American-Israeli Comedian Finds the Funny in All Things Jewish

 Benji’s Lovitt’s comedy market is Jews. As a comedian myself who can speak from experience, this is perhaps the hardest audience for a comic.  Having worked several Jewish Humor Festivals, Jewish Federation events and a Temple Israel show for retirees, I know that Jewish people love to laugh so long as it’s not too dirty, or too clean, or too Anti-Israel, or too pro-AIPAC, and so on.   So I was truly amazed to learn how Benji crushes as a Jewish comedian for Jewish audiences.  His wit and Israeli pop culture knowledge lends itself to Jonathan Pollard jokes and an outsider’s take on the ever-casual Israeli wedding.  

With a passion for performing for Jews around the world, this American-Israeli comedian spoke with me last week about the tough job of making Jews laugh.  Benji will be performing throughout the US and Australia, and will be at the University of Minnesota on Hillel March 1.

Have you performed for any “anti-Israel” crowds?  Any hostile heckling?

Not yet. I was actually told last week that some non-Jews came to a show of mine five years ago in California and were prepared to “protest” or show some kind of dissent but couldn’t figure out what I was talking about or where to interject…which is absolutely hilarious to me.

Do you perform in Hebrew?

I’ve performed in Hebrew twice for about 10 minutes each time. I’d love to get to the point where I am good at it but considering standup is challenging enough in your native language; It’s not my top priority right now.

What made you decide to work in the Jewish world?

Remember in the movie “Office Space” where the main character is unhappy in his job and thinks there has to be more to life? I’m a product of Young Judaea camps and Israel programs so I could only be in so many unfulfilling jobs before I said, “Life is too short” and made the big move. And I’ve never looked back. When I started working for the Israeli Consulate in Atlanta, I thought, “They’re paying me for this???”

How do you pull through on stage when you sense the crowd tightening?

More easily than I used to, that’s for sure. The better you get, the less they tighten. But if a joke doesn’t get as big of a laugh as you expected, you move on to the next one which probably will. Worst case? You leave as quickly as possible, don’t make eye contact and hope the check clears.

Israelis have a different sense of humor… they seem to like pranks more and sarcasm less.  Do you find differences between Israeli and American humor?  To what do you attribute those differences?

I actually have a presentation on Israeli humor. They definitely have a darker sense of humor which isn’t surprising when, you know, YOU LIVE IN THE MIDDLE EAST. When your country was founded in the aftermath of the Holocaust and you have wars every few years, it helps to have a sense of humor. I don’t think Israelis like sarcasm less, I just think humor doesn’t translate well. Most Brits think we Americans don’t understand sarcasm.

There have been occasional Israeli characters in popular American movies (“Don’t Mess with the Zohan” and “Wet Hot American Summer”).  As outlandish as they are, they ring so true!  How do you Israelis perceive them?

I just asked my Israeli friend next to me. He said the Zohan was an accurate portrayal of what Americans think of Israelis which of course is far from being an accurate portrayal of an Israeli…. In my comedy, I always say that when Group A stereotypes Group B, it actually says as much about Group A. Americans love to make fun of foreigners or anyone that isn’t American (Balki, Borat, Austin Powers).

Jon Stewart took heat this past year for making jokes that were seemingly unfair to Israel.  Have you been accused of performing to favor one side?  How do you respond to that criticism?

I haven’t because my comedy isn’t political. And when I do make political jokes on Facebook, it’s usually when “our side” is pretty united, like during 2014’s Operation Protective Edge. I think that Jon Stewart does want to have his cake and eat it too, to try to make a point but then say, “Hey, I’m a comedian!” when criticized. Jokes or not, my problem with him is that I believe he is inconsistent when he criticizes Israel. Hey, I live here and criticize this place all the time. I just make sure to hold the other side accountable as well.

What is your greatest comedy achievement?

Probably that I’m still doing it and actually making a living. If you had told me before I made aliyah that I’d be performing all over the world, I would never have believed it.

What is your biggest comedy goal?

Just to be the best comedian I can be. If I can do that, all the glory and achievements will follow. 

Benji Lovitt performs at the University of Minnesota Hillel on March 1 at 7:00 pm. The event is free and 18+.
The event is sponsored by Minnesota Hillel, Masa Israel Journey, Israel on Campus Coalition, Students Supporting Israel at the University of Minnesota, StandWithUs, Israel Center of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation, and Jewish Federation of Greater St. Paul

Community Partners include Beth Jacob Congregation, Makom-A Project of Adath Jeshurun Congregation, and the Twin Cities Masa Israel Alumni Community.

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This interview was made possible in part with support from the Howard B. & Ruth F. Brin Jewish Arts Endowment, a fund of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation’s Foundation, and Rimon: The Minnesota Jewish Arts Council, an initiative of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation.

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