Alan Dershowitz will be the headliner this Friday night at the Comedy Cellar, the storied club in Greenwich Village.
That’s not a joke. But Dershowitz won’t be doing any stand-up. Instead, the Harvard Law School professor (now emeritus) is part of a panel that will debate the merits of President Obama’s Iran deal. He’ll be joined by Georgetown professor Matthew Kroenig, MIT scholar Jim Walsh, and Slate columnist Fred Kaplan.
Dershowitz’s most recent book is titled The Case Against the Iran Deal, so it’s a safe bet that he will not come out in favor of the Iran deal, which now appears to have the Senate backing it needs to survive a Congressional challenge.
So, why is a political debate happening in a comedy club? Club owner Noam Dworman told Tablet that his late father, who owned the Comedy Cellar before him, loved debate and politics. “He and Jon Stewart used to have knock-down-drag-out fights about whatever was going on at the time.”
Dworman had been looking for a chance to host some kind of political conversation in the club. He was also following the Iran deal debate closely. When Dershowitz, in a Boston Globe op-ed, wrote that he would “gladly debate any responsible administration defenders on the deal’s merits and demerits,” Dworman saw an opportunity. And when the professor agreed to come, Dworman canceled a sold-out show and prepared to turn the Cellar into a salon.
Some key questions you may have: what do the comedians think of all this? “They love the idea that the club is doing things for high-minded reasons,” says Dworman. Is the event free? N0. There’s a $40 cover, but it includes a copy of Dershowitz’s new book. Will anybody add a little stand-up to the debate? Perhaps wisely, that’s not part of the plan.
As for holding political conversations in a comedy club, is there really that much of a line between stand-up comedy and political commentary? Performers like Jon Stewart and John Oliver have built their careers by mixing elements of each. “Comedians have taken on the role of public intellectuals,” Megan Garber argued on The Atlantic‘s website earlier this year, citing Amy Schumer’s sketch comedy about sexual violence, The Daily Show‘s lineup of stars and spin-offs, and the work of comedy duo Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. And while pundits are rarely funny (at least intentionally), good political commentary can be its own kind of provocative performance.
Instead of bringing comedy into the spaces of politics, the Comedy Cellar is pulling the political wonks onto the comics’ stage. Dworman plans to host more debates, on different subjects, and maybe with comedians playing some kind of role.
For now, it’s hard to think of much that’s less funny than nuclear war in the Middle East. Then again, it’s also the kind of topic that you wouldn’t, say, bring up casually among new acquaintances. And those are exactly the kinds of topics that good comics and good debaters alike are most eager to broach.
Michael Schulson is a freelance writer in Durham, North Carolina. He writes about religion, science, and culture.