Israel satire show sees no end of material

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The camera zooms in on the face of an actor portraying a captive Israeli soldier as he reads a prepared statement.

“My captors are treating me well,” says the anxious young man, who is meant to remind viewers of Gilad Shalit, a soldier held by Islamist militants for more than three years. “They are letting me drink and giving me food.” A rifle barrel slowly peeks into the picture frame, and he quickly adds, “Kosher food.”

The camera pans back to reveal that the kidnappers are not Palestinian terrorists, but Orthodox Jewish settlers, who are holding the soldier until the government allows them to continue building homes in the West Bank.

Irreverent and fearless, “Eretz Nehederet,” Hebrew for “It’s a Wonderful Country,” is a “Saturday Night Live”-style satire that takes on everything from politics to pop culture, forcing Israelis to look in the mirror and laugh, but also to think.

In an interview, creator and executive producer Muli Segev vowed to continue pushing Israeli buttons. Someone once wrote that Israelis prefer their humor like they take their coffee: bitter and black. How would you characterize Israeli humor?

Life here is very intense, more so than other places. And it requires stronger humor to achieve relief and deal with the stress of life. It follows that the Israeli stomach is less sensitive to satirical humor and the slaughtering of sacred cows.

This is a healthy sign. When societies live in a perpetual state of emergency, this often leads to uniformity of thought, monolithic thinking, even totalitarianism. Here, democracy flourishes -- perhaps even in excess -- and satire has no limits. You can say everything, and in prime time. Are there red lines, or is anything fair game?

Red lines are a flexible, dynamic thing. Our job is to keep pushing them a few centimeters farther. Awhile back, Israelis felt trapped by terror at home and terror abroad. There were travel advisories everywhere and people felt under siege. We showed a couple going over the map with a travel agent, dismissing one destination after the next as unsafe, until the travel agent said there was one place, pretty, green and safely fenced in, where Israelis could visit securely: Auschwitz. Does your hand tremble when you approve something like this?

No. Not if we stand behind our statement and make clear the context, and that this isn’t just a punch in the gut for the sake of it. This year, a public debate raged about the price of a deal for the release of Gilad Shalit. We ran a sketch in which the prime minister calls his father and suggests Israel rent him for half of every year, since the country can’t afford the price of his full release. People reacted very strongly to this, but it was in context of the public debate. You opened the season with settlers kidnapping an Israeli soldier. Members of parliament accused the show of Nazi propaganda. How do you respond to this?

If the extremists of Israeli society are losing their cool over something, it’s a sign we’re doing our job well. It’s not surprising that extreme right-wing circles are outraged by this freedom of expression. This is what makes them extremists. And we are supposed to do our part [to] preserve this freedom. Is there in fact a left-wing flavor to the show, as some critics charge?

Look, satire is “genetically” linked to liberalism, skepticism. It goes against the grain of norms, fixation of thought -- and this comes more naturally to liberal parts of society. Besides, satire’s job is to give government a hard time, and Israel has had a right-wing government in one form or another for the last 30 years. But this most certainly does not mean that the left wing and its leaders have immunity from our criticism. During the Gaza operation, the show was canceled one week. How did you feel about the decision? Are there times when it is simply inappropriate?

There was a war going on. The ground offensive was just beginning and there was concern of many casualties. In such events, the entire broadcast schedule gets taken over by the news and updates from the front. The show would have been canceled in this case, so it was decided to skip a week, the minimum during wartime.

We ran three shows during the monthlong war, extremely critical ones -- a precedent really, with satire dealing with an ongoing war in real time. Canceling for one week wasn’t significant. The shows during the war featured some of your fiercest and funniest satire. Is conflict necessary for making good satire?

Certainly. Satire takes a strong stand in the face of reality, and this reality must be such that provokes powerful emotions. If you have that, satire is a matter of how bold you are and how far you are willing to go. You can’t elicit strong emotions from nothing. We know this from the occasional slow week, when not much is happening. This rarely happens, but when it does, we feel like a roomful of rockets with nowhere to shoot. Was there ever a skit you scrapped?

We scrapped many things, but for professional reasons, not concern over reactions. In that respect, we have absolute freedom. When will you know that enough is enough?

I don’t know. Our dream is to do something enduring, like SNL, that will continue indefinitely in one format or another. Perhaps the cast might change, the writers and even myself. One thing is certain: We’ll never lack materials for satire.

Sobelman is a researcher in The Times’ Jerusalem Bureau.