‘A Universal Language’ is a confrontational, hilarious study in comedy and religion (Review)

If not for the recent success of Argo, it’d be difficult to imagine a more unlikely film premise then one in which a group of clueless do-gooders purposely place themselves in harms way within the politically charged Middle East. But that’s precisely the premise of Igal Hecht’s newest documentary, A Universal Language, which is set to debut April 14 at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival and on the Documentary Channel in Canada on April 18 at 9 pm ET. The film cleverly chronicles the real-life misadventures of seven Canadian stand up comics—self-appointed ambassadors of comedy—as they travel across the Holy Land, offering the gift of humor to defiantly humorless audiences from the region’s distinct orthodoxies: Jews, Christians and Palestinians.

The point of the mission, as described by the project’s creator and leader, legendary Canadian comedian and owner of Yuk Yuk’s, Canada’s largest comedy chain Mark Breslin, was a simple cultural exchange in response to anti-Israel protests of Israeli films at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival. “Comedy reveals a great deal about one’s country, and it’s a great way to connect with others across cultures and borders,” Breslin said at the outset of the social experiment. “Without question, the Middle East and the world in general need more laughter.”

Laughter, to Breslin, is the one true “universal language,” as the title indicates. Forget what scientists and philosophers have to say about defining it as love, music or even mathematics. Nope. “If anything is going to provoke dialogue and change, says Breslin, “It’s going to be the artists of a country.” Clearly nothing says friendship and understanding like a really scandalous filthy joke.

With that sentiment as the project’s guiding principle, Breslin sets off to carefully handpick his comic A-team—Aaron Berg, Sam Easton, Mike Khardas, Rebecca Kohler, Jean Paul and Nikki Payne—as much on the basis of their fearlessness as their comedy chops. That’s because, as he notes, he’s about to set his “dick joke-loving” team loose in a part of the world where oppression is so prevalent that local comedians dutifully censor themselves, steering clear of curse words, all mentions of sex, body parts or bodily functions, lest they risk being shunned or worse.

Despite such dire warnings and their own quivering nerves, Breslin’s comedy commandos launch an all-out humor offensive for which there are no medals. Survival is the only reward. The tone of the film is set immediately upon the team’s arrival in Jerusalem when Aaron Berg, the first to open fire, sends their too-conservative guide into fits by asking him how to say “fuck” in Hebrew. Then there’s Jean Paul’s opening night salvo. He clears half the room and silences the remainder—“an audience of 10 old people and their parents,” laughs Breslin—after he compares performing oral sex on menstruating women to Moses parting the red sea. Much later we see Paul go nuclear as he characterizes the geographic and philosophical divides between Jews and Palestinians as being a mere “stone’s throw away” from each other.

Of course, the film’s strength lies in these cringe-worthy moments. For Westerners acculturated to the art of stand-up, the jokes seem even funnier in the context of the awkwardness that arises from the audience’s outright shock. That’s especially the case in the film’s third act, during the team’s visit to East Jerusalem, the hotly disputed territory that Jews consider a part of Israel but that its population of Arabs considers “occupied” Palestine. “I’m having an incredible time here in Jerusalem,” says a clueless impish-faced Easton to open his set before a fully Palestinian audience. Then all hell breaks loose as the crowd jeers, walks out and angrily offers to “educate” him after the show. “I was hoping that this show would start off as awkward as possible, and I think I’ve accomplished that,” responds a still-enthusiastic Easton in a valiant attempt to win back the audience.

Miraculously—even for the Holy Land—he does win them back. That becomes apparent in the following scenes when we see Easton and the rest of the punch-drunk peace corps conversing and laughing it up with formerly angry audience members after the show. It’s not long before similar interactions become commonplace, as larger and braver audiences turn up during the second leg of the trip. At this point it’s clear that Breslin’s sought-after cultural exchange is definitely underway. It’s unclear, however, if Berg halted any progress by eagerly calling the audience’s attention to the mission’s budding success: “It feels like we’re all getting closer,” he says. “Can you feel it? It feels like we’re all going to fuck.”

For the most part, Hecht does a masterful job juxtaposing the “awkwardly hilarious” performances with poignant scenes of reflection and self-discovery that occur as the team tours the birthplace of the world’s three great monotheistic religions. Berg and Easton—self-described “non-religious Jews”—are the most affected by the aura and gravitas of their surroundings. At separate points in the film both men begin to break down while considering their heritage and then suggest that a spark of faith may have been lit by the trip. But, in what turns out to be the director’s only misstep, he cuts too quickly from these genuine emotional moments. It’s as if he temporarily forgets that a cultural exchange is a two-sided proposition and lets his comics off the hook a bit easier than he does their audiences. Hecht allows Easton to run off and Berg to retreat, as comedians often do, behind a solid wall of jokes.

Rebecca Kohler was the most insightful of the comedians and Hecht did himself and the film a slight disservice by limiting her astute observations. As the group’s unofficial philosopher, she deftly contrasts the region’s intense passions with the Western world’s apathy and sees promising signs that the comedy culture in Israel will ultimately succeed, even if it takes a long time to develop. “It’s like immersing yourself in cold water: you start with a toe and then your foot and then go deeper,” she muses. Kohler does her part to push the comedy culture along by declaring one audience “Christianly challenged” and observing that, as far as the Middle East is concerned, it seems as if “Jesus is bigger than the Beatles.”

In all, Hecht’s chronicle of Breslin’s social experiment, A Universal Language, is a brilliant and thought provoking film. But that’s really saying very little given the director’s accomplishments as a documentarian of controversial political topics. What says more, especially in such a departure for him, is that the film is funny as hell because he manages to succeed where many documentarians fail. He fights the instinct to editorialize and suppresses the urge to deconstruct the artistry, which is a death knell where comedy is concerned. Instead, Hecht allows the comic interplay between performer and audience to flourish organically and carry the action. Any comic worth his Dead Sea salt will tell you that that’s where the funny is found.

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Michael Q. Bullerdick

Michael Q. Bullerdick is a New York-based writer and editor whose works have appeared in national magazines, Web-sites, books, and special interest, custom publishing and not-for-profit publications. He’s only recently grown accustomed to his last name. Follow him on twitter: @mbullerdick.

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