The Absurd Mayorship of Jón Gnarr, Iceland’s Comedian Politician

What is the deal with international comedy? Join me each week to ask that very question in Comedy Tourism as I explore different trends and traditions of how the rest of the world makes funny in their respective native tongues. Don’t forget your passports! Just kidding, you don’t need your passport. Or do you? (You don’t.)

“I googled: can you make fun of everything? And lo and behold it has been researched.”

In 2010 Jón Gnarr, popular Icelandic comedian, took making fun of everything to a new level with his launch of a new political party. And then with 34.7% of the popular vote he actually got elected. To which office, you ask? Mayor. Of Reykjavik. Home to over half of Iceland’s entire population. Eat your heart out, Al Franken.

For Americans who have seen a former WWF star and the Terminator get elected governor, this story probably isn’t all that shocking. But Ventura and Schwarzenegger were affiliated with pre-existing political parties. Gnarr refused to work closely with anyone who hadn’t seen all five seasons of The Wire. Welcome to the Best Party. Literally, that’s what it’s called.

And your Omar knowledge is only one brick upon which the platform for Gnarr’s “Best Party” is built. With almost no previous political experience of which to speak, Gnarr explained to the Times Artsbeat that the first challenge he faced when inventing a new party was whether to call it the “Best Party” or the “Cool Party.” Ultimately, he settled on The Best Party because it sounded a bit dorkier and that’s the vibe he wanted.

A motley crew of comedians, artists and punk rockers make up this Besti Flokkurin led by Gnarr, and pretty much none of them have any political or city-planning experience. What they do have is the ability to make an amazing Icelandic take on Tina Turner’s “Simply the Best” for their official campaign song.

This is a joke right? Well, yes. But also, no. Which makes it an even better joke. You could even say simply the best …joke? Sorry. Everything surrounding the Best Party feels like a giant middle finger to the establishment. Throughout the campaign they made promises like the following “Stop corruption: We promise to stop corruption. We’ll accomplish this by participating in it openly.” The platform also included a litany of other promises they promised not to keep.

- free access to swimming pools for everyone and free towels

- listen more to women and old people

- a drug-free government by 2020

- a Disneyland in the capital airport (as promised to a class of kindergartners)

Sounds great to me! The sensational story caught the attention of international press last June when Gnarr was actually elected, but was more recently resurrected with the premiere of Gnarr at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Director Gaukur Úlfarsson was already a fan of Jón Gnarr’s work when they met through a mutual friend. Around the time of their meeting, the Best Party was in the early stages of gestation and on a hunch Úlfarsson decided to turn the camera on. What he got was footage of a campaign that blurred the lines between parody and reality to mind-bending proportions.

“And I have done strip tease in the largest gay club in New York.” Well, I’m sure we have politicians in our elected offices with equally seedy stories. What’s refreshing about Gnarr though is the absolute transparency of it all. We spend so much time trying to nip, sweep and tuck away our skeletons into such a fragile state that scandal is inevitable. Gnarr & co. wear it on their sleeves, shout it to anyone who will listen and most of all laugh at the absurdity of it all.

For the people of Iceland, laughter translated to votes. The Best Party wasn’t fooling anyone, nor were they trying to. The financial crisis of 2009 toppled Iceland from one of the wealthiest nations in the world to veritable ruin. Then the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in 2010 grounded thousands of flights all over Europe and pretty much secured Iceland on the international shit list. Suffice it to say, morale was at a bit of a low point when Gnarr rolled into town. Icelanders didn’t just want change, they needed it. And the Best Party became the middle finger of the people.

Since his election, Gnarr has continued his antics — making an appearance in drag at the Gay Pride Parade, highly unconventional holiday greeting cards and all kinds of broad and ridiculous political declarations. Of course, he’s also had to raise taxes and cut public spending — so his political “success” is very much TBD. But that was never really the point.

The initial success of The Best Party was helped by the fact that Icelandic people have a very dark sense of humor. As one Icelander describes in a blog post on humor, “if we see someone slipping, we will laugh before we help.” He goes on to suggest perhaps it is the very hardships that solidifies the Icelandic insistence of finding humor in the darkest places. Apparently, after the volcanic eruption many jokes popped up laughing in the face of this natural disaster. For example: “It was the last wish of the Icelandic economy that its ashes be spread over Europe.”

Jon Gnarr’s roots as a comedian have forged some pretty dark territory. One of his big breaks came with the sketch show Fóstbræður, or Foster Brothers, which was obviously a light-hearted romp. With many of his Fóstbræður collaborators he went on to create the sitcom Næturvaktin (The Night Shift). The Night Shift follows three workers and the weirdos they encounter working nights at a Petrol station. Gnarr plays Georg Bjarnfreðarson, a hardcore Marxist and generally intense person who doesn’t get on too well with his fellow man. Imagine Gareth from the UK Office 20 years later and with a shred of power. Here’s a famous clip from the show that should amply illustrate just how dark and dry Icelandic humor can get:

Night Shift became part of a trilogy, with Day Shift and Prison shift respectively, and the bespectacled and bald Bjarnfreðarson character was reprised for both.

Bjarnfreðarson was finally given his feature due in the eponymous film released in 2009. So popular was this dramedy that it actually beat Avatar at the box office and went on to a record number of nominations at the Icelandic equivalent of the Academy Awards.

Who honestly prefers quirky characters and witty dialogue over 3D special effects? Iceland, apparently (and me, but that’s another rant for another time). While this film has not seen any major distribution in the United States, The Night Shift was apparently optioned last year by Reveille (the people who brought you the US Office and the revamped, but short-lived new American Gladiators), but has yet to make it past the teleplay infancy.

Perhaps after the success of Bjarnfreðarson, a creative restlessness led Jon Gnarr to the political life. Or, maybe he truly wanted to make a statement about the political and financial mess in his home country. Whatever his “real” motivations, the man follows through on jokes.

Icelandic or not, that’s all most people want from an elected politician: follow-through.

Laura Turner Garrison sometimes writes commercials, she sometimes writes comedy, but she always rights wrongs.

The Absurd Mayorship of Jón Gnarr, Iceland’s Comedian […]