Splitsider

Tuesday, October 16th, 2012

Inside the Absurdist Political Campaign of Comedian Jón Gnarr

It’s no secret that sometimes comedy is taken a bit too seriously. Comedy obsessives love not just the jokes, but the mechanics and emotions of the comedy world. There are a raft of comedy documentaries exploring comedy and comedians, but do they really have anything significant to add to the discussion? This series looks at comedy documentaries and whether they’re interesting, insightful, and possibly even…funny?

Comedy and politics have always circled one another. Political cartoons have poked fun at politics for centuries, while politicians have increasingly needed to possess a sense of humor about themselves and their parties. But it’s rare for a comedian to get as immersed as Icelandic comedian Jón Gnarr, who formed his own political party in 2009, the Best Party, and ran for the mayor of Reykjavik. And then won.

As captured in the documentary Gnarr, Iceland had a tumultuous few years after the 2008 financial crisis left its once uber-prosperous financial industry in disarray. Gnarr, meanwhile, had been a popular comedian in the country for decades, having starred in radio and televisions shows, including five seasons of the sketch show Fóstbræður.

The documentary kicks off four months from the election, when the Best Party was polling at 3 percent for the city council. Gnarr’s “ideas” for the city include adding a DisneyLand to Reykjavik, where the unemployed can take free pictures with Mickey, and bringing a polar bear to the local zool. “We can’t just follow this mess on the news all the time. We need to be able to relax, go to the zoo and look at a polar bear.”

As the film and the campaign progress, Gnarr’s transformation from joke candidate to quasi-serious political figure is not without issues. He’s challenged in a TV interview about his past business failures, and he’s easily bored by the political speeches and seminars he’s forced to attend. “That was pointless,” he says after attending a panel. “Totally pointless. So that’s the conclusion if we think about it. Like life. Isn’t it totally pointless?”

But there is a charm and levity to his campaign that remains. He has changed the lyrics of Tina Turner’s “Simply the Best” to use as a campaign song, and his T-shirts read “Afram Allskonar!” which translates to “Hooray for All Kinds Of Things!”

Watching Gnarr, it’s hard to tell if the Best Party really had any substantial ideas when it entered the campaign; on film, they just appear to be having fun. But over the months, Gnarr becomes invested in the race, taking seriously the accusations of his lack of gravity. "Since I'm a comedian, they think everything is a joke, that my life is some kind of joke and that I live in a comedy bubble. But that's far from the truth. I'm the father of five, I have a child in kindergarten, I buried my father, and I had a child with a long-term illness. I was not a comedian then. I'm not a comedian when I pay my bills or when I'm raising my children.”

The progression from clown to semi-respectable public figure is fascinating to watch. Even knowing the outcome, it is genuinely tense and exciting to watch the results come in at the end. When the outcome becomes clear, Gnarr and his campaign manager even propose exporting his Best Party concept. If only every campaign could be like this.

And so, in conclusion…

Is it interesting? Yes, and it’s just as interesting from a political perspective as a comedy one.

What does it have to say about comedy? While the movie focuses less on Gnarr’s comedic career than his political one, comedy looms over the proceedings. In response to the idea that the city cannot be run on comedy, he tells an interviewer, “we counter them by saying that the city can be run on comedy since comedy is both a creative and a productive way of thinking which makes people happy.”

Is it funny? Yes, at times. Gnarr is silly and likeable, and he never misses an opportunity to be ridiculous.

Can I stream it on Netflix? Yes!

Any comedy documentaries you’d like to see discussed? Do let me know.

Elise Czajkowski is a freelance journalist in New York City. Anyone want to go to Iceland with her?

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  • Dan

    Considering his tireless advocacy for woman's rights and gay rights, as well as the general way that life in Reykjavik has gone since he's been elected, I think that, at this point, he's gone beyond 'semi-respectable'…