In an abrasive, candid and outspoken Israeli, THEO PANAYIDES meets a man who went from a physical battering in the only thing that combines sport with theatre – wrestling – to the agony of a stand-up comedian
I make sure to watch Leeor Brooks’ stand-up comedy show ‘A Well-Travelled Schmuck’ the night before our interview – he performed at Plato’s Bar in Nicosia – just so I know what to ask, though in fact the show seems rather limited. No jokes about coronavirus (he’s apparently working on material now). No jokes about Cyprus, even though he’s been stuck here for the past few weeks, having escaped the virus situation – not Covid itself, but the strict Covid measures – in his native Israel. Above all, hardly any jokes about his previous career as a wrestler, when he fought for about six years as The Chutzpah (an old Yiddish word meaning extreme or outrageous self-confidence) and delighted crowds with signature moves like the ‘Krav Maga Kick’ or the ‘Chosen People’s Elbow’.
Instead we get jokes about 31-year-old Leeor himself – his Jewishness, his status as a Jew who looks (by his own admission) more like a neo-Nazi, his atheist Jewish mother, the people he’s met on his travels as wrestler and stand-up comedian (pride of place goes to Asbjorn, an aloof Norwegian who called our hero a “doofus”), and of course his ex-girlfriends. The kinky Russian back in his hometown of Netanya who asked him to shove a Dove deodorant up a certain orifice (his, not hers). The German girl with possible Nazi tendencies. The “Slovak gypsy” who informed Leeor that he wasn’t classically handsome, and indeed – if we’re being honest – that his face took some getting used to. How much of this is true, anyway?
“About 70 per cent is true,” he replies, sitting outside at Pieto on Ledra street on a boiling-hot Friday afternoon. “The rest is, like, making a situation more extreme.”
Did he actually shove a can of deodorant up his bum?
Hopefully that was in the 30 per cent.
His stage presence grabs you by the throat (unsurprisingly, for a former wrestler) – and he does get some laughs, but the crowd at Plato’s aren’t entirely won over. He knew straight away, he sighs, you know from the first few minutes if a crowd will be receptive; “Half of you are going to be with me,” he thought to himself, “the other half are just going to stare at me”. His style, after all, is abrasive, his appearance a little alarming – pale and shaven-headed, with a ginger goatee – and his emphasis on Jewishness doesn’t necessarily resonate with a Cypriot audience. I’m a Jew, he declares at one point, I have a licence to make you laugh – a claim oozing chutzpah, yet not entirely unjustified. What is it about Jews and comedy, anyway?
“It’s like in our bones, in our DNA. I never met somebody from Israel who didn’t make me laugh… Oh wait, my father. But he’s British!”
Mr Brooks is indeed from Manchester – hence Leeor’s physical appearance, which caused him a great deal of grief in his school years. Did he grow up in a particularly rough part of Netanya? “Netanya is a rough part, period! Especially to be ginger, a white ginger… Like, you have five different types of Jews in Israel, and everybody hates each other.” He was mostly targeted by Moroccan Jews, and bonded in seventh grade with the only Ethiopian Jew, a weird outlier like himself – which was also the year he narrowly avoided getting stabbed by a knife-wielding classmate. (His assailant, he adds, is now in prison for extortion, so you can see the kind of people he was dealing with.) He was “kind of quiet” as a boy, the youngest of three brothers – but it’s no surprise, under the circumstances, that the quiet kid became an amateur boxer and later a wrestler, even if he also studied Film and was always creative. “Obviously my mother wanted me to become a lawyer,” he sighs. “So obviously I failed miserably.” Jewish mothers, what can you do.
I suspect he might’ve made a good lawyer; he loves an argument – and of course being in court is a kind of performance, just like pro wrestling and stand-up comedy. “It’s like I have to do some sort of sport or theatre,” muses Leeor. “I just feel I need to do it”. His dream was to be a footballer, like Eric Cantona – but he also made a couple of short films (he’s working on a TV pilot now, with another ex-wrestler) then turned to the only pursuit that combines sport and theatre. “When I was 23 I just decided, ‘You know what, I always wanted to do pro wrestling. Fuck it, let’s just do it!’… I actually owe pro wrestling a lot, because it really improved my self-confidence – but still, every time before you go to the ring, or before you go onstage, you’re gonna have some butterflies going on. And you need to take a shotgun and shoot every butterfly, otherwise you won’t go onstage.”
How much of wrestling is fake, anyway?
Leeor winces: “Don’t like the word ‘fake’. ‘Predetermined’.”
But the pain is real?
“Pain is real! I’ve got scars on my body, man. Sometimes I wake up at night from pains in my back, from wrestling, from when I took some moves – not incorrectly, just really dangerous moves that I agreed to take. Basically we agree to take the punishment. But it’s still punishment.” He shrugs lightly: “I’m not saying all pro wrestlers are friends. I’ve got enemies. But still, when you’re in the ring with another pro wrestler there’s this code, there’s respect, and you’re never going to intentionally injure somebody. Unless somebody owes you money,” he adds, “then it’s a whole different ball game – I’m not even joking about that, there’s a guy in Israel, he owed me a lot of money and we had a match”. Leeor nods grimly: “I mean, I didn’t kill him, but I made sure he knows that ‘You owe me money’.”
If you’d killed him he wouldn’t have been able to pay you back, I point out.
“Exactly! And I’m a smart Jewish wrestler, so I have to think about the outcome.”
Some wrestlers pull their punches in the ring; Leeor wasn’t one of those wrestlers. “I’m very physical,” he says. “And I expect my opponent to do the same. That’s how I got, like, two or three concussions.” His persona was also belligerent, the man you love to hate, riling up the audience; The Chutzpah aimed Krav Maga kicks at opponents’ groins, and delivered his patented elbow drop while praying and wearing a yarmulke. An article from The Times of Israel, dated July 5, 2018, describes his interaction with a crowd in Prague: “‘Your country stinks! Your president is corrupt, he’s a drunk!’ he hollered as the audience booed, many of them smiling. ‘Everybody here tonight can kiss my ass!’.”
There’s no doubt he’s confrontational (though how much is real, and how much is theatre, remains a moot point). I ask for a funny story from his time in Greece, one of the many places where he’s performed – and some might respond with something self-deprecating, a story of having committed some amusing faux pas, but Leeor tells a tale of getting into two fights on the same day, first with a taxi driver, then a restaurant waiter. He doesn’t really do vulnerable. We agree that his two careers are similar – in fact, he says, “I think pro wrestling is the best boot camp for a comedian” – but I note that the general dynamic seems a little different in comedy: the audience have the power, insofar as they decide (by laughing, or staying silent) if you’re successful or not. “No, I don’t agree,” he replies. “I think that I still have the power. I always have the power, that’s how I see it.”
Some may find his views objectionable, or at least excessive. He loathes political correctness, takes a dim view of feminism, thinks the world’s response to coronavirus is a huge overreaction, and believes in children being smacked. (That last one comes up in relation to the new generation, the youngsters who’ve never been smacked but are actually “the generation that needs to get smacked the most”; though only 31, he feels “a huge gap” between himself and today’s internet-weaned teens.) If Leeor came off angry, his views might indeed be alarming – yet he doesn’t seem driven by rage, let alone hate. He’s candid, outspoken, endlessly curious, on the left of the political spectrum (please don’t conflate Netanya with Mr Netanyahu, he begs me). He’s direct, for sure; he sparked a little shockwave at Plato’s by jokingly calling a woman in the audience a ‘bitch’ (“I regret that,” he says now). His main motivation, however, seems to be a compulsive desire to push himself – and a laddish, but nonetheless sincere wish for freedom.
That’s why he chafes under the strictures of ‘You can’t say that’ culture. That’s why he chafed under life in Covid-ridden Israel (masks are compulsory even outdoors, apparently). His lifestyle is wonderfully free, or was until the virus intervened: he has no agent, simply treks around Europe looking for venues where he can perform, trying to build a fanbase – he was managing six to eight shows a month, pre-Covid – meanwhile meeting people and having fun whenever possible. Call him a well-travelled schmuck; call him a wandering Jew, if you must. The fact remains that he’s living by his wits (and wit), bending an audience to his will in far-flung places (Bulgaria is especially receptive to his jokes, apparently), piling up real-life material and flitting from girlfriend to girlfriend, trying to dodge that scary word ‘monogamy’.
Monogamy is a bit of a problem for Leeor; short-term relationships are fine, but he starts to get antsy after a while. (Marriage is a red line, don’t even ask about that.) There’s a reason why you’ll always notice men looking around when they’re in a relationship, he notes, their eyes playing the field without meaning to, “because they feel unsettled, it’s like something is not natural”. He believes in men being men, as he puts it (though women also test the limits of monogamy, just less often), which includes a certain portion of caveman behaviour. “How can you have no manners?” he recalls his Slovak ex asking indignantly when Leeor behaved “like a barbarian” in public; “I’m like, ‘Well, you’re not complaining in bed!’. So what do you expect? I’m a well-mannered barbarian, but I’m still a barbarian at heart”.
The ladies don’t seem to mind, overall, hence the catalogue of exes in his show – not to mention the Brazilian girl who talked him into doing stand-up in the first place. “You can do that!” she insisted as they watched Jamali Maddix on TV – and Leeor had just survived a near-death experience at the hands of a negligent promoter, plus he’d always wanted to be a stand-up comic anyway (his icons include George Carlin, Billy Connolly and Lewis Black; abrasive loudmouths all), and the rest is history. That was three years ago – and the only problem, he admits, is his timing, this being the worst possible time for the kind of politically-incorrect comedy he enjoys doing. It’s an inauspicious time for freedom, at least his kind of freedom.
Some might say he’s wasting his life. Surely he’s unlikely to break through till he finds an agent and does things more professionally. Surely his lifestyle – however fun – isn’t really viable. Maybe he should’ve been a lawyer after all, or perhaps a filmmaker (the latter is still on the cards, of course). But it’s not just about breaking through – it’s also about self-fulfilment, working through some demons from the past, his childhood Israel of bullies and fights and suicide bombers (his early teens coincided with the second intifada), and it’s also about living free and doing what needs to be done, scratching an itch in his psyche so intense and mysterious he’s not even sure how it got there. “I love the attention and hate it at the same time,” sighs Leeor. “I live a contradiction, basically.”
Well, okay – but pro wrestling and stand-up comedy? Battering his body in the ring, then setting out to charm laughs out of total strangers? Either one of those may be seen as reckless and traumatic – yet he’s done both. Why does he do this to himself?
“Money?” offers Leeor Brooks – then laughs dryly, knowing that’s not it. “No, not money. I don’t know, it’s a drug. It’s a drug, it’s a very painful drug. The adrenaline you get from it…” He shrugs, trying to pin it down: “It’s mainly just, I think, to release something from the inside… Because I really wanted to become a football player and didn’t make it, I decided that everything I want to do I’m just going to do it full-force, you know? Damage to my body, or my mind, whatever – I’m just gonna do these things, you know?”. To quote that apocryphal actor: ‘Dying is easy. Comedy is hard’.