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TEL AVIV — The show must go on. Even when you are an Israeli TV comedy skit team grappling with the horror of Hamas’ October 7 assault, which killed some 1,200 people in the worst pogrom since the Holocaust.
In the immediate aftermath of the attack, the team behind Eretz Nehederet, Israel’s irreverent prime-time television satirical show, often likened to America’s Saturday Night Live, was as distraught and disoriented as all other Israelis.
Would there be space for satire ever again? October 7 “changed everything,” said Itai Reicher, who’s been writing for the weekly variety show for 17 out of its 21 years on air. “One of the producers texted me saying, ‘Nothing will ever be funny again,’” he added.
The comedians, writers and producers had Zoom sessions to try to figure out whether they still had a role and what that might be. Another staffer on the show described the get-togethers as like group therapy and support sessions.
Ultimately, their role has proved, if anything, wider and more international than ever before. Their humor is not only leveled against the mistakes and foibles of their own leaders, but the satirists have scored viral hits on social media with mordant English-language skits lambasting BBC coverage of the war, the U.N.’s indifference to rape and pro-Palestinian activists cozying up with Islamists on U.S. university campuses.
Since its launch in 2002, Eretz Nehederet, which means “A Wonderful Country,” has become one of Israel’s most influential shows with sharp parodies of current affairs, pillorying the country’s great and good, and not-so-great and good. That often lands it in hot water, when it takes on topics as sensitive as portraying gun-toting illegal settlers and a top Orthodox rabbi during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Unsurprisingly, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been the butt of many of the show’s jokes, although Reicher said he feels Bibi had become more sinister than funny in the past few years. “He’s a character of Shakespearean magnitude, but as a subject for comedy, I think from somewhere around 2015 he became less funny to write about. I think the 2015 election made him feel invincible, it made him feel like he’s bigger than the country that he’s supposed to take care of,” he added.
Indeed, in a recent sketch, Netanyahu is depicted as a cynical twister of words, keen that everyone should take responsibility for the Hamas attacks other than him.
Israel’s politicians may grimace about how they’re depicted on the show, but it’s even worse not to appear — that would mean irrelevance, Reicher explained.
‘None of us were ourselves’
The first show of the new season was due to be broadcast the day after the Hamas attack.
That was scrapped, as well as the entire season, which had been labored on during the summer and had only just been wrapped days before Hamas struck. “Everything seemed so surreal. Nothing seemed the same,” said Reicher. “The first few days we were just in shock. The amount of death and how people were murdered was so horrific and it was unimaginable,” the 46-year-old satirist told POLITICO.
“I walked around in Tel Aviv with a hammer in my backpack, not even knowing why I was doing it. I don’t have a gun and I don’t know how to handle a gun, but I’m a pretty good carpenter, so I figured maybe I should have a hammer. None of us were ourselves those days,” he added.
And in many ways, they still aren’t.
They found the confidence to start up again when they saw soldiers employing black comedy in their social media posts. “You had all these reservists called up and they still had their smartphones and they started uploading funny shit about what stuff they wanted family and friends to send them. If they can make jokes about the situation and they are on the frontlines, we felt we should give it a shot, too,” Reicher continued.
And 13 days after the Hamas attack, the new season opened with a show Reicher dubbed “weird.”
“It wasn’t so much about making people laugh. It was just about asking people permission to laugh,” he added. It was not filmed in front of an audience, another departure.
Mostly the first show tried to tell viewers, “We know what you’re going through,” Reicher said.
And the first jokes were soft for a show that’s notoriously no-holds-barred.
One sketch was based on the real-life story of Rachel Edri, who along with her husband David was held captive for 20 hours by Hamas gunmen. She saved herself by cooking before a rescue mission arrived, offering her captors food, cookies and coffee to distract them. She later told journalists: “I knew that if they are hungry, they are angry.”
“We are normally more hardcore than SNL, because life here is more hardcore than America. It’s just more hardcore. And we’re always going to be more to the point. Because if we don’t make our point, what’s the use of going to work in the morning? We have to make our point,” said Reicher.
And Now Eretz Nehederet is not only back in action but has caught global attention with its sharp-edged lampooning of what it sees — along with most Israelis — as slanted Western news coverage. The BBC got a drubbing for automatically assuming Israel was behind the deadly explosion in October at Al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City, when the cause was likely a rocket misfired from inside Gaza.
An Eretz Nehederet sketch that’s gone viral globally depicts a BBC news anchor arbitrarily raising the number of casualties from the hospital blast. It also features a Middle East correspondent, named Harry Whiteguilt, announcing he’s reporting from the “illegal colony” of Tel Aviv.
In the skit, Hamas is described as “the most credible not terrorist organization in the world.” Whiteguilt disappoints the anchor by saying Hamas has admitted it was responsible for the blast, but that receives only the begrudging response, “Well, I guess we’ll never know what happened.” Later, the anchor and Whiteguilt concur that Israel is still at fault because its economic blockade on the coastal enclave has meant Palestinian factions were unable to obtain the quality parts to manufacture accurate rockets.
Pro-Hamas protesters in Western cities and universities have also been unmercifully skewered by Eretz Nehederet — to the delight of Israelis across the political spectrum, including those on the right wing who traditionally hate the show.
A recent sketch entitled “Welcome to Columbia Untisemity” features the logo of Columbia University doctored to include the Palestinian flag and the tag “from the river to the sea,” a rallying cry for Palestinian groups and their sympathizers.
The comedians poke fun at the apparent hypocrisy of liberal Western students aligning with fundamentalist Islamists, who don’t share the worldview of most of them. One of the comedians waves a mockup of an LGBTQ+ flag used by the Queers for Palestine Movement that incorporates the Palestinian flag. “Yeah, I totally simp Hamas,” one of the students declares. “It’s so trending right now.”
The “students” featured in the skit also question whether there were any abductions by Hamas on October 7, observing that a poster of an Israeli woman who was kidnapped has her smiling. “Totally sus,” one student says. “Jews make the world dirty,” he says, once the poster has been torn down, but adds hastily that he’s not antisemitic, just “racist fluid.”
This focus on foreigners is something of a departure for Eretz Nehederet, which in keeping with traditional Jewish humor has tended in the past to poke fun at Jews rather than outsiders.
Netanyahu is, however, seen as fair game for increasingly harsh treatment.
In one of the show’s defining sketches since October 7, Netanyahu is visited by the ghost of Golda Meir, the former Israeli prime minister, who thanks him for the intelligence debacle that failed to pick up the Hamas attack plan.
She declares his blunder will enhance her legacy by eclipsing the debacle on her watch, when Israel was caught off guard by Egypt and Syria in the Yom Kippur War of 1973.
“Finally, after 50 years,” she says “my failures aren’t the biggest in history.”