Behind the lines: The joke's on us

Usually, journalists or comedians who try to play both sides of the field aren't taken very seriously.

ballots 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
ballots 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
One of the more interesting polls in the weeks before the elections was held among young voters between the ages of 18-32, which highlighted their disinclination to vote (only 44 percent were planning to do so) and their indifference to politics in general. The detail in the result of the poll that caught everyone's eye was that 19% of the respondents said their main source of information on the politicians was Eretz Nehederet ("a wonderful country"), the Channel 2 political satire program aired on Friday nights. This was the same proportion of youngsters who answered that they got their information from reading the papers and watching the news. Despite the poll's having been conducted by Professor Yitzhak Katz - who proved to be one of the most reliable soothsayers in this campaign - it's hard to decide how seriously to take its results. The fact that one out of every five respondents chose Eretz Nehederet from a list of options might simply prove that it seemed like the "cool" answer, not necessarily the correct one. But it obviously seemed authentic enough for the "One Voice" organization, which originally commissioned the poll, to produce commercials with the Eretz Nehederet stars urging their viewers to vote. Turnout was higher than predicted, though still an all-time low, so there's no way of telling whether the ads had any effect. But the question remains as to what influence satire shows - which have become a significant source of information for many viewers - have on public opinion and perception of political leaders. One thing is certain: Eretz Nehederet is not only one of the shows with the highest ratings, it has also become a barometer for public sentiment. When Ariel Sharon was hospitalized, the show was suspended for a week. Its return the following Friday night was a sign that things were getting back to normal. But can the show really make or break a political career, as some have suggested? Satire is not usually the creation of new images or stereotypes. It is the amplification of those that already exist and the portrayal of them in a grotesque manner. Eretz Nehederet didn't invent Amir Peretz as a primitive and strident politician, forever shouting through a loudspeaker. Many Israelis wrongly believe that's what he is. But the show's creators have definitely reinforced this image and played - perhaps unwittingly - some part in convincing many voters that he wasn't serious enough to be entrusted with the country's future. Peretz, of course, wasn't the only candidate ridiculed on the show. Ehud Olmert was depicted as a two-faced lawyer. After every sentence he uttered, there was a voice-over saying what he really thought. Binyamin Netanyahu was portrayed as a slick womanizer. Avigdor Lieberman was shown as a cruel Mafioso. But it doesn't seem that any of the above politicians suffered the same kind of damage as Peretz. Israeli voters don't mind that their politicians aren't paragons of virtue. They just don't want them to be freierim (patsies) or stupid. When asked what they think of their characters on satire shows, most politicians try to prove they have a sense of humor and claim they even enjoy the fun made of them. Lieberman admitted to me a couple of months ago that his puppet, "Vladimir," in the Hartzufim (the TV show in the '90's modelled after the British Spitting Image), annoyed him because "it was racist." What Lieberman really meant was that it reinforced his image as an outsider. Watching Israel Beiteinu's political broadcasts last month that emphasized what a typical Israeli Lieberman is, I realized how that past image of him still rankles. THERE IS another kind of satire - a more serious one that is basically a combination of entertainment and journalism - the kind of you can see on TV in the US, like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, or read in Britain's Private Eye and France's Le Canard Enchaine, which combine serious investigative journalism with humor. In Israel, the two have mainly remained separate, with a few good satire columns in the newspapers that have little influence over the general agenda. The only vehicle that effectively combines the two is Army Radio's "Hamila Ha'aharona", a program in which a changing cast of anchors, mainly columnists and radio personalities with well-known views, discuss the news and their opinions of it. But in most cases, journalists or comedians who try to play both sides of the field aren't taken very seriously. Channel 10 news tried to include an element of satire in its coverage of the elections, with satirist Kobi Arieli doing a weekly feature on one of the parties and show-biz reporter Haim Etgar pestering politicians with ludicrous questions. These were the low-points in what everybody agreed (other than the Channel 2 competitors, that is) was an extremely successful campaign for Channel 10. The other main TV satire show, Mishak Machur ("a sold match"), also on Channel 2, features a cast of stand-up comedians giving their take on the affairs of the week (basically it's a down-market version of the BBC's brilliant Have I Got News For You). It hasn't been such a success, however. Despite its high-brow pretensions, it usually descends into ratings-pursuit-style slapstick, and has failed to capture the public imagination as Eretz Nehederet did. Personally, I don't think that Eretz Nehederet is either a substitute for the news or for serious criticism of politicians. More than anything else, it is a satire on us, the Israeli public, emphasizing all our silly prejudices. This is why some of its funniest sketches have nothing to do with politics, but rather poke fun at "typical" Israeli families. In other words, we might think our politicians are funny, but the joke is actually on us.