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Israeli TV show attacks taboos with humor

By Kevin Flower, CNN
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Israeli farce is 'SNL'/'Daily Show' mix
  • "Eretz Nehederet," or "What a Wonderful Country," is Israel's most popular TV comedy
  • Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu routinely pilloried as indecisive and smarmy buffoon
  • Stars say Israeli society has grown more tolerant of jokes about once taboo subjects

Jerusalem (CNN) -- Thursday evening and the line outside Israel's Channel 2 production facility is getting longer. Dozens of eager fans are waiting to enter the studio for the season finale taping of, "Eretz Nehederet," or "What a Wonderful Country."

It's one of the hottest tickets in town as the program, finishing up its seventh season, is the country's single most popular and influential television comedy. The show, a hybrid of sorts between America's "Saturday Night Live" and "The Daily Show," offers up a weekly dose of biting political satire in the familiar fake news and sketch format.

Impersonations of politicians and pop culture figures are the show's stock and trade. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu routinely gets pilloried as an indecisive and smarmy buffoon unable to keep his fractious political coalition in check while his political rival Tzipi Livni is portrayed as a feckless and egomaniacal politician battling an addiction to Facebook.

"To do a good satire you need to take sides -- any side -- but just take a side and then attack with your jokes and comedy," says cast member Eli Finish. And that's just what the show's writers and cast do.

The most hard situation, like a funeral or dead people or kidnapping -- this is the material for comedy.
--Shani Cohen

A recent episode offered a send-up off the rocky relationship between Netanyahu and American President Barack Obama. The scene begins with the actor depicting Netanyahu seeking to smooth over his relationship with Obama in the White House. Through a series of accidents he ends up setting the American flag on fire, stomping on it then torching a copy of Obama's proposed Middle East peace plan.

The comedy sometimes pushes the boundaries of comfort, providing a glimpse into how many Israelis believe they are viewed by the outside world.

Shani Cohen, one of the show's two female players, says that life in Israel brings a unique flavor to the show's comedy. "Sometimes things are so surreal that we have to laugh about it -- even about the hardest stuff."

Cast member Finish says the Middle Eastern environment is excellent fodder for the show.

"When you have a lot of security situations and wars from time to time and soldiers -- you have material for comedy"

Both actors say there are no comedic red lines on the show and that Israeli society has grown more tolerant of jokes about once taboo subjects. "I think 10 years ago nobody dared to laugh about the Holocaust," observes Cohen.

While it has not been a topic in the show, Finish says tough subjects are good source material. "I think that the most hard situation, like a funeral or dead people or kidnapping -- this is the material for comedy." But he concedes, "it depends on how you do it and how sensitive you can stay."

Regardless of the subject matter the cast and crew of Eretz Nehederet are doing something right. People are watching and complaining -- which for Finish is a vote of success.

"If you get complaints this means you do something -- you do something -- you cannot be ignored."