Inspired To Enter Politics: We Meet Jón Gnarr, The Comedian Who Became Reykjavík's Mayor
Imagine if one of Britain's most famous comedy actors became mayor of London. And imagine that, on being elected, they announced that they wouldn't enter a coalition government with anyone that hadn't watched The Wire.
In Rekjavík, Iceland, it really happened. And the mayor in question is Jón Gnarr.
In 2009, Gnarr formed the satirical political party the Best Party, whose platform included "free towels in all swimming pools and a polar bear for the Reykjavík zoo". And the following year, the Icelandic political status quo received an almighty kick up the proverbial when the Best Party won enough seats to form a coalition government in Rekjavík - and Jón Gnarr became mayor.
The Huffington Post UK sat down with the comedian-turned-politician to ask him about his political motivation and inspiration - and in the process, learned that Icelanders always look you in the eye, that Reykjavík is a dwarf city, and that "being a comedian is like being gay"...
What inspired you to set up the Best Party?
“For a long time – almost my whole life – I’ve been bored with politics. Contemporary politics, that is. I found that the political decisions were as bad as the people making them: they might have glorious ideas, but the execution is only ever as good as the people themselves that follow them through.
I’ve always wanted to find a way to change this, to come up with a more logical, more democratic, more human system. I’ve often thought about what the utopian society of the future would look like, how it would function, and after the crash here in 2008 I sensed all this. As a stand-up comedian, I’ve always found it necessary to sense vibe in society and everyday life, through just talking to people and through the media.
So after the crash I sensed all this confusion and fear and anger, and I felt an obligation to do something. It was my civic duty, my responsibility.
I also think that politics has grown into a sort of a sub-culture where people are speaking a different language, talking with different words, with all their political jargon. And to normal people it’s as if it’s all ‘grown-up talk’. “You can’t understand what I’m saying? Well, that’s because it’s grown-up talk. Go back to your television, go back to your toys, you don’t understand all this. Everything will be OK.”
But everything won’t be OK. And so I and many others wanted to change this way of communicating - because for a small country like Iceland, that’s what makes us, us. What makes our society first and foremost is our language and the way we talk to each other, how we communicate. So that’s the cornerstone of what we do here.”
Tell us about the aims of your party.
“It’s a… nonsense party. We don’t have any real aims, or any proper manifesto or anything, we’re nothing more than the people who are in it! It’s not that we have an established ideology, or whether we’re left or right wing, or anything like that. We just respond to the people who are part of the party. The majority of the people in the Best Party are creatives, have some experience in creative work, be in art or whatever.“
What are the kind of things you’ve done since becoming mayor?
“We have just… managed to run the city! Solve problems as they arise, every day. Running a little city like Reykjavík is like running a company – it really doesn’t have much to do with politics. It’s about getting the job done, and we just sit down and look at the problems and we try to find sensible solutions. You know, what’s the most sensible thing to do in each situation.”
Do you think previously being a comedian, and having a good sense of humour, has helped you with being mayor?
“I have an enormous amount of positivity – I have to! If I didn’t have it, I’d be dead or on drugs or something. This experience has been absolutely terrifying and so if I didn’t have my sense of humour, I would just be in deep trouble. It’s a spiritual thing for me, comedy and humour. Some people go to meditation or church or something, but I watch a Ricky Gervais show then go out for a walk.
On the other hand, it can be misused, too. Many famous politicians are humourous, like Silvio Berlusconi – but he’s a clown, you know? And that’s what they call me, too. But why should it be so special that someone like me could enter into politics? I think it should be normal! It’s democracy! Everybody should be allowed to participate in democracy, it shouldn’t be weird.
The problem is, like that old saying goes, the idiots are always sure of themselves, and the clever ones are full of doubt. I think it’s necessary for society and people here in Iceland to get young people more involved in politics and direct democracy, to make young people feel responsible about making their future. But doing that is so terrifying for me!”
What do you love most about your city?
“I really, really love my city, because it’s a small big city. I like to compare it to a midget or a dwarf amongst other cities. A dwarf may be three times smaller that the others, but it’s a happy little dwarf. It’s kind and caring and that’s how I emotionally experience Reykjavík.
You don’t really experience fear in the city, for example. You can walk wherever after dark without fear of being robbed or attacked - and that’s very important. What I’ve also learnt to appreciate with Reykjavík is that you can always walk where you need to go! Everywhere is walking distance, almost. You can go have a nice dinner at a nice restaurant and then you can go to the theatre and it’s all just a few steps away.
Another thing is that in cities, people rarely look you in the eyes. Everyone avoids eye contact, be it in the subway or on the Tube or wherever, but you don’t do that here. My artist friend has a theory about Iceland: he says it’s actually Eyes-land, it has to do with the eyes. Because everyone looks you in the eye, and it’s a weird feeling, I mean, people can even continue with a long bit of eye contact for minutes at a time. Strangers can make eye contact with you just like that and it’s a strange experience for many – but a good one!
What I have realised since I started working here is this: there are thousands of people around you that make the whole city work. People who have been working for twenty or thirty years, and doing a great job, people we maybe take for granted. I didn’t realise how many people are working, secretly, namelessly, just making my every day nicer. I have great admiration for the people who work for the city. All these layers… I had no idea. I thought this city was actually run by politicians! Especially the mayor, I thought what he did was different. He talks like he’s doing everything, though, telling people to start the buses every morning, opening the playschools, calling everybody and giving them orders, it’s not like that. And I think that’s great.”
Have you seen your work inspire other people to help make Reykjavík better?
“I’ve seen the people I got into the Best Party with me getting better and better at what they’re doing. They’re blooming. There have been so many protest parties, and for many of the people involved in starting such things, the enthusiasm wears off. But none of the people who got elected for the Best Party – and nobody had any experience with politics whatsoever – has quit. And we’ve been here now for two years now, working in extremely unfriendly conditions! I’ve seen many people here who I would like to see continue in politics. They’re naturals, they’ve really taken to it, and they love what they are doing.”
Do you still do any comedy, or has that all stopped now?
“For me, being a comedian is like being gay. It’s a part of what I am, what I do. I’ll never change that, I’ll always be a comedian. I’ve actually also written a play with has its premiere in the city here soon - it’s called Hótel Volkswagen, and I’m very proud of it and excited about it. It deals a lot with the notion of who is guilty, who is not, and how we deal with the guilty.”
What would you tell a British tourist who came to Iceland to do around Reykjavík on the first day?
“The music scene - the music scene is very vibrant. And just walk around! There are beautiful sights to see, great restaurants, so many things to do just explore. It’s a place to explore. ”