The curious charms of Pini Ben-Tovim, web TV star

The curious charms of Pini Ben-Tovim, web TV star

Now in its third season, an Internet series follows a brash but lovable Israeli as he stumbles about London

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Tom, Pini and Carla on the streets of London (Courtesy Ynet)
Tom, Pini and Carla on the streets of London (Courtesy Ynet)

The character development of Pini Ben-Tovim, the garrulous and disarming star of the eponymously named web TV series, was mostly a lucky break for creator Tomer Barzide.

Ra’anana-born-and-bred Barzide was a film student in London, and like many, looking for a way to make his mark in the industry. He came up with the concept of Pini, a clueless Israeli living in London who wants to become the next celebrity chef based on his experience as a cook at an army base. Casting himself — with his very Israeli shaved pate — in the lead role was easier than searching for another actor.

The concept of television programs made for the Internet hadn’t completely taken off yet when Barzide took the Pini concept and joined with an Israeli partner, Udi Shadmi, and his production company MarketMaster, uploaded the first two episodes of “Pini” on YouTube and started watching the views climb. Several months later, the Ynet news site bought the series and “Pini” is now well into its third season, with Barzide and Shadmi now courting calls from European and American networks.

It’s all a bit bemusing to the 28-year-old Barzide, who wasn’t quite sure that a show about a brash Israeli living in London would garner such success. But it’s clear that Barzide’s alter ego Pini, and his loyal sidekick Tom Jones, have found their audience.

Pini and Tom (Courtesy Pini Facebook)
Pini and Tom (Courtesy Pini Facebook)

You play Pini Ben-Tovim on “Pini,” and much of the humor stems from Pini’s relationship with his Welsh roommate and sidekick, Tom Jones (also his name in real life). How much of that relationship is based on your own experiences?

It’s 50% based on real experience. You turn things around, but a lot of inspiration came from my roommate experiences. Tom and I never lived together; Tom is a collection of a few Toms and that’s why he’s such a colorful character.

How does the real Tom feel about Israel, having been introduced by you?

I’m his first Israeli, but he actually comes to Israel quite a lot now. And here’s a little spoiler, he hooks up with an Israeli girl.

Gordon Ramsay (Courtesy Facebook)
Gordon Ramsay (Courtesy Facebook)

Has Pini ever met celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, or, for that matter, that other famous Israeli foodie in London, Yotam Ottolenghi?

No, and who’s Yotam Ottolenghi? [After hearing about the Israeli chef who has taken over London with his pan Mediterranean food] Whoa, we’ll have to get him on the show.

Much of the humor in “Pini” is that cringe-and-squirm-in-your-seat laughter as viewers watch Pini stumble through life in London. Do you think that’s what appeals to viewers?

I think some people connect on personal level because they feel they have a Pini inside of them, and that relates to their own reality. On another level, people comment that the show is finally something that doesn’t follow the TV rules. It’s short, concise; you can watch it whenever you want, wherever you want.

What are the benefits of writing episodes that are five to six minutes long?

It’s a little bit frustrating that the episodes are so short because it’s hard to be concise with the story structure. That said, I’ve gotten used to it. I like the idea of shorter episodes. And by doing it online, you get constant viewer feedback all the time, and your number of viewers grows over time, creating the kinds of numbers that television never achieves.

There are at least a dozen popular Internet TV series online right now, but Pini is the first successful Israeli one. How does that feel?

“Pini” is a pioneering project in terms of launching a real Israeli series online and Ynet really introduced the idea. They were exploring different series and then they met us and from there it’s history.

Pini and a fan (Pini Facebook page)
Pini and a fan (Pini Facebook page)

Okay, be honest. How famous are you?

People have recognized me in London and New York and obviously in Israel. Actually, a lot of people have recognized me in New York. About 25% of our viewers don’t live in Israel, and we know that they’re divided between the US and the UK.

What’s up next for “Pini?

We’ve had offers from Europe and the US to adapt the show, but we’re in early negotiations. As for Pini, we need to develop his romantic relationship with Carla (Charlotte Beckett) and we may take the three main characters out of England, a place where all of them will be fish out of water. Maybe to Japan.

“Pini” will be show at the Washington (DC) Jewish Film Festival, date and time to be announced.

We’re also working on another web series, something very different from “Pini.” I can only say it’s never been done before worldwide. It’s experimental.

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