Looking at the serious side of comedy

Canadian comic Kristeen von Hagen, who will be here later this month for a two-day conference called Comedy for a Change, feels that "laughter is a good medium to communicate through."

AS PART of the Comedy for a Change conference, writer Mika Almog will be providing the story behind former president Shimon Peres’s hit ‘job hunting’ clip. (photo credit: YOUTUBE SCREENSHOT)
AS PART of the Comedy for a Change conference, writer Mika Almog will be providing the story behind former president Shimon Peres’s hit ‘job hunting’ clip.
(photo credit: YOUTUBE SCREENSHOT)
Can comedy accomplish anything besides making us laugh? Top comedy writers, performers and media executives from Israel and abroad will gather at the Jerusalem Cinematheque for a two-day conference later this month called Comedy for a Change to discuss using the art form to generate positive change in the Middle East.
Among the panels and presentations will be the writers of the American, German and Israeli versions of The Office talking about comedy transcending geographic and cultural boundaries; writer Mika Almog giving the story behind former president Shimon Peres’s hit “job hunting” clip; a panel with Steve Bodow (US, The Daily Show) and Dan Patterson (UK, Mock the Week) about the connection between comedy and the news; comedy writer Ido Rosenthal and Channel 10 foreign correspondent Nadav Eyal presenting case studies in which comedy changed politics and politics used comedy; and Channel 2 news anchor Yonit Levi interviewing the BBC TV director Danny Cohen, about the role of entertainment in generating a social change.
There will also be some actual comedians present, like funnywoman Kristeen von Hagen, the Tina Fey of Canada, who told The Jerusalem Post that laughter can indeed be the best medicine to forge a change in attitude among opposing forces.
“Nothing brings together people like laughter – I know it sounds cheesy,” said von Hagen last week from her winter home in Las Vegas which she commutes to from her main abode in Toronto. “Using comedy, you can make observations in a joking way – but you can still get it out there and say what you want. It helps you be a little bolder.”
While von Hagen wasn’t so bold to suggest that comedy can solve the Israeli-Arab conflict, she did think that it offers a flat playing field without boundaries.
“I think it can help, although I’m not sure it can create common ground. In comedy, everyone’s perspective on what is funny and what is acceptable is so different. But I think that it’s a good medium to communicate through,” said von Hagen, who has been hailed as one of the Top 30 Power Women in Canada by Elle Magazine and in 2012, won the Best Female Comic at the Canadian Comedy Awards.
Although she has never visited Israel before, von Hagen said that she’s aware that the country’s collective sense of humor might be far different – and more cynical – than her native Canada. But she finds cultural differences even between performing in Canada and the US.
“Sometimes, a bit that’s funny in Canada just doesn’t go over in front of an American audience,” she said. “Sometimes things just get lost in the translation, even though it’s the same language. I feel like American comedy is really more about attitude – ‘this is who I am and where I stand on this.’ Canadians are more old-school – ‘I have jokes, these are my jokes!’ Canadians are more into the craft of joke writing.”
When it comes to topics that are taboo or especially sensitive, von Hagen said that there aren’t any restrictions when it comes to jokes.
“I think that if it’s done well, then people will appreciate it, but the key is to be bold and fearless,” she said. “Because nobody wants to hear a cheesy or lame joke about something as serious as, say, rape.
“I mean, there are good rape jokes, it’s just a matter of who it’s coming from and their attitude. On the other hand, there are a lot of unfunny and offensive rape jokes – more than there are funny rape jokes, so it’s risky.”
Von Hagen wasn’t ready to risk being “out there” onstage when she was younger, preferring to stay on the sidelines and make off-the-cuff remarks about the events around her.
“I was more of the observer than the class clown. I think comics can go either way.
They can either be super loud and excited, or they can be kind of quiet and say snide things to a small group of people on the side. I was definitely the latter,” she said.
When she finally entertained the possibility of doing comedy professionally 14 years ago, it took a while before she hit her stride.
“It was something I always wanted to do, but of course I was both a bit shy and a bit weird,” she said. “But the thing with stand-up is that once you start to do it, you realize that no matter what happens you’re not going to die.”
Which brings us back to the serious topic of the Middle East conflict and how comedy can not only ease the tension but also mend fractures.
Comedy for a Change, which is taking place on December 21 and 22, is the brainchild of media maven Omri Marcus, a former writer for Eretz Nehederet and Moadon Layla, the creative director of the Electric Sheep TV video platform and the editor of Omarcus.tv, a blog about crazy TV shows from around the world. According to promotional material for the conference, which is being sponsored by a number of organizations including the Schusterman Foundation and the Jerusalem Press Club, in modern media reality comedy can be a powerful game changer.
It goes on to state that, “In the past year alone, two degenerative diseases gained unparalleled attention due to the careful use of comedy. Seth Rogen cracked jokes between his solemn and heartbreaking descriptions to the US Congress of his mother-in-law’s Alzheimer’s. Months later, millions of individuals around the world recorded themselves getting soaked by ice water in the name of finding a cure for ALS. In short, comedy has the proven ability to spread knowledge and awareness of important problems, and to motivate the masses to contribute to the efforts to solve them.”
Whether that noble goal is transferable to the situation between Israel and its neighbors is debatable. But von Hagen and her fellow participants are willing to cause some laughter attempting to find out. It’s likely they’ll discover that like most everything else in our region, comedy is serious business.
For more information about the conference and registration, go to www.comedyforachange.org.