How Omri Marcus Uses Comedy as a Tool for Serious Change

October 26, 2016

This article is featured in the October 2016 edition of The Slice, a monthly digest that offers news, stories, ideas and opportunitieswith a Jewish twist. Below, Sara Ivry speaks with Omri Marcus, comedy writer and founder of Comedy for a Change, an international comedy conference about using comedy for global good. Omri is a member of the ROI Community.

How did you get into comedy?

I didn’t have friends in elementary school…no, I’m joking! Basically, I was always curious about the ways that comedy is an effective tool to generate quick contact with people, with strangers.

I’m not a stand-up comedian. It’s not that I only tell jokes, or something. Comedy writers are usually quite tragic people. I’m fascinated with what makes you laugh. You can tell me what you watch on TV and it’ll tell me so much about you, what you find funny. Whenever I’m giving lectures, I ask the audience, ‘What are you watching on TV?” so I can get to know them better.

Comedy writers are usually quite tragic? How so?

Often, class clowns are not the guys with the biggest muscles. Comedy is usually their way of getting along—they don’t have the muscles to deal with the bullies but they do have the wit and wisdom to stand out.

That’s not necessarily my story, though.

What is your story, then? What was your route into comedy?

After I finished my army service, I started writing for Israel’s most popular comedy show, Eretz Nehederet, which means “What a Beautiful Country.” It’s an Israeli mash-up of SNL and The Daily Show. But then I got the most amazing scholarship to travel around the world with an organization called the Entertainment Master Class, flying to different locations with other TV executives to learn what makes people tick. How do they make game shows in Berlin? What are variety shows like in Canada? It’s fascinating.

After that, I got a development deal with Red Arrow Entertainment Group and for four years, I’ve been developing game shows, reality shows, comedies. I also launched my own start-up, an Israeli-Palestinian partnership originally called the Comic Genome Project. All the technology is based in Ramallah, at a Palestinian company, and all the content is created in Tel Aviv. I’m proud we were able to do that.

We analyze people’s facials expressions while they watch comedy clips on their mobile devices. And now we have started to look at people’s reactions to other genres, not just comedy.

Why monitor facial expressions? 

Because we live in a second-by-second world, and advertisers want to know how people react to every second of content—trailers, promos or whatever—if their eyes are on the screen or looking somewhere else. We can give companies frame-by-frame information.

You also established Comedy for a Change. What’s that?

Comedy for a Change was an international conference that the Schusterman Foundation helped us launch in 2014. Since I was a member of ROI Community, I came up with the idea and my fellow ROIers helped me shape it into an effective concept: a first-of-its-kind conference focused on using comedy as a tool to change the world.

We’ve done a lot to demonstrate how comedy can create social change: peace talks between Israeli and Palestinians comedians, a roast of the city of Jerusalem, a summit that brought together head writers of the world’s best satire shows to discuss how senses of humor differ across cultures. We broke the world record for the most international writers’ room, with 15 writers from 15 different countries writing a sketch together—which will hopefully be featured in the next season of Eretz Nehedert.

We also conducted two pieces of scientific research for the conference: we took old Israeli sketches and showed them to current high school students to see what holds up, and we showed ten Israeli sketches to leading TV executives from around the world to see what passes cultural barriers.

What did you find?

The most amazing thing that we noticed was that half of the sketches were Holocaust-related. In Israel, it’s very common to create comedy around the Holocaust—you’re not making fun of people’s pain, but it’s such a part of our lives, it’s a part of the comedy. The feedback we got was: “Listen, it’s extremely funny, but it would never see the light of day in our territory.” The U.S. is particularly conservative about Holocaust jokes. Almost as much as Germany.

What shows do you like to watch?

That’s a tough one. I love Family Guy; it’s the comedy of comedies. I love John Oliver—it’s a new kind of making television, using comedy to raise subjects that are too complicated for prime time. I love Louie. I like British comedies a lot, and Israeli comedies. They very much represent the Israeli mentality—more blunt, not vulgar.

Between your work and keeping up for fun with what’s on TV (or your iPhone or YouTube) you sound busy.

Yes, and then there’s another thing I’m doing; one day a week I’m helping our family humanitarian organization called Eye from Zion, that my father established a couple of years ago. They bring the best eye doctors from Israel to the most depressed countries to bring eyesight to people in need.

What do you do for them?

Media, PR, raising capital, but it’s one man’s dream—my father’s. He decided this is something that he wants to do, and he established this organization and they’ve been everywhere from Vietnam to Ethiopia to the Maldive Islands. This is the Israeli spirit in the best possible way: you have to do something, you have to make the world a better place. They don’t fly in business class, they do everything pretty much with no gasoline in their car. I’m very proud.

Who are your comedy role models?

I think God—I like his sense of humor. Obviously Woody Allen is by far the best, the godfather. The Marx brothers are also great.

There is a unique connection between Jews and comedy. In the 70’s, over 85 percent of the working comedians in the States were Jewish, which is fascinating. And it started way before Mel Brooks. Comedy is part of our genome.

Why do you think that is?

Because the alternative is not an option. Think about the Jewish comedy that evolved into one thing the U.S. and the rest of the diaspora, and evolved into something completely different in Israel. It all originates from Eastern Europe, where Jews were the storytellers because they weren’t farmers and they weren’t doing all kinds of Gentile work—they went into professions that required them to articulate a topic or tell a story. Comedy, one-liners or jokes are a good way to communicate messages, to give some sort of relevant insight into life, so I guess this is why we sharpened this very effective tool.

Talk to me about the difference between Israeli humor and Jewish humor.

We started from the same concentration camp; yet, when Jews moved to the States, they were a minority in a country where they were worried about fitting in and standing out—things that Israelis have no idea about. “Jewish identity” is not something Israelis have to think about on a daily basis.

Israeli comedy was about people building their countries; all the issues that came with being the majority, about being soldiers in our new country. It evolved from there. We had adopted this Middle Eastern mentality and it developed into something that’s more in-your-face, less subtle. However, Israelis still have a warm spot for Woody Allen movies. We know what he’s talking about with the Jewish mother. I guess the Jewish mother is something that stays.

How does your approach to comedy relate to your Jewish identity?

My Jewish identity is made out of a very long tradition of storytellers, of values, of people who’ve come before me and try to make the world a better place, and in order to get their message across, use comedy to make people join the effort.

Comedy for a Change was two years ago. Are you going to plan another conference?

I can hint that we are doing something. Stay tuned!

The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation is proud to empower emerging leaders to explore their values, identity and new ways to strengthen their communities. We believe that as we work together to repair the world, it is important to share our diverse experiences and perspectives along the way. We encourage the expression of personal thoughts and reflections here on the Schusterman blog. Each post reflects solely the opinion of its author and does not necessarily represent the views of the Foundation, its partner organizations or program participants.