Seminal TV personality, composer, and comedian Steve Allen once mused: “Tragedy plus time equals comedy.” But how do you make people laugh when they are still in the deepest throes of terrible dark events?
How, for example, do the likes of Yossi Tarablus and Noa Manor go out there and crack jokes, relate amusing incidents, and roll out their whimsical or satirical view of life right now – when we are all traumatized by the brutality of the massacre by the Hamas terrorists last month and the plight of our hostages, and while IDF regular and reserve soldiers are battling the enemy in Gaza?
Tarablus has no neat, off-the-cuff answer to that one, as experienced as he is in the art of jocular thrust and parry. He is one of several dozen stand-up comedians currently doing the rounds of the country, at their own expense, in an effort to bring a little light and joy to anxious souls and provide at least some brief respite from the pain and sense of doom that constantly pervades our waking hours.
The seasoned comic says he has never encountered anything like his before and, even with his all-acquired road and stage time, he is struggling to cope with the situation. He has heard horror stories from soldiers straight after spending an hour or so getting them to laugh a little, or at least smile.
It must be challenging in the extreme to maneuver one’s way across the emotional roller coaster and remain on an even keel. After all, Tarablus and his professional colleagues are not trained therapists and, no doubt, have not developed the now-requisite tools for protecting themselves from any psychological backlash they may face during or after their shows.
Performing for those who have experienced hell
Tarablus told me that he performed for a group of soldiers who had spent the previous four weeks “going through hell.”
“After the show, the commanding officer came to me and told me it was the first time, since the war started, he’d seen his soldiers laughing. That really threw me. The next day I went around like a zombie,” he said.
Of course, any personal baggage has to be put to the side if he is to achieve the desired end result – getting people to laugh and, as things stand at the moment, enabling them to forget their woes for a short while. That is the case even at times when the performer is essentially going through the well-versed motions rather than exuding genuine sentiment.
Sometimes, particularly now, it’s a matter of basic emotional survival. “We [comedians] have to protect ourselves. We have to bring light into this darkness. That is very challenging, and we can’t allow the darkness to infiltrate us,” he explained.
It's not just about getting up there cracking a few jokes and offering an alternative, humorous angle on life. Tarablus said he and his co-professionals are currently stepping beyond the strict confines of their entertaining purview. “The better-known comedians go to see the wounded.
All of us are spending time with soldiers and evacuees, and we are working with children. So you have to be, constantly, the focus of light for these people. And, yes, you have to smile and laugh even though you may not feel it or mean it at that moment... You have to turn the light on, even by force,” he declared.
There are, the comic believes, physiological advantages to be had, for all concerned. “If you smile for no reason, your body doesn’t know you are faking it.
Try smiling to yourself for more than 10 seconds, you’ll see you feel better.” There is power to the artificial, apparently insincere, ploy, he insists. “Comedy is the only profession in the world which causes people to involuntarily activate hundreds of muscles. You have to be aware that you can do that at will.”
That may do the trick for the consumer, but what about the practitioner, who knows his or her outward behavior is not entirely genuine, albeit well-meaning?
Some insulating stratagem is needed here, Tarablus noted. “We have to be aware of what is happening to us, of our own emotional health. What is happening to our soul. We can help ourselves by spending time with our family, going for a walk, going to the beach. Anything good for the soul.”
That stands to reason. You aren’t going to be much use to anyone by moping around and falling apart at the seams.
I caught up with Noa Manor, another veteran of the comic stage, on her way up north to try and help some soldiers forget the tension and anxiety and get a spiritual breather. Manor wasn’t able to lend a helping recuperative hand when the war began, as she and her partner, fellow stand-up comedian, Yonatan Barak, were stuck in Greece. It took them a while to find a flight home, but they got busy as soon as they landed.
“We [individually] perform for evacuees, soldiers, and the wounded on a daily basis,” she explained. “We went to Tel Hashomer hospital and we heard some terrible stories there.”
Presumably, neither she nor Barak were dropping too many gags at the time. “What we do with the wounded falls somewhere between being funny and just talking, and listening.”
Manor sensed it was time to observe and take on a more passive, empathetic role rather than aim for their audience’s funny bone, she said. “We got to the wounded later, and we felt they’d had their fill of clowns and that sort of thing. They mostly just wanted to talk.”
Manor and Barak were willing and, it appears, fully able to lend an ear when needed. That included accompanying patients to physiotherapy sessions and listening to them express their thoughts and feelings while going through the physically remedial motions.
Manor subscribes to Tarablus’s take on the idea that – to cite that age-old Reader’s Digest tenet – laughter is the best medicine. “I heard a psychologist talking on the radio who said that learning to laugh about a harrowing experience you have had is one way of telling yourself you are okay.”
Does that mean stand-up comedians can go for broke? Is nothing off limits? Is there no raw nerve one should avoid?
“Yes, of course there are red lines,” Manor replied. “I won’t force dark humor on people. But, sometimes, I will say something of that sort because you sense what your audience allows you to do, what they feel they can laugh about.”
Manor’s current nationwide circuit is a moving experience for her and has evoked some latent sentiments. “These gigs have made me feel more connected with my people, with the whole of Israel. It has come from a different place than where comedy comes from, somewhere more collective and inclusive. This is not about my ego as a performer and getting the applause. This is about helping out,” she said.
All the aforementioned comics and their dozens of colleagues currently on the entertaining, curative beat are doing so out of their own pockets. And while they are fully fired up to do their bit to stem the tide of sadness here and hopefully steer us back to some semblance of emotional health, their bank balances won’t hold out forever. We can help them bring a little comic relief around the country, to those who need it most, by proffering some financial assistance, at: https://www.jgive.com/new/en/ils/donation-targets/113838/about
Things may not be particularly jolly right now, but that old Reader’s Digest adage may have something going for it.