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Can comedians ever be taken seriously?

  • 3 March 2013
  • From the section Magazine
John O'Farrell and Beppe Grillo

In the past week, two comedians have stood for election - Beppe Grillo in Italy and John O'Farrell in the UK's Eastleigh by-election. What are the pitfalls of putting your money where your mouth is?

It's just like old and new times. The euro tanking, stock markets in see-saw mood, bond spreads rising. No doubt Angela Merkel is wearing a "Really guys? I thought we were over this" expression on her face. After the Italian electoral impasse, we are looking somewhere for certainty.

One dead cert is that a least some of the columns written about Italy's potential king-maker Beppe Grillo will contain the line "Did you hear the one about the comedian who turned into a politician?"

More professional comedians in politics would threaten one group of existing politicians: the "funny" ones. The quotes around the word "funny" are there because, by and large, humour and politics go together like love and a loveless marriage.

If you are a politician and are any kind of a wit at all - even half of one - you can expect to be lionised in the press by bored political correspondents who will guffaw at your bon mots because the rest of what passes for gaggery generally strikes a bum note.

Take some time to read the transcripts of the proceedings in your parliament (if your democracy is robust enough to make them available). While it will be a struggle to tear yourself away from watching paint dry, you may actually find them an illuminating read.

Parliament stenographers are obliged to record everything that was said. As well as the speeches from the opposition calling for the government to do something, the speeches from the government explaining that the current problems were caused when the opposition was in power, there are the interruptions.

These are snipish little comments from the "wags" of the House, in-jokes relating to past scandals, personal comments or just vaguely apposite harrumphing.

The asides are intended to be humorous but are typically delivered with the lightness of touch of a man dumping a fridge at a wild bird sanctuary. And recorded faithfully by two people sitting just in front of the Speaker's chair. Many are along the lines of this fictional exchange:

  • Opposition speaker: "The government has consistently reneged on its election promises…"
  • Backbench government representative: "Ask your mother about reneging."

Against this backdrop, having more politicians with a sense of comic timing can only be a good thing. (Intentional comic timing, that is - there are many politicians who cause hilarity inadvertently.)

From a comedian's point of view, the prospect of a career in politics is a distinctly mixed bag.

On the upside, there is the regular wage, paid whether you turn up to the gig or not.

A parliament is not a bad venue. The sound system is pretty good and there is no leakage of a thumping baseline from the nightclub next door. Most of the audience are reasonably sober and really persistent hecklers are eventually thrown out - albeit not by very large bouncers.

There are drawbacks. Political campaigning is a dirty business. A comedian today who becomes a politician tomorrow could find a lot of their words coming back to haunt them, as John O'Farrell - Labour candidate in the Eastleigh by-election - found out this week.

Image caption O'Farrell, right, came fourth in the by-election won by Lib Dem Mike Thornton

That's only going to get worse.

With so much comedy being posted on YouTube, it's almost guaranteed footage will emerge of you at the wrong time.

Words that seemed apt in the grimy, sweaty darkness of a club would seem unedifying when harshly lit by prime-time news bulletins. Pleading "But... but it was a JOKE!" can look a lame excuse as you sweat under the studio cameras.

By the way, this is not just a problem for comedians.

Wherever you are reading this, there's a very good chance that your 2050 head of state (be they prime minister/president/ruler for life/governor of the Council of Truth, Hope and Democracy/pope) is, as we speak, leaving an embarrassing online footprint on YouTube, Facebook or Twitter.

This will no doubt result in the future headline: "[Insert candidate's name] HAD FOUL MOUTHED RANT AGAINST COUNTY COUNCIL"

It depends of course on what kind of comedian you were. Grillo has been campaigning against the venality of Italian politics for decades. He was mad as hell and he did something about it.

Further along the spectrum is Jon Gnarr - the punk musician and comedian who became mayor of Reykjavik. He campaigned on a promise to break all promises and announced he would not form a government with anyone who had not watched The Wire. Elected in 2010, Gnarr is still in office and doing his job. He rose to power because Iceland was in meltdown and the type of disruptive politics he espoused was just what was required.

Image caption Jon Gnarr in his Reykjavik mayoral office

But while angry or off-the-wall comedians may be the answer where traditional politics has failed, bland comedians could struggle in the tough world of politics. We might even be too easy a target for the "wits" in the parliament.

"I hardly think the Leader of the Opposition, having made a career exploring the minutiae of the differences between men and women, is qualified to lecture me about equality legislation.

"Perhaps the member for [insert name of constituency here] would be better served recounting his experiences on budget airlines than giving us his opinion on the budget."

Zing! It could be a tough gig.

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