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‘Comedy Hug’ Benefit for Israel Takes Over Gotham Comedy Club

Gotham Comedy Club had a full house last week for the Comedy for Koby event.

The tables inside Gotham Comedy Club in Manhattan filled in anticipation for a lineup of all-star comedians thanks to the highly popular Comedy for Koby tour. Like its Israel-based counterpart, the Comedy for Koby event at Gotham on April 9 was a benefit for the Koby Mandell Foundation, an organization which helps victims of terror and tragedy in Israel. Attendees geared up to hear performances from Dean Edwards, Gina Brillon, Mark Normand, Cory Kahaney and Mike Vecchione — all thanks to the hilarious Los Angeles-based comedian Avi Liberman, founder of Comedy for Koby, and frum stand-up extraordinaire Eli Lebowicz, who worked with Liberman to organize the evening.

“Avi has been instrumental in getting these amazing lineups to come to Israel and to show comedians that Israel is not what the media makes it out to be,” Lebowicz shared with The Jewish Link. “We’ve been talking for a while about self-producing a Comedy for Koby show here, and we settled on booking [Gotham Comedy Club] in the city so we could get top-notch talent.”

SNL alum Dean Edwards

Liberman only recently started organizing shows in North America and has been running Comedy for Koby in Israel for 15 years, a need that has recently grown in the wake of the Oct. 7 attacks. “I started bringing comedians to Israel in 2003 following some of the suicide bombings, and it was really just to uplift people’s spirits,” Liberman recalled. “Eventually, we needed a charity to latch onto, and after being turned down by multiple Jewish organizations for sounding ‘too good to be true,’ we finally got connected with the Koby Mandell Foundation and the rest is history.”

Over the years, it became clear to Liberman that comedy was an essential part of dealing with tragedy. “You can tell that people really need this more when times get tough,” he shared with The Jewish Link. “During the last tour we did, when the war started, I stayed in Israel and had someone reach out to me to say ‘I need a break, can we arrange something?’ Within two days, we sold out that show just from some Facebook posts.”

Gina Brillon channeled her Bronx roots for a hilarious set.

“We’ve been involved in horror for six months, and we can have one lighthearted night to raise money for the cause,” Lebowicz explained. “There’s a very big fear of antisemitism and of showing our Jewish identities, but having a night like tonight can stall some of that. It’s a night to feel like we can laugh in Jewish pride.”

Lebowicz’s assessment — that a night like Tuesday’s “Comedy Hug” was much needed to dispel fear and anxiety — was absolutely correct. As comedians took the stage one by one, each made reference to the proudly Jewish audience and was met with applause and cheers. Even surprise guest Jim Gaffigan, the world-famous comedian who frequents Gotham, opened his set with the quip: “I’m a special denomination of Jewish … I’m Catholic.”

The lineup moved through plenty of relatable content, both Jewish-oriented and not at all. “Saturday Night Live” alumnus Dean Edwards nailed impressions of his own family and both Chris Rock and Will Smith during the Oscars debacle of 2022; Cory Kahaney had the audience roaring with a pointed rant about wanting to be “part of the 1%.” Gina Brillon roped in the locals with her New York-themed set, drawing on her experiences as a Bronx native. Mark Normand brought his edgy punchlines, amusing attendees of all ages from secular all the way to Orthodox.

Comedy legend Mark Normand

“I really don’t think the content for [Comedy for Koby] has to be Jewish,” Liberman noted. “For me, it’s even funnier when you have non-Jewish comedians come and give their perspectives. Especially in Israel, they’re seeing it with different eyes, and that just makes it so much more fun. And part of my ulterior motive is to bring these guys to Israel and make them emissaries when they come back.”

Mike Vecchione, one of the comedians to have gone with Liberman to Israel for a Comedy for Koby tour, opened his set by announcing he is “not chosen” but that he “still takes all of his Christian Mingle dates to Israel,” a line met with plenty of laughs. It became clear over the course of the evening that all of the comedians who took the stage not only believed in the cause thanks to the efforts of Liberman, but were also eager to give the local Jewish community some relief from tragedy.

“I don’t think having a moment of joy is inconsistent with loss,” Lebowicz shared, noting that Jewish tradition is scattered with plenty of moments that are juxtaposed with both: crushing a glass at a wedding to commemorate the destruction of the Temple, or sharing happy memories of loved ones while sitting shiva. “And certainly, a perpetual state of sadness doesn’t help the world.”

Dan Naturman made a surprise visit and closed the night with a bang.

“They say that comedy is ‘tragedy plus time,’ but how much of each? There’s no right answer, of course,” said Liberman. “On my recent visit to Israel, I got some flack for it and was told it may have been inappropriate, but hundreds of people who came disagreed. We figured it was time to bring that here.”

Once they settled on doing a New York show, Liberman and Lebowicz sought the help of Chari Pere to design promotional materials, PR specialist Jeff Newelt to help get the word out and comedy writer Rob Kutner, who along with Liberman put together a show like this in February at LA’s Laugh Factory that raised $25,000. “We really couldn’t have done it without them, and of course, without Gotham Comedy Club being incredibly accommodating to us. I would say that this was really a success,” Lebowicz said. He closed the show’s planned lineup with a set of his signature frum and Israel-relevant humor, leading into a surprise visit from “America’s Got Talent” star Dan Naturman, leaving everyone in stitches as they headed home for the evening.

(l-r) Avi Liberman, all-star comedian Jim Gaffigan, Eli Lebowicz.

Donations for Comedy for Koby can still be made to the Koby Mandell Foundation at www.kobymandell.org/donate.


Channa Fischer is digital editor at The Jewish Link.

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