Nuclear Iran

09.24.13

Comedians For Diplomacy: 'Give Peace a Dance'

Five years after Barack Obama entered the White House with a promise to engage Iran diplomatically, signs from Tehran indicate that the Islamic Republic, too, may be ready to talk. But there are still forces—in Iran, in America, and in Israel—that don't want talks over Iran's nuclear program to even get started. That's why some proponents of diplomacy have decided world leaders could use a little extra push to get to the table and cut a deal. The latest iteration of that push comes from an unexpected place: two comedians. And they're doing it in an unusual way: by dancing.

That's the idea, at least, behind the new video, "Give Peace a Dance," a well-produced web short that's part brainstorming by the comics, Maz Jobrani and Elon Gold, and part them dancing a ridiculous, choreographed dance in ridiculous costumes. But they did the dance for a reason: "How do you make people watch it in this day when people watch cat videos or Gangnam Style or a cat doing Gangnam Style?" asked Jobrani rhetorically in an interview. "You could've put up an expert lecturing on the dangers of war, but I'm guessing that wouldn't have gotten a lot of hits." Instead: dancing. "Hopefully it will be seen by a lot of people and some of those people will be inspired to be involved or educate themselves on this issue," Jobrani said.

Video screenshot

The two comedians were brought together by the Ploughshares Fund, a San Francisco-based group dedicated to nuclear non-proliferation, and Portal-A, a web video production house, to get people talking about diplomacy. "We both believe that there are diplomatic solutions, and we don't like bombing," Gold told me in a phone interview. "We don't like standing there and bombing and we don't like watching bombings. Because it can still be averted, let's do something." (Disclosure: when I worked at the Center for American Progress, Ploughshares was supporting the Center's work.)

The video begins with Jobrani and Gold sitting together on a couch trying to think how they can benefit the cause of peace. "We're comedians, so we're not equipped to do much," says Gold in the video, suggesting they could "give peace a chance." Jobrani points out it's a "very dated" idea—Gold's face gets superimposed with John Lennon's face—and after some cricket sound effects, Jobrani slaps Gold's knee and says, "I got it!" The result: Give Peace a Dance. And a motley cast of characters—is that a guy in a chicken costume?—does just that. The website for the video asks viewers to send a letter to world leaders—and share videos of their own dances for peace.

The pair was enlisted for their respective backgrounds: Jobrani is Iranian American and Gold is Jewish American. "They only came to us because Seinfeld and Ben Kingsley weren't available," Gold jokes in the video, adding that Kingsley once played a role as an Iranian. And because they're comedians who aren't afraid to take on serious causes. Jobrani said, "They asked me if I'd be interested in doing something for nuclear non-proliferation. And I said, yeah, that sounds like a good cause."

Jobrani is much more of a peacenik. "I'm very much a proponent of peace," he told me. "Even when we went to war with Iraq—which isn't Iran, it's a different country—I was against the war." Gold, who lost much of his Eastern European family in the Holocaust, thinks war can be just as a last resort. "If you like war, you're a lunatic," he said. But "I'm not against military intervention if it's completely necessary."

Yet they agree that diplomacy with Iran stands a chance of working, and should be tried. "We don't have the exact same views on everything," Jobrani said, "but this was something we agreed on—y'know, nuclear non-proliferation—and we want reduced tensions between Iran, the U.S. and Israel." Gold echoed the sentiment: "We both believe that there are diplomatic solutions, and we don't like bombing, he said. "Because it can still be averted, let's do something."

When comedians say "do something," of course, they mean make jokes. "I love when comedy has a purpose and it’s just sort of disguised in silliness, but it has a message," said Gold. "The facade is just goofy guys dancing, but behind that is a message. To me that's comedy at its best." Both comics talked about how having children gave them perspective on caring about the more serious things in life. "Children put everything in perspective. Children make you care about everything," Gold said. "If this was happening when I was in my 20s, I would say let them work it out, I don’t really care." (Both men's answering machines feature their sons telling callers to leave a message for their dad—though they didn't know it. "I guess we're on the same wavelength," quipped Jobrani.)

What will Give Peace a Dance accomplish? "It's not like I think, y'know what, I just did a goofy dance in a leotard and I think people will respond to this," said Gold. "The idea that two comedians can do anything to stop world war three is comedic in itself, that they turned to us and said these two jokers can do something."

So far, though, people have responded. After its first weekend online, the video has more than 100,000 views on YouTube. These sorts of grassroots efforts can swell up, Jobrani said. "The biggest strength that we have for peace is our numbers. If we have enough people that are proponents of peace and nuclear non-proliferation, we have enough people to affect decision makers to not go down the wrong path." If the early rumblings of diplomacy between the U.S. and Iran at this week’s U.N. General Assembly are any indication, it just might be working.