Sisters Act: The Rise of Female Comedy on Israeli Television

Four leading women writers reflect on ditching stereotypes, the perils of political correctness and the joys of self-deprecating humor.

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Segahl Avin, Ruti Rudner, Shani Melamed Nitzan and Noa Erenberg.
From left: Segahl Avin, Ruti Rudner, Shani Melamed Nitzan and Noa Erenberg.Credit: Guy Kushi and Yariv Fein
Itay Stern
Itay Stern

American-Israeli screenwriter Segahl Avin was in two minds about an idea she had for her comedy series “Irreversible”: The show’s female protagonist (played by Adi Ashkenazi) would reveal that a man at work had sexually harassed all of the female workers except her – and she couldn’t understand what was wrong with her. Why had he ignored her? Perhaps it was because she had just given birth to her second child? Perhaps she was no longer attractive? Avin laughed but ultimately decided not to include the scene, as the veteran scribe felt it lacked sufficient comedic justification.

This scenario is but one small example of the dilemmas facing female creatives in the Israeli television industry. Many see themselves in a particularly complicated position. On the one hand, more and more women are filling key roles in the Israeli television market – from screenwriters and executives to directors and producers. A partial list includes Karni Ziv, the head of Keshet’s drama and comedy department; Tamar Marom, who holds the same position at Reshet; Zivit Davidovitch, Channel 10’s content VP; Mirit Toubi, head of Hot’s drama department; and Dganit Atias, a drama director in the original content department at Yes.

It is still mostly men who occupy the highest places in the broadcasting hierarchy. However, a look at the list of television series this year suggests the tide may one day turn, with no less than four comedy series written by women appearing on Israeli TV screens.

“My Successful Sisters,” written by Noa Erenberg and Galit Hoogi – now showing on the Yes Stars Comedy channel – features three young sisters coping with their crumbling lives after their parents abandon them for a boating vacation.

From Noa Erenberg and Galit Hoogi's "My Successful Sisters."Credit: Ohed Romano/Yes

Avin’s sitcom “Irreversible” is now in its second season and has a prominent slot on Channel 2. In it, comic actor Ashkenazi plays a mother of two toddlers as she tries to better understand her relationship with her husband.

“Little Monsters” – a kind of hybrid of the two U.S. series “Modern Family” and “The Muppets” – is written by Shani Melamed Nitzan and will debut later this year, also on Channel 2. The same channel will also premiere “Landing on Their Feet” this fall. Ruti Rudner cowrote the comedy-thriller, which will bring together Israeli actors Shani Cohen and Mili Avital.

Haaretz met the four writers to try and determine what’s unique about female writing, and how much a woman’s intuition is important for female characters.

“There’s something a bit irritating about the definition ‘female writing,’ because it immediately places women in some niche,” says an annoyed Melamed Nitzan. “If they were to compile a list of all the good series written by men, it would simply be a list of recommended series for the coming year, without noting who wrote them. I wrote a series of sketches a decade ago that was intended for women, called ‘Epidural.’ When it came out, the biggest question posed to us was, ‘Why are you not ragging on men?’”

Mili Avital (left) and Shani Cohen in "Landing on Their Feet."Credit: Adi Orni

Well-rounded characters

Erenberg says the biggest difference between series created by men and those created by women is the female characters within them. “The women in female[-written] series are much fuller and well-rounded,” she notes. “It is not [about being] a representation of women. They can be treacherous, good, bad, beautiful, not beautiful. There is a variety that comes from familiarity with women. For example, female characters are terribly one-dimensional in some of the popular Israeli series: the woman is either the mother or the sexy one.”

It’s not only about the female characters, Avin adds. “I think I also write male characters quite well. When I try to get into the head of a man and understand his nuances, I don’t think I’m doing a bad job at all,” she says.

Jerry Seinfeld claimed last year that it’s impossible to laugh about anything anymore because of political correctness. How did you deal with this when you try to create comic moments with women at their center?

The cast of "Irreversible," with Adi Ashkenazi next to the stroller.Credit: Tal Givony

“I allowed myself to create a certain range of humor in which women laugh at women,” says Rudner. “I could permit myself to do this because I didn’t need to be politically correct.”

Erenberg thinks that if the character is well-rounded, anything can work. “I think that Adi Ashkenazi’s character, for example, could have talked about the subject of sexual harassment, and it would pass just fine. Equally, even if she were a Mizrahi woman who speaks about sensitive subjects related to Mizrahim [Jews of Middle Eastern or North African origin], it would not insult the viewers. Or if she were an Arab talking about a complex subject in the Arab context. I think that when a character is self-deprecating, it immediately creates sympathy and you can understand without judging her.”

Lacking self-confidence

“When I first got started as a comic writer, the easiest thing for me was to write characters who basically reflected me, who totally humiliate themselves,” Melamed Nitzan interjects. “And then I became aware of this at a certain stage, and asked myself why this was so easy for me. It seems that women lack a certain self-confidence. It’s a feeling that, no matter where they go, at some point or another they will be humiliated. Somebody will poke fun at them or laugh at them. I think that, in a sense, I decided I would do it first. I will laugh at myself, then you won’t need to go there. Then I was weaned off this crazy damning of myself, but I still really love self-deprecating humor – it’s the deepest in my eyes.”

From Shani Melamed Nitzan's "Little Monsters."Credit: Tal Givony

“There is no doubt that my protagonists are not interested in humiliating themselves – quite the contrary,” says Rudner. She recalls that when she began working on her comedy-thriller, she was asked to summarize it in two sentences. “When I had no choice but to answer, I spat out the sentence that the series was about two women who discover they are better off without a man in their lives. They may get into trouble, but we call the series ‘Landing on Their Feet’ and it reflects the process they go through.”

Erenberg says the three sisters in her series embarrass but don’t humiliate themselves. “Both Galit [Hoogi] and I go through life with a feeling that we don’t understand many things,” she says. “It happens in every room, and in every situation. At a certain point, we realized that the men in our series were maniacs. While there are far fewer male characters, the ones who did make it into the script are really lame and we don’t care about them too much. I remember going around at the time of writing it with a feeling of, ‘Wow, this is what men really are like when they dismiss women. Perhaps we’ve recognized something here.’ It was really fun to feel that way – that although the sisters, who are our protagonists, are not terribly successful, they’re normal, while the men around them are weird.”

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