Red Orbach is a clueless Neanderthal. You've never witnessed anybody this side of Archie Bunker with less tact, manners or sensitivity than this chauvinistic, hippie burnout who still thinks it's the Summer of Love with its God-given right to a flowing abundance of sex, drugs and rock and roll.
Oh, and by the way, Red's a puppet - a loveable one at that. And a Zionist too, maybe.
Welcome to the weird, wonderfully subversive world of Redband, a new 'mockumentary' series on HOT VOD bent on skewering everything in its path - from over-ego-sized Israeli pop stars to group therapy sessions.
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Throw into a blender the puppet mastery of The Muppets, the satirical insight of classic Christopher Guest music spoofs like Spinal Tap and A Mighty Wind and the teen grossout dialogue of cartoons like South Park; add a dollop of Israeli sensibility, pop culture and slang, and you get Redband, featuring a scruffy trio of life-sized puppet musicians. Orbach, Lefty and Poncho make up the fictitious rock group Redband, and they are joined by a cast of human actors. The show aims to both shock and amuse, and it succeeds on both counts.
Not for the faint of heart, Redband's humor leans so far toward the adult side that it sometimes topples over into a morass of crass. Like an idiot savant, the cocainesniffing, sex-obsessed, gutter-mouthed Orbach has no idea that the unrepeatable statements coming out of his mouth are inappropriate and offensive, which somehow makes them even funnier.
The show is the result of what happens when young Israelis with a shared love of music and knowledge of offbeat American pop culture and the world of the Tel Aviv hipdom come together.
Which is what occurred when producer Aviram Buchris saw a performance two years ago at Tel Aviv's CafÃ© Bialik of something called The Puppet Folk Revival - the brainchild of Ari Feffer, Micha Duman and Ami Wiesel, three former Tel Aviv University film students, and all three children of American olim.
"My wife and I had just been to London the week before and had seen Avenue Q [the celebrated musical featuring puppets], and these guys were even better, it was just amazing," said Buchris, who, together with his wife Li Yardeni, runs My TV, a production company that has produced numerous shows for YES and HOT.
"They were dressed like aging rock stars and they played '60s covers. In between songs, they talked to the crowd - all in English - and made a up a fake biography that they were hippies who had been at Woodstock, and their leader Red told some crazy stories," added Buchris, a native of Safed who worked in senior positions at Army Radio for 11 years before launching My TV in 2006.
A lifelong music fan, "because I come from Safed - there was nothing else to do," Buchris was blown away by the performance, went to meet the puppeteers after the show and immediately suggested creating a TV series based on their act.
"We were both excited and skeptical when Aviram came back to talk to us," recalled one of the Redband trio, Micha Duman. "Putting us on TV would move us away from a certain innocence and purity we had retained due to being independent and playing to a grassroots audience, and it would redirect us to a mass media which communicates with everyone. At the same time, we were inclined toward it. We respected Aviram and his taste - after all, he liked us. And he seemed to not want to take us along the wrong path and make something stupid out of our act." THAT ACT received its spark when Duman and his mates Feffer and Wiesel were studying film at TAU three years ago, and shared a love of '60s rock and folk, which the Jerusalem-raised Duman said for him derived from his American-born father.
"We had a summer of experimentation in which we played a lot of music, listened to music, and for fun, worked on all kinds of scripts with different scenarios. There was a puppet of Kermit the Frog lying around the apartment and we started goofing around with it, singing some songs and doing some crude, stupid humor.
"One day, just to get out of the stuffy apartment, we took it down to the street with our guitars and played for a while. And something magical happened. People gathered around and loved it," said Duman.
The trio slowly began taking the idea of puppeteering more seriously, slowly building puppets and learning technique.
"We also customized them, so we could actually play music live. It's very complex, and you end up using all kinds of tricks to move the puppets and play at the same time," he said.
By the time the group performed at CafÃ© Bialik with Buchris in the audience, the show was full of loose improvisation and "anything can happen" attitude.
"We basically had this whole trip already going - with little video clips that we made ourselves weaving into the show. Red would talk to the audience, sometimes we'd talk among ourselves. And when things went wrong, which they did, it was always very cool, because the puppets would deal it in some way. It became even more interesting than if everything had gone right," he said.
Things went right enough for the group to put its trust in Buchris, who spent the next year developing the show with Eitan Tsur (from 5 at Cameri), focusing on both the content and the form.
"The form was to make a documentary using puppets," said Buchris. The cinematography of the show is pure documentary. I don't think puppets have ever been shot this way before, at least not in Israel. They usually sit at a desk, immobile." THE CONTENT is based on their stage show with a twist. A band from the US in the '60s comes to Israel after the Six Day War, with the goal of teaching everybody how to rock and roll. They were never very successful, however, and after a few years they broke up.
"Red, their leader, went back to the States, but Lefty and Poncho stayed, one teaching guitar to kids and the other making new age music. Now, for reasons even we don't know, Red has returned to Israel in order to regroup the band," said Buchris. "Red certainly was a Zionist - he came after the Six Day War. Now? Maybe, we're not sure why he came back."
Buchris said that two films - Spinal Tap and a documentary about Metallica, Some Kind of Monster - provided the inspiration for the often-absurd dialogue that takes place on the show.
"That Metallica film is where we got the whole psychological aspect of the show where the band sits during every episode with a therapist [played by veteran comic actor Shai Avivi] to work out their problems," he said.
All the elements of Redband together would merely make for a mildly amusing premise if it weren't for the outlandish behavior of Red and his interactions with his bandmates, Avivi (the band's manager, played by Zvi Shisel), and the high-profile guest musicians like Shalom Hanoch, Aviv Gefen and Efrat Gosh, one of whom appears on each episode. The dialogue is a mishmash of English and Hebrew, with Red always speaking a music industry-informed jargon filled with every stoner stereotype this side of Cheech and Chong, and the others bouncing between Tel Aviv slang and broken English.
"The thing is, Red's not a very nice person," said Buchris. "And because it's a puppet, he can say just about anything to anyone."
Which leads to some hilarious scenarios in which Red continually denigrates Gefen's singing voice and "boring" style ("Are you planning on making a career with that voice?" he asks, oblivious to Gefen's successes). He mistakes singer Maor Cohen for a male prostitute, and his comments when Gosh and Habanot Nechama appear are focused primarily on their female body parts, not to mention Mosh Ben-Ari and the emphasis on one part of his anatomy.
Despite the abuse, the show has attracted the cream of the Israeli music scene because, according to Buchris, the emphasis beyond the scatology is the music.
"I think we've been able to attract the musical talent because it's a show based on music and the band - the guys behind the puppets - are extraordinarily talented. And every episode winds up with a song that the band and the guest perform together. We take that very seriously. I can say that everyone - from Shalom Hanoch to Aviv Gefen - have said that they've had the time of their life," said Buchris.
"The guests have all been very good sports," added Duman. "Most of them fall in love with the puppets. It's amazing how every time, they end up relating to the puppets as real live people." WITH NINE episodes shot, Buchris is hopeful that HOT will pick up the show for another season.
"HOT were the ones that came to us and asked for a show for HOT VOD. I think it's a perfect platform for us. We're kind of extreme and not at all mainstream," said Buchris. "This may sound cocky, but even compared to The Muppets, I think it's good. The dialogue between Red and the humans is so natural that you forget that he's a puppet."
"I think they'll want another season. But it's something that's taken a very long time to put together. Technically, it's very difficult. One of the big challenges that you don't have when working with people is how to hide the puppeteers. We always have to be creative. In the episode with Mosh Ben-Ari, it's shot entirely outside. So we had to have the puppeteers buried in the sand two meters deep - for 16 hours."
Duman expressed satisfaction at the results of the transition from stage to TV, but he also finds that it's a taxing enterprise working with puppets, and finds himself concentrating more on that than on the dialogue which is taking place.
"The technical aspects of the puppeteering and the delivery of the music is very complex because we try to make it look so natural. And it's physically strenuous, so to focus on that is a handful," he said.
"Usually, when the magic happens in the script, you don't realize it until later, even if you know the script. It's almost like having a split personality disorder. We're not us, Micha, Amir and Ari - we're them, the puppets. And when that happens automatically, it's weird and beautiful."
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