Comedians Will Soon Rule the World

It’s no accident that a growing number of international comics are running for office—and winning.

Italy's 5-Star Movement party leader Beppe Grillo on May 19, 2014 in Rome.   (Tiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty Images)
Italy's 5-Star Movement party leader Beppe Grillo on May 19, 2014 in Rome. (Tiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty Images)

The old management adage that you must first act like a leader in order to become one could not be more true for Volodymyr Zelensky. The Ukrainian comedian starred on national television as a teacher who becomes president. The program, Servant of the People, charts the rise of a high school educator who rises to the top of Ukrainian politics after a viral video shows him waxing lyrical about government corruption.

Now, ahead of the country’s actual elections in March, Zelensky is a front-running candidate leading the Servant of the People party, created by the TV company that he co-founded, which also produced the show of the same name. And he’s not alone.

A growing number of professional comedians around the world are turning to professional politics—and some have already made it to high office. Marjan Sarec, a satirist, was elected as the Slovenian prime minster last August. Jimmy Morales, previously a comic actor, is the president of Guatemala. Others have played major national political roles. Jon Gnarr, an Icelandic standup comedian, was Reykjavik’s mayor until 2014, and Beppe Grillo, an Italian comedian, helped mastermind the Five Star Movement, which now forms part of Italy’s ruling coalition. In other words, don’t expect Zelensky to be the last comedian to transition from the standup mic to the political podium.

It’s not hard to understand why a comedian would be in political fashion at the present populist moment. First, they tend to reject the values and authority of the existing power establishment—whatever shape that establishment might take. Morales’s successful campaign platform was built on the slogan Ni corrupto, ni ladrón—neither corrupt nor a thief—drawing on Guatemalans’ tiring of graft-prone governments. In Ukraine, Servant of the People garnered a huge following for ridiculing the government and politicians, and, like his character, Zelensky has said his focus would be to tackle corruption. Sarec, too, was popular for his effectively anti-establishment skits, through his impersonation and mocking of previous leaders. At a time when only half the world’s people trust their government or the media, according to the latest Edelman Trust Barometer, there’s certainly a vacuum for self-styled anti-elites to fill.

Comedians also have a psychological advantage in appealing to the public. Humor is typically a positive social signal; people, in short, like those who make them feel good. And at a time when global, economic, and technological change is driving upheaval and uncertainty, it’s understandable that voters would especially lean toward basic feel-good leadership involving not only humor but also obviously unrealistic promises.

A candid, anecdotal, and lighthearted approach to political speeches is what propelled Gnarr into popularity in the wake of Iceland’s 2008 financial crisis. His Best Party, composed of punk rockers, campaigned on free towels in all swimming pools and a polar bear for the capital’s zoo, among other things. Hayk Marutyan, a famous Armenian comedian, also recently led an upbeat and personable campaign to become mayor of Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, in September. His initial platform included bog-standard promises on infrastructure improvements and calls to design a 4D light show around an ancient fortress in the city.

But it’s not just about comedians’ likability. Satire is also a shrewd communication tool. At times, there is no more an effective message than a funny one, and a joke (or a burn at an opponent’s expense) not only garners a laugh but is also an effective deflection strategy. This has become only more evident with the rise of social media, which amplifies the appeal of humor through GIFs and memes. Meanwhile, as broadcasters and news publications compete for readers’ attention in an online age, political news is increasingly being repurposed for entertainment. That’s certainly advantaging the more colorful candidates.

One need only consider Donald Trump’s 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, which garnered coverage with his regular ad hominem attacks on debate opponents and frequent use of humor. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson’s successful campaign to become London mayor in 2008 partly lent on the popularity he garnered for his comedic prose and general buffoonery, which helped to overshadow his lack of experience.

In all, comedians who are already household names, and practiced at self-promotion on social media, are in a strong position to take advantage of the grievances of politically disillusioned voters. But comedians’ interventions in the political system don’t necessarily take the form of running for office. Hungary’s Two-Tailed Dog Party parodies the political elite through street art, not so dissimilarly to Serbia’s Otpor! Movement, which used humor to help undermine Slobodan Milosevic. And in Egypt, the incendiary comedian Bassem Youssef was such a nuisance in his satirical news show that he now has to live in exile.

The lure of a charismatic narrator is hard for voters to resist, particularly when the political class is seen as out of touch. Behavioral economists explain the supposed irrationality of electing a less experienced candidate through our evolutionary aversion to loss. Faced with a “sure loss” of maintaining the status quo through establishment suit-types, voters may be inclined to take the risky bet of voting in an outsider. But outsiders can be the bearers of loss, too, especially as political office requires pragmatism, expertise, and experience. Although humor may be well received by the public, it is not necessarily a good indicator of an effective leader. The risks of electing a comedian have been evident in Morales’s presidency; he stirred unnecessary controversy last month by ejecting a United Nations anti-graft commission from the country.

Comedy can play an important role in our politics, both in challenging apathy and the fear and despair that tend to dominate our newsfeeds. But, as with all forms of populism, we must be aware of the risks. Using education to build citizens’ awareness of the repertoire of techniques candidates may use to draw and divert their attention from wider or more fundamental issues—through humor, charm, or otherwise—will continue to be important. Fact checking must also play an elevated role, to ensure campaigns are judged by their seriousness and not simply by their entertainment value.

Ultimately, to counter the draw of populist messaging, whatever its form, we must address what’s driving the lack of trust in our current system. That means politicians will need to take a leaf out of comedians’ playbook and find ways to better understand and connect with what exactly makes their audiences tick.

Tej Parikh is a global policy analyst and journalist. He was previously an associate editor and reporter at the Cambodia Daily Twitter: @tejparikh90