Chuckling toward a change

A conference seeks to use comedy as a social tool.

Mika Almog (photo credit: Courtesy)
Mika Almog
(photo credit: Courtesy)
From time to time, former president Shimon Peres asks his granddaughter, comedy writer and producer Mika Almog, for writing advice. On one occasion several months ago, he asked her to look over a document he had written instructing youth in the values that guide public service, titled “A Letter to a Young Friend.”
“I think the idea of speaking to young people is fantastic,” she told him. “But if you want them to listen, you have to speak their language.”
The comedian, an executive producer on the longrunning satire show Eretz Nehederet and a columnist for Haaretz, instructed Peres to use a format young people would appreciate: short-form comedic video.
The result was an Internet short that rapidly went viral. In it, the 91-year-old prepares for retirement from the presidency by searching for new jobs, including as a gas station attendant, a pizza deliveryman and a grocery cashier.
The making of that sketch – which has over 600,000 views on YouTube – is the subject of Almog’s master class at the JJJ Comedy for a Change Conference in Jerusalem this month. The December 21 conference at the Jerusalem Cinematheque focuses on how humor can be used to advance messages of social and political progress.
“Using comedy as a tool is a way to make that message a lot more compelling – it makes the message more ‘sticky,’” says Justin Korda, executive director of the ROI Community, a network of Jewish innovators and a partner in the conference.
“People remember comedy,” he says. “I can recite to you lines from comedy movies I saw when I was a teenager much better than any textbook I read in high school.”
Korda hopes the conference will help teach the entrepreneurs and professionals with whom he works how to use comedy to “improve their message.”
In addition to the marketing value of comedy, the conference explores humor as a method of approaching taboo topics, including a panel called “Springtime for Hitler” – a reference to the musical from Mel Brooks’s comedic film The Producers. The panel description warns: “Not for fragile ears.”
Almog, who has edited a satire insert in Haaretz called “Bona Bona” for two-and-a-half years, is no stranger to looking at serious issues with a not-so-serious lens. Before it was recently canceled for financial reasons, “Bona Bona” approached issues such as honor killings, Arab and Jewish terrorism, and – of course – the Holocaust.
“People are interested in the angle of examining our life in this crazy place through humor,” says Almog. “Humor is often a platter on which you can serve content which would otherwise not be very well received or be very difficult to get across.”
Readers don’t always respond positively to Almog’s irreverence, although she says her dissidents are mostly “people who read headlines and don’t really bother to understand what you’re talking about.”
One of the “Bona Bona” pieces that drew the ire of some readers was an article suggesting several career paths for Seth Macfarlane after the comedian and actor headlined the 2013 Academy Awards with the song “We Saw Your Boobs.”
Following the performance, which detailed scenes in which famous actresses had exposed themselves on film, “Bona Bona” lampooned the piece that Almog described as “vulgar and offensive and abusive” by suggesting Macfarlane might serve as the CEO of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum.
“Obviously the joke was not about the Holocaust,” she says.
“The joke was about this man who sees a horrible pile of bodies and all he can see is, you know, more boobs.”
Nonetheless, the piece elicited negative responses from readers, including one who wrote in to say he was canceling his subscription to Haaretz.
Almog insists that no topic is too extreme to approach through humor.
“There are no issues that are taboo as long as I’m certain of where I’m pointing my arrows and have a full understanding of what is being criticized,” she says.
Her writing in Haaretz runs the gamut of styles – from comedy to poignant fiction – and of topics – death, motherhood, and, yes, boobs.
A recent column titled “A Brief History of My Breasts” told a woman’s biopic through her bust, from its development as a teen, through her pregnancy, to her eventual mastectomy, fusing an ironic tone with aching tragedy.
Almog also writes two recurring pieces in the form of ongoing WhatsApp conversations – “a format I’m told I invented,” she says.
But her presentation at the conference will focus on her most recent hit, the Peres video, which is just as much about the ex-president’s theories of civil service as it is about the gimmick.
“Each scene had to relate back to one of these principles and guidelines,” she says.
Korda says he hopes the would-be change-makers with whom he works will heed that example and use comedy to separate themselves from the pack.
“In today’s world, there’s no shortage of good causes that are out there, and social activists these days are very much competing with one another for attention, for fund-raising,” he says.
As part of Jewish philanthropic organization the Shusterman Family Foundation, the ROI Community seeks to arm innovators with resources to turn their vision into reality, Korda explains. Among those resources are the skills necessary for successful branding.
“One of the ways to differentiate your cause and what you believe in is really in the messaging,” he says.
In that vein, the conference brings together two normally disparate groups of people: comedians and nonprofit professionals.
Among the events to which Korda says he looks forward are a contest that pits groups of nonprofit professionals and comedians against one another to come up with the next viral comedy hit (with a socially responsible message), and a round of speed dating that seeks to breed connections between the two groups.
The conference has a number of headline-worthy guests, including an opening interview with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat. Also presenting are BBC Television director Danny Cohen, and Steve Bodow, executive producer of The Daily Show.
More information is available at