‘Israel’s SNL’ provides much-needed laughs to a traumatized nation

HERZLIYA, Israel — “Quiet on the set, QUIET ON THE SET!” barks a tall woman dressed in black, with cropped dark hair and headphones. A hush settles over the airy studio. Cameras hum, spectators fidget.

There’s a mechanical grind, a puff of smoke and then a rush of laughter as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, caked in orange makeup, steps out of a tanning booth.

“Citizens of Israel,” he begins, launching into one of his customary addresses to the nation. His makeup artist cuts him off.

“What a disaster,” he says.

This, of course, is not the real Netanyahu. It’s Mariano Idelman, a famous Israeli actor, rehearsing on a recent Tuesday afternoon for “Eretz Nehederet,” the country’s most popular sketch comedy show. Politicians, media figures, hostages and displaced Israelis are fair game on Israel’s version of “Saturday Night Live” — but any criticism of the country’s war in Gaza is off-limits.

The show, which means “A Wonderful Country,” has been a Tuesday night staple in Israeli living rooms for more than 20 years, lambasting government hypocrisy and finding fun in cultural controversies. Nearly three months after the Hamas attack on Oct. 7, writers and actors are trying to preserve their reputation for irreverence while offering relief to a deeply traumatized society.

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Most people working on the show know someone who was killed or taken captive on Oct. 7, said Muli Segev, a lanky man with a shaved head who has been the show’s executive producer since it aired in 2003.

The day after the attacks, Segev called a virtual meeting, “although nobody was in the mood for jokes.” The team began processing the events together, through conversation and eventually through comedy.

About three weeks later, they decided it was time to put on a show.

“The first show was very, very cautious,” Segev said. “We were just trying to do something to lift the spirits of the people.” There was a sketch about Netanyahu refusing to take responsibility for the attacks, another about a grandmother who tries to ply Hamas invaders with cookies.

The country, it turned out, was desperate for laughter. Viewership has increased by 32 percent since the show returned, according to the Israeli Audience Research Board. At dinner tables across Israel, parents debate whether the writers’ room went too far with the skit about the soldier who came back from war with PTSD. The children won’t stop singing the silly song about the Houthis.

“Comedy has always been a coping mechanism for the Jewish people but in this case it’s also an ambassador for who we are as a nation,” said Ittai Frank, an architect who came to watch the taping of the show with his wife and daughter.

Since Oct. 7, Eretz Nehederet has also engaged in a kind of comedy diplomacy — releasing sketches entirely in English and reaching a large international audience.

Eight skits put out have racked up more than 80 million views around the world on social media and other platforms, largely poking fun at perceived support for the Palestinian cause among leftists and certain media outlets in the United States and Britain.

In one sketch, a BBC anchor orders her producer to increase the number of casualties reported in Gaza, then tosses to correspondent “Harry Whiteguilt” and acts disappointed when it emerges Israel did not bomb a hospital.

In one sketch on “Eretz Nehederet,” Israel’s most popular sketch comedy show, cast members ridiculed BBC coverage of the Israel-Gaza war. (Video: Eretz Nehederet)

“What we do is just point out the irony of it all. And the hypocrisy of the media outlets,” said Segev. “We see something ridiculous and something wrong and we tackle it by comedy and satire.”

For their Israeli audience, Eretz Nehederet tries to mine the darkness of recent months for humor, and the results can be controversial. A recent nine-minute sketch featured several former child hostages released by Hamas in November. A recurring taxi driver character picks them up.

A taxi driver segment on Israeli sketch comedy show “Eretz Nehederet” featured several former child hostages released by Hamas in November. (Video: Eretz Nehederet)

“You should know, you’re my favorite hostages. I voted for you,” the driver says, poking fun at reality TV call-in competitions.

The young siblings, Maya and Itay Regev, launch into a retelling of being kidnapped from the Nova music festival and taken to Gaza. Maya says her leg was broken and improperly reset.

The taxi driver picks up two younger hostages as well, 8- and 15-year-old Ella and Dafna Elyakim. Both recount their time staying with a family in Gaza: The children in the home threatened to kill them and took all their jewelry, but Dafna held onto her nose ring.

“That was a bit cringe for me,” said Einav Shif, the chief TV critic for Yedioth Ahronoth. “It’s a complicated situation and I know for a fact that the intentions were good but sometimes humor is not good on everything.”

The show has been silent so far on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, where Israel’s war has killed more than 24,000 Palestinians, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

“They became the stereotypical Israeli show,” said Rami Younis, a Palestinian journalist and filmmaker, “the kind that’s abundant on local TV, that solidifies the prevailing narrative in Israel that there’s only one victim here.”

In one sketch, dead Gazans are portrayed as crisis actors, faking their deaths for sympathy.

“They’ll punch Netanyahu right and left but never do something that will make the viewer think that they are unsupportive of the troops,” Shif said.

Part of that may have to do with the show’s broadcaster, Channel 12 — one of the country’s main networks — which “sees itself as the channel of Israelis,” he noted.

But the episodes are also reflective of what the showrunners believe.

“We definitely see ourselves as part of the Israeli peace camp and on previous rounds of the conflict we did point out the blind spots of our audience to the suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank,” said David Lifshitz, a writer on the show.

“But this time is different. After October 7th the Israelis see this war as existential. At this point we think that the IDF is doing whatever is necessary to make sure that something like that will never happen again.”

Still, the writers don’t let the military off the hook completely.

On Lebanese border, Israelis fear a new kind of war with Hezbollah

During rehearsals, Segev watched intently as two actors played the parts of displaced people from northern Israel — forced to live in hotels as tensions flare with Hezbollah along the border with Lebanon.

The family is crammed into a queen-size room with their children; ugly checkered curtains match the bed’s headboard. Segev tells a child actor to shrink further into the lavender-painted walls and focus on playing his video game.

“Well it’s not easy but we let the IDF do its work in the north,” the woman says to the camera. “Whatever it takes.”

She stutters, brow furrowed. “By the way, did they say how much time it will take?”

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