Ukraine have elected a comedian as president,” the text message began and, as a comic myself, I knew what was coming next. I’m sure comedians all over the world have enjoyed friends and family telling them that they should consider becoming a world leader since comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy won the Ukrainian presidency last week. Maybe it’s because I’m a comedian who worked in politics (and is still tragically obsessed with it), but the relationship between the two worlds seems increasingly pertinent. It’s not hard to see why, when certain leading political figures cultivate a “comedy” persona to help them get ahead. But can politics learn from comedy? How much has comedy been part of Zelenskiy’s appeal. And do comedians make good politicians?
I worry about politicians who try too hard to be funny. Flashes of wit and humour are important and help the public warm to you, but politics is serious and if someone is clowning around too much, my instinct is that they’re not suited to high office. According to a recent ConservativeHome survey, Boris Johnson is the favourite to be the next Tory leader. As we are all completely aware, Johnson has constructed a persona. It’s a persona designed to get him off the hook. If we all think he’s a joke, then what are our expectations of him? To follow the logic, he’s created a veneer that allows him to behave differently and more to the point, allows him to behave worse than his peers. Johnson is a lesson that when politicians enjoy the warmth of laughter too much, they pursue that addiction at the expense of more important attributes.
There is of course a distinction between politicians who try and use comedy to enhance their personality and comedians who go into politics. Nigel Farage is a different case to Eddie Izzard. Farage has tried to build humour into his brand, and his Brexit party is on course to do well in the European parliament elections, but that’s more to do with his effectiveness as a single-issue campaigner in non-general elections. As for individuals who are comedians by trade, you might presume that it’s an easy transition into politics, but it’s proven very difficult for most of them. Beppe Grillo caused a stir in Italy but thankfully never fully broke through. In the UK, Eddie Izzardhas tried a few times to get on to Labour’s National Executive Committee and has lost out every time members have voted. It’s not comedy that held him back though, it’s politics. Izzard isn’t a Corbynista – and as many failed NECcandidates now know, if you’re not ultra-loyal to the Corbyn project, you have absolutely no chance of getting elected by members on to the executive, no matter how funny you are. I remember a period when Izzard was talked about as a future mayor of London. Even as a fan of his, I thought it was disrespectful to the office, not to mention exceptional candidates like Tessa Jowell, that he was seen as a viable candidate at that stage.
What makes Zelenskiy’s victory even more peculiar is that he plays the part of the Ukrainian president in his TV sitcom. If that was part of a grand plan it’s a stroke of genius. More likely is that he’s played that part and begun to believe he can actually do the job, despite having no political experience. What’s more, enough of the public began to believe that he could do the job. Both facts petrify me. If the role of politicians, especially leaders, is seen to be an easy exercise in just saying the most popular thing or “telling it like it is”, we are wilfully misunderstanding how difficult, varied and demanding the role of the politician is.
Zelenskiy is effectively the Jed Bartlet of Ukraine, and this makes the victory slightly easier to understand, although it’s still ludicrous. If Martin Sheen stood for the White House, is it that hard to imagine the West Wing actor winning? Sadly not. America currently has a reality TV star in charge. Trumptries to do jokes but they’re not really jokes, they’re at best puerile and at worst, deeply offensive attacks on defenceless people. He’s at his funniest when he’s attacking other powerful people but even then, the joke is slightly on him for even bothering. I remember him telling an interfaith summit that everyone should pray for Arnold Schwarzenegger because his Apprentice ratings were “going down the tubes”. The audience laughed as I did for the same reason: it’s ludicrous to see a president bothering to mention such things.
Much as I love good political TV dramas, when it comes to running a nation I’d always rather have a leader with political experience – and I hope you would too. Most comedians, like most people, have no idea how difficult politics is. Comedians should never fool themselves that, because they poke fun at the mistakes and shortcomings of the powerful (usually after the event), they understand politics to the extent that they’d be good at it.
At the top of government it’s never – to borrow a phrase – time for a novice. The Trump presidency is a minute-by-minute lesson in the disaster of electing someone with zero political experience to high office. This is Zelenskiy’s biggest problem, not that he’s a comedian. That countries are turning to novices shows a breakdown in our political processes. A number of forces coalesce to create results like this: a disdain for the resident political class, a perception that anyone could do the job, a sense that the job itself has reduced in worth and importance, a desire to deliver a shocking result and, for some, curiosity. This shouldn’t need saying but politics is really difficult. It takes a long time to learn the art of it (which one never fully will) and the pressure is immense. It requires high skill, usually honed over decades of political experience, to lead a country effectively. Electing an amateur is the surest sign that a country’s politics is in crisis.
That’s not to say that Zelenskiy won’t have skills useful for a politician. Comedy teaches you how to get to the point quickly, to trim the fat out of an argument or speech (says a bloke writing a 1,500-word article about it). It improves your public speaking skills. It gets you used to thinking on your feet and delivering sharp answers to audience interactions. Comedy also puts you at ease in front of a crowd and allows you to read its mood. You also become adept at speaking to different types of audience and moderating your behaviour accordingly. Or not. Comedy also keeps you aware of the changes in society – especially those to language. However, the main advantage Zelenskiy has is that comedians cheer us up. So many politicians don’t realise that we like having people around who make us feel good. That is undoubtedly part of Johnson’s appeal. We know that politics is serious and sometimes grave, but we need periodic doses of relief.
Most commentators are rightly considering the effect Zelenskiy will have as a leader, but I also wonder what effect leadership will have on Zelenskiy. He’s moving from a job with a huge amount of freedom into a job with very little. He has power now, which is arguably more important, but the cultures of the two jobs are completely different. Comedy is a selfish pursuit. Yes, comedy involves entertaining others but in the writing and the performing, it is a lonely discipline. The benefit of that is the significant personal freedom comedians enjoy to express themselves on stage. Not just in the sense of building routines and shows on any subject you choose without any input or restriction from anyone else, but also the fleeting liberty to step close to, or over, the line. Comedians are given licence by an audience to go further than other members of society, within reason and within context. Politicians don’t enjoy the same leeway. This is an added pressure on Ukraine’s new president but it’s also an opportunity for him to redefine the role of the leader. We know that politicians are human but we hold them to impossible standards. If he can remove some of that burden and allow its incumbents a little more personal freedom, he can help improve politics for us all and not just the office holders, because we will have more realistic expectations about our leading politicians.
Zelenskiy’s victory, like any, is about a number of different factors. His career as a comedian is just one strand to examine. The implications for global politics won’t just depend on his capability and how he chooses to dispatch his duties. It’s about how other politicians react. The danger lies in misunderstanding what the selling point of Zelenskiy is. If politicians perceive that this is part of a new trend where voters want funnier candidates and start behaving differently, they may be missing a simpler truth: Zelenskiy’s victory may be part of a wider global rebellion against elites. His outsider status may have been of greater value than his previous employment.
Besides, so many politicians’ attempts at comedy are awful. Sarah Teather’s 2011 standup routine at the Lib Dem conference is so bad, all videos and records of it should be burned to ash and scattered at sea. The best way for politicians to use comedy is occasionally, and when the joke serves the purpose of releasing political tension. Tony Blair’s gag about his wife’s rift with Gordon Brown at the start of his 2006 Labour conference speech was perfect. “At least I don’t have to worry about [Cherie] running off with the bloke next door.”
Does it make it more likely we’ll end up with a load of comedians vying to be prime minister here? I don’t know, but in unrelated news the next general election is likely be fought out between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn.
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