There are many who say that love is the universal language.
After all, while we may all experience love in one way or another, if we're being completely honest there are many people who live their daily lives devoid of this "love" that so many consider to be a universal experience. We may love. We may be loved. Yet, there are far too many people who live lives that are lonely and isolated for me to be able to truly consider love to be a universal language.
Laughter? Laughter, on the other hand, seems to penetrate even the darkest soul and darkest life experience. What's the old saying? "If I don't laugh, I'll cry," I sometimes think to myself.
I can't imagine ever meeting the person for whom laughter is not a vital ingredient in everyday life.
As an infrequent and not particularly gifted stand-up comedian on top of being a writer, I will confess that I found myself a little surprised when I stumbled across A Universal Language as one of the official selections of the 2014 Wet Your Pants Comedy Film Festival in Indianapolis, a festival raising funds for the National Kidney Foundation and celebrating the memory of festival founder Brian Pearce's brother, Steve Pearce.
In my third of serving on the jury for the festival, I've had the thrill of evaluating many wonderful comedy films and a few films that maybe weren't so wonderful.
A Universal Language, which picked up the festival's Best of Fest award, is truly wonderful.
Directed by Igal Hecht, A Universal Language finds its inspiration from a project started by Canadian comedy guru Mark Breslin, founder of the Yuk Yuk clubs and a central figure in Canada's comedy scene. Breslin hand picks a core group of six comics to headline a tour to Israel for what will prove to be a culturally and socially enlightening experience for the comics and their audiences. The comics include Aaron Berg, Nikki Payne, Jean Paul, Mike Khardas, Rebecca Kohler, and Sam Easton - all six being veteran Canadian comics with somewhat varying approaches to comedy and this potentially challenging experience.
While A Universal Language only logs about 80 minutes in running time, Hecht manages his time well and manages to give us what feels like ample time to get to know Breslin and his comics while not shorting us on the actual experience of touring in Israel. Hecht does a terrific job of balancing the religious and political significance of this tour, but not doing so to such a degree that that the film feels like propaganda or short-changes the efforts by this group of comics.
As an American, I'm aware that our own media can all too frequently stereotype broad generalities that don't necessarily always apply. While there's certainly a layer of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within the film, A Universal Language is much more about the bridging of cultures than it is anything else. It's interesting to watch how these comedians, with occasional guests also showing up, deal with the cultural differences and their own stereotypes,
Rebecca Kohler, for example, proves to be a particularly perceptive comic who is able to adapt her usual routine with a high degree of sensitivity and insight while still, on occasion, challenging the status quo. If you've ever watched a truly gifted stand-up comic read their audience, you'll likely be enthralled by the remarkably in tune Jean Paul, whose ability to read an audience is inspiring to watch even as he's able to both engage with and disarm tensions.
There are other moments in A Universal Language that are surprisingly dramatic, at least for a film in a comedy film festival, and it's refreshing that Hecht doesn't make light of them here such as when the group visits the Holocaust Museum and the Western Wall. These are scenes when you see the humanity of the comics, yet you also see it in a way that allows you to understand how they connect that humanity to their humor. This is one of the very few films that draws that connection clearly in a way that informs and entertains.
There's no question that there are tensions in A Universal Language, partly because at least a couple of the comics are a tad more risque' and partly because it takes a little bit for the comics to fully integrate that, much like is true in the United States, what's good for one area of Israel isn't necessarily good for another.
Unquestionably my favorite film from the 2014 Wet Your Pants Comedy Film Festival in Indianapolis and the first feature documentary to play the festival, A Universal Language is an intelligent, emotionally honest, and remarkably funny film that provides insight into the comics and the world in which they find themselves.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic