A cartoonish version of the former far-right politician Geula Cohen, wild-haired and hysterical, recently chased her politician son around the studio with a shoe, berating him for leaving the Likud Party for the new Kadima Party. "You had to become a leftist?" she shouted. "You couldn't just be a murderer or a homosexual?"
TEL AVIV, Jan. 1 - To the thumping beat of "Stayin' Alive," a super-size version of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon appears sporty in a blue jogging suit and sweatband, with no aftereffects from his recent stroke. He raises his arms in Rocky-style triumph and jogs into the studio of Israel's hit spoof news show, "A Wonderful Country."
The character playing his rival, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, appears taken aback by Mr. Sharon's recovery and mutters under his breath, "I'm going to sue the Western Wall," referring to a note to God, apparently not containing good wishes, that he had tucked into the holiest site in Judaism.
Every Friday night about one million Israelis - nearly 60 percent of the viewing audience - tune in to watch their leaders ridiculed and their country mocked. The show takes few prisoners, a reflection of Israel's own lively and aggressive political culture.
"Israelis have a need to rid themselves of stress through laughter," said Muli Segev, 33, the executive producer, trying to explain how the show works as a kind of catharsis for a nation obsessed with politics and the news.
A cartoonish version of the former far-right politician Geula Cohen, wild-haired and hysterical, recently chased her politician son, Tzachi Hanegbi, around the studio with a shoe, berating him for leaving the Likud Party for Mr. Sharon's new Kadima Party. "You had to become a leftist?" she shouted. "You couldn't just be a murderer or a homosexual?"
The show's characters and sketches have tapped into Israel's zeitgeist so well that a religious lawmaker asked the station to rebroadcast it during the week, to allow observant Jews, prohibited from watching Friday night because of the Sabbath, to join the national conversation.
The show has injected a medley of new slang and phrases into that conversation. The speed with which politicians and journalists borrow those phrases is a measure of the show's success, said David Alexander, who teaches a course on satire at Haifa University.
One of the most popular phrases to emerge is a simple cry of pain: "It's difficult, it's difficult!" uttered by a character named Luba, a Russian immigrant and supermarket cashier. The phrase, uttered repeatedly in thickly accented Hebrew, taps into the disillusionment and alienation with their new country felt by many immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
Israelis know their politicians, many of whom have been around for decades, well. And Israelis are obsessed with the news, tuning into the radio for hourly updates. When they want a break, they turn to the show, a spoof of everything they have been following and debating so intensely.
"The deep involvement of almost every single citizen in politics" is crucial to the show's success, Mr. Alexander said. "It is there to sum up the week for us in a cartoonish manner."
Preparing for a recent episode, Mr. Segev and his team of seven writers hunkered down around a long wooden table blanketed with newspapers. Ideas, jokes and mimicked voices flew around the room.
The show drew inspiration in part from "Saturday Night Live" and "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," Mr. Segev said. The writers are in their late 20's and early 30's, a generation that came of age in the 1990's, when an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict appeared possible. They cut their teeth on Israeli late-night television, with apolitical humor.
Previous satirical shows, like "Hartzufim" of the 1990's, an Israeli version of the groundbreaking British satirical puppet show "Spitting Image," helped pave the way.
Three years ago, when "A Wonderful Country" was born, Mr. Segev and his team felt the need to make a statement about Israel through political satire. The country was receptive, having become less reverent toward its institutions and leaders.
"Humor is more aggressive in Israel," said Omri Marcus, 26, one of the writers. "It's more black, more intense."
There is plenty of new material, now that early elections have been declared for March 28.
The show depicts Mr. Sharon as an untouchable king who withstands allegations of corruption that swirl around him and his sons. One of them, Omri, has pleaded guilty to violating campaign-financing laws as he helped his father win the Likud leadership in 1999. But Omri Sharon insists his father knew nothing.
In a recent episode, Mr. Sharon is shown with an equally portly Omri bent over his knee. The prime minister repeatedly spanks him, blaming him not only for the recent corruption scandal but also for everything controversial in his own career, including his role two decades ago in leading Israel into war in Lebanon.
"There is something more about survival here as a young country where it still feels like everything could fall apart," said Tal Friedman, who plays Mr. Sharon. So Israeli satire, Mr. Friedman said, "deals with more extreme issues, including whether we will continue to exist or not."
But notoriety is also publicity. It has become a badge of honor for politicians and public figures to be impersonated on the show - their status as a "somebody" increasingly linked to whether or not they are made a laughingstock.
Although Palestinians do not seem to watch the show in significant numbers, at least one prominent Palestinian figure has been tuning in.
Zakariya Zubeidi, a Palestinian militant leader who was, until recently, on Israel's most-wanted list, told the Israeli newspaper Maariv last February that the show made him laugh.
"I hear they want to make me into a character; if they do I will end the cease-fire," he said, jokingly referring to an agreement by Palestinian militant groups at the time to suspend attacks on Israelis.
Orna Banai, one of the show's stars, said that she sometimes felt the line between reality and satire was obscured. "You see the real people and for a second you feel they are a character on 'A Wonderful Country,' " she said. "That's the power of the program."
Of course, even the title of the show is gently satirical. At the close of every broadcast, the news anchor intones: "And remember - we have a wonderful country."
Photos: The Wonderful country staff and Different characters from the show during the years- Ariel Sharon,IDF chief of staff,GW Bush,Lieberman (presented as a Russian dictator)
Video: A mix of the Wonderful country new openning scene and Adel
In: Other Middle East, Creative
Tags: NYTimes, Wonderful country, Ariel Sharon, Netanyahu, Palestinians, Bush, Lieberman, God
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