Israel and comedy – an uneven playing field

Discussing Israel in any context is never easy. When it’s done in a comedic context, it’s almost impossible.

April 2, 2015 15:11
4 minute read.
Jon Stewart, comedian and host of 'The Daily Show,' is leaving the popular show in the fall of 2015

Jon Stewart, comedian and host of 'The Daily Show,' is leaving the popular show in the fall of 2015. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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For all our chutzpa and brazen can-do attitude, we Jews don’t always have the thickest skin when made fun of. And we certainly don’t have a high level of tolerance when comedians mock and critique Israel.

When Comedy Central announced Trevor Noah will succeed Jon Stewart as host of the Daily Show this week, the internet did what it does best: spent hours pouring over his tweets to find the ones deemed most offensive and outrageous.

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And, yes, some of the tweets were bad. Not only for its message, but also because from a purely comedic standpoint, they just weren’t funny. Comedy Central has (yet) to capitulate to pressure and is sticking by its decision, saying in a statement, ““Like many comedians, Trevor Noah pushes boundaries; he is provocative and spares no one, himself included…To judge him or his comedy based on a handful of jokes is unfair. Trevor is a talented comedian with a bright future at Comedy Central.”

The rule of thumb in comedy seems to be – if you talk about Israel, be prepared for the criticism. No matter what is said, you’ll offend all involved. In Stewart’s and Noah’s case, that seems to be true.

Stewart’s most recent brush with controversy regarding Israel occurred when he did a segment on Netanyahu’s address to Congress last month. “Whether or not Netanyahu achieved his goal of sabotaging a deal with Iran…one thing is certain, the chamber response to this speech, is by far, the longest blow job a Jewish man has ever received,” he said, in a comment that drew scorn across the board.

Further proving that jokes dabbling both misogyny and anti-Semitism don’t bode well, one of the tweets that got Noah into hot water was the following, “Messi gets the ball and the real players try foul him, but Messi doesn't go down easy, just like jewish chicks.”

Noah’s tweets and Stewart’s take on Israel in general has ignited a firestorm of controversy, but other late-night comedians have managed to talk about Israel without being condemned for doing so.

Former Daily Show correspondent John Oliver, host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight, has mocked the absurdity of our recent elections and Netanyahu’s subsequent flip-flopping on support for the two-state solution with nary a peep of criticism. “That is pretty impressive, that is a Michael Jackson level of walking backwards.” And yet, the twitterverse – ever ready to eviscerate anybody who says something remotely controversial – remained silent.

Perhaps this has to do with Last Week Tonight not being as popular as The Daily Show (although that will most likely change). Currently, Oliver garners about half of The Daily Show’s viewers, but with his program being on premium cable, those numbers are reasonable. What’s more, in the show’s short two-year span, it has figured out a way to mock us without getting under our skin.

His show is divided into two segments. The first half of the show has Oliver mocking the absurdities of different countries in short, two to three minute bits. These quick, irreverent segments tend to highlight random absurdities found in different government’s worldwide. And probably every Israeli will acknowledge we have plenty of material to offer in that department.

His second segment though, takes one troubling issue in which he breaks apart the issue piece by piece and has been called “investigative comedy” by critics. From the death penalty, to the tobacco industry, to doctors getting kickbacks from the pharmaceutical companies, Oliver has managed to do the impossible: highlighted the many faces of injustice in a humorous way.

It’s telling, though, that Israel has only been relegated to that first segment. If Oliver were to do an “investigative” bit on settlements, for example, he would be roundly skewered for doing so.

The other option is to put Israel on the periphery of what’s being mocked. When SNL did a skit on “The Rock Obama” last week, where a provoked Barack Obama transformed into the incredible hulk and mauls those who disagreed with him, they made Republican support for Israel the target and not Israel itself. As a result, the skit, which mocked Tom Cotton, John Boehner, Ted Cruz blind siding with Netanyahu was barely acknowledged here.

Of course, the other route is to staunchly support Israel and use comedy as a way of doing so. Bill Maher, of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, has gotten into trouble for his pro-Israel jokes no matter how offensive they may be.

His tweet saying, “Dealing w/ Hamas is like dealing w/ a crazy woman who’s trying to kill u - u can only hold her wrists so long before you have to slap her,” got him into very hot water, but not with Israel advocates.

But maybe it should have. If we want to have an honest discussion about Israel in a comedic context, we shouldn’t let comedians like Maher be able to say whatever they want because they support us and then attack Stewart if he even utters the word Israel.

In an interview with NPR, Oliver said, "There should be a kind of awkward tension whenever a journalist walks into a room that politicians are in, because you should've done things that annoyed them in the past…It's the same as a comedian. You're no one's friend."

So perhaps when we even ask the question “Is Jon Stewart a friend of Israel?” maybe it’s not the worst thing in the world if that answer is no.

When Noah takes over at the helm, it would serve him well to heed that advice, but to try to achieve a level of humor a tad more sophisticated than his ignorant tweets.

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