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Israeli TV’s Wunderkind Invents Wild Shows, Goes Global

Will Omri Marcus’ brand of demented comedy television be Israel’s next great export?

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Omri Marcus devised the format for Eye Contact, a new dating show. (Red Arrow International)
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Omri Marcus was sitting at a small table in a West Village, New York, café last month, oblivious to the cold and to the New Wave howls the baristas were playing at full volume. As he spoke, he carefully moved his espresso cup and his water glass around, positioning them to illustrate the patterns he was seeing in his head. He spoke methodically, slowly, and with a smile, the way a magician does when he sets up a magic trick he knows is about to wow a gaggle of children. But Marcus was doing something even more complicated than magic; he was explaining what, exactly, was so funny about the scandal involving Chris Christie closing the George Washington Bridge.

For three or four minutes, Marcus carefully proposed every possible permutation of a joke about the scandal. He started with a few puns—if asked whether he was running for president, Marcus quipped, Christie’s response ought to be “we’ll close that bridge when we get to it”—before breaking the situation down to its components—a traffic jam, a fat man, New Jersey—and remixing them into one punch line after another. His jokes were hilarious, but he never allowed himself more than a grin, displaying the sort of self-control that comes naturally to someone who had spent years watching comedians perfect their timing and delivery. And like any good comedy writer, he seemed genuinely taken with his own comedic juggling, even though Christie and his bridge and the uproar that ensued are all thousands of miles removed from Marcus’ home in Tel Aviv.

This inherent comedy algorithm—the ability to ingest raw data and turn it quickly into polished jokes—has made Marcus, 34, one of the most sought-after television writers in the world. In classic show-business fashion, he had gone, in just a decade, from being a broke journalist to writing Israel’s most iconic comedy show—Eretz Nehederet, Hebrew for A Wonderful Country, the title being ever so ironic—so seminal a part of popular culture that President Barack Obama, visiting Jerusalem last year and clearly well-informed about the country’s zeitgeist, joked that the alleged tension between himself and Israel’s Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu was just a ploy to provide the show’s writers with great comedic fodder. Then, at the prime of his career as one of the nation’s most vaunted funnymen, Marcus switched tracks and entered the international format development market, which, crudely put, means making up ideas for television shows. His creations have done very well: Shortly after finishing his disquisition on the comedic elements of Christie’s bridge with me, he finalized the sale to a large American production company of a reality show format he developed.

Omri Marcus

Marcus, said David Eilenberg, the senior vice president of Unscripted Development at TNT and TBS and one of the TV industry’s most prominent tastemakers, “has one of the most provocative, inquisitive, and delightfully demented minds in the global unscripted business. He takes the form very seriously as both entertainment and as a way to explore the human condition, which is why it’s always a joy to hear both his pitches and his broader insights about the state of television.”

The son of a special-ed teacher and the founder of a nonprofit organization that sends medical teams and equipment to developing nations, Marcus did not always have broad insights about anything in particular. Growing up, he watched TV assiduously, but no more so than any adolescent growing up in a country that used to have only one government-run channel and that suddenly, overnight, opened up to an onslaught of foreign cable channels and homegrown productions. After a mandatory military stint that, he said, “might as well have been written by Joseph Heller,” serving as the Israel Defense Forces’ first-ever Non-Commissioned Internet Officer and coming up with wacky contests to endear the army to the surfers of the World Wide Web, Marcus found work writing for the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv. Eventually, he gravitated toward the paper’s weekly satire page, wrote a few good jokes, and got a call to come write for TV, for a new comedy show called Eretz Nehederet.

For Americans, accustomed to thinking of Hollywood as a remote fantasyland that summons only the most fortunate, persistent, and skilled, a trajectory such as Marcus’ is hard to imagine. But in the early 2000s, with Israel’s TV industry still very much in its infancy, there was little glamour in writing for the small screen. How little? When he showed up for his new job, Marcus learned that the writers’ room was located in a small nook at the end of the corridor, right next door to the ladies’ room.

“Of course, the first thing we did is post a big sign on our door that read ‘VIP Ladies’ Room,’ just to see the look on the face of whatever poor woman ended up walking in.”

It wasn’t too long, however, before Marcus and his colleagues had no more time for practical jokes. Within one season, Eretz Nehederet—part Daily Show, part Saturday Night Live—became a national obsession. Politicians were citing it in parliament. Teenagers were quoting it on the bus. And Marcus, still too poor to own a car, eavesdropped and felt a mad rush.

“It’s really funny, being a comedy writer in such a small country,” he said. “For a few weeks, for example, we really made fun of a certain politician who, when asked about our sketches, said that she never watched our show and didn’t care. But she’s my next-door neighbor. I could see her living room from my window. And I knew very well that she watched us religiously each week.”

The popularity and the influence were getting to be too much. One week, Marcus wrote a joke that argued that as obits seem to be Israel’s fastest-growing industry, the government ought to tax it and make a buck. The following morning, the government, having taken the joke seriously, announced just that, declaring that obits are a form of advertisement and therefore subject to a special tariff. Marcus was amused, but also a little bit terrified. He stayed with the show for a few more years, but this role as the nation’s barometer was more than he wished for. He was grateful for his success, but not for the constant hum of politics that informed every line he wrote. He accepted a position as an executive in a new and successful all-female news parody show, but the old pressures of writing topical humor in a tiny country still hounded him. He wanted a radical change of scenery, and he caught his break, like a good comedian should, one morning, in the middle of the street, completely at random.

Walking to work—he could afford a car now, but parking in Tel Aviv is just too punishing—Marcus saw a man who looked familiar. He was Avi Armoza, one of Israel’s leading producers; Marcus had never met him but had seen his picture on enough industry blogs to know that the man walking toward him on the street was a TV mastermind whose expertise was selling Israeli formats internationally. Marcus stopped and introduced himself, and Armoza, moved by the young stranger’s enthusiasm, invited Marcus to join him later that week at MIPTV, a large industry trade show in Cannes, France.

“I took the cheapest flight I could find,” Marcus said. “It had a layover in Latvia, which is like flying from New York to Florida with a connection in Alaska. And I booked the cheapest hotel I could find, which wasn’t just near the train station but practically built on the tracks. After a 10-and-a-half hour flight, I took a bus that dropped me in the center of town. And because I’m a typical Israeli, I didn’t really bother preparing for the appropriate weather. I registered for the festival, collected a few brochures of production companies from all over the world, and started looking for my hotel. I was lost. It started pouring, and the only thing I had to protect myself against the rain was this large brochure for a production company that made comedies. They had one of those chips embedded in it, so that every time you opened the brochure you’d hear this rolling laughter. I remember myself standing in the empty street, in the rain, completely soaked and forced to listen to the brochure laughing this terrible metallic laugh. I thought ‘Hey, it could only get better, right?’ And then a car drove by and soaked me some more.”

The rest of the festival was more auspicious. Intrigued by the notion of creating concepts for new shows, Marcus applied for EMC, the prestigious TV Format Academy, a fellowship that sends promising young TV professionals around the world to learn from each other and to network. Applying his usual rigor, Marcus was admitted and before too long began circling the globe.

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Israeli TV’s Wunderkind Invents Wild Shows, Goes Global

Will Omri Marcus’ brand of demented comedy television be Israel’s next great export?