The grocery store: Land of shopping carts, food aisles and cashiers, it is one of the few places where Israelis of all stripes come into contact with one another, a perfect little microcosm of society.
Life at the super, as it’s known in Hebrew, is the premise of “Checkout,” (“Kupa Rashit” in Hebrew), the successful comedy mockumentary that made it to the 2021 International Emmys, and is now playing (with subtitles) on the “Jewish Netflix,” the ChaiFlicks streaming platform available in the US, Australia and New Zealand.
Of course, ChaiFlicks is not Netflix or Apple TV, HBO Max or Amazon Prime, any of the other streaming platforms where “Checkout” creators Yaniv Zohar and Nadav Frishman would love to see their show, now distributed by Yes Studios.
“Do you think it’s too Israeli?” they asked this reporter.
Hard to say. It is extremely Israeli, and yet overwhelmingly familiar to anyone who’s ever shopped in a grocery store.
The show is set in Shefa Yissachar, a fictional small supermarket chain located in the town of Yavne, with a cast of colorful characters played by some of the country’s funniest actors and comics.
The clever Noa Koler is Shira, the somewhat clueless store manager, obsessed with management techniques that have little effect on her staff. She presides over the hilarious Keren Mor as worldly cashier Kochava, who rules the roost.
There’s also Amir Shurush as Ramzi, Shira’s right-hand, eager Arab assistant; Daniel Styopin and Yaniv Swissa as the prank-playing, jokester Russian and Mizrachi butchers, Anatoly and Nissim; Aviva Nagosa as Ethiopian cashier Esti, often a comic foil to Kochava, and Dov Navon as Amnon Titinski, the mincing bachelor professor who’s always looking for a bargain, or a self-righteous fight, or preferably both.
The tight, under-30 minute episodes deal with the mishaps, revelry and pranks that take place daily at Shefa Yissachar, while cleverly emphasizing the tropes, archetypes and familiar racial and ethnic clashes within the Israeli public.
Creators Yaniv Zohar and Nadav Frishman spent a lot of time wandering around local supermarkets as they wrote this zany, comical, true-to-life sitcom.
“Standing in line, everybody’s equal, whether you have a million dollars or you’re poor, everybody’s in the same boat,” said Zohar. “The supermarket is about money, food and lines. It’s the Israeli idea of heaven.”
“Conflict makes for comedic material,” said Frishman.
The two are currently working on the fourth season of “Checkout” for Kan 11.
“We picked up the distribution rights because we love it so much,” said Danna Stern, CEO of Yes Studios, which has produced Israeli TV successes such as “Fauda,” “Shtisel,” “On the Spectrum” and other local hits.
The show was pretty much unknown during its first season, seen mostly by kids as it was featured on Israel’s Educational Channel, before temporarily moving to the now-defunct Channel 10. The first season then moved to Kan, where it became available for streaming online and gained a considerable following, leading to two more seasons and national acclaim.
“It was an underground phenomenon at the beginning,” said Amit Stretiner of July-August Productions, which co-created the show. “It was the series that no one knew about.”
It was Stretiner who first commissioned Zohar and Frishman to write the series, seeking a new sketch comedy show for the educational station.
Launching a comedy show on the niche channel offered the chance to test new talent, even avant-garde ideas, said Stretiner. “When you go to a commercial channel, you need to be very precise, to know the tone and the premise,” he said.
He contacted Frishman and Zohar who had a few ideas, including a sketch show about life in a small supermarket.
The creators initially thought about a show of one-off comedy sketches, until Frishman saw a documentary about police and firefighter heroes, and suggested creating a mockumentary about supermarket heroes.
That idea led to Kupa Rashit’s now regular feature of off-camera interviews with the supermarket staff, moments when one of the characters is seated on a couch, describing their reactions to any given situation in the style of reality television.
“We were thinking about cheap moments to film, but also trying to find a way to tell the story,” said Frishman.
The two creators like realistic comedy, added Zohar, mentioning some of their favorites, such as “Modern Family,” “Parks and Recreation” and “The Office.”
“When you do a mockumentary, it has to feel real, with all the silences and laid-back comedy,” he said.
What they didn’t expect, was the zeal with which Israelis, both adults and kids, greeted the show.
“Social media spread the word about this show,” said Stretiner. “Kids brought it to their parents, because they had seen it on the Educational Channel.” Families started tuning in together, people dressed up as characters on the Purim holiday, and Kan’s Facebook group for the show now has more than 100,000 followers. Posts there include viewers’ own supermarket tales and their photos of strangely shaped fruits and vegetables (a particular pet peeve of Ramzi’s).
The show is successful, said Stretiner, because the characters are big, broadly drawn types, likable and colorful and consistent from episode to episode.
“Each of them represents something very clear, and the audience is familiar with those characters,” he said. “With humor, it’s very close, you either laugh or you don’t.”
The message of “Checkout” is clear, added ChaiFlick’s Neil Friedman.
“We’ve all been on that checkout line and it’s a very common, everyday experience which was important to me,” said Friedman, who bought “Checkout” from its distributor, Yes Studios, as ChaiFlicks’ new Israeli TV series for the month of November.
“Each of the characters represents a certain part of the Israeli gestalt. That’s maybe the greatest thing about the show. It’s just a very human portrayal of different kinds of folks from different parts of Israel.”