"Women often fear being out there, not just performing - everything that feels a bit bold or in people’s faces. I want to encourage women to be out there, the more out there we are, the more visible we are, the more normalised we are in our own society, which means we can do anything."
By Isabella Ford
Interview from 2016
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The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Human rights lawyer
Features writer - Kol Ha’ir newspaper, Jerusalem
News Editor - Kol Ha’ir newspaper, Jerusalem
Deputy Editor-in-Chief - Kol Ha’ir newspaper, Jerusalem
Journalism Fellowship from Reuters Institute, University of Oxford
Senior Associate Member - St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford
Freelance journalist, including The Guardian, New Statesman, Independent
How did you find your university experience and what societies were you a part of?
I was very politically active at university - when I started, it was halfway through the First Palestinian uprising, the Intifada. I joined CAMPUS - a Jewish-Arab political group. We had a lot of demonstrations in solidarity with the Intifada in and out of the university.
We got into all sorts of skirmishes and conflicts with the university disciplinary bodies. I worked whilst I was studying for Leah Tzemel, the human rights lawyer I ended up working with afterwards. She was representing Palestinians in military courts.
What did you go on to do next?
I went into journalism in 1997. I started working for the then very popular Jerusalem based weekly Kol Ha’ir.
In 2002, I was offered a fellowship in Oxford from the Reuters Foundation. I wrote a paper about The Guardian’s coverage of the Second Intifada and then I stuck around Oxford for another year as a senior associate member in St. Antony’s College. That's when I wrote my book Disenchantment: The Guardian and Israel, which is about the history of The Guardian’s coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the last 120 years or so.
After that, I moved to London in 2005 and worked as a freelance journalist and I translated books from English to Hebrew.
In 2009 when I was 39, I had a heart attack at the gym. This experience led me - be it directly or indirectly - to start comedy about a year later, so I’ve been performing as a stand-up since 2010.
What do you think it was in particular about that experience that led you to comedy, was it something you had always wanted to do?
No, comedy as an undertaking had never occurred to me. I never watched stand-up, I knew it existed but I never attended a stand-up comedy night - I even had a friend who was quite keen on it and kept trying to lure me.
But I had always been considered quite funny and after you have a heart attack and you’re so young, you think, ‘My god, my life is over’. It throws you into a little bit of a depression.
It was that year when I gave wedding speeches at the two weddings of two close friends, and they were quite well received. At the second wedding, there was a guest in the audience called Chris Morris, who’s a very famous comedy writer that worked on Brass Eye and directed Four Lions (needless to say, I had no idea who he was at the time). He said to the groom, "Who’s this girl, who is her agent?" Kit replied, "I’m her agent and I will see to it that she does it professionally".
He then arranged for a group of friends to buy me a comedy course for my 40th birthday, which was a few months later in 2010. I started performing in June that year. I went to an open mic night, I was terrible, but I just got hooked on it and never stopped.
It is now my sixth year. I’m very much at the beginning of my career, I’m still not making enough money to make a living off of it so I work as a journalist and as a duty editor in a company called GRNlive, which is an international correspondence agency. But I’m doing more and more professional gigs and I’m enjoying it very much.
You started as a human rights lawyer and have now ended up as a comedian, a drastic change of scene - would bouncing between potentially very different careers be something you would recommend to other women?
It’s very hard to recommend this kind of career because it is very erratic and it’s not very profitable - I don’t want to get into trouble with anyone’s mother.
I would definitely say that if you do have the type of personality which makes you want to try different things, if you’re curious and ambitious and you don’t want a linear career, then it is okay to have a varied life. It is important to keep engaged and keep interested.
When you do different things, you still develop and become an enriched person. I think we really have to bear our personality in mind when we choose our careers. Although, we can’t always choose our careers, sometimes our careers choose us.
I feel like this is what happened to me - I wanted to become a lawyer mainly for ideological reasons. I wanted to represent policy in the West Bank and Gaza in court. I was also attracted to a specific element of it which was, in retrospect and unsurprisingly, the element of performance.
But there were other things about that were hard for me: it was hard to work every day in an office, hard to stick to pieces of paper for twenty years. Most of all, it was very hard on me as a young person to have a job which made me responsible for people’s lives, especially in the line of law that I chose. In court it was very much up to my performance whether somebody was going to go home the next day or go to prison for twenty years, and this freaked me out somewhat.
So I do know that towards the end of my law-years time, I was not in a good way - I was 26 and I was feeling that my life was over because I’d already gone to university, I’d already done my law degree, I’d already done my articles. I remember my only consolation was thinking, ‘Well, I can retire in forty years, I can look forward to that’. Now I know that If you don’t want to do what you’re doing, you can just move away from what you are doing. And I did.
I took some therapy, which I also recommend, because I was having a big crisis. I didn’t understand what was happening to me, I always wanted to be a lawyer and once I made it, I just couldn’t handle it.
And then I realised what I really wanted to do was journalism, so I just went to this newspaper, started as a freelance, was very quickly a features writer. I was talented at it, I was very excited about it and it was another way to fulfill my sense of social commitment and political involvement that I had as a lawyer.
There’s more than one way to do what you’re doing and you won’t always know when you’re twenty. Sometimes you keep finding out every five years that there is something else around the corner that you want to try, and that’s okay, as long as you make sure you make some kind of a living. It does have its price, I know that my way of life has made it difficult for me to have a family and has made it more difficult financially, but it has made my life more interesting and, for me, worth living.
Have you found your experiences as a female comedian to be different to those of a male comedian?
It definitely brands you as a minority comedian. There is a lot of talk about women in comedy which thankfully is beginning to change a little bit.
When I started in comedy, which was only five years ago, there was very much a sense that women were a minority. The course I took had sixteen people in it and only three of them were girls - I was the only one who carried on doing comedy of the three.
In my first few years, you would come to an open mic night and there would be anything between twelve and twenty comedians on the lineup, I would be the only woman, and if there actually was another woman they would put one of us in the first half and one of us in the second half to “not confuse the audience”. The fact that all the comedians were white, male and 27-years-old did not seem to confuse the audience at all; But the fact there were two women, one 40-years-old and white and the other 23 from Ghana – oh, now that would REALLY throw the room into havoc, wouldn’t it?
I would look at a Facebook thread and there would be comedians, new comedians, male comedians saying, "Look, you just have to face the fact that women are not funny, that’s just a fact". It's true that women socially were not encouraged to be funny, they were not encouraged to be out in public at all. I think our male counterparts welcome us and appreciate us more nowadays.
Of course there are good female comedians, terrible female comedians and mediocre female comedians, but I think the more comedians that are going to be there, the easier it will be for some of us to become very good. I think this is already happening, we are seeing more and more popular female comedians.
Sometimes you’ll be in a lineup and a man or a woman will come up to you and say, "Oh, I normally don’t like female comedians but I actually thought you were extremely funny". I didn’t believe these kinds of people existed but trust me, they do. What I would like now is to reach the stage where people judge us as comedians full stop and say, "Oh, I like Daphna Baram" or, "No, she absolutely sucks’" Don’t judge it on the criteria that I am a woman, judge it on the criteria that I am a comedian.
Where would you suggest that a young woman looking to get into the comedy industry should start?
I think they should start by going to watch a comedy night or two - this sounds like stating the obvious, but so many people start doing comedy without watching comedy and I am one of them.
There were people who came to the comedy course and got asked, "Who is your favourite comedian?" and half of them were unable to answer the question.
So check it out, go to an open mic night, see how it works, watch some comedy, watch some specials, see if there’s anyone you like, it will definitely help.
I think that would be my secondary piece of advice, my first piece of advice would be that if you want to do it, do it. Don’t think about it - people are going to tell you, "It’s a competitive world and there’s no money in it," which may be true. But if you are like me in the sense that you have a constant need to express yourself and you like performing, comedy is amazingly rewarding. All it takes is a mic and a box to stand on.
Which women in the world personally inspire you?
I was personally inspired actually by Lea Tzemel, the lawyer I mentioned, who, in a political atmosphere that completely made it out of the question, went and became an advocate for Palestinians in Israel at a time when they were completely invisible. This was twenty years before the First Intifada and she fought for what she thought was right.
The other woman is my mother, who lost her arm in 1967 in the Six-Day War and was very brave - she raised myself and my brother on her own without any complaining about the things that other mothers do.
Would you consider yourself a feminist?
Yes. Of course. The attack on feminists these days is absolutely sickening. There are different branches, different waves, far too many for us to get into it but I think everybody, not just women but men too, should be a feminist. Anyone who isn’t a feminist should be bloody ashamed of themselves!
Feminism now talks about how men behave in public spaces, the way in which they take space and intimidate women, the way they behave on the tube and in the street. We do need to take the time to look at how we explain these things as we can sometimes talk about it in an alienating way. I still believe feminism does way more good than bad.
If we want to have equality, we do have to feel as safe and as secure as men in public spaces, which is why I’m in awe of everything that is being done today.
What is the one main piece of advice that you have picked up over your professional life that you would like to pass on?
If you’re passionate about it, do it. If you want to be a corporate lawyer, not many people are going to try and stop you, but if you want a career that has an element of creativity in it, people are going to say, "Oh no, it’s competitive, it’s hard, why would you want to be out there? You’re so brave."
Comedy is not brave! People climb into burning buildings to save others, that’s brave. I personally think I was far braver going to military court in Israel when I did law. I was interviewing Hamas people in caves, why would I be scared of getting on stage and telling a few jokes? What’s the worse that can happen – they won’t laugh?
Women often fear being out there, not just performing - everything that feels a bit bold or in people’s faces. I want to encourage women to be out there, the more out there we are, the more visible we are, the more normalised we are in our own society, which means we can do anything.
But to be normalised does not mean we have to conform or to change our opinions or our style or our way of doing things to match those of men. Being normalised means that these new attitudes are going to become a normal part of society - this is the way towards equality.