Last month, on a blistery winter night during Chanuka, nine Aaron Cohens met at a table in the back corner of Katz’s Deli for some pastrami, pickles and beer. There were two students (one med, one urban studies), a WNYC radio producer, a freelance TV writer, a digital artist and a rapper, also known as MC AC. They were introduced to each other by another Aaron Cohen, a 41-year-old Internet entrepreneur–turned–filmmaker. After serving as CEO of MenuPages for the past year and selling the popular restaurant-information site to New York magazine this summer, he began friending Aaron Cohens on Facebook and coaxing them into participating in his documentary, tentatively titled The Aaron Cohens. The Katz’s event was their first meeting.
“This is Aaron, Aaron, Aaron, Aaron, and, this is Aaron,” Mr. Cohen said, patting the back of one bespectacled Aaron Cohen, who hadn’t taken off his coat yet.
Another Aaron Cohen, a 24-year-old videographer from Philadelphia, was recording as Mr. Cohen, the Internet entrepreneur, interviewed each of his guests, asking questions about their Jewish heritage, Bar Mitzvah themes and relationships with women—especially their moms. One admitted he hadn’t kissed a girl until two weeks before his high-school graduation. Another said his mother told him to call as soon as he was done with his interview, to let her know how it went. MC AC, a dirty-blond in a dark hoodie, is called Maz Gan—Hebrew for air-conditioning—by his friends. He broke out a freestyle rap: “I got the kids singing, Aaron Cohen he’s our hero, taking the rap game back to ground zero.”
“There’s 1,187 Aaron Cohens in the world,” Mr. Cohen, the Internet entrepreneur, said, saying he came up with the number by researching social networking sites and White Page listings. “We’re going to try to meet all of them.”
Mr. Cohen, who has salt-and-pepper hair and a wily grin, got the idea for the film about 10 years ago, when he was living on the Upper West Side. “I looked up my name in the phone book and there were eight Aaron Cohens living between 72nd Street and 96th Street, just on the Upper West Side, you know, just between West End Avenue and Central Park West,” Mr. Cohen explained on a frigid afternoon last week. He was at Katz’s again, getting his pastrami fix, along with his director of photography (full name: Aaron Thomas Fisher-Cohen), who was setting up a camera to document this Observer interview. “I thought it’d be so cool to just meet those Aaron Cohens and make a film about it called ‘My Dinner With Aaron Cohen.’ But then the Internet took off.”
And it took him with it! Mr. Cohen, a Washington, D.C., native, has held chief executive positions at several Web-based start-ups in New York. In 1995, he started selling advertising for Icon CMT, a New Jersey–based Web hosting and IT consulting business. (His boss was Shawn Gold, who went on to serve a stint as MySpace’s senior V.P. of marketing.) In 1996, he started business school at Columbia and co-founded both Concrete Media and Bolt.com, one of the first social networking sites. He finished his M.B.A. in 1998 and served as Bolt’s CEO from 2003 through 2007, until he became CEO of MenuPages last January, and negotiated the sale to New York in July.
“I’ve been an Internet executive my whole life, my whole career, and I love the Internet,” Mr. Cohen explained to The Observer last week. “But I think I was searching to do something a little bit different. And I just, I’m 42, 41, I’m going through whatever midlife crisis I’m going through. So it’s about searching for Aaron Cohen through meeting other Aaron Cohens.’”
“And by doing so, he meets himself,” said Mr. Fisher-Cohen, poking his head from behind his camera. He has a mop of dark brown curls and quips with Mr. Cohen in tandem. “Aaron keeps saying that a good Jewish film hasn’t been made since Woody Allen slept with his stepdaughter.”
“Dude, don’t butcher my material,” Mr. Cohen interrupted. “The line is: When Woody Allen started sleeping with his stepdaughter, nobody made another good Jewish comedy again. … Our ambition, our hope, we’re first and foremost about making people laugh.”
Mr. Fisher-Cohen was skeptical about the film when Mr. Cohen messaged him through Facebook a few months ago. But on Dec. 22, at the first round table of Aaron Cohens at Katz’s, he saw the potential of the project. “When I met these guys, I really saw where this film could go,” he said. “It’s bringing together this group of very honest, nervous characters.”
A 30-year-old freelance TV writer named Aaron Cohen, who has worked for NBC and currently writes for a boxing show called 24/7 on HBO, came from his Upper West Side home to meet the guys who share his name at Katz’s that night. “As much as you look in the mirror every morning and say you’re the only Aaron Cohen, you know there are more out there … and these guys, they all sort of made sense as Aaron Cohens,” he told the Observer over the phone. “You’d think that, like, you might be like offended or slighted or taken aback that somebody has your name. But it wasn’t like that. After sitting and bullshitting for a while, you realize you have a lot in common.”
“It was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before,” he said.
SO FAR, thanks to Facebook, Mr. Cohen has friended about 96 of the 1,187 Aaron Cohens in the world.
He found a car salesman who lives in Omaha named Aaron Cohen. There is an Aaron Cohen in Missouri who raises horses; an Aaron Cohen in Gaza; and an Aaron Cohen in Ohio who served in the Iraq war. One Aaron Cohen in Michigan runs a streetwear store. Another one in California used to be an Israeli Special Forces operative and now works as a counterterrorism consultant. There’re dozens of Rabbi Aaron Cohens, a few black Aaron Cohens, and they found two Catholic Aaron Cohens, too. Mr. Cohen has instant-messaged in Spanish with a Venezuelan Aaron Cohen. The night before sitting down with The Observer, Mr. Cohen and Mr. Fisher-Cohen interviewed a gay, vegan Aaron Cohen.
They have nicknames for the Aaron Cohens so that they don’t get confused. There’s “Werewolf,” “Tiny,” “Chris Farley.” “You’re Kurt Cobain?” Mr. Cohen asked Mr. Fisher-Cohen, who also plays in an indie rock band called Jotto in Philadelphia.
They have a few ideas for the film. They want to have a bigger Aaron Cohen convention at Katz’s Deli, with global Aaron Cohens. Maybe they would take them to Ellis Island. They might introduce Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to another Mark Zuckerberg. They want to have a dozen Aaron Cohens speed-date with a dozen Sarah Silvermans. “All of the Aaron Cohens play chess, so we’re thinking of having a tournament,” Mr. Cohen said.
When they release a DVD of the movie, they hope to include an instructional kit that will teach other people how to make their own “name-based community” through social networking sites.
But the only goal for sure right now is to meet as many Aaron Cohens as possible.
Mr. Cohen and Mr. Fisher-Cohen have made three trailers based off the first Katz’s Deli meeting. There’s also a blog, Twitter and Flickr account dedicated to The Aaron Cohens project. “We’ve been making a film the way an Internet person would do it, not the way a filmmaker would do it,” Mr. Cohen said. “We just made our prototype. We’re live! We’re out there!”
This week, both he and young Mr. Fisher-Cohen will have another meet-up of Aaron Cohens in Los Angeles, between shopping the film around to producers and financiers. “Now the pilgrimage for capital begins,” Mr. Cohen said, who has paid for all the pastrami sandwiches and Mr. Fisher-Cohen’s compensation himself.
He’s had a number of offers to work for various Web companies, but Mr. Cohen is determined to make the film no matter what.
“Everyone wants there to be some deeper reason” for making the film, Mr. Cohen said. “I have no doubt that if I’m standing at the Wailing Wall of Jerusalem with like a minyan of nine other Aaron Cohens, that could be a deeply romantic and spiritually powerful moment. But, at the end of the day, The Aaron Cohens is supposed to make people laugh. That’s what people need in 2009.”
Woody, you’d better watch out.