Jon Gnarr Screen Shot 2

The Comedian Mayor: The Rumpus Interview with Jón Gnarr

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Jón Gnarr was Iceland’s most famous comedian—think of him as Sacha Baron Cohen meets Jon Stewart meets a younger Robin Williams in a country of 318,000—until the 2008 financial crisis collapsed not only the Icelandic economy, but the citizens’ faith in the country’s major political parties. On a lark, Gnarr formed the Best Party, a band of poets, punks, and pop musicians, and ran for Mayor of Reykjavik.

The Best Party’s platform included bringing a polar bear to the zoo, free towels at all public pools, a drug-free parliament within ten years, and a promise to break all of its promises. Gnarr swore he would not form a coalition government with anyone who hadn’t seen all five seasons of the classic HBO series, The Wire. His official campaign slogan (or as official as anything got for the Best Party) was: “Hooray for all kinds of things!”

Oh, and he won.

“No one has to be afraid of the Best Party,” Gnarr said in his acceptance speech. “Because it is the best party. If it wasn’t, it would be called the Worst Party or the Bad Party. We would never work with a party like that.”

Now two years into a four-year term, Gnarr has become something of an international celebrity. He’s the subject of the award-winning documentary film Gnarr; he frequently garners headlines for his irreverent, postmodern take on politics; and, perhaps most surprisingly, he’s proved an effective, if controversial head of Iceland’s capital.

I met with Mayor Gnarr in his office in Reykjavik’s City Hall. Gnarr speaks with the halting uncertainty of a person speaking in his second language. The Icelandic all know English just well enough that they make very endearing mistakes, and when they stumble upon a place in their speech where they can use a well-worn American idiom, it comes out precise and robust (“skinned alive” being the best example in this conversation). Gnarr wears a suit and vest the color of beach sand with a blue undershirt, and a skull ring smiles from his left ring finger. He sits with his legs crossed and takes his time to articulate each answer.

It should be noted that prior to sitting down with Gnarr, my companions and I had spent ten days traveling across Iceland and Reykjavik. In asking what people thought of Gnarr, we mostly heard answers along the lines of, “It’s a big joke. He will be gone soon.” Yet for a man essentially known as a clown, Gnarr speaks with great consideration.

After greeting him and exchanging handshakes, my assistant and videographer set up. During this time, we all commented on the enormous Banksy print hanging above the mayoral desk. It is a black-and-white stencil of a handkerchief-wearing radical lobbing a would-be bomb that is actually composed of a colorful flower bouquet.

***

Jón Gnarr: He actually gave it [the print] to me.

The Rumpus: So you know Banksy?

Gnarr: No, I don’t know him, but I got a message to Banksy, and I got a reply from this lady, who’s supposed to be his spokesperson, and she said… I asked for this piece, and she wrote back and said that she had talked to Banksy and under the condition that it hang in the mayor’s office…

And then I got it sent months later. Actually, it was out of print, so we had to make a new—uh, draw a new flower bouquet—so if you compare this one to the original, they are different flowers… Very few people realize the uniqueness of this.

Rumpus: So you’ve been mayor for two years now, and I’m curious what you’re most proud of, and what’s been your biggest disappointment or your biggest struggle.

Gnarr: What I’m actually most proud of is still being here. Because this has been very challenging and very tough. And I’m very proud of this group of people that have joined me on this adventure, and us sticking together, and nobody giving up, nobody bailing out. So that we have managed to be here two years makes me very, very proud, and I think it’s very important and unique because in the history of populist protest political parties they usually dissolve after the elections: “The campaign was fun but…” And the weird thing is, us being chaotic and anarchical, we have brought stability to the city. And I have now been mayor longer than anyone since 2003 because of the political instability.[1]

Rumpus: What have you found most difficult, most challenging?

Gnarr: Probably the responsibility and all the information that I have to take in, things I have to understand, things that I’m honestly not interested in.

Rumpus: Were you prepared for the mundane day-to-day slog of actually running a city? Because that’s so different than the energy behind your campaign.

Gnarr: No, I wasn’t prepared for it at all.

Rumpus: That’s a very honest answer.

Gnarr: I had no idea what I was getting into, and I think even many of my associates in the Best Party didn’t realize, even, how little I knew… Because I’ve never followed politics… You know, except for when you change presidents, it’s like, “Who is the president of the United States? Yeah, it’s this guy now?” And I follow now. I know who is the president. I rarely knew who was prime minister here, and when people appeared on television as politicians explaining something—I rarely knew who they were. So in the early campaign I was not aware that we were running for municipality. I thought we were running for parliamentary.

Rumpus: So you didn’t even know the position you were seeking?

Gnarr: No. That was in the early beginning, and the things that come with the job I was not prepared for at all. Our biggest task when we started was starting to prepare the budget for the city. I had no idea.

Rumpus: So you sat down with smart people and said, “Tell me about the budget.” What was your strategy?

Gnarr: Well, my strategy from the beginning was admitting I know nothing.

Rumpus: That’s very—most politicians don’t admit that.

Gnarr: Yeah, I’ve noticed. So I admitted I didn’t know the difference between a billion and a trillion… What’s the difference again? So yeah, I was beaten up.[2]

Rumpus: Learning on the job…that’s what you went in for.

Gnarr: Yeah, but by admitting I didn’t know anything I took a beating in the press and from professional politicians.

Rumpus: Yeah, but that’s what most politicians do: not know anything and then pretend their way through it.

Gnarr: Yeah, there was some interview with me on the news here on TV—on local TV here—and I was asked some question, and I said, “I just honestly don’t know.” And it was like a breakthrough or something. It was like the first time in the world—in the history of humanity—that a politician on television says that he doesn’t know. I said, “I can find out and I can call you later, or have someone call you who knows.”

Rumpus: Let me ask you about your campaign. You came to prominence as a kind of anti-politician, but watching some debates and interviews during the campaign—you know, at first you were just telling jokes—but you began to give these very eloquent and thoughtful answers about how the Icelandic political class had ignored the role of artists and anyone not in finance. Did you feel like your campaign kind of evolved as you began to rise in prominence or rise in the polls?

Gnarr: Yeah, that’s always touched me or affected me very deeply, that this respect for artists, especially from authority…like we are some second-class people. And there’s always this discussion annually about support for the arts, why should we support art and so on. Iceland—we are tiny, we’re so tiny, and many people around the world don’t even know we exist, but we are globally known for art—and music especially—and that makes me very proud. You know I can go wherever, to Kuala Lumpur or wherever, and if somebody will ask me where I’m from and I say I’m from Iceland, they say, “Yeah, Björk.” And that makes me very proud, and that makes me proud to be an Icelandic artist. So when they started to say—you know, our opponents—started to criticize us for just being a group of artists, that really pissed me off. Maybe then I got more serious, just pointing [out] the obvious that we are a very artistic country and we should put emphasis on that. And then came the idea that, can artists enter politics? And that was serious.

Rumpus: At what point during the campaign did you go, “Oh shit, I might actually win this”?

Gnarr: The last few days. Then we realized… It kind of dawned on me that this was going to happen. And I kind of panicked: “What am I getting into? And how many years is this again? Was it three or four? What? It’s four years?!”

Rumpus: Are there plans for the Best Party to go national? I also heard you were sending people overseas to Europe to talk about perhaps expanding it. Is there any truth to that?

Gnarr: Well, there are some political parties or political movements that have certain similarities with us. For instance, the Pirate Party[3], and they are quite exciting. We’ve had some meetings and discussions, but I mean, the Best Party is non-existent. It doesn’t exist. It has no members. It has no manifesto other than just nonsense. But the point is that by naming it the Best Party there is no such thing as the Best Party and never will be.

Rumpus: Will you seek another term as mayor or try for higher office? Or is this a one-time deal?

Gnarr: I’m definitely not going for any higher office than this. This is not more than I can handle, but this is more than enough. I don’t know about a second term, I just haven’t decided yet. Also, it’s not just up to me because we are a group of people, and I feel a certain type of responsibility to these people because it was I who got them into this.

Rumpus: Could a phenomenon like the Best Party or your candidacy happen in America? Because it seems like there was a very specific set of circumstances in Iceland[4] that allowed you to sneak in and take this thing.

Gnarr: A lot of our success here is due to our naïveté, and our Icelandic society is not as advanced as your society.

Rumpus: What do you mean by that?

Gnarr: [Iceland is] kind of a Shire. Like hobbits. It’s much more [simple] here. Honestly I’ve thought about it, I’ve been asked and people have wondered, Can this happen? I don’t think so. I think if someone like me tried to enter…they would be skinned alive. I think it’s not possible. I’ve also wondered if, for instance, England—if some famous English comedian decided to go into politics. They have some good comedians that are political, controversial figures like Eddie Izzard. I’ve thought of if Eddie Izzard went in to politics…but they’d crucify him.

Rumpus: Do you think there’s something about the nature of democratic systems where very self-righteous, insufferable, self-important dickweed types end up winning office because that’s what voters reward or tend to reward?

Gnarr: It’s a strange thing. People tend to favor the underdog, like in the movies we favor the underdog, but when it comes to voting, we vote for the bully. It’s so strange. We trust the bully much better than we trust the underdog. Maybe it’s in our nature, but it is so that all around the world there is this certain type that can succeed in politics and it’s people who are—alpha types? Alpha types of people: very logical and determined and ruthless. So if we are going to change democracy we have to find ways to get different types of people to enter into politics. But the system is not like that now. You have to be the alpha type.

Rumpus: Hey, we’re from America.

Gnarr: Yeah, you know all about it.[5]

Rumpus: Let’s talk about something more fun. You may or may not be aware that David Simon, the creator of The Wire, recently got in a huff because a website was bracketing his characters and putting them in tournaments against each other to see who the best character was. He didn’t think the show was being taken very seriously. But that’s okay because I think the “best character” question is kind of silly anyway. So my question is—this is very important, it’s going to inform a lot about you—what is your favorite season of The Wire and why?

Gnarr: Wow. That’s uh…

Rumpus: That’s the heaviest question I’ve asked.

Gnarr: What is my favorite season…? I don’t know. I haven’t given this thought for a long time… Can we get back to it?

Rumpus: Yeah, think about that. I didn’t realize that would be the toughest question.

Gnarr: That was a really tough question, and I would really like to answer that in a very good way.

Rumpus: Okay, we’ll come back to that… So now that you’re Iceland’s most famous comedian[6] by quite a significant margin, do you have any plans to tackle the U.S. cultural-media market? Maybe star in a reality show where you date an NBA basketball player?

Gnarr: Well, uh…

Rumpus: We also have shows where you eat bugs or sing duets with D-list celebrities who are washed up.

Gnarr: Yeah, I’ve seen a lot of your shows.

Rumpus: Hey, I didn’t say we were proud of them.

Gnarr: No, I’d given thought—when we had really tough times here, I went to Europe for a conference, and I thought about seeking political asylum to flee all this, but no, I haven’t given it a thought.

Rumpus: So your future is very up in the air right now. You don’t have specific plans for after your term.

Gnarr: No, it’s day at a time. We like to say we’re doing time in politics, and I don’t think we have any hope of early release for good behavior. So it’s day at a time.

Rumpus: Polls persistently show that the Icelandic believe in elves that live in the lava rocks, so my question is, do you? And if so, how do we see them?

Gnarr: No, I don’t believe in them. But the elves for many are like representatives of nature, like the guardians of lava. I don’t believe in them, and I don’t think there is any scientific research that shows they exist. I think this comes from the time when this country was inhabited first by monks, by Irish monks…before the Vikings came. When the Vikings moved into a place they just kind of killed everybody who was there before them. And the monks knew that, and the monks were clever and the Vikings were not. So the monks hid and avoided the Vikings, and the Vikings assumed they were here alone. So maybe when they were walking around they’d see a strange creature lurking or running away and assume it was a ghost or something… I think it comes from that but it was just monks running for their lives… According to legend, they disappear into the stones, and that was just a monk going down a crack.

Rumpus: You said you have an American friend. We have yet to pronounce a single Icelandic word correctly in any context. Do you know any Americans who have successfully learned Icelandic, and if so, what was the point of that endeavor?

Gnarr: Well…many autistic people have this ability to learn weird foreign languages, and I think I’ve heard of autistic Americans who have been obsessed [with] Icelandic and learned it and speak it fluently, and I’ve seen it done in interviews on television. I’m not really sure if [he was] autistic, but there was this high school kid somewhere in the States who spoke fluent Icelandic and had never been here before.

Rumpus: Do you have time for one last serious question? We’re going to celebrate National Day…where would you direct young American guys to go in Reykjavik, and how late can we go to bed and not seem like wusses?

Gnarr: Yah yah yah yah…probably city center in front of parliament, that’s where everything is happening, where the most action is. There are big celebrations around the center. You cannot go to sleep until at least after three, but the party will still be going on.[7] …Do you know Doug Stanhope, the stand-up comedian?

Rumpus: Yeah, sure.

Gnarr: He was here last year. He wanted to meet me. And he was absolutely in love with [Iceland]. He’s a…uh…peculiar person… I met him and took him to the maximum-security prison, and he did stand-up. He did stand-up for the prisoners. His first time sober doing stand-up—sober because he was not allowed to be intoxicated in the prison. Yeah, we had a great time. And he was so fascinated—people are fascinated by the harmlessness of this place… It’s such a harmless place…

Rumpus: I mean, people still hitchhike here. You don’t see that in America.

Gnarr: I had friends from France last summer, and they were walking around and went to the main shopping street. And there they saw a lady with a baby carriage. And she parked the carriage outside the store and then went inside the store…

Rumpus: We saw that today! On our way here.[8]

Gnarr: And then she went inside the store and left it. And they had never seen this before. It’s the harmlessness. It’s a Shire. It’s a hobbit town.

***

Less than a day after our conversation—perhaps after taking a few minutes to brush up on the plots of each season—Gnarr e-mailed me with his response to my question about The Wire. Appropriately enough, his answer revealed more about him than any of the other questions during the rest of the interview. Edited for print, here it is:

Hi Stephen

I really liked our meeting this morning. It was a real pleasure meeting you guys. Your question on The Wire is probably the single most important question I’ve had from a journalist since I started this job.

After careful thinking I would have to say I favour Season 4 the most in a professional and personal way. Key reasons are two: Education and literature or: Schools vs. creativity. I’m a drop-out. I have no formal education and I’m very critical of the educational system in general. I’m a creative person. For me [Season] 4 [revolves] around [a] system vs. humanity/person. Deep? Makes sense? Goosebumps and chills, mind-gripping like a book. I love television. It tought me everything before the Internet. My favourite characters are in the spotlight: Chris and Snoop as the odd couple and Omar, even though they have their best scenes in other seasons. 

Bottom line: In [Season] 4 television becomes literature. It’s art.

Hope this is worth something. 

Jón Gnarr

-Anarchist, atheist and clown (according to a comment on a webpage).

***

[1] For much of its history, Reykjavik’s municipal politics have been dominated by the center-right Independence Party, which became especially vulnerable after Iceland’s financial crisis and its association with the bankers who thought they could turn a country—less populous than certain dying Rust Belt towns—into a financial superpower. The Best Party formed its coalition with the Social Democratic Alliance, a center-left umbrella group. While Americans like to complain about their two-party system, the Icelandic often express dismay about their “chaotic” multi-party system, with its shifting coalitions that often dissolve and reform on whims, sleights, and ego trips.

[2] Though we didn’t have time to get into the specifics in a thirty-minute interview, Gnarr was understating the degree of basket-case-edness he and the Best Party faced when they took over Reykjavik. Difficult budgetary decisions had to be made almost immediately: cutting the city’s spending by 10%, which included laying off seventy staff members; tightening the city’s bus services; and attempting to unwind the disaster that is Reykjavik Energy—a utility that went batshit crazy with “Viking ambition” and ended up with debts five times larger than the city budget. Lest you think Gnarr took this as a joke, during an award ceremony for a social worker, he began to weep, wondering aloud if he was slashing the kind of social services that helped him as a troubled teenager who dropped out of high school and took up sniffing glue. (It should be noted here that Gnarr is rehabilitated.)

[3] The Pirate Party has its roots in hacker culture and espouses a typical left-leaning platform of universal health care and free education, coupled with access to the Internet as a universal right and the proliferation of open content, freedom of information, and transparency. With members in multiple European countries and New Zealand, the Pirate Party has so far hit its zenith in Sweden’s European Parliament Elections of 2009 when it received over 7% of the vote.

[4] A note on those circumstances: while Iceland’s financial crisis had many similarities to our own, the Icelandic banks and political class bred their own kind of financial magical thinking. A nation of fisherman literally walked off their boats into high finance, leading to the fastest banking expansion in the world’s history. At the peak, three private banks held assets ten times the size of Iceland’s GDP. People borrowed in foreign currencies as property values tripled and the stock market soared to nine times its previous size. When the reckoning came, it was a time of abject panic. Yet Iceland, of the world’s many troubled First World economies, stands as one of the few post-crisis success stories. It refused to pay foreign creditors, left the banks to fail, and returned to its economic roots. Ripple effects and painful choices remain, yet compared with the likes of Greece, Spain, and Ireland, it got off easy.

[5] In our follow-up conversation via e-mail, Gnarr gave me his take on the Obama/Romney match-up of 2012. He wrote (with edits): Your country is so huge, influential, and powerful it affects a cute little country like Iceland in a massive way. We are pretty powerless compared to you. In 1941 we were occupied by your army. I am a socialist so I prefer the Democrats to Republicans. I feel more secure when they are in charge. I hope Obama will win and the Democrats get a majority in the Senate. I fear Romney is a gun-loving, conservative Christian fanatic, with all the nonsense that follows. Maybe he’s not?  

[6] To give you an idea, Gnarr’s most prominent role before “mayor” was as the megalomaniacal Marxist Georg Bjarnfredarson, which spanned the TV series The Night ShiftThe Day Shift, and The Prison Shift (the shows followed the same characters, but the Icelandic think of them as separate filmic entities, if that makes sense), finally culminating in the film Mr. Bjarnfredarson. Director Ragnar Bragason calls the series, “television tragedies masquerading as comedy.” Gnarr also had a radio show in which he made crank calls to the CIA and FBI, asking if they’d found his lost wallet.

[7] There is not enough room in this footnote to explain what we eventually ended up doing that weekend, but it included everything from a very serious offer to eat a young lady’s underwear, to hanging out with a bunch of tall, black guys posing as an NBA star and his posse, to a coked-out weirdo vomiting into a towel and trying to hide it in our bathroom.

[8] Literally on our walk to City Hall that morning we’d spotted a baby in a stroller outside a café playing with a chair. The baby was just sitting in its stroller—no adult in sight—slamming a folding chair around and scooting around in its seat like it wanted to roll down the hill. “Are you kidding?” my assistant said. “You’d get arrested for this back home.”

***

Photographs © 2012 by Matthew Trinetti.


Stephen Markley is the acclaimed author of The Great Dysmorphia: An Epistemological View of Ingesting Hallucinogenic Mushrooms at a 2012 Republican Presidential Debate and Publish This Book: The Unbelievable True Story of How I Wrote, Sold, and Published This Very Book. He is also a columnist for the Chicago RedEye and blogs at "Off the Markley." Follow him on Twitter: @stephenmarkley and at www.stephenmarkley.com. More from this author →