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A long and surprisingly patient line of people twisted around the iron fences at the entrance to Studio 1, at the Herzliya Studios complex a few weeks ago. Several dozen excited-looking teenagers and soldiers were waiting with relative calm. The second the doors of the studio opened, they started to stream in. This was no ordinary audience: Most of them were young men, and they had come to work. They had spent the time until the filming of the new season of "Layla Bekef" ("Fun at Night") practicing familiar punch lines and catchphrases. This was a dedicated audience: They cooperated with whatever was going on in the studio, tossed out jokes and comments to the moderators, and were patient even when another take had to be filmed.

Since the show's debut last April, there seems to be no more precise definition for "Layla Bekef" than a "phenomenon." This non-mainstream nighttime program, which is broadcast on cable TV on the niche channel Bip and in a watered-down version on Channel 2, returned two Sundays ago for its second season, after taking on a life of its own. One sign of this is an audience whose expertise in the ways of the program and devotion to it are reminiscent of those of fans of other veteran cult shows. In this case the audience also seems to have a feeling of being accessible to and actually participating in the action, which creates a loyal and constantly growing circle of groupies.

Since the cable and satellite channels are not included in the ratings agencies surveys, there's relatively little information about the percentage of viewers of this program. However, Bip has its own statistics. From a poll conducted by the Shiluv Millward Brown market research institute last October among cable subscribers, it turned out that "Layla Bekef" is the channel's most popular program: 80 percent of the respondents said they watch it.

Confirmation of the Bip statistics was evident during the period when an edited version of "Layla Bekef" was broadcast on Channel 2, between May and October 2009. The program's rating, according to the agencies, was 6.9 percent - compared to a rating of 3.8 for Lior Shlein's nighttime political satire show, which was broadcast during those same months on Channel 10.

Additional proof of success can easily be found on the Internet: Tens of thousands of groupies are Facebook friends of the show and its stars, additional groups of fans have formed according to key expressions on the program (for example, the "Don't turn me off," "Squeak squeak," and "Names aren't important" groups - each of which numbers between several hundred and several thousand members), and there's a lot of activity related to the show on YouTube where, in addition to dozens of clips, there are remixes and trance adaptations of excerpts from the program, posted diligently by fans. It looks as if, within a few years, the stars of "Layla Bekef" will go the route taken by Eyal Kitzis and Tal Friedman, who star in the popular satirical show "Eretz Nehederet" ("A Wonderful Country") - all the way from the lunatic fringe to mainstream television success.

Special gestures

For the uninitiated, "Layla Bekef" is a parody of nighttime programs and talk shows. It features regular "slots" involving certain personalities, and apparently provides ultimate proof of the claim that a joke, even if it's not funny and preferably if it is stupid, will become funny as a function of the number of times it is repeated. This creates predictable sequences of events which are anticipated by and encourage the participation of the audience. For example, they respond with a loud "bekef!" ("great!") along with a particular gesture, every time they are given the opportunity. They also enjoy shouting "Don't turn me off" and "Names aren't important" at the moderators, or "Squeak squeak," a nonsense expression that is used to describe various situations (for example, in alluding to a sexual act), accompanied by a hand motion above their heads.

This description would not be complete without mentioning the fact that the program is to a great extent a combination of all the eccentricities of its stars and creators - Dudu Erez (37), Shahar Hasson (33) and Avi Ettinger (41) - and it relies to a great extent on their personalities and sense of humor. Each has a defined character, clear-cut traits and a regular role, which are further sharpened by the dynamics between them.

Erez, for example, assumes a persona he has been playing for years on TV (he appeared in one season of "A Wonderful Country" in a segment called "street survey," in which he asked people ridiculous questions with utter seriousness); he is a figure of exaggerated ordinariness, a square obsessed with proper diction, who is carefully dressed and groomed. Hasson - there's no other way to describe him - is a restless, totally uninhibited Yemenite, obsessed with punch lines delivered with his body and with vulgar jokes. Ettinger, son of journalist Tamar Avidar and songwriter and radio and TV personality Amos Ettinger, is a somewhat autistic and eccentric type. His humor is clever and cutting, and he looks like a junior file clerk in the archive of the National Insurance Institute. The craziness generated by the encounter between these three guys is what really makes the show. The actors' lines are precisely written out and honed at rehearsals, and they clearly aspire to perfection (it took hours to get the right take for the second season's short promos, for example). Accordingly, it's hard to escape the feeling that the trio are incapable of deviating from their characters and forgetting the dynamics between them even when they are off the set. Erez pronounces every syllable in an obsessive manner reminiscent of those suffering from Asperger's syndrome; Hasson's wild imagination is irrepressible; and as for Ettinger, he keeps quiet and stares round-eyed and blankly into space. He says he "may look smart, with the glasses and all, but I'm not," and comments, after a skeptical reaction, that: "I have my own niche, my own character, and outside the character I don't have much to say. I'm afraid of talking nonsense or saying something that won't sound good."

"We're not ashamed of stupidity," asserts Hasson, in reply to a question about the show's inimitable brand of humor. "It's engineered stupidity."

Erez: "Stupidity is all right, stupidity is wonderful, it's deliberate and a result of hard work."

And is the idea to encourage one another's stupidity?

Hasson: "What's nice is that each of us is very focused on himself and still really knows how to give. It's very important to me for Dudu to make people laugh, for Ettinger to be funny. When I worked on other programs, without mentioning names, it was very important to stand out, to be successful. This is the first time in my life that I'm working with people whom I want to see succeed. I want their lines to be funny. There's no slot that two people are fighting over, because there aren't any two people here who are the same, or who have the same slot."

How do you know that a word or expression will become a catchphrase? Where does it begin?

Hasson: "It often begins with something that we toss around and that makes us laugh in the office, like we'll say: 'We have a friend - names aren't important' [and then we repeat that in the show.]"

Erez: "Most of these expressions are from real life. The 'bekef' and such."

Conflict irresolution

Let's talk about that word, "bekef," which embodies an important value, an ideal in the show. Its introduction into the program's lexicon began with a previous adventure of the three - on "Mahadura Mugbelet" ("Limited Edition"), another popular show produced by Bip, which survived for five years and 150 programs, on which talented people of varying degrees of anonymity performed.

Later, about a year and a half ago, they filmed a "mocumentary" called "Zehirut, Porno" ("Danger, Porn"), together with the main scriptwriter of "Layla Bekef," Yoni Smash, and Bip editor Nadav Frishman. Apparently, a member of the staff of Russian descent used the expression a lot, until it stuck and everyone started saying "bekef!"

"There's something about this humor - it tries to bring something real," says Erez, by way of serious analysis. "Television is a truth machine. You can tell what's not real, what's not authentic, and often that affects the humor. It's not only stupidity. The show is based on conflict: between the persona of the 'normal' moderator, who is actually beyond the bell curve of normalcy, and him," he says, pointing to Hasson, "who tries to bring stupidity and destruction, and Avi, with his own take on stupidity. It's a circus where everyone fills a different niche."

Let's put it this way: "Layla Bekef" benefits from an excess of awareness, with which the moderators and the audience flirt. With its rules and regulations, television is a fiction, a well-orchestrated lie, with rules and choreography designed to create a "show." The basic assumption is that there is no need to conceal this. On the contrary: The aim is to take everything to an extreme and make it ridiculous.

"It's a fake conflict," explains Hasson, "because in the final analysis we're cooperating with it, so that the viewers can sit at home and be pleased with our stupidity."

"It's funny because it's real," insists Erez, but in the background, something has already fired Hasson's imagination. Something about an electric kettle and a joke that isn't funny. Erez, used to such interruptions, continues: "Usually there's not much truth on television, it's a medium where everything is orderly, here's there's something else."

Hasson: "On his program [popular talk show host] Yair Lapid didn't tell the comedian: 'You're a stand-up comedian with dumb and pathetic punch lines.' Dudu says that to me though."

Erez: "It's not customary to say such things on TV although those are the rules, because then you reveal the 'skeleton' of the program, ... you use tricks and comic platforms, and refrain from revealing your weapons. Here everything is out in the open. There are no lies. You don't exhibit contempt for the person sitting at home and even if you are putting on a show for him - he's in contact with you."

And in return he feels a part of what's happening on television.

Erez: "He's indeed a part and you're not deceiving him. The program tells the viewer, in its own language: 'We know you're not an idiot, and now let's move on.'"

It's not easy to conduct a conversation with Erez, Hasson and Ettinger. Every question is an opportunity for a joke, every answer is likely to escalate into a sequence of punch lines. The three tend to behave like a chorus, echoing each other's expressions and trying out new jokes and catchphrases on the people in the room. The newest word, incidentally, is "letet" - "which is malt in English, and the strengthening medicine given by Kanga to Roo and Tigger [in Winnie the Pooh stories]." They roll it around on their tongues: "leleletet, leleletet, leleleletet." In a few weeks we will probably be able to state unequivocally whether this new word has entered the pantheon.

Not everyone enjoys the rather irreverent humor on the show. Last October, near the end of the first season, some women's rights organizations protested against one of the segments, in which three bikini-clad models are asked to "Save the world" while they dance around sensually, and Erez warns them to "shut their mouths." The Council for Cable TV and Satellite Broadcasting intervened and it was decided that reruns of the program would be broadcast after 10 P.M. Ettinger, Hasson and Eretz have an entirely different view of the matter.

"People drive on the Ayalon Highway and see a huge billboard of [model] Bar Refaeli in a bra and panties," fumes Hasson, "and that's perfectly all right. We're doing a parody about it, saying: 'Girls, you exist so people can see women in a bikini and that's your job' - and people don't understand. There's an excess of awareness about the 'role' of women in television."

Erez: "Of course it's a parody! To attack people who do satire is absurd, because the phenomenon is everywhere. On television, in commercial interests, on billboards - so why attack us? We're training a spotlight on a very well-known phenomenon, but apparently people are shocked. Of course we're saying it with the opposite meaning."

Were you surprised at the reaction?

Erez: "I was very surprised at the speed with which people wanted to silence us. Excuse me for quoting from a lesson in constitutional law that I had to take in my second year of legal studies, but we have freedom of expression in this country. This is also art, which has a right to express itself, and in essence the claim [made against us] is incorrect."

In the time that has passed since that uproar, the trio has tried other things. Hasson starred in "Tzhok Me'avoda" ("Making Fun of Work"), a prime-time show broadcast on Channel 2; Ettinger, who wrote in the past for "A Wonderful Country," "Shai and Dror" and other shows, participated in "Moadon Layla" ("Night Club"); and Erez with his careful diction, already a prime-time personality, starred in commercials. We ask if it is disappointing, after those experiences, to return to the dark recesses of niche television.

"There's no better place to be," says Erez firmly. "In our essence we're all underdogs. What we want is to remain as we are and that's why it's so comfortable for us. This is the classic place for us, for people who want to do their thing and remain underdogs. The aim is telling things that make us laugh."

Hasson: "I do want to reach a larger audience, I want more people to see the show. I want people to recognize us as we are, and to be broadcast on Channel 2 without changes."

"To tell the truth, I feel in a way that I fell into all this" says Ettinger, awaking from his coma. "The truth is that we all fell into it in a way; we didn't know it would lead to this. In general, we didn't think there was a chance we'd get to five seasons on 'Limited Edition' and afterward to 'Layla Kef' for two seasons. Nobody thought it would be as popular as it is. Even now we don't really believe it."

What will happen when this package falls apart a few years from now?

Erez: "There's something significant in this working together. It's not just working together for the purpose of being funny. There's an interesting connection between the perspective on humor of each of the people here, there's something stronger. All these years I dreamed of doing what I'm doing now. By chance I arrived at a place where I like the people, so what else? Maybe to do other things together with them. There's something more meaningful here." W