BROOKE GLADSTONE: Israel has a history of sharp political satire, and the latest in those annals is "Eretz Nehederet," or "A Wonderful Country," launched in 2003 on Friday nights. A combination of "Saturday Night Live" and "The Daily Show," it's the nation's leading water-cooler program and its primary source of fake news. Not shrinking from satirical takes on past assassinations, as of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, or future ones of, say, Ariel Sharon, already the show has been threatened by at least one angry terrorist. Perhaps that was inevitable for "A Wonderful Country." I was joined in Tel Aviv this week by three of its writers, Omri Marcus, Avi Ettinger and Asaf Vaizer.
BROOKE GLADSTONE [IN TEL AVIV]: You guys focus on satirizing the news on the program. That's your principal beat. You have a Prime Minister who's incapacitated. You have Hamas elevated to the leadership of the Palestinian Authority. I mean, did you wake up that day and go, "Wow, this is great!" Or did you go, "Geez, how am I supposed to deal with this stuff?"
ASSAF VAIZER: Well, I can say first, for myself, that in those two events that you mentioned, the first thing I thought about was where my country is going, and the second was "oh, my God, it's hilarious."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
ASSAF VAIZER: For both of them. [LAUGHS] Well, maybe not for both of them, because with the Prime Minister, you know, it took us a little time to understand what is the condition and what is going on. But the Hamas taking on the leadership of occupied territories, the first thing was maybe a bit of fear. But, as I said, the second thing we thought about was that's an excellent material for satire.
AVI ETTINGER: Sharon - it was a tricky situation because the whole country was depressed for about 10 days when it wasn't sure if he was going to die or if he was going to come out of it. So we made a show and we decided not to laugh about the Prime Minister himself but about the media coverage of everything, 'cause we had like 48 hours newscast and every five minutes they'd update the situation on Sharon. And just the same guy, the same doctor would come out and say that nothing's changed, and he would look rumpled already. So -
MAN: The news update was the rerun of the last new update.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Avi, tell me how you dealt with Hamas.
AVI ETTINGER: Oh, there was this guy, number two in Hamas, who looks like Carrot Top…
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
AVI ETTINGER: - but he has an orange beard, which it's artificial. He dyes it. And so we like made him like he's this sort of clubber type, like he's going, Hamas is going into different directions. They're going into house music. [FILM CLIP] [AUDIENCE LAUGHTER]
MAN: Excuse me, but I find it hard to believe that Hamas has changed its ways overnight.
MAN: Not Hamas. Ham House. [AUDIENCE LAUGHTER] Here's a flyer for the party.
MAN: But Mahmoud, this flyer calls for the execution of collaborators.
MAN: Well, that's left over from before. [AUDIENCE LAUGHTER] Flip it over.
MAN: Ah! Ah! [VOICES, LAUGHTER]
MAN: Ah, I see. The party's Thursday at nine. [END FILM CLIP]
OMRI MARCUS: I think most of the time I'm quite surprised from the impact that there is for the show. Number two in the Hamas was the carrot beard and was interviewed after the show about the situation in the Middle East. And most of the interview decided to speak about his character and "Wonderful Country" and how it insulted him and how it's not okay to do it, and no one asked for his permission. And suddenly he sounded like some strange guy that care more about his way of appearance in "Wonderful Country" than about the occupation of the West Bank.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is there any item on the program, anywhere on the program, whether or not you guys wrote it yourselves, that you think went a little over the top?
AVI ETTINGER: Okay, about a year ago, they decided to make a musical about Yitzhak Rabin - including the assassination, I think. I didn't see it. And a lot of people thought, "It's sick, why do you want to make a musical out of - no." So the first gag that opened this third season was a musical about Rabin's assassin, Yigal Amir. [FILM CLIP]
NARRATOR: Ten years have passed. Where were you on the day that changed the country? [GUNSHOTS] Where will you be in a week? [MUSIC, VOICES]
MAN: The one who shot!
MAN: A major production brought to you by Amir's family, the Nationalistic Theater and 20 percent of the citizens of Israel. [MUSIC, SINGING: "GET ME TO THE CHURCH ON TIME" IN HEBREW]
MAN: Come and see the live story of the hero who redeemed Israel. [VOICES, END FILM CLIP]
AVI ETTINGER: That was, that was very controversial. A lot of viewers were saying, wow, that's [SOUND TRAILS OFF] [OFF-MIKE COMMENTS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But when you saw it on TV, did you think it was funny?
OMRI MARCUS: It was hilarious.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] He says quietly and confidently. Didn't you, a year ago or so, have a kind of Ariel Sharon death watch?
OMRI MARCUS: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What was that about?
AVI ETTINGER: I think the atmosphere was that there were segments in the Israeli public that thought it was legitimate to assassinate Sharon. And since we've already had one assassination, we were like, you know - [OVERTALK] - preparing for the next one, that was the sketch.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What does it to do humor when you become so important that you have the ability to increase the profile of a candidate?
OMRI MARCUS: I think on the contrary, I think we can only decrease a popularity of a candidate. We can't increase anything like that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But Omri, I've been told that it's a real compliment to be made fun of on the program. An Israeli government official told me that.
OMRI MARCUS: Yeah, it's like the coronation process for a public figure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But you don't find that kind of power a little paralyzing when it comes to making jokes? Or does it just make you drunk with power?
ASSAF VAIZER: It's not paralyzing, but I believe that in everything in life, with power comes responsibility. You can't - [OVERTALK]
AVI ETTINGER: Are you Spiderman now? [LAUGHTER] With power comes responsibility? [LAUGHING] Go on, go on.
ASSAF VAIZER: Yeah, exactly like Spiderman. Many times we can hurt people with jokes. Do they deserve it, in any way? You have to ask yourself this question, I think. That's what I mean talking about responsibility.
AVI ETTINGER: I don't think - if you try to think of it consciously, it'll paralyze you. I think you shouldn't block yourself, and you should just write anything that comes to mind, and then there's an editor. That's his job, to say, "No, we can't really say this on the show."
OMRI MARCUS: I think there are so many blood, sweat and tears involved in writing a joke that all the stuff of message and responsibility, if we have a good joke, we will tell it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
OMRI MARCUS: We don't care.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right. Asaf Vaizer, thank you very much.
ASSAF VAIZER: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And Omri Marcus, thanks to you.
OMRI MARCUS: Thank you, too.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And Avi Ettinger, thanks for coming in.
AVI ETTINGER: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: These are the three writers who write the weekly updates for the program Eretz Nehederet, "A Wonderful Country." [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Tony Field, Jami York and Mike Vuolo. Dylan Keefe is our technical director, and this week he was Brooke's producer in Israel. Jennifer Munson is our engineer and had help this week from Rob Christensen. We also had help from Mark Phillips and Anni Katz. A special thanks to Aya Keefe. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl. Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media, from WNYC. Brooke Gladstone will be back in the States next week. I'm Bob Garfield. (MUSIC TAG) (FUNDING CREDITS)