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Pulling the punchlines, NY comedy club plays host to Iran deal debate

Famous for launching star comedians’ careers, Greenwich Village’s Comedy Cellar becomes unlikely venue for a charged parley

Luke Tress is a video journalist and tech reporter for the Times of Israel

At a September 4, 2015 debate at the Comedy Cellar, lawyer Alan Dershowitz and Georgetown Prof. Matthew Kroenig argued against the Iran Deal. Dr. Jim Walsh of MIT and Fred Kaplan, an author and columnist for Slate, were in support of the deal. Harry Enten, a political writer for the news website fivethirtyeight.com, moderated. (Luke Tress/The Times of Israel)
At a September 4, 2015 debate at the Comedy Cellar, lawyer Alan Dershowitz and Georgetown Prof. Matthew Kroenig argued against the Iran Deal. Dr. Jim Walsh of MIT and Fred Kaplan, an author and columnist for Slate, were in support of the deal. Harry Enten, a political writer for the news website fivethirtyeight.com, moderated. (Luke Tress/The Times of Israel)

NEW YORK — The crowd packed into New York’s Comedy Cellar sat at its signature candlelit tables Friday night and ordered the usual mix of martinis, red wine and bottled water. With red bulbs illuminating the stage’s exposed brick wall — seen in the opening of Louis C.K.’s semi-autobiographical hit TV show “Louie” — it looked like any other night at the comedy club that helped launch the careers of stars such as Dave Chappelle, Bill Maher and Sarah Silverman.

But Friday’s audience didn’t come for stand-up comedy: The club was instead the unlikely venue for a charged debate about the divisive Iran nuclear deal.

“Some people told me they didn’t think it was for real, they thought it was a joke,” said Noam Dworman, the owner of the Comedy Cellar. “I can understand that on one hand, but on the other hand, why not?

“If Jon Stewart can be the spokesman for liberal America why can’t the Comedy Cellar hold a debate?” he said.

Initially, people were surprised by notices of the event, but politics and comedy often overlap, said Dworman. Comedians are often interested in politics, discuss political issues in their performances, and can be influential, he said.

For Dworman, whose father, Manny, was born in Israel, the club is the perfect place to hold a debate on the Iran deal. His goal, he said, was simply to get involved in the issue.

The exterior of New York's Comedy Cellar, the unusual venue for a debate over the Iran Deal on September 4, 2015. (Luke Tress/The Times of Israel)
The exterior of New York’s Comedy Cellar, the unusual venue for a debate over the Iran Deal on September 4, 2015. (Luke Tress/The Times of Israel)

“There is a tradition here at the Comedy Cellar for years and years, going back to the times of Jon Stewart and Bill Maher, of political debate among the comedians and among my father and me,” Dworman said. “We were always looking for an opportunity to start debates.”

Dworman found such an opportunity after reading a column by Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard Law professor and frequent outspoken commentator against the Iran deal. Dershowitz had written that he wanted to debate the issue and was willing to take on all comers.

“I said, ‘Let’s give it a shot,’” Dworman recalled. “So we called him and, sure enough, he was true to his bravado and he agreed to come down.”

After signing Dershowitz, it was easy to find other speakers, Dworman said, despite the unusual venue. Dershowitz and Matthew Kroenig, a professor at Georgetown University and author of a recent book about the Iran deal, argued against the agreement.

Dr. Jim Walsh of MIT (left) and Fred Kaplan, an author and columnist for Slate, were in support of the deal at the September 4, 2015 Comedy Cellar debate. (Luke Tress/The Times of Israel)
Dr. Jim Walsh of MIT (left) and Fred Kaplan, an author and columnist for Slate, were in support of the deal at the September 4, 2015 Comedy Cellar debate. (Luke Tress/The Times of Israel)

Dr. Jim Walsh of MIT and Fred Kaplan, an author and columnist for Slate, were in support of the deal. Harry Enten, a political writer for the news website fivethirtyeight.com, was the moderator. He opened the debate with a call for “a free-flowing, fun atmosphere.”

Dworman, who describes himself as conservative, had been closely following coverage of the deal. He has visited Israel eight or nine times, he said, including spending a semester at Tel Aviv University and his honeymoon. He said his activism springs from his interest in the Jewish people and Israel, and also what is best for America.

He quotes the song “If I Were a Rich Man,” from “Fiddler on the Roof,” to explain his motivation for hosting the event.

“In the song Tevye talks about if he were rich, and in the last stanza he says, ‘If I were rich I’d discuss the holy books with the learned men several hours every day, that would be the sweetest thing of all,’” he said. “This is about having the chance to discuss the holy books with the learned men.”

The impetus for the September 4, 2015 debate came from a column in which lawyer Alan Dershowitz wrote he would debate anyone on the Iran Deal. (Luke Tress/The Times of Israel)
The impetus for the September 4, 2015 debate came from a column in which lawyer Alan Dershowitz wrote he would debate anyone on the Iran Deal. (Luke Tress/The Times of Israel)

The Comedy Cellar is housed beneath an old brick building criss-crossed with fire escapes in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. On Friday, the audience flied in through the dark hallway, which is lined with framed photographs of performers at the club, and received a copy of Dershowitz’s recently released book, “The Case Against the Iran Deal,” with their $40 admission.

The speakers took their places on the stage, and the crowd was focused and quiet once the debate began. The room was packed, from the chairs a few feet from the stage to the waiters standing by the staircase.

“I’m stunned by the turnout. I thought no one would be here,” author Kaplan said.

The speakers bickered over the effectiveness of previous agreements, using Libya as evidence a deal could work and North Korea as proof it wouldn’t

The discussion was nuanced and mostly respectful, but the speakers found little common ground. They disagreed on everything from the results of polls, the position of European governments, and what is actually in the 159-page deal. They bickered over the effectiveness of previous pacts, using Libya as evidence a deal could work and North Korea as proof it wouldn’t.

Dershowitz and Kroenig, arguing against the deal, focused on the longer term implications of the accord, saying it would be worthless in 15 years. They advocated for a provisional end to the deal and a more incremental end to sanctions against Iran, and pushed for an agreement that would include ending Iran’s support for terrorism.

Both focused on what was lacking from the agreement and were skeptical of Iran’s intentions. Dershowitz, frequently citing his experience as a criminal defense lawyer, said Iran behaves like a guilty defendant, and would inevitably cheat.

Matthew Kroenig, a professor at Georgetown University and author of a recent book about the Iran deal, argued against the agreement while Harry Enten, a political writer for the news website fivethirtyeight.com, moderated the September 4, 2015 Comedy Cellar debate. (Luke Tress/The Times of Israel)
Matthew Kroenig, a professor at Georgetown University and author of a recent book about the Iran deal, argued against the agreement while Harry Enten, a political writer for the news website fivethirtyeight.com, moderated the September 4, 2015 Comedy Cellar debate. (Luke Tress/The Times of Israel)

Walsh and Kaplan, both in support of the deal, put more faith in the agreement and the opinions of experts who say Iran has given up its pursuit of weapons. They described the technicalities of the agreement as effective and charged that their opponents’ position was mostly speculative.

Walsh and Kaplan argued that international non-proliferation agreements would limit Iran in the future, and that military intervention would be ineffective because the regime already possesses the knowledge and capability to build weapons. Walsh, who has been to both Iran and North Korea, said Iran is not as dangerous as it seems, and the deal was better than any previous nuclear agreements.

‘Iran is not 10 feet tall. Agreements work. We’ve been doing this for 70 years’

“Iran is not 10 feet tall,” Walsh said. “Agreements work. We’ve been doing this for 70 years.”

The debate grew heated, mostly between the more combative Dershowitz and Kaplan, seated at opposite ends of the table. Kaplan charged that Dershowitz and Kroenig actually wanted the United States to attack Iran, and Dershowitz took offense to his opponents’ use of the term “Israeli-American hardliners,” pointing out that he had voted for President Barack Obama twice and opposed previous wars, and that virtually all Israeli politicians oppose the deal.

Dershowitz, who interrupted his opponents and got laughs from the audience throughout the debate, closed his argument saying the two sides disagreed fundamentally on Iran’s current nuclear activities.

“My position is based on the absolute certainty that Iran is actively seeking to develop nuclear bombs now. Their position is that it’s not. If they’re right, they should win this debate,” he said.

The crowd applauded both sides equally, and the debaters repeatedly encouraged the audience to do research and look up facts on their own.

‘My position is based on the absolute certainty that Iran is actively seeking to develop nuclear bombs now. Their position is that it’s not. If they’re right, they should win this debate’

The discussion closed with questions from the crowd. Attendees asked long, thoughtful questions, and the speakers provided equally comprehensive answers. Dworman asked two questions.

He said he plans to do four or five debates a year, and hopes to include politically oriented comedians in the future.

“I think that debate, more than any other mechanism, is the only thing that can really change a person’s mind because people are so partisan now,” he said. “In a debate you actually see your ideas go up against the other side. If you have a little bit of an open mind, debate is likely to make you see things slightly differently, and if that can’t nothing can.”

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