I’m not sure this has ever happened in Chicago. One of comedy’s funniest, most unique and compelling voices, Yohay Sponder, is traveling over six thousand miles to the U.S. to film his first special in English. He is offering Chicagoans three chances this week to attend a sneak preview. His tour began in New York this past weekend. Chicago is the next stop. Then he’s off to Los Angeles and Miami, then back to New York’s famous Comedy Cellar where he’ll film the special in September.
In his native Israel, Yohay (pronounced “Yo’chai”) is a celebrity and pioneer of the standup scene. His first recorded special, last year’s Anafphobia, provides tantalizing hints of what audiences can expect: a blend of incandescent comedy, emotional insight, and life-changing wisdom. In Anafphobia, Yohay delves into his childhood on a farm with his sisters and ingenious Moroccan mom and taciturn Polish dad who, it turns out, hides a loving heart behind a harsh exterior. Yohay also tells the unexpectedly funny, life-affirming story of the dying woman who hired him to “headline” her farewell party. At the end of Anafphobia, Yohay recounts his European adventure with Israeli comedy veteran Shahar Hason and an unpredictable photographer named Gregory. Along the way, the trio verbally defeats haters, improves Israel’s image in the world (or not), and break into the grounds of an old Polish synagogue to vindicate Yohay’s grandfather, a Holocaust survivor. After I finished watching, I actually had a vision of Anafphobia as an exquisite painting because it was so laden with composition, color, depth and texture. Speaking with Yohay, I learned that he in fact loves to spend time in art museums. Both art and comedy, he says, “can light people’s hearts. That’s where I try to be located.”
Yohay kindly spoke with me about comedy’s healing powers, the differences between Israeli and American standup, and why his comedy is increasingly feminist. He also revealed some secrets about his American tour. We spoke in the late afternoon. At the end of our conversation, I discovered that he had just arrived in the U.S. that morning after flying halfway across the world with his wife and baby daughter. From his great energy and warmth, I never would have guessed.
Teme: I’m so happy that you’re coming to Chicago! How did you decide to include us on your tour?
Yohay: Chicago is one of the places that I’ve wanted to visit. Every time that I’m in America, I love to see a city where I’ve never been. Chicago is also the city where my wife was born. In this case, I combine my personal life with my professional life and I think it’s awesome.
Teme: How did growing up on a farm in the Golan in a Moroccan and Polish family influence your comedy and who you are today?
Yohay: When you’re growing up in this place of nature, emptiness, and open horizons, everything looks possible and you know as a kid that you’re going to do something big. Just imagine that you can sing or dance on a cliff next to the Sea of Galilee. You can do whatever you want if you have a dream. Having a funny family and funny stories that happened during my childhood led me to do comedy.
Teme: In Anafphobia, you talk about a portrait photographer who took pictures of you and your sister when you were little. He made you laugh so much that he inspired you to become a comedian. Why did that experience resonate so much with you at that time in your life?
Yohay: First of all, it’s a great question. I felt that I woke up. My first memories were around the age of four or five. I remember a lot of laughter. I remember a happy family. I remember my mom put me in front of people and asked me to do impersonations and everybody loved that.
We were a big family and a close family. There always were jokes and laughter and happiness. My Moroccan side is loud and they’re very out there. Also the Polish side – my father grew up as a second generation from the Holocaust and he didn’t want to have a sad house, so it was one of his principles. He got married, he wants laughter, he wanted happy. That’s why he got married to my mom. Even though it didn’t last and they didn’t end up together, as kids we got the experience of laughter and joy.
Teme: How do you define good comedy?
Yohay: I know that it’s a cure. People don’t want to laugh at taboos or things that are very hard. Like you say, “It just happened. Too soon,” because you’re not ready yet to make fun. But this is the cure. It is exactly like perhaps your body’s not yet formed the antibodies. If comedy is coming to you in a time that you’re not ready, it’s not going to cure you. Also, if you’re coming to the joke from a privileged point of view. I don’t think it’s okay that men will do jokes about rape, for example, because men, most of the time, are not the victims of this issue. My philosophy is that comedy is supposed to heal people and help them think. It’s an art form like other stage art, but it’s the most real.
Teme: Yes, I really felt all of that when I saw Anafphobia. It’s beautifully crafted. It’s hilarious but also profound and moving. I actually cried at the end because I was so moved. That’s never happened to me before. I’d love to hear about your writing process.
Yohay: Just a second. It’s very, very exciting what you just said. So I’m going to stop you here and ask you questions because I never talked about this with someone that is English-speaking that told me that. It’s amazing to me to hear that right now. I really want to know how you found the special.
Teme: My son lives in Israel and he shared your Instagram posts with me. Then I watched Anafphobia and it blew me away. Your father’s wisdom, the way you absorbed it, the way he was difficult but loving. It reminded me of my father. Your dad said such funny but profound things. The way you applied them to your life was very moving. You make a point about how you must decide to remove your own obstacles instead of spending your life moving someone else’s obstacles. That really resonated. That’s a lesson I wish I’d learned in my twenties.
In addition to being hilarious, your special was filled with beautiful insights. You seamlessly wove together the Israeli experience, the Jewish experience, our history, our optimism, our joy, the way it is. Like your dad, I’m also the child of a Holocaust survivor and that has an impact that you describe so well. You blend all these complex things together in a way that I didn’t think was possible to articulate. It resonated deeply and it left me with so much optimism and joy and happiness. It was just beautiful.
Yohay: Thank you so much. I’m really, really moved to hear that. So I asked you these questions just for understanding of how the special went through and touches you in the way that you described. I’m just super happy to hear what you said right now. So thank you very, very much for saying that and for watching this. You asked me about what’s the goal of comedy. It’s that. It’s to be able to tell a story and to be able to make people laugh or make people even get excited and moved by the issues that caused the pain once before and now it’s not that you make a joke out of it, but you tell the story of what happened since then and how other people experienced that. And yes, that’s comedy. That’s a cure.
Teme: That’s one of the things I love about your comedy. It’s more than being funny. In addition to being hilarious, you bring something profound. You turn on comedy’s healing power and communicate it to the audience.
Yohay: I realized that it’s not the same if you don’t. Don’t get me wrong, I still have fart jokes. I still have jokes that are escapism. I don’t disrespect escapism. I think it’s very important. I have friends in Israel who do a very good job in that sense and I’m a huge fan of them, and I also sometimes am jealous of them. They’re doing a show not touching any sensitive subjects, people cracking up more than in my show sometimes. It feels that they’re living their dream and are very wealthy people, giving the pure product of comedy and that’s important. I respect that. My personal style, my stuff that I like to do in English and in Hebrew is bring my dilemmas or the problems that made me think of the joke. I don’t want to sound like the preachers ascending. I just think it’s our goal to do what we like to do the best and help others enjoy that.
Teme: Is there a difference between Israeli standup and American standup?
Yohay: It’s complicated. Americans are more advanced with their humor style. You even have names for categories, like observational comedy, one-liners. In Israel, we don’t have that. In Israel, there are two kinds of comedy. We have “nonsense” and standup. Nonsense is when two people perform together with props and do a show together. Here it’s more advanced and detailed. When you watch the biggest names in [American] comedy, they have more life experience. There are American comedians who have been doing standup for forty years. In Israel, we didn’t have standup forty years ago. So even the best comics, the most experienced ones, can’t be as experienced as the American comics.
The advantage of doing standup in Israel is that the people are very stressed. They want to hear the joke right now. You’ve got to be funny. In America, you can get away sometimes with a nice crowd where people chill, everything is fine. No terror attacks. It’s okay if you tell a story and you don’t have a point right away. That’s the main difference. The advantage of Israel is that the crowd is very tough. If you survive a year in comedy in Israel, you’re probably a legit comedian.
Teme: Your standup also includes really funny stories about you and Shahar Hason. When did you meet?
Yohay: When I started to do comedy, Shahar was already very famous and successful. He hosted the open mic stage where I started to perform in 2005. We started to work together in 2011 when we both realized that we’re both doing standup in English.
When we started, Shahar always said, “Don’t think of next week. Don’t think of next month. Think of ten or twenty years from now and what happens when you do standup in a second language.” It’s great to open your mind and to absorb a new culture. Language is a culture because the things that are making fun in English don’t always work in Hebrew, and vice versa. The stuff that you do in Hebrew is not always fit for international crowds. It’s a cultural thing and I think it helped me to get rid of my jokes about relationships that I was very obsessed with when I started to do comedy. Until I started doing English, I always did only relationship jokes, which is often in one point of view that, “I don’t like my partner, take her away from me.” It’s a cliche. “Oh, my wife, she’s annoying,” or stuff like that. I think comedy has so much more than that now. When I started to do standup in a second language, it helped me to open my mind to more ideas and more comedy styles.
“I’m this – women are that” is very cliche standup of the ’90s in America. In Israel, unfortunately I see that it’s not gone yet. In America, it’s gone to say, “Women this, man this,” and be very stigmatic.
“This is one opinion. It’s got to be true. I know what I’m saying” is good for comedy sometimes. But when you talk about issues that are very explosive, you want to add more spices to it and more points of view. Of course it helps to understand English and understand what you’re dealing with internationally.
Teme: In the U.S., comedians have to think about cancel culture and political correctness. Are those concerns in Israeli comedy?
Yohay: I don’t want to ruin the bit for you, but I’m starting my [new] show with [material] about being politically correct. In Israel, we don’t have that and it’s not there yet. The jokes are more fluid. You’re not only traveling geographically when you visit Israel, you’re also traveling in time. But cancel culture, I think it’s kids that they’re not above thirty, to tell you the truth. I think they’re searching for the line, for the legit line, and I think that’s a good thing.
It’s like the “Me Too” campaign. In the beginning people were shocked like, “Oh, now I can’t say anything?” No, listen, you can’t. You have to think before you say stuff. I think also, the cancel culture, of course sometimes it’s annoying. Sometimes it’s people looking between the lines to feel meaning and like they want to feel important and to say a positive so people are going to do “likes” and of course there are a lot of them that are missing the point here. But most of the time it’s that we want to move forward as society, we want to do good for others. We want to bring values. We want to push in a way that that will be helpful for others. I think the main meaning of it is good and it’s going to a good place.
Teme: You have great material about Kanye, Dave Chappelle, BDS and antisemitism. Those are all topics that typically depress me, so I really appreciate that you make it possible to laugh. I’ve always been curious – when there’s an explosion of antisemitism in the U.S., does it impact Israelis? After all, you’re half a world away and there’s enough happening there.
Yohay: First of all, I want to say that it’s frustrating me, the separation of different streams of Judaism. I feel that Jews are my siblings no matter where they are.
So when I’ve seen the news like that, it gets my blood boiling because these are the stories that my grandfather had been through when the Germans invaded Poland. That’s the exact story of attacking Jews because they’re Jews. That’s really, really frustrating. Sometimes even more than a terror attack in Jerusalem. Because all the time we felt that the hatred was towards Israelis because Israel allegedly conquered the country. But now when you see it’s not just Zionism attacked, it’s on Jews because they’re Jews. That’s antisemitism per se. And yeah, the answer is big, big, yes. It’s very frustrating. And you know what, as a comedian, of course I’m going to stand up for my people. I’m a standup comedian. I have to stand up. And I’m doing it for every human rights. So of course I’m going to do it for my people. That’s not only my right, this is my duty. That’s what I feel.
Teme: What is your favorite story of performing in the United States so far?
Yohay: This is my tenth time here in ten years. It’s very exciting. Magic always happens when I’m in America. It could be a phone call from someone, “Listen, I know a guy that knows a guy,” and ten minutes later I’m finding myself posting on Instagram, “I’m going to be performing tonight with Maz Jobrani at the Laugh Factory.”
Standup in Israel in the summer is very slow. People like to be outside when it’s warm, so it’s harder to bring a crowd to the theater in the summer. So I find myself in America. Somehow I found myself on stage with the first Jewish comedy festival in New York in front of 5,000 people. I did a set there with a lot of big names, Elon Gold, Jeff Ross, and Modi Rosenfeld. This is not even the craziest story that I have. When you’re in America, it’s a big country. Big things can happen.
When I was a two-years comic in English in 2013, I got by chance to the Ventura Harbor Comedy Club [in California]. I got in touch with the manager and I said, “Hey, I’m a comedian and I want to have a spot.” He said, “Okay, come to open mic. We’ll see if you’re good.” I said, “I don’t know if you can hear from my accent, I’m not from here. I’m here for a month and I want to have a spot in front of a live crowd this week. If you want, I can send you a video. I’m not going to waste my time with an open mic here. It could take years. I did that already. I’m a professional comedian for nine years. I want legit spots. I’m not asking for money. I’m asking for you to watch it and let me know if I can be part of your club for the month that I’m around.” And he liked that a lot. He said, “Oh, okay. Israelis are very chutzpah and rude just like the rumors.”
He told me, “Listen, tomorrow we’re shooting a TV show for Hulu. I want you in. I like this attitude. But you got to send me the video to show me what you have.” I didn’t have as many videos as I have now in English. I didn’t even have anything. I had some stuff recorded in the computer, so I needed to edit it for him overnight. In the morning, I sent him the video. He liked it. He invited me to the show and I did a TV show in America after a week that I’m in the country. It’s just magic.
Teme: What question would you like to be asked about your comedy or life?
Yohay: I have a lot of jokes on my show from a feministic point of view and I like to be asked about that. A big part of it is because I’m working with my sister Zohar. She’s giving me the women’s point of view very strongly. Today, of course, I have it, but I wasn’t as feministic a comic as I was after I started working with her. She is my co-writer and we work together on the bits. She’s brilliant. She’s an author. She’s a very funny and very spiritual person, very helpful to build standup bits when you have that point of view. It helps to work with a woman, too, in the sense that she shows you the real mirror to see your own privilege.
Teme: What would you like people to know about your upcoming Chicago shows?
Yohay: It’s my first time in Chicago. I’m really excited to meet the community of our people and also very, very excited that people are telling me, “No, I’m just American and have nothing to do with Judaism. I love comedy. I heard about you and I’m happy to be there.”
This show is mainly about me finding out that the world is going backwards right now. That people, the more they have materialistic stuff, the more they’re getting cranky. How come the more technology gets smarter, we get dumber? And how come the more convenient we have it, the cheaper we get? I notice the climate of humanity and that’s why I’m going on this journey to find the source of happiness.
The show is about my journey and if I found or didn’t find happiness and to bring the answer to my audience. I can’t be just bringing observations about how sad it is that we’re watching Netflix for sixteen hours a day. I need to bring the answer also. Okay, you found a problem. What’s the solution? So that’s the journey. That’s the show. That’s what I’m going through. What happens when we’re sad and how can we solve that? How can we bring the cure for humanity?
Wednesday, August 16: Laugh Factory, 3175 N Broadway, Chicago, 8 p.m. Tickets
Sunday, August 20: Red Room Comedy Club, 7442 N Western Ave, Chicago. Two shows: 7:30 p.m. & 9:30 p.m. Tickets
Wednesday, August 23: Laugh Factory Hollywood, 8001 Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles, 7:45 p.m. Tickets
Wednesday, September 6: Improv Comedy Theatre, 3450 NW 83 Avenue, Doral, FL, 7:00 p.m. Tickets
Sunday, September 10: Standup Comedy Special Recording, The Comedy Cellar, 130 W 3rd St., New York, NY, 6:00 p.m. Tickets