Editor’s Notes: Nothing to laugh about

By David Horovitz November 12, 2004

The satirists spelled out the writing on the wall, and the viewers didn’t find it outrageous

Satire, the dictionaries tell us, is that genre ‘in which human folly and vice are held up to scorn, derision, or ridicule.’ Israeli television history would suggest that it flourishes most amid our deepest crises, in and around wartime, or as the peace process collapsed in the late 1990s – with the extravagant successes of the Hartzufim latex puppets, Zehu Zeh (‘This is it’) and the Cameri Quintet.

Eretz Nehederet (Wonderful Country) isn’t pure satire. A consistent ratings topper for the past few years, loosely modeled on Saturday Night Live, it often tends instead to veer closer to slapstick, with its sometimes gentle, sometimes more vicious lampooning of prominent politicians and other public figures. Light entertainment that punctures egos and has offered a degree of relief from some of the grislier realities, it amounts to a mix of laugh-out-loud skits, inventive caricatures, cheap shots and misfires, plus the occasional lapse into acutely bad taste.

Returning to our screens this week, the first show in the new series generally held true to that form. Generally. But its centerpiece was a shift into bleaker territory, far beyond even the most biting satire. The studio audience didn’t seem to register the switch. They had been laughing hard from the opening credits, and didn’t let up when matters turned more ominous. But watching at home, the departure was striking – terrifying, even.

WE’D CHUCKLED at the familiar impersonation of Judy Nir-Mozes, the wife of our hapless foreign minister Silvan Shalom, whose real-life verbal and sartorial extravagances positively cry out for ridicule.

Uzi Cohen, the deputy mayor of Ra’anana and would-be big-time Likud player, had been derided mercilessly – and objectionably, in my opinion – as a monkey, complete with monkey nose and incomprehensible speech patterns. Again, the studio laughter was rich and approving.

Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, in the aftermath of his ‘will-he-or-won’t-he-resign-over-disengagement’ dilemma, turned up several times, most pointedly in a commercial for the new ‘Rebel’ deodorant, a product guaranteed to remove all traces of even the smelliest political maneuvering.

(Netanyahu has always been heavily targeted by shows like this: Hartzufim, during his late-Nineties premiership, depicted his latex look-alike variously as a heartless killer – shooting the National Religious Party horse on which he had ridden to electoral victory; a compulsive liar – even over matters as mundane as what he’d ordered for lunch in the Knesset canteen; and a political incompetent – imploring Shimon Peres not to leave the Prime Minister’s Office because he had no idea how to run the country. Unforgettably – I’ve tried – it once showed his huge pink rubber testicles being squeezed relentlessly by a delighted Yasser Arafat.)

Skating on extremely thin ice was a sketch in which a panic-stricken wife and her despairing husband begged their travel agent to find them an absolutely safe holiday destination – somewhere they could be guaranteed the immunity from terrorism no longer afforded to travelers in New York, Madrid, Bali, Taba, or almost everywhere else in today’s al-Qaida targeted world. Breaching what used to be the blanket rule against TV Holocaust ‘humor,’ the sketch ended with our couple arriving at the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp. There they reveled in the pastoral calm and solitude, taking further comfort in the security of the perimeter fencing and watchtowers.

This struck me as a grimly effective take on our world gone mad. And I was watching in the company of the child of an Auschwitz survivor, who laughed even as she groaned. Whether her father would have done the same is, of course, quite another matter…

BUT Eretz Nehederet moved oceans beyond even such potentially risque subject matter with what was the dark core of this season-opening show: a series of sketches promoting a week of faux ‘special broadcasts’ – broadcasts to mark the imminent murder of our prime minister.

Coverage of ‘the assassination of Arik Sharon,’ the announcer assured us with somber gravitas, over footage of angry demonstrations and shots of our embattled leader, would ask all the hard questions about the killing, complete with live studio debates and nonstop reporting from the scene.

‘Netanyahu’ again featured prominently, filmed this time rehearsing for the task performed nine years ago by Yitzhak Rabin’s most senior aide, Eitan Haber: announcing the prime minister’s death. Three times we saw Bibi practicing for this defining moment, reminding the cameraman to film him on his good side, refining the anguished tone, perfecting the choreography so that a tear would fall from his eye at just the right instant, and lamenting that Haber had already used the most appropriate language.

We were introduced to a gun-toting settler type, telling us how shocked and horrified he was going to feel about the as-yet non-executed execution, and how shamed about not having lifted a finger to stop a killer who, he knew, would come from his part of the political spectrum. When he bade us farewell, he picked up a placard: The prime minister, it blared, is a traitor.

Most chilling were the few minutes we spent with a Gaza settler-mother, who smilingly assured us that, when the soldiers arrived to carry out Sharon’s forced relocation, she and the rest of the settlers would welcome them ‘with love.’ Indeed, she planned to drop a flower from her balcony onto each and every one of them,’ she promised – a flower, that is, inside a massive clay pot. And ‘I’ll hug them and hug them and hug them,’ she vowed, ‘…until they crack.’

Swearing in an ‘interview’ that she fully supported the prime minister, she urged the studio anchorman to come to a massive pro-Sharon demonstration scheduled for next Saturday night.

‘Er, I don’t quite know where I’ll be next Saturday,’ he said hesitantly.

‘Everyone will know where they were next Saturday,’ she fired back instantly.

She added that the demonstration would be held in Jerusalem’s Sharon Square.

‘Zion Square,’ he corrected her.

For now, she conceded.

OUR COMEDY writers have frequently pushed the satirical envelope in the past. Notoriously, the Cameri Quintet once ran a sketch in which Netanyahu’s then-five-year-old son Yair asked his Shin Bet bodyguard to shoot a girl who was teasing him in kindergarten.

And they dealt extensively with the Rabin assassination. Hartzufim even showed the late prime minister in heaven, blithely tapping cigarette ash onto a cloud, telling an angel that, no, he wasn’t going to intervene to help Labor win an election. They should manage without him. He was off to play tennis.

The Cameri’s Ramy Hoyberger, meanwhile, produced a goose-bump-inducing monologue as Yigal Amir, a sneering and self-righteous Amir picturing the scene 20 years ahead, at what he said would be his inevitable release from jail, when he would be hailed in the streets as a hero.

But Eretz Nehederet was dealing this week with a murder that hasn’t happened. Or hasn’t happened yet. And the studio audience was laughing uproariously. As, doubtless, were many Israelis at home – that ratings-topping audience.

Tali Goren, spokeswoman for the Keshet TV network that puts out the show, said the writers’ aim had been to ‘jolt the public out of an indifference to the current decline that is likely to lead to the same tragic results’ as in the case of Rabin.

A worthy aspiration, but improbable, I’d say. Having us laugh, however wincingly, at another prime ministerial assassination will likely, if anything, actually desensitize us to the prospect.

Goren said the Auschwitz sketch yielded viewer complaints. Not so, she added, the ‘Sharon’s assassination’ material. Presumably, one might reasonably conclude, people are reconciled to the prospect. The satirists spelled out the writing on the wall, and the viewers may have laughed or not laughed but they evidently didn’t deem it outrageous.

And that’s not funny. That’s not funny at all.

© The Jerusalem Post