On Israeli TV, Comedy Is No Laughing Matter

Jewish humor is associated not with Israel but the United States – where it never loses the outsider’s perspective

Ortal Ben Shoshan, Yigal Adika and Yuval Semo in the Israeli version of “The Good Cop.”
Ohad Romano

Only one thing travels worse than ultra-Orthodox men in coach class: comedy. Because so much of what makes us laugh is rooted in a specific time, place and culture, humor rarely translates to foreign climes and languages. And while physical comedy can traverse borders – helping explain the still-galling international success of Adam Sandler – there is no better way to kill a one-liner than writing it down and forcing someone to read it. (Please bear that in mind as you peruse this column.)

Few would dispute Israel’s place in the global TV industry as a mini-powerhouse (a power-duplex, if you will). But there’s a common link to most of its successful scripted series that sell overseas: They are primarily thrillers inspired by contemporary local events. Just think of “Fauda” (covert ops in the West Bank), “Hatufim” (“Prisoners of War,” Hamas’ abduction of Gilad Shalit), “False Flag” (the 2010 Mossad assassination in Dubai) and “Kvodo” (“Your Honor,” the crime family epidemic).

Over the past decade, the local TV industry has also hit a sweet spot with comedy dramas — poignant shows leavened by comedic elements, like “Yellow Peppers” (about a family on a southern kibbutz coming to terms with their young son’s autism; successfully remade in Britain as “The A Word”) and the more recent “On the Spectrum,” about three autistic twentysomethings sharing a home. (Jason Katims of “Friday Night Lights” fame is remaking that one for Amazon.)

I’d argue that the fundamental difference between comedy dramas and sitcoms is that in the former we laugh with the characters, whereas in the latter we laugh at them. Which brings us to Israeli television’s Achilles’ heel.

The average Israeli sitcom features more Jewish stereotypes than an Ilhan Omar tweet: Bickering elderly parents (he’s an agurot-pinching miser; she’s a passive-aggressive “Polish mother” type ); struggling offspring whose partners are their cultural opposites (for example, if the husband is a lily-livered Ashkenazi Jew, his wife will be a ball-busting Mizrahi Jew whose family hails from, say, Morocco).

In the same way that Eastern European and other immigrants flocked to American nickelodeons in the early 20th century to enjoy the accessible-to-all comedy pratfalls of Charlie Chaplin et al., Israeli sitcoms always serve as a reminder that this is a country of immigrants. The humor is always as broad as a Matthew McConaughey smile, ensuring that someone fresh off the boat from Minsk or Florida will have as much chance of getting the joke as a native Israeli.

There’s a reason Jewish humor is associated with the United States and not Israel: It’s partly due to assimilation, but largely due to never losing the outsider’s perspective. (Ironically, the closest you get to that in Israel is in the comedies of Arab writer Sayed Kashua.) It’s why your average U.S. sitcom writers’ room will be as sure to feature a Jewish scribe as a shakshuka is to contain tomatoes, and why the closest Israel gets to a global comedian is Benjamin Netanyahu.

Unlike most Israeli dramas and thrillers, which always have at least one eye on international sales and remake possibilities, comedy here seems to be made solely for domestic consumption. Indeed, the more Israeli the show, the better. If I told you there’s a new Israeli sitcom called “Chulent of the Litter,” about a young Ashkenazi man who takes over the ailing family restaurant and revives it thanks to his Mizrahi wife’s take on classic recipes (“You won’t believe what she’s doing to my kishke!”), would you believe me? Or if I said that “Carbon Dating” is a new romantic comedy set in the world of biblical archaeology? Of course they aren’t real, but, as they say, watch this space.

It’s telling that when Netflix released a batch of Israeli comedies recently – including a season of the hit satire “Eretz Nehederet” (“A Wonderful Country”), which has blossomed for over 15 years by adopting the maxim that you should always be able to laugh at yourself, lest you miss the joke of the century – it didn’t offer English subtitles and was only shown in Israel. Some of that may come down to licensing rights, but it also suggests Netflix knows that the appeal of sabra comedies like “The Parliament” and “Mother’s Day” resides purely within Israel’s borders.

Quintessentially local

That’s not to say Israeli comedies haven’t been remade overseas: “Mother’s Day” itself was remade for CBS in 2013, with Debra Messing in the lead role, but the pilot failed to earn a green light. Talking of which, Israel’s best-loved sitcom, “Ramzor” (“Traffic Light”), was reimagined for American audiences in 2011. And although that was canceled after just one season, another remake of the raucous sitcom ran for 10 seasons in Russia (somewhat ironic for a country not exactly noted for its traffic code compliance).

The latest Israeli comedy to be remade and then flop overseas is “The Good Cop,” whose U.S. iteration lasted for precisely one season on Netflix before being cuffed and led away in January. Television executives should be made to watch the two shows back-to-back to try to avoid repeating the same mistake of buying the remake rights to a quintessentially “local” show.

The only thing the Israeli “Good Cop” (“Hashoter Hatov”) and the American version have in common is the title. While the former is a police farce, the latter is an incredibly bland police procedural in which the lead character is a detective with the saintly heart of a boy scout whose father – played, to use a generous term, by Tony Danza – is a disgraced former cop who served time for a crime he did not commit (naturally).

I literally forced myself to get to the end of the U.S. “Good Cop” to check if it really was a remake of the Israeli show, because they have zilch in common (or maybe it’s all meant to serve as an elaborate metaphor for American Jews and their Israeli cousins?). While the end credits confirm that it is “based on the original Israeli series,” you’d have to do some serious forensic work to find any type of match.

The Israeli show (“NSI: Kfar Sava,” as someone jokes early on) shares the failings of many mainstream Israeli comedies, wherein all of the characters are basically afforded one trait – so the fat cop is always eating; the police chief is lazy but ambitious; the female cop is besotted with someone who is blind to her attentions; and the title character is a take-no-prisoners type with domestic problems (which, whisper it, actually seems to tally with my experience of Israeli police officers).

If you want a laugh-out-loud police sitcom with strong Jewish roots, you should definitely just keep watching “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” – which, along with “The Good Place” and “Veep,” remains the funniest show on TV. But “The Good Cop” has its charms, thanks to the clownish antics of Yuval Semo in the lead role. A shout-out, too, to the brilliant pre-show “dancing” credits, which should be snapped up by an American producer for another show. (One major downside is the presence of Moshe Ivgy in the first season, with the veteran Israeli actor currently in court facing charges of sexual harassment.)

Semo is one of those faces it’s impossible to avoid on Israeli television: He previously starred in “The Parliament” and is a mainstay on “Eretz Nehederet,” where his repertoire of real-life characters includes Sheldon Adelson, Haaretz’s own Gideon Levy and, best of all, crazy Culture Minister Miri Regev. Like his comedy cop show (the first half of which is on Netflix), Semo’s impressions aren’t subtle but his schtick will put a smile on your face. True, his show isn’t as hilarious as Ayelet Shaked spraying herself with a perfume called “Fascism” – but Israelis have long known that here, it’s the politicians who say and do the funniest things.