No laughing matter

Danish-born Muslim Omar Marzouk is one of diverse group of comedians coming to Jerusalem for the annual ‘Comedy for a Change’ conference.

Danish-born Muslim comic Omar Marzouk (photo credit: Courtesy)
Danish-born Muslim comic Omar Marzouk
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Humor, as most professional comedians will tell you, can be a serious matter.
After all, most stand-up guys and gals don’t just hit the stage and begin spouting. A lot of preparation goes into their shows, and serious consideration is given to current affairs, social issues, political conundrums, religious topics and practically any and every aspect of life.
All of the aforementioned is fair game to comics, but just how far can they go? How important is comedy to our lives, and can it actually make a difference? These questions and many more will be attacked, manhandled, probed and – probably – lovingly caressed, at the Comedy for a Change international conference, which will take place at the Jerusalem Cinematheque on December 21-22.
Conference curator Omri Marcus has lined up a glittering array of guest speakers, from across diverse professional terrain and cultural hinterlands. BBC Television director Danny Cohen is in the non-Israeli lineup, as are British television producer and writer Dan Patterson, who thought up the hugely successful acting improv show Whose Line Is It Anyway? ; American TV and film writer and producer Lee Eisenberg, whose credits include working on smash sitcom The Office and The Daily Show; executive producer Steve Bodow; and Danish Muslim stand-up comedian and producer Omar Marzouk.
There is a pretty decent local team on board for the conference too, including Matzav Ha’uma (State of the Nation) satirical TV show presenter Lior Schleien; Channel 2 anchorwoman Yonit Levi; TV editor Muli Segev, whose CV includes a long stint on the Eretz Nehederet comedy panel show; and Natalie Marcus, a scriptwriter on the highly successful, hard-hitting The Jews Are Coming comedy show, who also happens to be the spouse of Comedy for a Change’s curator.
The male half of the Marcus couple is no newcomer to the field. He is a seasoned comedy writer whose credits include working on Eretz Nehederet , and writing for leading American and European newspapers on the topic of Israeli television. All of which, he says, gives him a special perspective on life and the world about us.
“The dynamics in the scriptwriters’ room are very interesting,” notes Marcus. “Comedy is also fascinating because it offers you insight which you wouldn’t normally have. Watching a comedy show is like getting hold of a history book which nobody ever reads. Comedy can galvanize people; there is a chemical reaction in the body when you laugh at comedy.”
Creating funny material about current affairs, says Marcus, puts you in the thick of things. “When you write jokes, you constantly think about reality and what is going in everyday life, and you break all that down and reassemble it,” he muses.
Marcus also has a far more serious, and hands-on, side to his waking-hours activity. He works with the voluntary Eye from Zion organization, which carries out medical humanitarian work around the globe, particularly in the third world.
The combination of the latter work with breadwinning comedy pursuits spawned the forthcoming conference.
“I have always been interested in the confluence between these two areas,” says Marcus. “It is fascinating to see how comedy gets people to listen in a very loud world. Somehow, comedy cuts through all the noise and causes people to take an interest in something.”
Marzouk certainly believes in the power of comedy to offer a gentler, less threatening take on people and things around us. The 41-year-old Danish-born comedian’s mother is Egyptian, and he lived in Cairo himself from the age of six months to three years – so that already gives him a special perspective on how comedy works in different cultures, and where red lines can be drawn.
Marzouk is coming here to take part in a panel discussion which goes by the no-holds-barred name of “The Non-Diplomatic Peace Talks.” In it, he will be joined by Jordanian-born and Brooklyn-raised director Ghazi Albuliwi, with the Jewish side of the discourse comprising Schleien and Canadian-born Israeli comedy scriptwriter Daniel Lapin. “I think it’s going to be a lot of fun,” says Marzouk.
As a stand-up comedian, Marzouk is used to challenging social standards and treading as closely as possible to the etiquette minefields, hopefully without setting any explosives off. Also, having comedians and other relevant professionals from different parts of the world at the conference offers an opportunity to get a handle on how cultural baggage colors what is considered to be funny, and what might be thought of as just plain offensive.
We know, for instance, that African Americans can generally use the N-word with impunity when addressing fellow members of the community, just as Jews can mostly make fun of their brethren without being accused of being racist.
Around 20 years ago, the then-highly popular and groundbreaking Cameri Quintet comedy troupe ran a sketch about a puny-looking Israeli athlete being given a 10-meter start on his far larger, non-Jewish running rivals after representatives of the Israeli athletics team to the Olympic Games in Germany played the Holocaust card. So, for instance, would Marzouk, as a Dane and a Muslim to boot, deem it acceptable to tell a joke about the Holocaust? “I actually once had a sort of Holocaust joke I told,” he admits. “I used to do it until a Jewish member of the audience came up to me one night and talked to me about it. It kind of put it in a different light for me, and I never did the joke again. That was the time when I walked over the red line.
“Sometimes you don’t completely understand what it is you’re talking about, because you haven’t experienced it for yourself.”
Some years ago, while on a previous visit to Jerusalem – his Israeli trip schedule included a performance at the Camel Comedy Club in Tel Aviv – Marzouk gained some insight into what it might feel like to get caught up in a suicide bombing.
“I’d read about the bombings, of course, but it wasn’t until I was standing at a bus stop in Jerusalem that it actually hit me, what that was. You can understand things intellectually, but sometimes you have to be out into a situation to really understand what it is you’re talking about.” Thankfully, he did not get firsthand experience of being caught up in a terrorist attack.
But does Marzouk really feel that having a laugh, and making others laugh, can make a difference – and generate social and possibly political change? The Danish comedian evokes a line recited by the character of Tuco – a.k.a. The Ugly – in cult spaghetti western The Good, The Bad and The Ugly . When confronted with an armed man who explains at length how he’d been searching for Tuco for months in order to kill him, Tuco simply fires first, noting philosophically: “When you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk.”
Marzouk believes when you’re joking, you ain’t gonna be killing anyone. “Comedy can sometimes be a vehicle for getting people to talk about things,” he reflects, “which would be a step in the right direction.”
He adds that overzealousness in the religion department can preclude having a chuckle or two. “I think that people who are fundamental in their beliefs do not have a sense of humor, because in order to laugh at something you have to have the ability to look at things from different angles. If you are so rooted in a belief, you often cannot be surprised or able to see something from another perspective. Then, it’s very hard to make those people laugh.”
Patterson has had people splitting their sides for well over two decades now, and is possibly best-known as the brains and heart behind the wildly popular improvisa - tional acting comedy show Whose Line Is It Anyway?, which started out in Britain and successfully crossed the pond, and is a hit on American TV to this day.
Having his brainchild do so well in two different societies and cultural conglomerates may possibly make Patterson something of an authority on how comedy accom - modates different cultural codes, and appeals to people with differing life backdrops. In fact, Patterson does not see the British-American divide as clear-cut at all.
“I don’t think there is a British humor and an American humor,” he says. “If you analyze all types of British humor and American humor, you’ll find they are very broad.”
And there is much common ground. “I also think a lot of the humor in both countries meets in the middle. You could argue that there are differences in style between British humor and American humor. The Americans have come up through improv, and they are scenic and very much stay within the scenes. I’d say that with the British crowd – people like [ Whose Line Is It Anyway? participant] Paul [Merton] have had a very extensive background in improv but, for instance, Paul’s approach is to sort of stand outside the scene and comment on it. Then you have [fellow show participant] Tony Slattery, who does not come from improv, so he has a different style.
“If there was any one difference, I’d say the British are more into gags and one-liners, and the Americans are slightly more into character and scenes.”
It should be noted that Patterson is not exactly a stranger to the American psyche, having spent some of his early, formative years living in the States while his dad taught at Cornell University in upstate New York.
Being Jewish doesn’t do any harm either.
“I think the American comedy rhythm is a kind of Jewish rhythm,” posits Patterson. “One of the interesting things about American comedy: the way people talk to each other is quite Jewish. I don’t know if that is because there are so many Jewish writers, or because the Jewish idiom has sunk so deeply into American popular culture. For either reason, it is there.
“If you watch Friends , for instance, the way they talk to each other in that heartfelt and aggressive Jewish way.”
There is fun and interest everywhere you look in the Comedy for a Change lineup. Take, for example, the “Using Comedy to Change the World” competition launch, which asks whether comedy can really convey important messages, as “four of the top Israeli Internet moguls compete to create the next Ice Bucket Challenge.”
Later on in the first day, Cohen will be interviewed by Levi about the role entertainment plays in generating social change. There will also be comic master classes; the “That’s What She Said” slot, in which writers and executives of the American, German and Israeli versions of The Office talk about comedy transcending geographic and cultural boundaries; and Patterson’s synergy with Bodow about the symbiotic relationship between comedy and the news.
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