Volodymyr Zelenskiy is running for the presidency of Ukraine, the very office which he held in Servant of the People, a popular TV serial in his country. His party is also named Servant of the People, and he has pulled ahead of both the incumbent and the leader of the Opposition.
On TV, he plays an accidental prime minister, a teacher who is catapulted to office after a video of him letting rip against the establishment goes viral. In real life, he has purposively positioned himself as a new face, exactly what his constituency, fed up with traditional politicians, is looking for.
But Zelenskiy is a pioneer only in the sense that he is a comedian who made his name playing a president, and is now within reach of the very same presidency. Many other funnymen (and women) have made serious bids for public office. In 2007 Hideo Higashikokubaru, the man behind the comedy game show Takeshi’s Castle, ran for governor of Miyazaki prefecture, and won.
In the US Will Rogers, the Cherokee cowboy who became a film star and the nation’s most popular comedian, was named honorary mayor of Beverly Hills (without an election) in the 1920s, and was later nominated for Oklahoma governor. And in Iceland, Jón Gnarr ran a hilarious campaign for mayor of Reykjavik, and won office.
Laughter in the corridors of power, which have traditionally echoed only with the footfalls of serious men and women, is not at all out of place. Most of what passes for politics these days is black humour and, in a state like Ukraine, it’s particularly dark. The war on the eastern border isn’t a done thing, and recently, the Russians sealed off Crimea with a 60 km fence. A president who makes people laugh could raise the national happiness index.