Sayed Kashua Is Israel's Louis C.K.

In ‘The Screenwriter,’ the Arab-Israeli writer moves away from the parody of ‘Arab Labor’ to comedy that has shed its comic attributes, remaining with life as it is.

Yousef Sweid, in a still from “The Screenwriter.” You could call it “Synecdoche, Al Quds.”
Courtesy of Keshet

“La Familia,” a relatively new comedy on Israel Channel 10, is a good example of the increasing professionalism of local television. A situation comedy created by Ran Dovrat, Avi Belkin and Ohad Perach, of the sort that until recently would have crashed artistically and commercially even before its premiere, now fills half an hour with a few giggles and smiling nods.

The idea behind “La Familia,” which depicts the obstacle-strewn routine of a married couple (Rotem Abuhab and Mariano Idelman) with their family, friends and neighbors, seen through their visits to a couples therapist (Norman Issa), places it in an original opening stance: The various topics that come up in every session allow for comic scenes that stand on their own, not requiring drawn-out plots, with the therapy sessions serving as the through line.

Only one thing bothers me about “La Familia,” and that is the total effacing of Norman Issa’s comic gifts, leaving him in the role of a laconic psychologist.

Issa, as we saw in “Arab Labor,” is one of the funniest actors in Israel. If he were Jewish — allow me to preach — he would already be a longstanding member of one of the leading satire ensembles, with appropriate remuneration. Amjad Alian, the masterful character he played in the TV series written by Sayed Kashua (who is also a columnist for Haaretz), was the perfect embodiment on Israeli television of the schlemiel/schlimazal archetype of modern Jewish humor, somewhere between Ephraim Kishon, Woody Allen and Larry David. The series continued to improve over the course of four seasons, until it was distilled into a precise, painful and hilarious reflection of life in Israel, as no series had ever done.

In the first episode of “The Screenwriter,” Kashua’s new series on Israel Channel 1, Issa is awarded the best actor prize for his role in “Arab Labor.” This doesn’t really move Kateb (Yousef Sweid in the role of his life), the new avatar of Kashua who, even though he too receives a prize, becomes fed up with his new work and expresses reservations about it. While he was attempting to say something about the absurd and bleeding reality of the people of Palestine, the only thing anyone remember from the series is Salim Dau as Abu Amjad, throwing flip-flops at him and calling him a son of a bitch. Kashua-Kateb remains misunderstood by Jews, who don’t internalize the incisive criticism cast their way, as well as by Palestinians, who view him as a sellout. Furthermore, it’s obvious that he no longer understands himself.

The differences between the bumbling, good-hearted, loyal and naive Amjad and the masculine, morose, unfaithful and despairing Kateb mark the differences between “Arab Labor” and “The Screenwriter,” which move Kashua’s writing for television to a new level.

“Arab Labor” was a parodic parable about different representations of Israeli society, with the loaded charge that each one carries.

“The Screenwriter,” by contrast, has been stripped of these representations to show us the thing itself: A comedy that has shed its comic attributes, remaining with life as it is. Anyone who is reminded of the American series “Louie” would not be far off the mark. (Louis C.K. even features in a YouTube clip watched by Kateb, to underline the comparison). The stand-up transitions that give “Louie” some thematic stability were replaced here with book readings and meetings with fans that bracket each episode.

Norman Issa.
Rami Shllush

As much as a comparison of Kashua with “Louie” is apt and relevant, there may be a writer who influenced him even more — I’m not the first to point this out — Charlie Kaufman.

“The Screenwriter” begins at the exact same point as “Adaptation,” for which Kaufman wrote the screenplay. Its plot echoed the writing crisis Kaufman suffered after the success of “Being John Malkovich” and his coronation as Hollywood’s genius of the month.

Kashua, like Kaufman, is the protagonist in a plot that he cannot seem to write and that chase him, together with all of his past creations. Each man shifts uncomfortably in his seat with every mention of his genius, and they are present-absent ghosts at the script and production meetings that are meant to translate them into cash. Each one turns to adapting unconventional works of nonfiction in hopes of ending his crisis.

Kaufman seeks to write a screenplay based on Susan Orlean’s “The Orchid Thief”; for Kateb, the inspiration is “Why Love Hurts,” by Eva Illouz. A real “Synecdoche, Al Quds.”

But in contrast to Kaufman, whose writing block is his private hell, for Kateb it’s almost a fantasy. His wish to be free of “Arab Labor” and to write a series about midlife crisis, the trials of married life, the boredom and ennui — just like “La Familia” — is a desire to have “first-world problems,” and not the daily struggles of identity of a member of a minority group in a racist state.

Reality repeatedly hit Kateb in the face, forcing him to abandon his normal problems and to confronting the tragedy of being an Israeli Arab in a Jewish and democratic state. This tragedy is like a shadow, just like the balloon in “The Prisoner,” following him wherever he goes, seeping into his private life, into his ostensibly first-world problems, until the private and national issues merge.

Even when he escapes to America or delves deep within his soul, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and his own character, intertwined with each other, continue to haunt him. One time it’s an evening of readings in an upscale moshav, another time it’s his daughter’s family-tree project for school, that force him to contend with his own past. On another occasion, it’s a vacation in a Tel Aviv hotel that ends badly. Is it any wonder that he drinks an entire bottle of Laphroaig over the course of one night?

It’s not just the message, it’s the medium. “The Screenwriter” is a venom-spouting series about a defeated man, but one that is written with great freedom and directed, filmed and acted with great skill. Director Shai Capon, who also directed “Arab Labor” and who has an acting role here, is excellent at capturing Kateb’s mental state — his distress, his drunkenness and his bewilderment. Together with Ruba Blal, Eran Zarahovitsh and Margalit Tzan’ani, they make a wonderful ensemble. The scene in which Kateb and Ruba quarrel, forgetting the occupation, discrimination and Arabs on buses, is a dramatic peak that very few actors here have attained. The episode dealing with sexual harassment that ends the season is a courageous step up, challenging the masters of this genre.

“What will you ask Lieberman?” asks Capon, as the two consider a local, political version of Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” in a reference to the right-wing chairman of Yisrael Beiteinu and former foreign minister.

“I’ll ask him who am I, anyway,” says Kateb, in a sentence that etches itself deep into one’s brain. In the end, Lieberman doesn’t show and the real Kashua gets in the car for another round of introspection, a dialogue with himself.

Sayed Kashua, in an undated photo.
Natasha Mozgovaya

“La Familia,” Saturday Channel 10, 10:20 P.M.
“The Screenwriter,” Thursday Channel 1, 9 P.M.