What is the deal with international comedy? Join me each week to ask that very question in Comedy Tourism as I explore different trends and traditions of how the rest of the world makes funny in their respective native tongues. Don’t forget your passports! Just kidding, you don’t need your passport. Or do you? (You don’t.)
“Israeli TV show attacks taboos with humor” reads a CNN headline from May 18, 2010. Scan the American media landscape, and you may often find words like “Israel” and “attack” often used in the same headline, but rarely to describe the country’s gift for wicked satire. With just a little digging though, you will find that through comedy Israelis openly acknowledge the glass house in which they live and cast stones every which way accordingly. For us overly “PC” Americans, the politics surrounding Israel can be a real spicy meatball. But for wildly popular Israeli TV show, Eretz Nehderet, it’s ripe fruit for comedy.
Even the title “Eretz Nehederet” is satirical. In English it translates as “What A Wonderful Country,” and it only takes watching a sketch or two to realize their tongues are firmly planted in their cheeks. The show has been described as a hybrid between SNL and The Daily Show, combining mostly topical sketches with an overall news show format. It debuted in 2003 on Israel’s Channel 2, with a cast and crew of mostly professionals in their late 20’s and early 30’s. The show has won the Israel Television Academy’s “Best Entertainment Program” twice, and the cast is considered the cream of the Israeli comedy crop. Now in its eighth season, the show is as popular as ever.
Last summer, they added blockbuster filmmakers to their resume with Eretz Nehederet presents “This Is Sodom.” Jewish Humor Central reported the film sold 100,000 tickets in its first 4 days at the box office. Not too shabby for a country of about 7.5 million people. Their slapstick take on the Biblical story of Sodom has drawn comparisons to Monty Python’s Life of Brian, and the film is now touring the US with the Israeli Film Festival.
SNL. Daily Show. Monty Python. If this trifecta of touchstones doesn’t have you on board, then let the sketches speak for themselves. I’ve prepared an Eretz Nehederet “primer,” selecting a few of many available sketches online to give you an idea of what the show is all about.
Perhaps the most internationally viral of all their sketches, the following sketch finds the Angry Birds from the eponymous game in UN peace treaty negotiations with the ill-fated Pigs from the same game. The video has nearly 5 million views on YouTube (not bad for a country of 7 and a half….ah, forget it), and garnered the show a modest amount of international press. The premise is quite clever. The costume design is spot-on. And if nothing else, the lowest common denominator element of the Angry Birds chirping “F**K Off” a lot is good for a laugh.
Part of what makes Eretz Nehederet so refreshing for me personally is the writers seem unafraid to go into pretty dark places for comedy. Wherever your politics may fall, the show attempts to point out situational hypocrisy at which everyone can laugh. In theory. This famous sketch pokes fun at the media bias the BBC tends to show in its coverage of Israeli-Palestinian conflicts. A tender area to place a comedic premise, of course. But, don’t let that obscure the razor-sharp critique of media bias and the lack of control those covered often have over what’s said about them. Again, there’s a lowest common denominator factor at play here and it is that British people have funny accents — let’s laugh at them.
Remember what I said about dark places just a mere paragraph ago? Well this piece takes place in “Haiti” just 10 days after the catastrophic earthquake (in Haiti as much as a Daily Show correspondent is in Iraq when reporting from there). Now before you say “Too Far,” “Too Soon,” “To Wong Fu, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar” — remember what I said about glass houses. Eretz Nehederet is quick to criticize others, but just as quick to criticize its own. This sketch skewers their own government and national army, the IDF, for suspect ulterior PR motives in sending assistance to Haiti. I’m not saying you the objective reader don’t have the right to be offended — you absolutely do — I just like my satire teetering-on-the-edge-of-a-cliff edgy.
Kids saying the darndest things certainly isn’t a new conceit in the world of comedy. Young children with precocious opinions about politics also feels like well-tread humorous territory in our part of the world. But this sketch, from the most recent season of EN, shows once again that no topic is off-limits (there’s a reference to Auschwitz) and to these Israeli comedians the most sensitive subjects are the ones that need to be joked about the most.
“This Is Sodom”
And here’s the trailer for the group’s aforementioned blockbuster coming to an Israeli Film Festival near you — specifically New York City in May. It looks pretty light on the politics and heavy on the goof factor, but judging from the show’s repertoire I am 95% certain they snuck in a relevant societal jab or two.
Because not everything on the show is highly politicized, I’ll leave you on a lighter note with the very popular recurring sketch known as “the folding girls song.” The sketch features two apathetic retail workers, similar to the GAP Girls made popular on SNL by Spade, Sandler and “Lay Off Me I’m Starving” Farley, who don’t believe in customer service but do believe in perfectly folded clothes. Clothes they fold in seamless choreography to Ke$ha’s hit “Tik Tok.” Sounds random, but it works. It’s so popular that YouTube is flooded, at least in Hebrew, with tribute videos to the dance of these rude shop girls.
Apologies I could not find any examples with English subtitles or translations, but the gist as explained to me by a native speaker is that the girls refuse to go to the backroom to find different colors or sizes, they would rather find a ridiculous loophole than accept your return and they definitely will NOT break your 50-sheckel bill for you.
It is difficult to say whether Eretz Nehederet encompasses Israeli humor as a whole, but I do believe it offers a look into Israeli humor of the moment. My observation as a comedy tourist is that the show and its uniquely satirical sense of humor benefits from a nation of news junkies who generally keep up to the minute on current affairs. Pretty impressive for a population of….sorry.
But seriously, I’m not sure a show this politically sharp could succeed in a country like ours. Putting on my granny pants over here, I’d venture to guess our population is still more familiar with the Snookies and Lohans as opposed to say Colonel Qaddafi or even Robert Gates. Security conflicts don’t live so clearly at our doorsteps as they do in the Middle East, and I wonder if this takes away our ability to fully embrace threats to our lives and in turn laugh about them.
Say what you will about Eretz Nehederet, but one thing you cannot say is that they’re afraid. And as a God-fearing American, I respect that.
Laura Turner Garrison sometimes writes commercials, she sometimes writes comedy, but she always rights wrongs.