From Youtube to Prime-time

Roy Kafri, who makes funny Internet videos, knows the secret to going viral.

Roy Kafri was a bored soldier on sick leave with a high fever when he took a video camera out to an abandoned hothouse on his parents’ property and set it up on a tripod. In the video he created that day, six years ago, Kafri is seen with shaven head, running around in the hothouse. He comes right up to the camera and stares into it with menacing blue eyes. He laughs a maniacal laugh. He flashes his butt, hops about singing “Where’s the mental health officer?” and shouts, “I’m sick! I’m very sick! My ass is burning! I’m sick in the head! I want to die!”

It’s hard to believe that this peculiar performance launched a successful career, but from a cinematic standpoint at least, it was an impressively polished product. It opens with a blurry-artistic shot, the editing is precise, the timing is sharp, and it ends at the right moment. This first video, which came to be known as “Holeh Barosh” ‏(“Sick in the Head”‏), contains all the key elements that have made Roy Kafri one of the hottest names in the advertising and television industries today: pure madness served up with uncompromising professionalism.

“There’s no plot or anything,” says Gal Raz, a founder of the Flix site on the Tapuz portal, who gave Kafri his first job as a video editor. “Just a minute and a half that’s edited and filmed so well that I said: I have to have this guy.”

“Sick in the Head,” now on the Flix site, has racked up 33,000 views. Kafri has an online presence: He appears in the online series “Nitza and Lechem” and “Hatulonovela” on Flix, in a commercial with supermodel Bar Refaeli for the Israeli startup Mycheck, and in the Health Ministry’s viral video promoting condom use. Each of these clips has had hundreds of thousands of views on Flix or Youtube.

Kafri, 27, has a talent that is in demand by creatives everywhere: He knows how to create content that will go viral, and produces the kinds of clips that make you and your friends and the neighbors and the neighbors’ kids crack up and click on “share.” In a pitiless age in which viewers prefer a YouTube clip of cute kittens to a heavily budgeted cell phone commercial, and success is measured in the number of views, shares, likes and re-tweets − a priceless quality.
Channel 2’s Keshet franchisee is counting on this ability of Kafri’s: As of this past Monday, his work can be seen during prime time on the satirical “Wonderful Country” show, as part of “Bekitzur” ‏(“In Short”‏), two-minute episodes that will be aired throughout the season.

So, after six years of growing fame as an Internet personality, having gained a devoted Web audience, Kafri is being promoted. But will his special brand of madness survive the well-oiled machine of Channel 2?

“It’s not a transition, it’s an upgrade,” says Kafri. “There are more things I will do, and they’ll be great. I don’t intend to compromise. If I compromise, I’m nothing. And I would lose my audience.”

Up to now, Kafri has been able to maintain his relatively wild humor even when dealing with advertising agencies and such.

“For the past four years, in every ad agency meeting, every client says they want a viral video, and there’s no formula for that,” says Raz, Kafri’s first boss and now director of content for Koda Communications.

“Kafri figured it out,” Raz adds. “He has the whole package in his head. And there aren’t too many people who do. Any 15-year-old kid can buy a Canon for NIS 7,000 or [another] camera that’s practically of cinematic quality, but Kafri knows how to use the equipment the right way, how to film and present his material, and it’s not conventional TV. It’s something new.”

Kafri writes texts and music, films, directs, edits and does animation. One thing he doesn’t do, however, is perform in front of a live audience. “I like myself edited,” he says.

The ad for Mycheck, directed by Kafri’s good friend Vania Heymann, was a project of the Allenby Concepts ad agency, which specializes in viral campaigns known for being cool. Kafri wrote the music and starred as a waiter who develops a sick obsession for a diner, played by Bar Refaeli. The mere presence of the woman Israelis love to put down just as much as they love to stare at her in lingerie, was enough to ensure a pretty good impact.

But the Health Ministry clip promoting condom use, produced for International AIDS Day, wasn’t supposed to be a “hit” per se: It was an ad from a government ministry, after all. The clip was produced by Shaul Betzer of Antenna, who brought Kafri and the Health Ministry together. Its success can surely be chalked up in part to its brilliant concept of characters who won’t have sex. Kafri says the ministry went along with him. The result is highly whimsical clip that features, among other things, veteran TV presenter Meni Pe’er playing himself in an indeterminate sort of relationship with a drag queen, and Kafri playing a merman with a purple tail joking about his virginity. Meni Pe’er was quite willing to poke fun at himself, says Kafri: “After I’d approached a number of other celebrities I won’t name, who all refused, he came on board, and it was as if he was born for the part. He loved saying ‘fucking Meni Pe’er’ so much that each take was perfect.”

‘Say no to sex’

Kafri says he’s been regularly approached by many ad agencies ever since the clip he did last year for Pepsi Max, and even more since he made the independent clip “Ken Nigashti le Ido” ‏(“I Did Go to Ido”‏) this year; it was set to a song he wrote with Tal Tirangel, his musical writing partner. The song is a lament by a man ‏(Tirangel‏), who accuses his wife ‏(Kafri, in a dress, feminine hat and a beard‏) for not having given their depressed son enough attention. Heymann directed the clip and it was made in four days by a group of friends, for free.

“Advertisers saw what could be done with no money, and with a high level of quality,” says Kafri, “even though there was nothing commercial about it. Since then the offers have been pouring in nonstop.”

So how do you choose projects?

“If I think it’s cool.”

It was cool to shoot a commercial for the Health Ministry?

“Yes. They told me the concept was: ‘Say no to sex.’ It sounded surreal. I thought I could definitely do something funny with it.”

The ad, he adds, “ruined Facebook for me, for good. I’m a Facebook ‘whore’ − confirm everyone, answer everyone. After that ad I physically just couldn’t answer everyone. It was insane. I never got anything near that amount of Likes before. Within a week it already had a half-million views. Each time it feels like a big leap: ‘Sick in the Head’ got tons of views and then with ‘I Did Go to Ido’ it was unbelievable. The Bar Refaeli clip was huge on YouTube, but that made sense. But still it was something I never expected. [The Health Ministry ad] is catching up to Bar Refaeli and even overtaking it, and it’s basically a public service announcement.”

How do you explain it?

“I really don’t understand it. The beginning looks serious, which helps the clip and yet also kind of sabotages it. I would stop watching. Because I deal with the Internet, I have no patience.”

You have 3,899 Facebook friends. You could just stop confirming friend requests. Make them subscribe to you, like celebrities do.

“I’m not stopping until I reach 5,000. There’s something addictive about it, like counting the number of people who come to your shows.”

In wake of his success, for the first time in his life Kafri hired an agent to act as a buffer between him and the hard reality of the entertainment world.

“I took him on when I felt there was a chance that ‘Wonderful Country’ was going to collapse and I was tired of dealing with money issues,” Kafri explains.

“Everyone I work with − I want him to be my friend and I don’t want to talk with him about money. I’m used to talking with people who offer me projects, and thinking with them of whether it’s worth it for me to do it. Like an idiot.”

On a recent sunny day, Kafri and the “In Short” crew are lunching on a Tel Aviv rooftop. The series of short clips is being shot in the producer’s typical Tel Aviv bachelor apartment, forcing him to find somewhere else to sleep. The producer, Natan Schottenfels, a scrawny, bearded law student, says he also serves as “first assistant director, Vania’s manager, and sometimes I also go down to get an ashtray.”

Schottenfels is so afraid of spoilers being revealed before the episodes air that he won’t allow anyone to divulge any details about the plot, aside from the fact that it’s a local adaptation of a French show called ‘Bref’ about a guy who is “born, dies and lives in between.”

“Tell her the plot in curses,” suggests Kafri, still in makeup, eating schnitzel and pasta. “We’ve been getting up at five in the morning, coming to the set with tears in our eyes. We haven’t slept in a week.”

Aside from the lighting director, the cameraman and several production assistants, most of the people involved are friends who have spent many hours in each other’s company, relaxing usually on the balcony at the home of Kafri and his wife Sigal. They are as comfortable together as a bunch of reservists who go way back.

Heymann, the director, is a former fan and a friend of Kafri’s ever since he decided to contact Kafri after getting hooked on “Nitza and Lechem”; he has been Kafri’s partner on most of his projects during the past two years. Schottenfels is a friend of Heymann’s and now of Kafri’s, and serves as producer on most of their joint productions. Niv Majar, a good friend of Kafri’s and his partner in “Nitza and Lechem,” can be found editing the material for “In Short” as the filming continues. Gon Ben Ari, a journalist for Yedioth Ahronoth and a friend of Kafri’s since age three, is also on the set. He wrote the show with Kafri and Heymann. Sigal, who has been with Kafri since they were 15, has also popped in.

The music is done by Computer Camp ‏(Nitai Be’eri‏), another Kafri friend and member of the numerous bands he created and dismantled over the years ‏(one of which he wanted to call Radiohead 2‏). It’s a little hard to follow all the connections. Everybody takes part in everybody’s projects, and Heymann usually directs, although Kafri directed the Health Ministry ad himself. Kafri simply likes doing projects with friends and becomes friends with the people he does projects with.

In the evening, after filming that day, he tries to analyze this phenomenon, while Sigal − a special-ed teacher and a soothing and intelligent presence, joins the conversation at critical moments.

Kafri is tired and, at least at first, very cautious during our conversation, having been burned by journalists in the past.

One can’t help but notice that his screensaver is a rather phallic Photoshop shot of Niv Majar riding an Iranian rocket, taken from an episode of “Nitza and Lechem.”

“Write that you think it’s phallic,” Kafri tells me.

“I have crushes on my friends − each time on someone else. And because they’re my friends everybody knows everybody. I find myself connecting to people who do things I like, even if it starts out as a business partnership.

There’s no money in it anyway.”

There are no girls in the gang.

“Yes, it’s only guys. That’s how it turned out. There’s nothing deliberate about it.”

The roots of this collective behavior may be found perhaps in Kafri’s childhood in Nahalal, a lovely moshav that is home to a few dozen families with neat homesteads arranged around a circular road. “The main activity in Nahalal is to walk along the road and arrive back at the same spot,” says Ben Ari, Kafri’s childhood friend.

“It sounds like a metaphor,” he continues, “but that’s what we did all the time. There were six kids in our grade. That’s how a world of inner humor was created.” Roy was always creative, says Ben Ari. “At 12 he was making movies with a Windows program about Frenchmen who came from outer space. He’s the exact opposite of people who need to write in order to be funny. He says something − and then realizes that it’s funny.”

Kafri’s parents have an electrical systems business ‏(“If there’s a power outage, every device that’s connected to the system stays on and gives you time to shut down the computer properly”‏) and, as numerous sources attest, are very nice people. “They’re incredibly nice,” confirms Ben Ari. “For humor you need a lot of freedom and when parents accept you for who you are − it helps.”

“He has a loving and affectionate mother and a funny father whose humor is different from Roy’s, but hysterical and very unique,” says Kafri’s partner and friend Niv Majar, who directed the family members in a movie for Kafri’s wedding.

What about the truism that comics have to suffer for their art?

Majar: “We’re surrounded by so many foolish people in this country that it’s not a problem. It’s true we’ve got these very wonderful families, but there is so much stupidity and misery around. We got beat up a lot as kids, but not in our families.”

“Even when my mother thought my comedy was an indulgence,” recalls Kafri, “my father, without thinking twice, went out and bought everything I needed: a computer, camera, musical instruments. I think I was such a weird kid that the thought was at least I could find my place this way, that I wouldn’t get lost. I was a lousy student, dyslexic. I got 100 on all my papers because my mom did them, but on all the tests I was on the verge of failing. I have an attention disorder, I can’t focus on anything that doesn’t interest me. I wasn’t interested in reading or writing; in fourth grade I still couldn’t read and write properly. Now I’m a genius, of course, but I still make lots of mistakes in writing.”

And where’s the wound? Where does the comedy come from?

“It really makes no sense. I have such a nice family.”

Sigal: “Your family is very funny.”

Roy: “But all my texts and skits − it’s all so tragic, and based on nothing.”

‘No broken heart’

Comedy is not Kafri’s ultimate ambition. “The thing that really interests me the most is music. I know that one day I’ll have an album that will completely overwhelm people,” he says in all seriousness, “but I don’t know how to write it yet. I have no experience. No one has left me, no one has broken my heart. I’ve been with Sigal since I was 15. My life − knock on wood − I’m grateful for everything. I’m counting on Gon to write the lyrics.

“It’s not like humor. I can’t take a reflection from life and write about it. Only when there are dark things in humor, like in ‘I Did Go to Ido’ or the ad with Bar Refaeli, where I kill her in the end, am I able to touch on sadness and emotion. Oof, it’s really hard to be interviewed,” he sighs.

Aside from impressing Sigal in 10th grade with his piano playing − he played the opening to a skit called “King Babar” and the rest is history − in recent years Kafri has begun recording a capella beatbox songs, which is one way of getting around the issue of words. He is also writing “Balcony Songs” with Tal Tirangel, half of the comic duo named Tiras Sexual. “Balcony Songs” are works created on Sigal and Roy’s balcony, where there are a pair of light-blue armchairs with faded cushions, an ashtray full of cigarette butts soaked in rainwater and a nighttime view of Tel Aviv.

“The advantage of the balcony is that it overlooks Dizengoff and there’s always noise, so I can play music and shout with Tal at four in the morning,” says Kafri. “You don’t want to be here when we’re sitting here. It’s total chaos and silliness.”

“Kafri is the musical genius. I’m there with the flow of nonsense,” says Tirangel.

“’Balcony Songs’ won’t go out of your head,” adds Kafri. “The main thing is that it’s catchy.”

Kafri’s most significant partnership, the one that started everything, is the one with Niv Majar, who plays Nitza in “Nitza and Lechem.” When Kafri showed up, right after the army, to work as a video editor at Flix, he was installed in a room with another video editor, a scrawny, bearded guy. “I believe it was misty and autumn leaves were swirling in the air,” Majar says of that fateful day: “Everything is romantic in my relationship with Roy.”

The two instantly formed a comic and musical bond, and began tossing objects at each other’s screens and leaving each other notes with drawings of genitalia, signed with funny nicknames. “Nitza and Lechem” became the favorite and the duo’s official name.

“He’s a really easygoing guy, and he also taught me a lot professionally,” says Majar. “We’ve both been making films and funny stuff since childhood. I started bugging him that we should film sketches together, but he was very tired. And then the day came ... [when] we filmed the first sketch, with improvisation, which is an important part of our work. We do it just for the fun. We’ve never received a shekel for it.”

Improvisation is always a part of “Nitza and Lechem,” as is anarchy. It’s hard to find any connections to current events.

“Certain episodes are not so communicative and I didn’t quite get what they were after,” says Dan Chen, Tapuz CEO and Kafri and Majar’s boss for the past five years, “and other episodes are just brilliant.”

But for a certain type of local viewer − young males, for the most part − “Nitza and Lechem” has been a marvelous find, a refuge from the political humor of prime-time. “Basically, you can see that there is no sheer nonsense on TV,” says Majar. “And it’s been that way for many years. There’s entertainment and there’s satire, but not even very much of that.”

Tal Tirangel first watched “Nitza and Lechem” after a friend recommended it, before he met Kafri: “It was a new kind of humor I’d never seen before − in Israel or anywhere else. The humor was surreal, something that I’d been trying to do, and suddenly I see that somebody is finally doing it!”

At home in his Jerusalem apartment, Vania Heymann, then a student at Bezalel and a young, in-demand director, had a similar experience. “Whoever gets into it, goes crazy over it. You’ve made this amazing discovery − a world of Israeli humor you thought only existed among friends.”

The skits, now on the Flix site, were originally emailed by Majar and Kafri to friends and afterward posted on Facebook. Things kept taking off from there, and fan communities began to form, like the SDCL Gang from Haifa that specializes in wild humor. The Haifa group got in touch with Majar and Kafri and, in typical fashion, became friends with them.

The cat that roared

After the success of “Nitza and Lechem” − which stirred up a lot of online interest without a single corporate shekel being invested − Flix, which started out as a site that combined user content with original content, began looking for new projects for Kafri. Last year, Hillit Wahlberg and Ronen Harten of Flix came up with “Hatulonovela” − a telenovela comprised entirely of cat videos found on the Internet, or what’s called “ready-made art.” Kafri dubbed the clips to create a minimally coherent story.

My first encounter with “Hatulonovela” came after I noticed some of my work colleagues totally cracking up as they sat with earphones, watching cat videos on the computer. “Hatulonovela” has it all: tales of war, love, drugs and rock ‘n roll, a hostile takeover by crows and a ridiculously cute kitten that bleats: “Milk, milk!” Kafri relies on a limited inventory of voices, primarily a male voice with a Mizrahi accent that he uses in each episode. It is very, very funny. Indeed, “Hatulonovela” is Flix’s biggest success. Tapuz says the entire series has amassed three million views so far. For Kafri, this means he spends lots of hours in search of feline video clips.

“I receive a ton of cat clips from people, but most aren’t as extreme as the ones I find. For each episode I have to find something really extreme that makes me laugh. Four days can go by just on searches. And when I find something, I look for other cats of the same color and hope to find something extreme that happened to them, too. If there are two cats in a swimming pool, I’ll compare the water to see if it’s the same color. In terms of time, it’s never made any sense. The process is a nightmare. I only enjoy that moment when I find what I’m looking for.”

“He doesn’t compromise,” notes Chen. “In the second season of ‘Hatulonovela’ I wanted him to do all sorts of things that he wouldn’t agree to. Kafri left Flix about a year ago, after five years, although he still makes “Hatulonovela” on a free-lance basis and hopes to return soon to “Nitza and Lechem.”

“We were lucky to be able to keep him for so long,” says Chen. “Now that he’s a talent in his own right, it’s ‘Talk to my agent.’”

“I had it too good there,” says Kafri about Flix. “A great salary, everybody like family. During the last year my job was ‘Hatulonovela’ and I felt guilty that I wasn’t a serious person. This is what I do and they actually pay me for it?! I was afraid I would get stuck there forever, and I have bigger ambitions.”

What does Kafri really want? For everybody to know his work. And the place to accomplish that is television. “I have no problem with being called mainstream. As long as I’m doing what I love. If I’ve made it mainstream, I’ve won. There’s something hard about big productions, when you have a lot of people involved in the same project. We’re trying to fit into the industry and at the same time not to disperse our work among too many hands. There’s nothing like our style on television right now, and I’m hoping to get it in there.”

So, Kafri, Heymann and company are starting small − with the two-minute episodes. Kafri has said in the past that he doesn’t relate to the kind of current events-related sketches found on “Wonderful Country.” But today, echoing Sheli Yachimovich, he says he’s “not ruling anything out.”

You’re a really nice guy, and your humor is silly. Do you ever feel like saying something really critical?

“In ‘Nitza and Lechem,’ I have Niv. He’s always trying to say something and I’m not. I don’t feel that need. I don’t have burning issues to discuss. He has certain directions he goes in, and I go along. But sometimes things happen on their own. In ‘I Did Go to Ido,’ without thinking about it, I ended up making a video in which the father accuses the mother of everything even though she didn’t do anything.”

He shows me an old clip of “Nitza and Lechem,” in which the two are aiming rifles at cats, dogs, chickens, trees and children and singing, “Killing You Killing You.” At the end, the phone number of an animal rights organization appears ‏(followed immediately by a slide with the word “Sex”‏). “There must be other examples. I’m trying to think.”

Sigal: “Isn’t the whole point of silliness that it’s not trying to say something?”

Roy: “I don’t think it’s not saying anything. It arises on its own, even if it’s super idiotic. You see what's bothering you.”

Kafri and Heymann planned their own version of the French series a year ago. They even went to Paris to negotiate for the rights and pitched the idea to Keshet. Then came a year of starts and stops. “Natan said to me the other day: You’re fat, lose weight. And I told him you asked me a year ago to lose weight and I was a hunk! What can I do? And he said: Do what you can.”

Will Kafri [remain fresh? “It will soon pass,” predicts someone familiar with the entertainment industry. “Right now it’s mostly very new. Before long he’ll be too big to do nonsense on the Internet. The talent and the spark won’t disappear, but he’ll stop doing that kind of thing. He’ll be doing more grownup stuff.”

What will happen when you’re in TV and another wild child shows up with the next brilliant thing?

Kafri: “Is there room for only one wild child in television? It’s brimming with bigger and better wild folks who came before me, and in the future I’ll meet up those who’ll come after me. Assuming I manage to survive more than half a minute.”

Ilya Melnikov