Italy

Is Beppe Grillo Funny?


Italy's distinguished comedian, Grillo

Photograph by Filippo Monteforte/AFP via Getty Images

Italy's distinguished comedian, Grillo

To start an argument at a dinner party in Rome, launch a conversation about Beppe Grillo. To the left and the right, the comedian-turned-political kingmaker is a disruption, standing in the way of a functioning government. The Economist simply calls him a populist clown.

That Grillo the politician has become inseparable from Grillo the comic is disappointing, says Italian film critic and playwright Italo Moscati. “I, too, am one of those on the Left, and I hear these arguments at dinner parties,” Moscati says. “These arguments fail to understand the significance of Beppe Grillo.”

To Moscati, Grillo is an Italian Lenny Bruce, a satirist who pulls no punches. The New Yorker’s Tom Mueller has called Grillo “Italy’s answer to Stephen Colbert.” He is a showman with sharp wit and the stamina to turn on heads of state, captains of industry, and cryptically run conglomerates with withering verbal jabs. But his act long ago turned away from light-hearted physical comedy and toward the starkly political, focusing on the massive gap between the winners in politics and big business and the poor losers. Grillo’s cabaret roots disappeared long ago , Moscati notes, adding “he still has the ability to make you laugh.” Sometimes. Here’s a look at some of Grillo’s notable hits and misses.

Italians are so superstitious …

Grillo’s first big TV success was a program called Te la do io l’America (I’ll Show You America). As part of the program, Grillo and a film crew visited New York and then showed the footage to live studio audiences back home in Italy. Some of the footage was daring in that it depicted snippets of life from the poorest communities in the Bronx and Harlem. In the era of The Cosby Show, this made for biting social commentary. His lighter material from the same program was about his run-ins with everyday Americans, playing up our cultural differences.

There are some really strange things in America. In America, no buildings have a 13th floor. It doesn’t exist. You’ve the got the 12th and then the 14th floor. Why? It’s a superstition. That’s it! A superstition! Pssht! We beat the Americans there. We’ve got a lot more superstitions.

Our government is so corrupt …

In 1986, Grillo used a popular Saturday night variety show, Fantastico, to call out as thieves the ruling political party of the day, the Italian Socialist Party, and its party head and then prime minister, Bettino Craxi. The crack got Grillo banned from the airwaves of state broadcaster RAI for years. The Italian Socialist Party is dead, so they won’t mind us reviewing the tape. God bless YouTube (GOOG)!

The joke starts with Grillo setting the scene of an imagined conversation between Craxi and a party associate at a state dinner in China. Seated across from Italy’s political delegation are various party heads of the Chinese Socialist Party, Grillo explains. At one point, the confidant, played by Grillo, turns to Craxi and remarks, “You know, here in China, it’s a nation of 1 billion socialists.” Craxi, also played by Grillo, responds: “Yeah, so what?” Grillo, switching back to the role of Craxi’s confidant, blurts out: “I was just wondering: Who do they rob?!” There are a smattering of uncomfortable oohs from the audience; otherwise it’s just awkward silence.

Our politicians are so tough …

A recurring gag of Grillo’s is to paint the Italian parliament as a den of criminals and fraudsters. The statistics may be slightly exaggerated, but the punchline works. Here’s Grillo teeing up his joke to a reporter recently, saying:

One in 10 members of the Italian Parliament has had a run-in with the law. One in 10 has a criminal record! In the Bronx, New York, the number of people with a criminal record is estimated at one in 15. The Bronx would fear our Parliament.

Our political system is like Wile E. Coyote …

In December 2011, shortly after Silvio Berlusconi was forced to step down as prime minister—and the spread on Italian bonds was climbing to daily record highs—Grillo took his message of political mismanagement to a gymnasium full of Italians. His big message was how the gerontocracy in charge had hijacked the future of Italy’s youth. At 2 minute, 20 seconds, Grillo sums up how Italians feel about their politicians:

Our political system is like Wile E. Coyote. You know Wile E. Coyote. Right? You know Wile E. Coyote when he runs off the precipice: He’s totally suspended. He’s 1,000 feet in the air but he won’t look down, and he remains suspended there. He won’t look down. And we yell out, “Look down!”

Warner writes about innovation for Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow him on Twitter @bernhardwarner.

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