An Israeli sketch writer talks about making comedy after the ouster of Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister, and how to handle humor around the country’s serious topics.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
As Rachel Johnson just reminded us, leaders of many countries are tempting targets for writers, including – it has to be said – writers of comedy. That has certainly been the case in Israel. But now a hit Israeli satire show will have to figure out new ways to make comedy without the man who has provided source material for more than a decade, Benjamin Netanyahu – well, without him as prime minister, at least. He was ousted from the job last month. NPR’s Deborah Amos in Tel Aviv interviewed one of the show’s writers, who says there’s still a lot to work with.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “ERETZ NEHEDERET”)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Wonderful country – “Eretz Nehederet” – has been on the air since 2003. The political humor is considered left-wing, but practically the whole country watches on Friday nights. For 12 years, Benjamin Netanyahu, known here as Bibi, was a mainstay, portrayed as a sneering character with a shiny gray-purple combover. Then on June 13, a new government was sworn into office, and Bibi was out.
ITAI REICHER: People ask me on the street – what you going can do now? There is no Bibi. He’s your best character. What do you do now? We’re going to do just fine. I’m pretty sure we’re going to have enough things to make fun of.
AMOS: That’s a Itai Reicher, one of the sketch writers. We meet in his Tel Aviv apartment. The show is on hiatus until November, when the “Eretz Nehederet” team will skewer new leaders, says Reicher. And he adds, change is good for comedy.
REICHER: My 11-year-old son has never lived a day in his life without Bibi Netanyahu being prime minister. My 11-year-old son has seen more people play Spiderman than play the Israeli prime minister. So it’s a healthy thing. It’s a healthy change.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).
AMOS: There’s a thriving standup comedy scene in Israel, like this club in Tel Aviv. But edgy, highly produced satire is “Eretz Nehederet’s” forte. And it attracts a large TV audience each season. Hardly anything is off-limits. Wars aren’t. The soldiers who fight and die are, says Reicher. There was a sketch of ISIS militants as contestants in the Eurovision Song Contest and, says Reicher, even the Holocaust is not taboo. When a former education minister called for Holocaust studies in kindergarten, the show’s writers combined “Teletubbies” and a yellow star in a sketch.
REICHER: There’s something about Israel that is just – you cannot be soft here. It’s about life and death. Really, it is. You have to be as strong as reality.
AMOS: Reality can be right outside the window, as in the most recent war with Gaza in May.
REICHER: This apartment had, like, 2,000 missiles. We had, like, rockets fired at us. And we would, you know, look at the sky and see a theater of war right above our balcony.
AMOS: He and the show’s actors would rehearse lines until the sirens sounded again. He acknowledges that things were much worse in Gaza, where Israeli airstrikes killed over 250 Palestinians. Thirteen people died in Israel from rockets fired by Hamas.
REICHER: Our rockets against their rockets. And what the hell is going on? And you have to explain to your kids what’s happening. And then you go to work, and you write a joke about it. The stuff you say will not be subtle. There’s nothing subtle about people wanting to kill you. And there’s nothing subtle about your government killing many, many other people. There is nothing subtle about reality here.
AMOS: Now he’s zeroing in on the new prime minister for the new season in the fall, Naftali Bennett, a 49-year-old tech millionaire, a special forces veteran, a new generation of leader.
REICHER: There’s something about him that always reminds you of, like, a 17-year-old kid, Boy Scout. He’s a nerd, and he’s trying – he try to be cool. He does TikToks with his son, and it’s awkward. Bennett is a very funny person.
AMOS: Reicher says his job is to make his audience laugh and think. A new government is good for comedy. He says old, unresolved issues can be beyond satire.
REICHER: Israel still has to come to terms with – I will say it in a whisper ’cause no one wants to talk about it anymore – the occupation. Israel still has to come to terms with religion, and it has to come to terms with the Israeli-Arab population.
AMOS: That’s a lot of reality to deal with. “Eretz Nehederet” delivers each week.
Deborah Amos, NPR News, Tel Aviv.
(SOUNDBITE OF DJ DREZ’S “PUSH IT UP”)
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