A Cork Pops, People Duck And Israel Laughs
The New York Times, June 30, 2002
by Samuel G. Freedman

After a week in March when 25 Israelis had been killed in terrorist attacks, nearly half in the suicide bombing of a Jerusalem cafe, the television show "Only In Israel" presented a skit in which its two stars went out on a date. They sat at a table guarded by a rifle-toting sentry and ordered a full meal with champagne. When the waiter popped the cork, they flung themselves to the ground for safety. "Are you mad?" screamed the woman. "What do you think you're doing, going around opening bottles?"

The couple climbed back into their chairs and tried to calm themselves by singing a folk song about the beautiful night. The man accidentally knocked a glass off the table, and as it shattered, they dived again. Seated anew, they launched into a famous anthem of the Israeli peace movement, waving a balloon all the while. It popped. Once more they crumpled and shrieked. "Don't leave me alone!" the woman called as her boyfriend fled. "I can't move, my knees are shaking."

In its audacity, the sketch typified the satire and gallows humor that have made "Only in Israel" the top-rated show in a nation reeling from nearly two years of attacks that have cost more than 500 Israeli lives. As suicide bombers detonate their charges, ambulances ferry away the wounded and burial societies locate the shredded bodies of the dead, "Only in Israel" finds improbable yet cathartic humor in what Jews here call the "matzav," the situation.

"We're offering relevant escapism," said Erez Tal, the 41-year-old creator and co-star of the show. "You don't escape to something not relevant. You escape to a twisted perspective on the reality we live in, which allows you to cope with it. When you're scared of something, very tense, you have to take what scares you most and use it in funny ways until it scares you less."

The show's formula of skits, sight gags and mock newscasts has created a pop-culture sensation. "Rak b'Yisrael," as the hourlong show is called in Hebrew, draws an average of 500,000 viewers in a country of just 6 million people. The number is more astonishing considering that "Only in Israel" is broadcast on Friday night, the beginning of the Sabbath, when at least 1 million Orthodox Jews cannot watch it. On April 12, the show was broadcast only five hours after a suicide bombing had occurred in Jerusalem; it drew its largest audience ever, 750,000.

To American eyes, the episodic structure and timely humor of "Only in Israel" bring to mind "Saturday Night Live," while its almost total reliance on two stars, Mr. Tal and the actress Orna Banai, is reminiscent of Tom and Dick Smothers or George Burns and Gracie Allen in their television shows.

In most other ways, though, "Only in Israel" defies ready parallels. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks against the United States, while ultimately inspiring much ridicule of Osama bin Laden, created a climate in which political humor seemed inappropriate, if not unpatriotic. Jay Leno and David Letterman stopped hurling their nightly barbs at President Bush, while Bill Maher was assailed for having said on "Politically Incorrect" that the hijackers were not cowards because they had willingly killed themselves. Even now, nearly 10 months after the World Trade Center attacks, a comedy routine mocking people's fears of tall buildings or airplanes would be anathema.

Here, however, the Israeli newspaper Maariv recently declared that the show "reflects the national mood even more than the news shows." Moreover, it exemplifies a style of Israeli humor that, as the Israeli social critic Gadi Taub put it, "is able to laugh at the greatest hardships, and to understand laughing at them is part of getting back up on your feet and going on with your life."

Israeli humorists have used every subject as raw material, with the sole exception of the Holocaust. Before statehood in 1948, the poet Natan Alterman satirized Zionist leaders in cabarets at the Broom Theater. On the eve of the 1967 war, when ordinary Israelis were digging trenches and parks were being prepared to serve as cemeteries, a running joke here went, "The last one to leave Israel should turn out the lights." The playwright Hanoch Levine famously skewered Prime Minister Golda Meir in "The Queen of the Bathroom." A popular mid-1970's television show-"Nikui Rosh" or "Brainwashing"-lampooned the government investigation into Israel's nearly fatal military and intelligence failures in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Amid the current turmoil, the television personalities Shay Goldstein and Dror Rafael placed crank calls to Hezbollah and the Iranian parliament. Eli Yatzpan, the star of a nightly show on cable television, has specialized in withering impersonations of political leaders; his send-up of Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, led Egypt to lodge a formal diplomatic complaint.

Mr. Tal, the son of a civil-servant mother and a father in the top echelons of the national-security apparatus, started his career on "Ma Yesh"-loosely translated, "What's Up?"-a daily army radio show during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. During the Persian Gulf war in 1991, he created an iconoclastic television show, "The World Tonight," which made light of Iraq's missile attacks on Israel. His influences ranged from the Israeli social satirist Efraim Kishon to John Cleese of Monty Python to David Letterman, whom Mr. Tal watched avidly while living briefly in New York in 1986. Israeli television, meanwhile, was expanding from a single government-controlled network to a competing array of commercial, cable and satellite services.

When "Only in Israel" first went on the air five years ago, however, it was neither as daring nor as popular as it is today. The show, on commercial Channel 2, essentially consisted of Mr. Tal as Shimon, a deadpan talk show host, and Ms. Banai, 34, as his sidekick Limor. With her piles of hair, skintight pantsuits and malapropisms, Limor embodied what Israelis call a "frecha," a bimbo. Much of the show poked fun at her marriage to a cabdriver in the blue-collar town of Holon. (In reality, Ms. Banai hails from one of Israel's most renowned families of performing artists.)

The mild tone suited the political climate. When "Only in Israel" ended its third season two summers ago, Ehud Barak, the Israeli prime minister at the time, was headed to Camp David, presumably to complete a peace agreement with Yasir Arafat.

After going on hiatus in the 2000-2001 television season, "Only In Israel" returned to the air in November in a far different Israel. By now, viewers learned, Limor had divorced the cabbie, moved to Ramat Aviv, the nouveau-riche suburb of Tel Aviv, and started a love affair with Anthony Zinni, President Bush 's special envoy to the Middle East.

Mr. Arafat, no longer a peace partner, resumed his pre-Oslo role in Israel as the butt of jokes. In one show, Limor read a headline from an Israeli newspaper saying, "George Bush: 'I don't like Arafat."

"He's the only one," Limor said with guileless sincerity. "Everyone else loves him. What's not to love? He's handsome. He's smart. In Israel, we all die for him."

But Mr. Tal and his creative team-the producer Ruth Nissan and the writers Uri Gross and Tamar Marom-have not contented themselves with such obvious targets. Last year, the Israeli defense minister, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, insisted in a television interview that Israelis, far from being tense and anxious, were celebrating. "Only in Israel" replayed the sound bite, accompanied by a cheery song, against video of ambulances streaming to the scenes of terrorist attacks.

Israel's sense of standing alone against a hateful world also comes in for regular barbs. In the annual Eurovision song contest this spring, the nation's entry fared poorly, an outcome many Israelis attributed to European sympathy for the Palestinian cause. Limor led a quartet of back-up vocalists in this ditty: "In Jenin, there are no more streets/ And that is why we'll get no more points/ We should've thought about this in advance/ Why didn't we wait with stupid Operation Defensive Shield?"

When Jewish schoolchildren in America raised money to send pizza to Israeli soldiers during the operation, "Only in Israel" skewered the goodwill gesture. A routine had Aharoni, Israel's most famous television chef, delivering a pie in mid-battle. "Pizza break!" declared Mr. Tal, dressed in a helmet and uniform. "We'll continue the fighting later."

For all its fearlessness, "Only In Israel" proceeds with a certain wariness as well. After each episode is taped late Friday afternoon, Mr. Tal and Ms. Nissan maintain close contact with their network's newsroom until the show is broadcast at 9 that night. When a suicide bomber struck outside the crowded Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on April 12, killing six and wounding dozens more, the creator and producer very nearly canceled that night's show.

Ms. Nissan and Mr. Tal ultimately decided to excise the fiercest satire and postpone the show by 15 minutes to accommodate continuing coverage of the attack, but otherwise the episode went on the air. For such occasions, "Only in Israel" broadcasts a lead-in informing viewers that "the program was taped before the last terrible events happened."

"We always think a lot about how people will react," Mr. Tal said during an interview in a restaurant next door to the studio. "You have to be very, very sensitive. This season, we're the leading show. Friday night is a big family night in Israel. And we know some people who watch the show have friends in the hospitals or dead because of the attacks. But the situation is so terrible, all you can do is try to laugh. We've had a lot of reaction. People saying: 'How can you do that? People are getting killed.' But, more, we heard that people were glad to exorcize those fears."

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