

Creating comedy in such volatile times poses another challenge for Zabari. Impressively, though, he manages to find a delicate balance. “It's still too early to find humor in the situation, and I'm uncertain if there will ever be an appropriate moment to make jokes about it,” he says. “Nevertheless, we can and should laugh at ourselves for our attempts to make sense of what occurred. Humor can be found in our own foolishness and narrow-mindedness”. To Zabari – a protest artist – “comedy has a unique ability to pass through ideas and articulate issues that most people typically find difficult to address”.

But it isn’t all politics. “I try not to forget the fact that I am a comedian and not a politician,” Zabari says. Once again, it’s a balance. “I want people to laugh, and behind that, also go home with something to think about. I don't want the audience to leave the performance and, after half an hour, forget where they were or what I talked about there”.

Zabari is keeping schtum about the jokes we can expect to hear this weekend. “You will have to come to the Camden club on Saturday and see for yourself”, he says. “See you there!”

And for anyone who lives slightly further north, or who can’t wait an extra day, Zabari will also be at the Newnham Club in Cambridge on Friday.

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