TV Personality Assaf Harel Is Less Angry and Political, but His Satire Still Has Teeth

Writer, director and actor talks about his new hit 'The Parliament,' a spinoff from 'A Wonderful Country.'

One of those invited to sit around the table at the Tel Aviv steakhouse where the last meeting between Keshet CEO Avi Nir and the late Dudu Topaz took place was television personality Assaf Harel. The get-together took place in late 2005. Topaz was nearing the end of his contract with Keshet, the Channel 2 franchise, and was weighing two offers: one from Channel 2 competitor Reshet, and the other from Channel 10. Harel was then in his early days at Keshet, following a not-entirely successful run as the presenter of a nightly talk show on Channel 10 that was dropped due to poor ratings and a surfeit of scandals.

Harel pitched an original idea to Topaz: a drama series about a group of aging men, in their 60s. He described a drama starting at the funeral of one of the group's friends, and about the death anxiety that then drives them to go out for one last round. Harel suggested that Topaz could be the man who grasps hold of life, who has a young lover, who does not succumb to the aging process that is lying in wait for him.

As Harel retold the story recently, Topaz listened and then pulled out a piece of paper. On it, he sketched a table on which he compared the three proposals that he had been asked to consider. The other men at the meeting looked on as he meticulously filled in boxes under his category headings, such as "money," "screen time" and "exposure." Once he realized that the project would necessitate an approximately two-year absence from the screen, he lost interest.

Today Harel claims there is no connection between the idea that he had in 2005 and "Parliament," the new series that he co-created and directs. The first season of the new show was brief, only four episodes, the last of which aired on Monday.

The series is a spinoff from a series of sketches that appeared on the comedy show "Eretz Nehederet" ("A Wonderful Country" ) last season. The actors in the series, who share credit with Harel for creating "The Parliament," are Assi Cohen (who plays Shauli ), Eran Zarahovitsh (Amatzia ), Maor Cohen (Caraco ), Yuval Semo (Avi ) and Mariano Idelman (Hector ).

Harel says the series grew out of the friendship between its creators-actors, and crystallized over the course of years, during drinking and laughs shared by the members of the fraternity. "There are a few ideas in it that we saw repeating themselves," he notes. "Lots of religion and lots of death."

Perhaps the reason lies in the fact that all of you are 40 or so.

Harel: "Yes. There's no doubt that that is our greatest fear, the fear that in another second this will be us, these characters, and it really isn't that far away."

When "The Parliament" came on the air, it seemed to be getting a more positive reception than any other show on TV; even critics who are typically sour were smiling. It looked supremely polished and its collaborators are a dream team of Israeli comics. But above all, it is atypical, in terms of the way it started as something of a private joke that developed over the years, evolving to the point that none of the people involved can put their finger on exactly when or who was responsible for what.

"This project began around the same time we finished working on 'Mesudarim,'" says Harel, referring to the successful sitcom about four friends and colleagues who sell their high-tech startup firm for a lot of money. That was in 2009. "The four of us [Assi Cohen, Maor Cohen, Zarahovitsh and Harel] had tons of fun making 'Mesudarim,' and when we finished working on it, we decided to keep on meeting, not for any specific purpose, just for creative reasons."

Creative or social?

"Social, too," he says, smiling, "but the objective was creative - our sessions were recorded."

The matter of friendship, incidentally, is palpable from the start of the meeting with Harel. He and the others communicate with one another by group SMS texts, and throughout the interview Harel's cell phone doesn't stop vibrating.

The weekly encounters gave rise to songs by the band Application and to the characters of Hamudi the waiter (played by Assi Cohen ) and Abu Mazen (played by Zarahovitsh ), which found their way onto "A Wonderful Country." "The Parliament" sketches were also conceived at these meetings, and they too first appeared on "A Wonderful Country" last year. There was also an attempt to create another comedy series, but it has been put on the back burner for now.

Once last year's season of "A Wonderful Country" was over, the producers decided, in conjunction with Keshet, to spin some of the latter sketches off into an independent series. Though its premiere season has now ended, it is clear there will be a second.

Why only four episodes? Keshet wanted a lot more.

"It is the nature of a TV channel to want as much as possible, and understandably. To get an audience accustomed to a product, you want it to become part of the culture and the viewer habits, and you have to give that some time. If we could have produced eight episodes of the same quality, we would have had no problem, in principle, in doing so. But when we saw the scope of the material, we realized we would only be able to do something that's more limited, because our writing process is very slow.

"We don't want to get into a process by which we write and then just repeat ourselves, but rather to constantly be creating something new. We didn't want to lose what we had, and decided that it was better for us to do this project short and to the point. There's going to be another season; it's reasonable to assume that we'll shoot it before 'A Wonderful Country' airs, because as soon as that program begins, Zarho [Zarahovitsh], Mariano and Semo are there. That means we've got to go into the studio around December. That leaves us five months to write, meaning - again - approximately four episodes."

And to hang out a lot with one another.

"Oh, yeah," says Harel, flashing the smile again.

It must be so hard, you poor things."

"That's the nice thing about comedy. It may be difficult, and it is not always enjoyable, but when it comes down to it, you are coming in to work in order to make yourself and your friends laugh. And for us, partly because we aren't obligated to turn out mass amounts of material or to come in every week, there is no frustrating element about it."

'Cinematic sense'

"Mesudarim," which Harel created together with his good friend Muli Segev (the creator and editor-in-chief of "A Wonderful Country" ), ran for two seasons on Channel 2, between 2007 and 2009 (the concept for the show was also sold to Fox TV in the United States, although an American version has not yet been produced ).

Two years ago, Harel, together with media personality/writer Miri Hanoch, hosted a cultural program on cable Channel 8 called "Dibur Hadish" (literally, "new talk" ) which lasted one season, and previous to that, "Kol Layla" (meaning "every night" ) an entertainment show broadcast daily on Channel 10. Harel, like his collaborators on these and other projects, is a commercial television creator who was raised on and with the industry, and to a large extent espouses its values in his oeuvre. When I present this idea to him, he nods.

"We want the high numbers, too; we want popularity, too. This isn't an artistic project. The desire for popularity is engrained in us. Notwithstanding all of the criticism of Keshet in certain quarters - it was important for the company that this project happen, even though it is not financially worthwhile," he says, referring to the initial scant number of episodes produced, relative to the high production costs.

Rogel Alpher, in his own Channel 8 program about television, characterized "Mesudarim" as "absolute escapism."

"Rogel Alpher wrote that 'Shotetut' [an earlier and generally critically acclaimed show that Harel helped create and acted in] wasn't good, so I apparently can't rely on his opinions. In 'Shotetut,' there was also an attempt to say something, about the media and about the celeb culture that began back then. The reviews were saying, 'Here we go - another show with celebs.' You could look at it from that angle, just like you could look at 'Mesudarim' as just a show about money, and it clearly does exist on that level, too."

The reviews of "The Parliament" have been completely different.

"Yeah, and I'm in shock. I've never had anything like this before. You get so used to receiving criticisms from unexpected places, and you build up mechanisms to deal with them, and you remind yourself that it's just a matter of taste. On the day after the premiere, we were texting to each other every review we saw, and all of them were positive. It was a genuine surprise.

Muli Segev sounds less surprised. "The idea of launching a spinoff from an 'A Wonderful Country' sketch came up many times, but didn't happen, because we didn't find anyone outside of the system who was capable of making it work, while we ourselves were busy moving on to the next season," he explains. "I trust Assaf with my eyes closed, and it was obvious to me that the series would be outstanding."

"He is brilliant," says an equally laudatory Ran Telem, vice president of programming at Keshet. "There is a very good reason that this group works with him. He is very creative, and he has the most important trait needed by a creator: to be able to put his finger on the statement that the sketch is making. In this project, the most beautiful thing is Assaf's ability to give ample room to his friends, and to get the best out of them."

Eyal Oppenheim, director of Channel 8, says, "The year that 'Dibur Hadish' was on the air was not an easy one, but I learned a great many things from Assaf. Whatever he does, he tries to do in a new and different way, merging genres, and he never gets stuck in one place."

And Harel's friend Zarahovitsh sums it up: "Aside from his contribution, which was similar to the contribution made by all of us, Assaf brought a cinematic sense and elegance to the directing. Besides which, there is something very calming about him, knowing that his feet are on the ground, and marching in the right direction."

The 'Ruhama affair'

Two months ago, Harel published "Abba, Tzamot!" ("Daddy, Braids!" with illustrations by Amos Biderman ), his third book, all of them for children. He also anticipates directing a film version in the coming year of the Assaf Gavron book "Moving," which the author and Harel are currently adapting into a screenplay, and Harel's brother Amir Harel will produce.

Assaf is 40, and the son of the children's author Nira Harel and the late Aharon Harel, who served as a Knesset member from Labor during the 1980s. Assaf Harel's partner is the journalist Dafna Lustig, with whom he has a 2-year-old daughter. He attended the Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts, in Givatayim, at and served in the Israel Defense Forces theater troupe, following a brief stint as a quartermaster.

After his army service, Harel lived briefly in New York, where he worked at the local Hebrew-language TV channel (an experience that provided the inspiration for "Shotetut" ) and tried his hand at standup comedy.

Back in Israel, he worked as a scriptwriter for the Children's Channel, and began to study architecture, before quitting. His nighttime show "Kol Layla" got very low ratings - in the neighborhood of 3-4 percent - and is recalled mainly because of a confrontation with MK Ruhama Avraham Balila in 2004. When the dust settled, Channel 10 had to pay Avraham damages of NIS 120,000 and apologize for derogatory comments directed at her. Harel was perceived as being arrogant and patronizing. And on Channel 8, when Harel had a second opportunity to appear in front of the camera, it did not go well, with similar criticisms being voiced about "Dibur Hadish."

Harel says he has "not yet fully deciphered what happened at Channel 10." He insists that, "in all of these things, what I am always doing, or trying to do, in my mind's eye, is the television that I would want to watch." Nonetheless, he concedes, that, "when it is only me at the front, I can be pretty antagonistic ... I acquired the image [at "Kol Layla"] of being very patronizing."

He suggests that "Shotetut" and "Mesudarim" had different receptions, because "I was not the star of either of them, and there were other characters in both."

Why do you think you were you labeled as you were?

"When we were sitting at discussions beforehand and thought about the persona we needed to create, we decided not to go for the 'apologetic cutie.' The desire was to explicitly make noise from a small show on a channel that no one watched. And in truth, we did make a lot of noise, and not only in the Ruhama affair. A lot of people were following the show, there was a lot of talking about it. On a channel like that, if I'd had taken the nice-guy approach, maybe they would have liked me more, but the show would have been dead in the water."

Harel belongs to that rare breed in the industry that expresses their political beliefs in a clear and lucid voice. Two years, ago, for instance, in connection with a letter by artists protesting the opening of a culture hall in Ariel, he was interviewed and expressed a strident opinion about his unwillingness to appear there, in the wake of which he received some poison-pen letters.

"What I had a hard time with in the 'Ruhama affair,' for example, was reading what the judge, Noam Solberg, who was then a judge in the Magistrate's Court, wrote about it. It had been obvious to me that when it got to court, the issue of freedom of expression and the role of satire would arise, and would put into proper proportion the desire for attention of a then-young member of the Knesset. But Solberg wrote: 'The time has come for someone to put a limit on satire, and preferably not the court.' Solberg is now a Supreme Court justice. On the other hand, you look at the Knesset now, and in comparison with [Likud MK] Miri Regev and with everything that goes on there - Ruhama Avraham [Balila, then from Likud, now a member of Kadima] is a pure soul."

It's a shame that in your field, television, there isn't anyone saying these things. It has all become so very pleasant.

"Once the satire program 'State of the Nation' films a special at a settlement, what more is there to say? That's what they want these days, an embracing satire that accepts reality and makes a special in which Miri Regev appears as a guest. They put in a few punch lines to make it seem all right, but they don't make any real attempt to fight against it, to condemn it. You don't get outraged about what is happening."

What about you? You're making popular shows and not engaging in politics or in political satire.

"Every show has its own goals. When I did a show at Channel 10, we did satire. Today, given the catastrophic state of the country, satire sends people into despair. It is terribly frustrating to stand there and laugh, but a lot more fun to leave everything and to do what we're doing."

What you're saying is no less depressing. It is escapism.

"Right. Right now I have to choose between doing satire or another season of 'The Parliament.' Obviously, my choice is 'The Parliament.' Picking up a newspaper and reading what [Likud MK] Zeev Elkin or [Education Minister] Gideon Sa'ar said, and holding that inside you and taking that home with you? I have the good fortune to be able to live in a relative bubble, of fun and laughs, and to disregard all the rest.

"The overriding majority of Israelis now live in denial, and fail to draw the connection between occupation and social justice. People are at peace with this status quo - with the 'we don't have a partner' line that paralyzes the conscience. Everything is sababa [great]; it's not as if there is an entire people who lack even basic human living conditions. People don't understand the extent to which the situation is immoral, the extent to which it is like South Africa during its dark years. They don't see that. If you are a humanist, you are automatically deemed 'anti-Zionist,' and that is a terrible reality to live in. Faced with the choice of being considered a traitor and enjoying my work and having fun, I know what I prefer."

Harel recalls fondly the good reviews and the enjoyable work, but conversely has a hard time characterizing the present as a real high point, partly for the reason that after the peak invariably comes the fall.

"I am afraid of the decline," he confesses. "It is obvious to me that ... a lot of luck and coincidences have enabled all this to happen."

Your partner Dafna Lustig said that when the two of you met, you were a tortured soul and an unsympathetic person.

"There's no doubt that the moment that I've completed a project, I become less anxious about my place in the world, and therefore a lot calmer and a lot less angry. There are places in which this ambition, the desire to succeed and prove myself, are very good. In its time, it has given me a lot of strength. There is no doubt that I've become a much more whole person, mainly as a result of parenthood. The whole subject of work takes on a new and different place. This series is a series for parents: All of us, except for Zarho, are parents and are busy with children and that is a big part of it."

So Dafna was right?

"I never was that arrogant guy. I do think that during the period when I was a screenwriter on the Children's Channel, after they deigned to hire me even though I didn't pass the first tests, I had a lot of anger inside. Every terrible show on TV pissed me off, and I couldn't simply sit quietly off to the side. That part of me - the part that is angry at the whole world, over the fact that they aren't looking at me, that they don't understand me, that they are panning my writing even though I feel that I can do a lot more - has vanished. Those were years of a great deal of frustration, and there's no doubt that it leads to a much more difficult encounter with the world ... Now I feel different. Mainly grateful for what I am doing and for the conditions and the recognition I have received."

Are you able to look at yourself from the outside, and enumerate the accomplishments?

"It exists. I am enjoying it. But at the same time, every day that passes I recognize the fact that it will not remain like this."

And before you even notice, someone will be paying their respects and inviting you to appear as a guest on his show?

"Yes, which is why it is so obvious to me that this is my time. It is clear that our time on television is limited, even if right now this is our moment."