Yisrael Campbell has many friends, but his beard is his best friend. At least that’s what the title of his new stand-up show would have us believe. The veteran Jerusalem-based comedian will perform three shows of My Beard is My Best Friend, directed by longtime collaborator Gary Rudoren, at Jerusalem’s Khan Theater on Wednesday at 8 p.m. and Thursday at 5:30 p.m. and 8 p.m.
The shows will be filmed by Toronto’s award-winning Explorer Cinema productions for packaging as a future stand-up comedy special for television. Campbell sat down with The Jerusalem Post to discuss moving from drama to comedy, dealing with the death of his Catholic parents as a Jewish convert, and comedy as catharsis.
When did you realize that you wanted to be a comedian?
I got into comedy because I went to drama school and there wasn’t enough work as an actor. People always said, “Oh you’re funny, you should do standup.”
At first, I was a dramatic actor and was not interested in doing stand-up. But I realized that this was a way that I could have much greater control over what I was doing, both from a writing and a performing standpoint. I didn’t have to wait to get an audition. I didn’t have to wait to get cast, or [worry] that the money was going to fall through.
It seemed like I just needed the right jokes and fun places to tell them. I was in Los Angeles and it was the early days of alternative comedy. People weren’t just doing set up punch lines. I was able to tell stories. I talk about the fact that I’m in recovery and that was a place where I was able to tell my story for many years. That was also a place of growth and how to best get across what I was trying to say as directly as possible. We used to invade this bookstore every night and we would switch off who would go first because the person who started would chase off about half the people there. I don’t know why the bookstore thought this was a good idea.
How old were you at this point?
This was in my late 20’s/early 30’s. I was born in 1963 and this was in the mid ‘90s. The elevator pitch of my comedy is that I grew up Catholic, converted to Judaism three times, and made aliya. Now this week’s show will include a lot of new material because it’s now been 25 years since my first conversion and I’ve been in Israel 17 years, so life is unfolding, not just the process of becoming a Jew, but living as a Jew.
I ask myself how does that stay captivating, interesting and motivating? How do I stay passionate? I lost my mom last year. How do you do that; how do you mourn the death of a non-Jew Jewishly?
Nine years ago when my father died, I called the funeral home and asked how fast they could bury him. He died on a Tuesday and they said Friday. I called my sister and told her, and she said, “What’s the rush?” It ended up being even a few days later and in retrospect, I realized it wasn’t that different. My mom’s house was filled with people and food the night after he died and it stayed that way for about a week. So they do shiva too, they just do it before they bury the person. It was very similar.
Is it cathartic you for to be able to find comedic value in these difficult life events?
For sure, comedy and being able to laugh is cathartic for me and helps transitionally. For me, it’s a gift and a way of connecting to people. When I did a show off Broadway, there was a whole seven minutes about my friends who were murdered at Hebrew University’s Frank Sinatra cafe in the bombing in 2002. As the show was developing over many years, an old friend of mine had asked me how I was dealing with the deaths in my show, and I wasn’t, I was ignoring it and I didn’t want to. I don’t begrudge any comedian anything, but it’s not Carrot Top, I’m not smashing things on stage and wearing things on my head other than a black hat.
In the darkest times of my life, when someone got through to me and I started laughing, I felt human again. It wasn’t in a silly way per se, it was in a catch-you-off-guard profound way. That’s what I hope to do. When I was younger, people used to say that my humor was a deflection and a way to hide. I don’t know if it was then, but I know now that it’s a way to talk about that stuff because I couldn’t do it otherwise. It’s not the kind of stuff that you can just open up and start talking about. I can take people to places that I couldn’t take them [otherwise] because we know that we’re going to be laughing at the end. That’s certainly not hiding or deflecting; it’s a way to get deeper.
Are there comedians who you look to who do that? My comedic heroes are Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen when he was doing stand-up.
Granted those people are all either dead or haven’t done stand-up in 40 years, but Bruce was able to talk about things on stage that nobody was talking about. Pryor was able to transform painful living experiences into funny stuff. Allen was just so smart and funny. That’s what I try to do in my comedy; for people to see the travails like three conversions and having to wait two-and-a-half years to make aliya because I was waiting for the paperwork to go through. I hope that people can see tough experiences that they’ve had in a lighter way. It’s not making fun of people for the sake of making fun. Hopefully I can awaken the desire in someone else to help and be of service.
I think someone could look at your story and say that it’s tailor-made for you to become a comedian, but it depends on how you look at it.
Sure, someone else could have walked away and never wanted to share their story with anyone. For me, it’s always been about being funny to get people’s attention. It was always a way of connecting with people and bringing them closer. It’s also a great shield… If we can laugh at you, you can’t touch us. I used to do shows with the Israeli/Palestinian Comedy Tour and the Palestinian comic used to say, “If we can laugh together, we can live together.” I think it’s true. Too often, we avoid each other, so we don’t have to find out how similar we are.
For tickets to Yisrael Campbell’s shows visit https://khan.co.il or www.yisraelcampbell.com.