Profile: Avi Liberman ’93
“Everybody has off nights, but when it’s working, it’s a great feeling.”
Early in Avi Liberman’s career he worked part-time at a school. One night he’d be on TV with a guest spot on a sitcom or on The Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson and the next morning at work, people would say, “Hey, I saw you on TV last night! Can you go do carpool?”
A few years ago, Avi Liberman ’93 was traveling around Afghanistan performing for American troops. He befriended a pilot who took him and another comic, Butch Bradley, along on a mail run to a base on the Iranian border.
When they landed, a guard asked who the soft-looking civilians were.
“We’re comedians,” Liberman told him. And Bradley offered to prove it by doing a show.
The guard’s face lit up, and he got his buddies together in a compound usually off limits to civilians. Liberman and Bradley did 10 minutes for 10 guys with no chair, no microphone, no glass of water, just their backs against a brick wall. Soon the pilot told them they needed to leave. They thanked the troops, the troops thanked them, and they left.
“I wouldn’t trade that experience for an appearance on a sitcom anywhere because that felt way more rewarding to me than any TV appearance I’ve done,” says Liberman, who graduated with a double major in political science and Judaic studies.
When Liberman got into comedy in the late ’90s, it was going through a bust period. Johnny Carson had retired, and The Tonight Show no longer launched careers like it once did. And people didn’t go to comedy clubs like they used to.
But the tales of standup’s heyday remained. And Liberman listened to them all, confident that while standup might be wounded, it wasn’t dead.
“I listened to those guys who went through the boom era of the late ’70s and throughout the ’80s,” Liberman says. “I talk to guys who have been doing it longer than me, and I always try to learn from the guys who have way more experience than I did.”
Some lessons, however, have to be suffered in person. Liberman tells the story of working on a cruise ship traveling from South America. He was onstage in a 1,500-seat room that had about 300 people in it, and 70 percent of the audience didn’t speak English. “So it was basically me on stage talking to myself for 10 minutes. It was just pointless.”
A seasoned comic can look at an audience, size up the mood and know whether the set is going to be good or if it’s going to be a challenge. “So even when you have shows that are going to be tough, you just roll with it,” Liberman says. “Everybody has bad shows. Everybody has off nights, but when it’s working, it’s a great feeling.”
Now, Liberman is prepared for any audience. He isn’t considered a topical comic, but if something in the news strikes him as funny, he’ll do a joke. He has enough material to cover 45 squeaky-clean minutes for orthodox rabbis or an hour at an edgy New York City club.
Liberman has had three appearances on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson and spots on Comedy Central’s Premium Blend and NBC’s Last Comic Standing. But much of his time is spent using his comedy to help others. Twice a year (“basically it’s a part-time job”) Liberman organizes Comedy for Koby to benefit the Koby Mandell Foundation, which helps Israelis who have had a family member killed by terrorism.
“I’ve brought Craig Robinson from The Office, Jeffrey Ross from the Comedy Central Roasts, Harlan Williams,” Liberman says. “These are not chumps.”
Liberman believes that being yourself onstage is a good way to connect with an audience. “I think that you have to be honest onstage. Those are the guys who are the best,” he says.
When he first started in standup, Liberman was reluctant to incorporate his Jewish identity into his humor. But as his acts became more personal and he realized audiences were expecting a few Jewish jokes, he relented. “I might as well just embrace it and be who I am,” he decided. And that was when his career began to take off.
Recently the Jewish Limmud Fest flew Liberman to London to perform and talk about comedy. Liberman turned it into a mini tour, playing throughout England and Germany. It wasn’t a lucrative tour (“the goal is to break even or not lose a lot”), but it gave him exposure and experience, which, to a comedian who talks about his life, is just as important. Before a show in one of London’s tougher neighborhoods, he joked, “I’m probably not going to be doing the Jewish holiday material.”
He might want to try. Surely, it would be worth at least one good joke.
More at: http://aviliberman.net/