WATCH: Israeli TV Shows Channel John Oliver With News Satire

These three Israeli shows turn reality into a joke.

Having said again and again that one is no longer shackled to the programming whims and constraints of the providers that be, I have to admit that once in a while I do try to be in the vicinity of a TV set at a particular hour on a given day.

No, it is not to be there when a new episode of a series I’m following sees the light of prime time. There are too many series I’m following as it is, and were I to try and see the many episodes that are supposed to keep me hooked, I’d be doing nothing else. Nor is it for the daily newscasts. The fact that an anchor is onscreen every day at the same hour doesn’t cause me to hold my breath with anticipation. Whatever happens worldwide is reported by pushes to my smartphone or banners on my laptop screen; the daily newscast is just an arbitrary point in time when news providers decide to sum up the happenings so far, if not so good. The happenings never get very far (and that is why they are seldom very good). Speaking of which, I think that besides the “breaking news” banner, we direly need one that will announce “mending news,” in the unforeseeable event of the (breaking) news being good.

For some weeks now I’ve been following my TV viewing habits, and I’ve discerned a pattern: I’ve been trying to be in front of a functioning TV set on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, at about 21.30, to see – at the same time as other Israelis I’m prone to meet and chat with – the three programs on Israeli TV that make fun of the news: “It’s a Wonderful Country” (Channel 2, Thursday), “The Jews are Coming” (Channel 1, Friday) and “Back of the Nation” (Channel 10, Saturday). As of last week I have another problem: “‘It’s a Wonderful Country” was moved to Saturday, coinciding with “Back of the Nation,” and even someone as bright as me can’t watch two programs at the same time.

Israel did not invent or start the trend. For some years now the most interesting way to follow what is happening in the world is not by getting the facts right and in their proper perspective, but by having them thrown in the air, juggled about and juxtaposed with others that are seemingly irrelevant, and acquiring a perspective that is different, intriguing and – most importantly – weird-as-can-be and funny, (at least to some). That is the field that Jon Stewart and John Oliver have been mining on American TV screens.

A segment from "Back of the Nation": Saying goodbye to Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon.

Of the three satirical Israeli programs, “It’s a Wonderful Country” is the veteran. It is based in a TV studio, with an anchor who looks and behaves very correctly (Eyal Kitzis). He reigns over a bunch of very talented actors and impersonators, who visit (or barge into) the studio as various politicians, exposing for viewers those sides of reality that we are usually loathe to contemplate.

The uneasy – but fascinating – relations between the satirical mirror and the politicians reflected in it is a theme worthy of a PhD dissertation. In time “It’s a Wonderful Country” developed several branches, as it were, on the form of miniseries. There is the taxi driver who chats with his passengers while simultaneously answering the phone calls of his nagging wife; or the mayor of a small town and his corrupt family of co-workers; or the Jewish couple who are the protagonists of the miniseries “Almost Shabbat Shalom.” He, full of the milk of godly kindness, teaches and admonishes her (blue eyes wide open), and both mangle the Hebrew religious lingo mercilessly, saying, for instance “(May) God upgrade (you)” instead of the customary “God bless.”

“The Jews are Coming” on Channel 1, produced by Yoram Gross, is based, to a large extent, on the same principle. It presents biblical scenes with wild twists: for instance, last week we had Moni Moshonov (one of the best and most inventive actors and comedians, a veteran of God only knows how many comic TV shows) as Naomi, returning from Moab to the Land of Israel with her widowed daughter-in-law, Ruth, and the Immigration Police arresting Ruth at the point of entry as an illegal alien. In a series of figures from Jewish history answering a question about their dreams, “The Jews are Coming” had Dr. Freud (played brilliantly by Yaniv Biton) confiding to the viewers: “My dream is to murder my father and sleep with my mother. But it’s a very common dream, isn’t it?”

“The Jews are Coming” is not a topical satire. Rather, it has a lot of fun ridiculing the most sacred cows of Jewish culture; not slaughtering them, but rather milking them for laughs, no holds barred. About three years ago, when Channel 1 was still run by the Israel Broadcasting Authority, with its label of public service, its directors postponed the first season for almost a year, for fear of offending viewers. Since Channel 1 was scheduled to go off the air in September 2016 (to be resurrected and refurbished in a different form), “The Jews are Coming” got the green light, was launched last year, and no offence was taken, as far as I know.

“Back of the Nation” got its weird title when it moved four seasons ago from Channel 2, where it was called “State of the Nation” to Channel 10. Its host and main show-runner is Lior Schleien, who delivers a closing monologue each week, very much in the style of Stewart or Oliver. A team of comedians – Orna Banai, who used to be one of the stars of “It’s a Wonderful Country,” Einav Galili, or Ido Rosenblum – deliver punchlines based on questions or ideas presented by Schleien (for instance, coming up with ideas for Bibi on how one can live and thrive without a credit card). No theme or subject is off limits (sex, the Holocaust, you name it), and the panel works very hard to rub it in, even in barbs passed between themselves. The fact that Schleien shares his life (but not a flat) with the feminist MP Merav Michaeli (of Zionist Union) and Rosenblum is married to Channel 2 news anchor Yonit Levi adds to the general mirth, since the private lives of the panelists are very much up for grabs when one strives for a joke.

“It’s a Wonderful Country” used to bring real-life politicians or figures to the studio, having them share the limelight and the fun. “Back of the Nation” still does it. Last week one of the panelists was Channel 10 reporter Raviv Drucker, who published the “Bibi-tours” story that the State Comptroller recently investigated and effectively smothered.

That, by the way, is a relatively new development, unimaginable in the not too distant past. Politicians, once prone to be offended whenever they were caricatured by satirical TV programs learned their lesson: Nowadays, being offended gets you nowhere. If you can manage to be a good sport, you get yourself invited to a satirical TV show, trade barbs and verbal punches with the panelists, get exposure and the chance to get your point across while showing off your composure. That, indeed – for a politician for whom public image is what matters most – is a rare opportunity to prick one’s own balloon while simultaneously blowing one’s own horn. As life is not getting any funnier, at least let’s laugh while we are being driven to hell in a handcart – by the very politicians we are laughing with, or at.