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A Laugh Unto the Nations: The History of Israeli Comedy in Nine Stops

Israel’s ‘king of comedy’ takes you on a guided tour of the country’s best satires and sketches

Omri Marcus
July 01, 2016
Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images
Israeli actors portraying Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, head of the far-right Jewish Home party Naftali Bennett, Israeli Arab Knesset (parliament) member Hanin Zuabi, and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas on the set of 'Eretz Nehederet' ('A Wonderful Land') a popular Israeli satirical TV show on March 9, 2015 in the Israeli Mediterranean coastal city of Herzliya. Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images
Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images
Israeli actors portraying Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, head of the far-right Jewish Home party Naftali Bennett, Israeli Arab Knesset (parliament) member Hanin Zuabi, and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas on the set of 'Eretz Nehederet' ('A Wonderful Land') a popular Israeli satirical TV show on March 9, 2015 in the Israeli Mediterranean coastal city of Herzliya. Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

If, like those of us who’ve made terrible life choices, you end up a professional comedy writer, you know that humor rarely translates well into other languages and cultures. What’s hilarious to a Swede may not amuse a Turk, and what’s funny to a German, well, probably isn’t funny at all.

But Israel is different. Look at the evolution of its national humor, and you’ll see not only a collection of terrific bits, but also a story of a country coming together and forging its national identity. Because we all need a good laugh these days, here’s a brief history of Israel in ten great skits.

If you want to know what Israel was like a mere two years after its birth, consider that the hottest act around was also the hottest act around Warsaw circa 1927. Having brought down the house in Poland before the war, the two Yiddish-speaking clowns, Dzigan and Schumacher, spent a stint in a Soviet labor camp and then moved to Tel Aviv, where they packed the theaters with Holocaust survivors looking for a taste of the old country. Their shtick was more emotional than you’d expect, beginning with Dzigan waving a handkerchief and asking: “Is it okay to laugh yet?” The still traumatized audience, not knowing whether to laugh or cry, did both.

A few decades and a few wars older, Israel in 1970 was still a country busy being born. So busy, in fact, that the biggest bit of entertainment was the radically earnest Israel Song Festival: broadcast on the state-run single TV channel, it featured doe-eyed young crooners belting out ballads to nature and the Motherland, and still managed to enjoy close to a hundred percent ratings. Hagashash Ha’Chiver, Israel’s legendary comedy trio, scandalized this sacred event with a wardrobe malfunction: delivering a deadpan song about King David, the trio waited for the refrain, then raised their arms, tugging on their tunics and showing their underwear. The roars of laughter that ensued did more to unite Israeli society than a hundred policies ever could.

It took some time, but the Sixties finally got to Israel sometime circa 1973. It was greeted at the door by the Lool gang, a host of entertainers and musicians headquartered out of the beach in Tel Aviv and led by the charismatic comedian Uri Zohar. Lool’s first order of business was to poke holes in the stern national ethos, and argue that Israelis were first and foremost individuals, and only then, if at all, some sort of collective. To drive this point—very controversial in 1973—home, they shot a skit in which waves of immigrants all wash up on the shores of Tel Aviv, each group immediately turning nativist and treating the ever-so-slightly-newer arrivals with racist condescension. The skit was a milestone of the so-called Israeli Summer of Love, which was cut short, several months later, by the Yom Kippur War. Zohar himself has since reconsidered his views, and today is a charismatic ultra-Orthodox rabbi.

Last year, the Comedy For A Change festival—which I helped produce, which was sponsored by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, and which tried to bring about reconciliation by making people engaged in long-time national conflicts just laugh it up for once—asked Israelis to name their most beloved comedy skit of all time. The winner, by far, was this idiotic romp, which captures the nation in a rare moment of self-confidence and calm. The wounds of the first Lebanon war having healed and the first Intifada not yet begun, Israelis were in the mood for a good, uncomplicated, self-congratulatory laugh. They found it in Dudu Topaz: handsome, cocky, and gifted with an impeccable sense of timing, Topaz found fame with this story of an Israeli family going out for a hike but much more focused on taking in food than on taking in nature. The bit became a hit, and Topaz became the nation’s most popular TV host ever. Decades later, when he got older and TV got smarter, he began to lose his ratings and responded by hiring thugs to assault the network’s bosses. He was arrested and, eventually, hung himself in prison, a tragic end to a life driven by laughter.

When the history of modern Israel is written, many years from now, 1993 will be seen as a seminal year, bringing about not only the Oslo peace accords but also Israel’s first commercial TV channel, Channel 2. Capturing this spirit of normalization, a wickedly talented collective of writers and actors dreamed up the Chamber Quintet, a sophisticated and urbane troupe taking delight in slaughtering all of Zionism’s sacred cows. Take for example this skit, featuring the meek Jewish athlete Feldermaus: clearly physically inferior to his goyische competitors, he is bolstered by two machers who guilt the referee into giving Feldermaus a head start in the race, because of, you know, the Holocaust. The skit’s catchphrase—“Haven’t the Jewish people suffered enough?”—is still in very common use today.

It makes perfect sense that a nation of news junkies would have a parody of newscasts as its favorite entertainment show. Still, Eretz Nehederet—the name, meaning “a wonderful country,” was borrowed from one of Benjamin Netanyahu’s favorite bits of speechifying—is much more than just a mock newscast, featuring a motley crew of characters representing everyday Israeli life and mocking even the touchiest topics, like racism or dead soldiers. (Full disclosure—I used to be a writer on the show, for which I am still grateful.)

This story is so loopy it could truly only happen in Israel. It all started when a prominent Catholic official who moonlighted as a Holocaust denier got a promotion. Lior Schleien, a popular late night talk show host, planned his retribution: If you deny the Holocaust, Schleien said in a monologue, we’ll deny Christianity. That incident would have gone unnoticed–ratings were pretty low that night–except a few Israeli Arab politicos decided to reclaim Jesus’s besmirched honor. Schleien and his editor Avi Cohen realized their dumb joke may have spiraled out of control, so they apologized. And apologized again. And again. It didn’t help. God’s opportunistic defenders put on their best attire and staged a demonstration outside the network’s offices, Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs moved into damage control mode, and the Prime Minister earnestly apologized to the Vatican at the top of that week’s cabinet meeting.

2007: Arab Labor

You don’t have to be much of an expert on Israeli culture to know that Jewish-Arab relations are still the third rail of Israeli politics. So it was with much fanfare that a sitcom dedicated almost entirely to this subject, written by a famous Israeli Arab author and starring a host of Israeli Arab actors, made its debut. From its very title—Arab labor is slang for work shoddily done—the show pulled no punches, often calling out Israelis, in Hebrew, for their ingrained racism against their non-Jewish neighbors. Amjad, the show’s protagonist, was the first Arab with whom many Israelis were personally acquainted, and the show’s creator—the writer Sayed Kashua, who many have compared, rightly so, to Jewish satirist Sholem Aleichem—made him into a masterful everyman who tries his best to assimilate but never really can. The show lasted four seasons, a great achievement for any Israeli sitcom but particularly one featuring large swaths of dialogue in Arabic, but Kashua himself lost hope and moved to the United States to teach in a college in Illinois.

It’s amazing how rarely the Bible has inspired Israeli popular culture at large, not just comedy. Films, plays, and books that are based on biblical stories are hard to come by, perhaps because the writers and artists who have forged Israeli culture have always felt it would turn Israelis off or be too controversial. All that changed with The Jews Are Coming (another full disclosure: I’m married to one of the show’s creators and a good friend of the other), a collection of skits lampooning everything from Jacob and Leah’s sex life to Rahav, the biblical prostitute who may or may not have also been a radical women’s rights activist, intellectual, and conceptual artist. Nixed by the public-run broadcasting company for being too controversial—for some, apparently, it was too soon to make fun of Abraham— the show attracted a group of fanatical fans who caught snippets of it online, and when it was finally cleared for broadcast it became a major hit, winning the Israeli equivalent of the Emmy. With its resolutely non-religious voice, the show reclaims Jewish heritage not as dogma but as a common cultural property, a major step towards maturity in a country that still is—and still behaves like it is—very young.

Omri Marcus is a TV creative director and writer. Heralded as the “King of Comedy” by C21 Media, he is currently the CEO of the Israeli-Palestinian startup company The Comic Genome Project LLC. He is also the founder and creative director of Comedy for a Change, an international conference on the power of comedy to drive forward social change.