An equal opportunity offender

The remarkable Israeli version of 'The Office' is much more concerned with social fabric of country, as it weaves current events, and good dose of xenophobia into its plot lines.

The Office Israel 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Office Israel 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In a nutshell, that statement by writer/producer Uzi Weil describes the motive behind the Israeli adaptation of The Office, the hit comedy series on YES which takes the beloved formula established in 2001 by British comedian Ricky Gervais and equips it with decidedly sharp prickles, sabra style.
Nothing is taboo at the fictitious Paper Office sales branch in Yehud, where a motley microcosm of Israeli society – including self-conscious Ashkenazim, crude Sephardi arsim, a continually pregnant haredi bookkeeper who sings along to suggestive songs on the radio, an ornery Romanian, a socially inept Russian, a gay Arab and a smoothly integrated Ethiopian whose only foible seems to be his skin color – collides headfirst into a pit of politically incorrect banter and inter-office intrigue. It’s like any work place in the country – if all the employees were afflicted with Tourette’s syndrome.
But something occurs during the first season of the show to the Paper Office staff as they bicker, backstab and insult each other. Like the volatile society they reflect, the viewer sees them gradually learn to live together, cling to each other and transform themselves into a caring, yet dysfunctional, family.
There has been plenty of quality homegrown satire that has taken aim at our own shortcomings – everything from Hagash Hahiver to The Cameri Quintet to Eretz Nehederet.
But it’s unlikely any show has taken our national self-examination as far as The Office.
And that’s thanks mostly to the dagger-like humor and observations of veteran comedy writer Weil, whose many books, newspaper columns and scripts (The Cameri Quintet, Haretzua) have helped break down walls surrounding which subjects – as diverse as racism and the Holocaust – are fair game.
IT WAS inevitable that someone would eventually decide to Hebraize The Office, originally developed as a BBC sitcom by Gervais and Stephen Merchant. With its roving camera “mockumentary” setup that focused on exposing the universal commonality of corporate “cubicle angst” combined with typically understated, quirky British humor focusing on discomfiting social interactions and embarrassing silences, the show unexpectedly struck a funny bone around the world.
Despite the cultural gaps surrounding issues like politeness and physical space, the characters and interactions portrayed in the show were something that Israelis – like the rest of the global viewing public – could relate to, especially Gervais’s portrayal of hopelessly tasteless office manager David Brent. During its two-year run, the series became one of the most successful British exports since The Beatles, being screened in more than 80 countries.
In addition, The Office was licensed for local adaptations by the BBC to countries ranging from France and the US to Russia and Chile, resulting in Le Bureau in France, Stromberg in Germany and Os Aspones in Brazil.
The American version of the show debuted in 2005, and starring Steve Carrell as Gervais’s smarmy alter ego Michael Scott, has surpassed the original in popularity, if not in artistic achievement. From his inept bumbling and inappropriate behavior to his favorite catchphrase, “That’s what she said!” inserted as a sexually suggestive double entendre in the most unsuitable circumstances, including business meetings and legal depositions, Scott has become a poster child for incompetency.
However, when work began last year on developing the Israeli Office, it was the Gervais original that Weil looked to for his blueprint.
“The British show was an official satire, while the American version is a parody about funny people in a funny place with a lot of feel-good factors thrown in. I thought the British one had a lot to say about the world and about people,” said Weil.
The 46-year-old writer, who along with series director Eitan Tzur, had previously collaborated on scripts for the hit series B’tipul (later adapted by HBO as In Treatment), was confident when securing the rights to The Office from the BBC that the reserved, quirky David Brent could be transformed into an Israeli version – the brash, overbearing Avi Meshulam.
“According to the agreement with the BBC, the first three episodes had to more or less correspond with the British episodes,” said Weil.
“The main characters had to also be patterned according to the original version. The boss character, his second in command, the love story between the secretary and the good guy, those were the characters we had to have. But from there, it’s become more mixed up. Some of the stuff is totally ours, some is based on the BBC show with a bit of a twist of translating it into an Israeli mentality.”
Indeed, that mentality is best exemplified by the glue holding the Paper Office staff – and the show – together, branch manager Meshulam.
As played by veteran TV, film and theater actor Dvir Bendak, Meshulam is an amalgam of a know-it-all reserve duty commander, a foulmouthed poker mate and a 12-year-old practical joker – the eternally good-natured hevreman whose bundle of bravado, lack of self-confidence, vulnerability and ability to offend at will encapsulates the sabra psyche all too well.
“Avi is a boss who should be doing important work, but he thinks being funny is more important,” explained Bendak, attempting to describe what makes his character tick. “Keep everyone happy and never fight – even though he inadvertently instigates all the fights.
“Avi was the most rejected boy in the class.
And suddenly when gets the power to rule people, as he thinks he does, it makes him completely unaware of what he’s doing and saying, even with his good intentions of keeping everyone a happy family. But if you stick with him, then you find that he’s loveable even though he seems so crass and nasty.”
Sitting at a Tel Aviv café near the Habimah Theater on a warm, October afternoon, the bald, bulky 41-year-old Bendak is anything but crass and nasty, but he is a formidable presence.
Easily identifiable thanks to his recent high-profile television ads for Bank Tefahot (he’s the clueless husband celebrating his anniversary who buys his wife tickets to Manchester, England, for a soccer match), Bendak exudes Avi Meshulam’s charm without the bluster.
Bendak drew from both Gervais’s David Brent and Steve Carrell’s Michael Scott for his portrayal of the overgrown child with a heart of gold, but adds his own distinct Mediterranean pilpel to the ingredients.
“I was a fan of the British Office; I remember watching the first two episodes and thinking that something new is going on here,” said Bendak. “The relationship Gervais had with the camera was for me an eye opener – it’s a big challenge,” he added, referring to The Office usage of having the characters aware that a camera is following them around and regularly addressing it like it was a person.
“You have a new focus to deal with and an important focus. You have to select what you’re doing all the time. So it really interested me as an actor, and I stayed with the show. I watched the American version too, but after the British, it has so few nuances, it’s less subtle. Steve Carrell is a great actor, but you see everything that’s going on in his mind. The Americans sort of flattened the show,” said Bendak.
When approached about the part of Meshulam, he was confident that Weil – who had worked with Bendak previously on the series Haretzua and Gam Lahem Magia – possessed the talent to transform the British characters into something uniquely Israeli, even though others were doubtful.
“After YES first published that it was going to do the show, there were talkbacks on its site saying things like ‘Why? You can’t do it better than it’s already been done. Why try?’” recalled Bendak.
“Then I was sitting with Uzi and he showed me the e-mails from the BBC encouraging him and telling him that with Israel as the setting, we had much better raw material than they had. I trusted him so much, I said to myself, ‘Even if it turns out to be a disaster, it’s one I would want to be part of.’” Or, as Gervais put it when the project was announced last year: “I am thrilled and amazed that Israelis are making The Office with local writers, directors and actors. I mean, whoever heard of Jewish entertainers?” THE KEY ingredient to The Office is, indeed, the backdrop of the Jewish state and the people who populate it. While the British and American versions use the office setting to poke holes in the emptiness, loneliness and absurdity of office culture and etiquette, the Israeli version is much more concerned with the social fabric of the country, as it weaves current events, Israeli history and good dose of xenophobia into its plot lines.
“The Israeli version could use zookeepers or be set in a supermarket, and you could probably keep 80 percent of the script,” said Efrat resident Jay Bailey, an avid fan of the show who got hooked from week one after being a longtime devotee of the American version.
“Whereas the American show is more about office dynamics, this Israeli version plays much less into the business world and corporate angst and focuses on life in Israel.”
A typical episode includes many of the elements that made the British and American versions so successful. Meshulam is constantly on the verge of being fired by the upper management, played with cool veneer by Helena Yerluba; Yariv Shauli (played by Ma’ayan Blum), Meshulam’s hapless second in command (he thinks he’s the assistant manager; Avi constantly corrects him that he’s the assistant ‘to’ the manager) provides unintentionally guffaw-provoking monologues peppered with army analogies hearkening back to his days in an elite IDF unit that he’s forbidden to talk about; and there’s a healthy dose of flirting and laughing at everyone else by the two “normal” characters, receptionist Dana (Mali Levy) and jazz-loving nice guy Yossi (Eldad Privas), whom everyone realizes really belong together despite Dana’s engagement to the boorish nightmare of a warehouse worker Lavi (Alon Hamavi).
But beyond that loose structure, there’s a noholds- barred policy in effect that enables everything from racial slurs and cultural stereotyping to be slung as often as paper clips. Nobody is immune, which makes the equal opportunity slander equally offensive to all and, in effect, exposes how much it’s part of our society.
“Political correctness, which in some places of work in Western culture is akin to a religion, doesn’t exist in Israel. You would say things in Israel to someone to their face that would get you immediately fired at any Anglo-Saxon company,” said Weil.
“The show keeps you laughing because it reinforces and – in doing so – undermines a lot of the stereotypes that we have in Israeli culture,” added Bailey. “And it’s so funny to see it out there so blatantly – everything from the disabled in wheelchairs to Ethiopians to strangely communicating Russian immigrants. Nobody’s ever been that non-politically correct on Israeli TV.”
Long discussions took place between Weil, director Tzur and the cast about how the differences in Israeli behavior would affect the scripts and the characters. And it basically came down to one thing – the awkward embarrassing moment, or lack thereof.
“The British version is a comedy of embarrassment – you know David Brent is going to say the one thing he shouldn’t say and you cringe and say ‘it can’t happen’ and it does, and then you laugh and feel embarrassed,” said Weil. “In Israel, it works in the opposite way. Here, to be embarrassing, you have to say things out front.
Because we’re very outspoken and we’re not hiding-your-feelings sort of people.”
Weil added that there’s both a positive and negative aspect to this kind of behavior.
“It’s very brutish and arrogant and offensive.
But here, we don’t see that because we live in it.
What would seem very rude to someone from the outside is just a matter of fact to an Israeli.
In an English or American office, you would keep your views to yourself, but here, all the racial and religious aspects of our lives are out in the open. We’re constantly talking about it – it’s why you come to work! “So to create an embarrassing situation, you have to take it further comedy-wise. It’s not based on ‘what would happen if I say this totally horrible thing’ because I’ve already said it.
Instead, it’s ‘what will happen after I say it?’” Whether it’s Meshulam constantly reminding Ethiopian employee Avi (whom he insists on calling by his original name Ababa) to wash his hands after using the rest room, or unknowingly setting himself up for sexual harassment charges by telling scatological jokes to a female assistant, the cringe-worthy dialogue would be hurtful, if it wasn’t so insightful.
Bendak remembered when he understood that the crudeness and outrageous dialogue could have a benefit, and it took a non-Israeli to show him.
“While we were filming, we had an on-set visit from the producer of The Office in Moscow. And after watching the morning shooting, she turned to me at lunch and said, ‘You know what, I never knew we could have made it so racist.’ “For me that’s the real privilege to make an Israeli version – we can deal with it in a satirical and political manner. What are we doing here altogether, and how have we managed to survive for so long?” According to Office fan Bailey, despite the extensive efforts that have been made to establish a more progressive, politically correct society, the show exposes how far we have still to go.
“We try to be really Western and cultured, but there’s this undercurrent that remains where women in the workplace aren’t equal, gays are treated differently, the prejudices are still there and in a pretty significant way. And I think the transition Israel is going through toward a more Western approach is felt by everybody – it’s a serious societal thing,” explained Bailey, describing what keeps him attached to the show.
“One of the things that lets you sit back and laugh is when Avi Meshulam just drops the ball. The show from last night, where they left Ricki in the wheelchair on the stairs during a fire drill and forget about her had me on the floor.”
According to Weil, the decision to magnify stereotypes to blow them up was an integral part of his vision for the show.
“I don’t really like working with stereotypes, because there’s always that danger of just laughing at them. But then we said, ‘If we are working with stereotypes, what can we do with them?’” he said.
“And I just took the liberty of watching each character and developing them and going deeper into what moves them and why they behave the way they do. You start the show as you would actually start a working relationship in an office – as seeing people as the stereotype they are. The first time you walk into an office space, you immediately see this is the good guy, this is the bad guy, this is the Arab, this is the religious one, you stereotype. But after you work a little, you get to know the people, and understand what motivates them. They become the people they are and not just a stereotype.”
Take Abed, for instance, the even-tempered Arab employee, played with refreshing understatement by Jamil Khoury. He fits in with his coworkers, looks “Israeli” and doesn’t appear to have any peccadilloes. Still, he’s the “other” and when the staff is watching news bulletins of the IDF beginning Operation Cast Lead, all eyes are cast on him when he’s heard speaking on the phone in Arabic.
If his nationality isn’t enough of a handicap for him, it gets worse mid-season when he’s outed after being seen making out with his male lover in the parking garage during a lunch break.
“Uzi and I talked about the character a lot,” said Khoury from his home in Nazareth. “He told me that Abed was a nice person, intelligent, he’s well-read and knows a lot about both Israeli and Palestinian culture... and, of course, he’s gay.”
That aspect – rather than the more general one of an Israeli Arab trying to integrate among Jews – was what his friends picked up on.
“They all know me as a big macho guy, so for me to play a gay man was funny for them. ‘So, in the end, you’re gay too?’ they laughed at me, but in a good way.”
The 30-year-old Khoury, who works in theater in Haifa, Jerusalem and Nazareth, was also teaching acting classes in Ramallah while filming the first season of The Office, and would often find himself arriving late to the set after being held up at checkpoints.
That reality crosses over into the show, a reality that provided the scripts with far more “reality” than the British or American versions, but one the actors are able to harness and exploit.
“All the actors know the situation in Israel for Arabs, we don’t have to discuss it much,” said Khoury. “We’re used to boundaries, borders and checkpoints.”
Sometimes those borders aren’t physical, but sociological, like the skin barrier as reflected on the show by Ethiopian actor Yossi Bassa’s role of Avi. Bendak recalled his discomfort over the scene where Meshulam meets the new employee and stares at his skin.
“I saw people on the set watching and I’m sure they were thinking, ‘What is Yossi thinking?’ And I tried to use that, to try to bring Yossi to a place where he doesn’t remember he’s on camera, and react not like a character but like an Ethiopian immigrant would,” said Bendak.
The bluntness and lack of social etiquette expressed by most of the characters on The Office is indicative of the root of Israeli humor, according to Dr. Limor Shifman, author of Televised Humor and Social Cleavages in Israel.
“Our comedy definitely addresses quite bluntly and explicitly a lot of problems concerning the identity of Israelis,” said Shifman, who teaches at the Hebrew University’s Department of Communication and Journalism.
“One of the core problems that Israeli comedy has always faced is how to deal with ethnic groups – it’s always been with us. It’s been the mainstay of Israeli humor since the 1950s and I don’t think it has changed much. We still have those same identity problems of wanting to be Israeli but wanting to feel superior to other Israelis.”
Shifman, who hadn’t seen an episode of The Office yet, admitted that it’s difficult for humor to work without some element of stereotyping, but that the main challenge is how to work with stereotypes in order to undermine them.
“That’s something that good comedy writers can do, and can be a great contribution to society – to promote complex thinking about social problems and social groups. Uzi Weil is a great writer, and I’m sure he shows a certain sensitivity to the power that humor can have on society,” said Shifman.
Weil said that he’s aware of his responsibility, and explained his function as “taking a step back and looking at things in order to say, ‘Look how deep it goes, and how miserable people can make each other.’ At the same time, compared to the British version, it’s a much warmer show. Even as they say those horrible things, they’re more caring and more alive.”
“If I hadn’t seen the show and you described it to me, I wouldn’t have thought it would be something I’d keep coming back to,” added Efrat viewer Bailey. “But now, I wait every week for it. You do end up really caring about the characters. And, it’s probably one of the only shows in the last decade that I’ve laughed out loud to, sitting by myself.”
With the first season wrapping up on YES this month, Weil is currently hard at work writing the scripts for the next 15 episodes. This time, he’s not restrained by having to conform to any BBC plot lines or previously filmed episodes and can let his imagination run wild.
Those prospects both thrill Bendak and fill him with trepidation.
“It’s a bit frightening, because Uzi has no more British episodes to base it on. He’s writing the second season on his own, and he can be very extreme. I think he’s going to make it much more painful in the social realm, and he’ll make Jamil more important in the office. And knowing his dirty mind, he’ll make Avi much more of a sexual harasser than he already is. I can’t wait.” That’s what he said.