LOS ANGELES (AP) — It was last summer and Israeli-Palestinian tensions were at the highest they’d been in some time when Jamie Masada hit on a formula for world peace: Forget about guns and bombs, and just tell jokes to each other.
The onetime stand-up comic is, after all, the owner of the venerable Hollywood nightclub The Laugh Factory, so the idea wasn’t unfamiliar. Still, it’s one thing to get a liquored-up audience laughing at lines like, “Take my mother-in-law — please.”
It’s another to bring people from across the world who dislike each other together — and hope they will laugh at each other. And yet, that’s what he’s trying to do with what he calls the first Funniest Person in the World competition.
Masada has scoured comedy festivals from Afghanistan to South Korea and Egypt to Israel for candidates and had online voters winnow the list to 10 semi-finalists who would perform at the Laugh Factory and before a worldwide Internet audience on Monday.
After online voters narrow the list to five, the finalists will travel to the Laugh Factory’s sister club in Las Vegas. There, following another competition and vote, the winner will be crowned on Friday, October 24, United Nations Day.
“It might sound stupid,” Masada says. “But some people, they sit down, they break bread together, they never hurt each other. Some people, they sit down, they laugh together, they never hurt each other.”
He says he has already seen the approach work — at least on a small scale.
During the latest Palestinian-Israeli tensions, Masada, an Iranian-born Jew, got the idea of defusing them for at least one night by hosting a comedy exhibition featuring locally popular Jewish comedians sharing the stage with their Muslim counterparts.
The idea was that both sides would get together and learn a little something about each other. Instead, both sides gathered on opposite ends of the club and engaged in an unnerving stare down that prompted Masada to star the show early.
Sunda Croonquist, a black, Orthodox Jew who lives in Beverly Hills, opened things by pointing out to the audience that white people frequently mistake her for Puerto Rican: “I tell them there are two groups of people who know that I’m black.
“Other black people and the Beverly Hills Police Department,” Croonquist said.
Soon jokes were flying about wearing a keffiyeh, an Arab headdress, to an airport and watching people cower in fear. Or of mischievous Muslims who crank up Persian music on the car stereo because they have found it frightens white drivers even more than hip-hop.
And, suddenly, both sides were laughing.
“At the end of the night they were hugging each other,” Croonquist marveled, and Masada was off in search of the world’s funniest person.
Some suggested he might save time simply by putting in calls to people like Dave Chappelle, Jay Leno or numerous others who have headlined The Laugh Factory over the past 35 years. But Masada was having none of that.
The comedy impresario wanted an Olympics-style competition, and even if the contestants weren’t strictly amateurs — which they aren’t in the Olympics, anyway — they would be from all over the world.
So in Europe he found Mustapha El Atrassi, a French-born Muslim comic who sometimes dons a helmet and parodies the French music duo Daft Punk.
“They say we hide our faces to keep up the mystery,” he tells the audience in thickly accented English as he impersonates both members of Daft Punk. “But it’s not true. We just hide our faces because we are very ugly.”
From Finland was Ishmo Leikola, who says he has found the solution to America’s national debt problem: don’t pay it. “The country has an army. The bank has four cashiers and a cleaning lady.”
Masada, meanwhile, learned that comedy already is an international sport.
“I’m looking forward to the competition because the Chinese guy, the Pakistani guy are friends of mine and I’ve crossed paths with a couple of the others on the comedy festival circuit,” one of the 10 finalists, United Arab Emirates representative Nitin Mirani, said during a phone interview — from India.
But can comedy really facilitate peace?
Mirani, for one, thinks so, if you spread the jokes far and wide enough. “I think comedy is one of the most sincere ways of entertaining and educating people,” he says. “I connect with you, you connect with me and we have a good time.”