It’s not every day the man responsible for overseeing the majority of the output of BBC TV rolls into town, but Danny Cohen was the perfect guest to have at this week’s Comedy for a Change conference at the Jerusalem Cinematheque.
The 43-year-old director of BBC Television was here to attend the high-profile comedy-oriented entertainment event, and to answer questions from Channel 2 News anchor Yonit Levi, enlightening the cinematheque audience about the role of entertainment in generating social change in the process.
Cohen, whose BBC purview takes in drama, comedy, history, science, religion, formats and entertainment, is a firm believer in the power of funny-bone tickling to set social and other machinations in motion.
“I think comedy can do that in a number of ways,” he states. “First of all, I think people have a basic need to laugh. Laughter is a basic and intrinsic human need, especially in this part of the world. So I think you can use it as a tool to draw people together. Things that make people laugh do cross divides, and I think we can probably use comedy to do that.”
Taking a more left-field angle on situations can, according to Cohen, also have the desired effect.
“I think satire is another very important way in which comedy can change things. I think any country that has a strong tradition in satire, that is often a signal of a strong democracy, as in Britain,” he posits, also observing that we aren’t doing too badly in that department either. “I think there is now quite a strong satirical tradition in Israel too. I feel that more in the last decade or so, and I think that is a good indicator of a strong democracy, that you can use satire to hold people in power to account. So I think you can use comedy very effectively to do that.”
One wonders whether Mr. Netanyahu and his cabinet colleagues would appreciate that line of thought. It seems there are also humanitarian benefits to be had from providing others with a good laugh.
“You can use comedy to raise money,” says Cohen. “It’s a very powerful way of raising money for good causes.”
Okay, so we’ve all had a good laugh, or at least most of us. But what about treading on people’s toes? Surely, someone somewhere is going to feel offended by some gag or other, and does Cohen feel that there are red lines to just how far you can take a joke? And what about the all-pervading PC factor? “The real challenge of it is that everybody has a different place where they draw their lines, and that can make things very difficult,” he observes. “If you’re a comedian you try out jokes and see where they go, and if you work for a broadcaster you have to make overall judgments about where the line is.”
That can be a tricky business, and Cohen says that, on occasion, he has had to tread warily since taking over the BBC TV reins in April 2014.
“Sometimes you cross the line, for some people, but you’ll defend the joke. I’ve been in a number of situations where I haven’t actually liked the joke but I defended the comedian’s right to make it. It can’t be about my personal taste, or about where my red line is. I need to make a judgment about whether the quality and the strength of the joke justify its use, even though it will offend some people.”
Another star guest on the Comedy for a Change roster, Dan Patterson, who created highly successful improv comedy show Whose Line Is It Anyway? and satirical vehicle Mock the Week echoed that sentiment when he related how the theme of one edition of the latter show was flooding in the south of England, and how that prompted an angry response from a viewer whose home was badly damaged by the deluge. That particular unpleasantness was happily sorted out by the disgruntled woman being invited to the shooting of the next show, and all, thankfully, ended well.
And what about the Jewish contribution to the British comedy scene? The American entertainment industry is, of course, awash with iconic Jewish directors, producers, actors, comedians and writers, the likes of Woody Allen, Jack Bruce and the Marx Brothers, and The Daily Show executive producer Steve Bodow, who took part in the conference. But the situation is very different in the UK.
“There are only around 300,000 Jews in Britain, out of a population of over 60 million, so we are talking about a tiny minority,” notes Cohen. Still, Brits of a certain vintage may recall a Jewish actor called Warren Mitchell (né Misell) who played the rambunctious and staunchly non-PC cockney character of Alf Garnett in the popular 1960s-‘70s sitcom Till Death Do Us Part and, of course, there is the similarly social- niceties-challenging Sacha Baron Cohen.
“And there’s [comedy writer and actor] Matt Lucas, from Little Britain, and [writer] Robert Popper who does a great British comedy called Friday Night Dinner, about a [secular] Jewish family that meets on Friday nights. That’s on Channel Four,” says Cohen. “And, of course, Dan Patterson.
So there are some really great names. I talked about all of them about this conference, and they were all genuinely interested in it.”
Despite the relatively low profile of Judaism on the British side of the Pond, presumably events in this part of the world can have a bearing on how Jewish entertainers present themselves to audiences who may identify them with the political morass in the Middle East.
Cohen says he has noted the rise in anti-Semitism in Europe in recent years, possibly fueled by criticism of Israel’s actions, which Cohen finds “deeply troubling.” He adds that the BBC can do its bit to offset the negative view of this country.
“I think we have to report news accurately. I think it is important that the BBC plays it role in reminding people of the mistakes of history,” stresses Cohen. He is also working in this area. “I have put together a season of programs, for January on the BBC, to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps. We are also doing a drama called The Eichmann Show which is about the televising of the Eichmann trial in Israel. That’s quite a big thing for us. And we are doing documentaries as well.”
Although pretty familiar with this part of the world, Cohen may not be entirely au fait with all the subtleties of life here and how, whether you like or not, a seemingly innocent act can be misconstrued as having some political baggage. With that in mind, is the BBC executive mindful of how his visit here may be interpreted by the British media and public? “I don’t really care,” he says frankly.
“I have got my family here and I am proud to be Jewish, and I am proud of Israel, and I believe in Israel.
That doesn’t mean that I agree with everything the Israeli government does. I am not going to tell you with I think about what the Israeli government does. What I try to do is leave my political opinions at home when I go to work for the BBC. That’s the job I’m paid to do.”