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— 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 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. It's another to bring people from across the world who dislike each other together — and hope they will laugh at each other.

For what he calls the first Funniest Person in the World competition, Masada 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 Oct. 24, United Nations Day.

"It might sound stupid," Masada says. "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.

Sunda Croonquist, a black, Orthodox Jew who lives in Beverly Hills, pointed out 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," she said.

Soon jokes were flying about wearing a keffiyeh, an Arab headdress, to an airport and watching people cower in fear. 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.

Masada 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.

But can comedy really facilitate peace? United Arab Emirates representative Nitin Mirani, one of the 10 finalists, thinks so. "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."

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