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Amid Mideast Conflict, An Attempt At Comedy

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

The conflict in the Gaza Strip may not seem like rich material for jokes, but last night, a bunch of comedians gave it their best shot. In New York City, the Gotham Comedy Club hosted a night of Israeli and Palestinian humor. NPR's Robert Smith went to the show to see who's laughing during wartime.

ROBERT SMITH: If you are going to joke about tragedy, pick your audience carefully.

NORRIS: Comedy is hard enough. You don't want an angry crowd - you know, people like, we don't want these guys, now bring him on.

SMITH: Dean Obeidallah is a standup comedian from a Palestinian family. As the co-creator of StandUp for Peace, he has taken a show of Israeli and Palestinian humor around to mostly college campuses. But a Jewish group in New Jersey just canceled the show for this weekend.

NORRIS: Their email to us that due to the loss of life, hundreds of civilians being killed, that they didn't think it was appropriate.

NORRIS: They felt that this wasn't the time.

SMITH: That's Scott Blakeman, a Jewish comedian who is the other half of StandUp for Peace.

NORRIS: This is when you really need it, when times are tough and things are tense and people are marching and yelling. That's when you need to bring people in a room together and say, hey, let's talk, let's laugh. And hopefully, that'll carry over in what they're doing in the Middle East.

SMITH: That's a tall order for a bunch of jokes, but what the heck? The group Seeds of Peace, which brings together Palestinian and Israeli youth, sponsored the night as a fundraiser. Usually at a club, somebody warms up the crowd, but in this case, Leetha Horrie(ph) from Seeds of Peace sort of cooled the place down.

NORRIS: We're having blood being shed every day, so if you guys right now or maybe later can take a moment of silence...

SMITH: It would not be the only sober moment of the night. Whenever the comedians try to directly tackle the situation in Gaza, you could hear crickets. Like when Scott Blakeman talked about Israel's foreign minister.

NORRIS: When Tzipi Livni said there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza. That's what she said. There's no humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Then she - right after that she said, and the earth is flat. So, she's really in tune with things happening, but...

SMITH: Oh, that's an unintentional moment of silence right there. Maysun Zayad(ph), a Palestinian comic who just got back from Gaza, also ventured into uncomfortable territory.

NORRIS: The real reason I went to Palestine was because I wanted to catch a husband, and I felt like Gaza was the best place to do it. It's kind of like shooting fish in a barrel. Ask the IDF, they'll swear by it.

SMITH: IDF is Israel Defense Forces. The comedians all had better luck when they joked about the situation more obliquely. You have to twist the joke at the end so it doesn't make you wince. Dean Obeidallah talked about just getting back from a Middle Eastern tour.

NORRIS: Do you guys know this? All the American chains are through the Middle East, the Arab world, like, Starbucks, McDonald's, KFC. The one American chain not in the Middle East - and it kind of makes sense to me - Target. There's nobody wants the word target and a bull's eye in the front of their store in the Middle East.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SMITH: And the easiest way to get through the night is to act like comic Eugene Merman: Make a joke about how uncomfortable the whole situation is.

NORRIS: Do you think, what are the chances, though, when we get home and turn on the TV, we'll be like, holy [BLEEP]. It worked. Peace. It's peace.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SMITH: And then segue into your usual routine.

NORRIS: I saw that Linens 'n Things is going out of business. I know, it's so sad. My first thought was, should have been more specific.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SMITH: OK, it's not world peace, but it was a decent laugh for the Jewish and Muslim audience, who, let's face it, don't mind the distraction. Tallison Derwich(ph) from Israel loved it.

NORRIS: It's great. It's great. It's releasing. You know, the war is so depressing, and you need something to laugh at.

SMITH: Consider it a mental cease-fire for the evening. Robert Smith, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Robert Smith
Robert Smith is a host for NPR's Planet Money where he tells stories about how the global economy is affecting our lives.
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