Page 67



The Economist May 18th 2019


Politics and comedy

Funny business

Comedy is the populists’ secret weapon. The professionals are joining in


f all donald trump’s beefs with the “mainstream media”, it may be the least likely. Those po-faced purveyors of fake news, claims the president, do not take him seriously as a comedian. “He has a great sense of humour that he doesn’t get credit for,” explains a White House official. So, credit where credit is due. The expansive, largely unscripted, disquisitions with which Mr Trump entertains his rallies are less traditional “speeches” than a stand-up comedy routine. Instead of tedious policy pronouncements and fine phrasemaking, his audience is treated to an impromptu circus of gags, pouts, gibes, mimicry and put-downs: “Pocahontas” for Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic senator and candidate for presidential nomination (because of allegations that she exaggerated her native-American heritage); “One Per Cent” for another Democratic contender, Joe Biden (a wildly inaccurate summary of his poll ratings), and so on. David Litt, who used to write jokes for Barack Obama, acknowledges that Mr Trump has a great feel for his audience and the “skill-set of a comedian”. In treating

politics as a joke-filled prank, Mr Trump is, as so often, right on trend. Ukraine has just gone one better. On April 21st it elected Volodymyr Zelensky, a professional comedian and television star, as president. He made his name in “The Servant of the People”, a television show, playing a teacher who accidentally becomes president after a foul-mouthed rant about the country’s politics that goes viral. Mr Zelensky’s real campaign eschewed traditional rallies in favour of comedy performances. One joke became a reliable hit, asking why Petro Poroshenko, the incumbent, wanted a second term in office: “So he doesn’t get a [prison] term.” (It’s the way he tells them.) A stand-up joke likened Ukraine’s attitude to money to a German porn star who “takes it from every side and in any amount”. Mr Zelensky is not alone. Last year Slovenia elected a satirist, Marjan Sarec, as prime minister. He honed his talents on a radio programme and spoofing the former prime minister, Janez Jansa, on television. In 2015 Guatemalans elected as president Jimmy Morales, a comedian. Jón Gnarr, a stand-up comic and former punk-rocker,

served as mayor of Reykjavik, capital of Iceland, from 2009 to 2014. In the general election last year in Italy, the Five Star Movement, founded in 2009 by Beppe Grillo, another comedian, became the largest party in parliament and part of the governing coalition. In Britain the successor as prime minister to the hapless Theresa May may well be Boris Johnson. He is a career politician—a former mayor of London and foreign secretary, and a leading Brexiteer. But an important part of his persona—comic buffoonery—was fixed by his appearances on a satirical news show, “Have I Got News for You”, cementing an image as a flawed but lovably self-mocking man-of-the-people. As mayor, he tickled Londoners with a joke. When Mr Trump called parts of their city “no-go areas”, he retorted: “The only reason I wouldn’t go to some parts of New York is the real risk of meeting Donald Trump.” On the campaign trail, Mr Johnson promised that “voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts and increase your chance of owning a bmw.” Kicked around Oddly, since he was hardly famed for his sense of humour, it may have been Richard Nixon who began the crossover between politics and comedy. In 1968, just before winning the presidential election, he popped up on a hit television sketch-show, “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” to repeat, in typically lugubrious deadpan, its catchphrase: “Sock it to me”. 1

Profile for MA Rtin

The Economist - 18.05.19  

The Economist - 18.05.19