Standup and be counted: Eddie Izzard and the comics who took politics by storm

From Eddie Izzard’s comedy we expect the incongruous. But was anything ever odder in the 61-year-old’s standup than the climax to her 2019 show Wunderbar: “My last tour before politics,” she said then. I remember my mounting alarm as the jokes fell away, and the audience was confronted with a near-messianic oration about the ways Izzard now intended, through politics, to heal the world. It’s a dream that may inch closer to reality this winter, as Izzard runs for the Labour candidacy in the seat of Brighton Pavilion. At the same time, she gets back on stage for a global standup tour, Remix, revisiting routines from the span of her 35 years in comedy.

Coincidence? Or a cunning plan on Izzard’s part, making a soapbox of the standup stage and star-powering her way to Westminster? The latter seems unlikely: until Wunderbar, Izzard’s stage act – all Star Wars canteens and erudite waffle – had stayed strenuously apolitical. But nowadays a career in jokes appears to qualify one for political office: just ask Ukrainian president and ex-comic Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Izzard is merely the latest in a growing line of clowns who would be kings, some of whom have taken their countries by storm – think Beppe Grillo’s Five-Star Movement in Italy – and some of whom – step forward Roseanne Barr, failed US presidential candidate in 2012 (campaign slogan: “Yes we cannabis!”) – have ended up with custard pie on their faces.

So what kind of MP might Izzard make? Unapologetically European, if all those gigs – and gags – in French (“Le singe est sur la branche,” and so on) are any guide. Robust in her anti-imperialism, we must assume, from many a fine routine about malevolent colonisers appropriating the world (“You can’t claim us. We live here! There’s five hundred million of us!” / “But do you have a flag?”). Sceptical of the AI threat, if the excellent Encore on Computers from 1997’s Glorious is anything to go by (“A problem of type 2094 has occurred. What the fuck is that?”). And centrist to a fault, going by Izzard’s many public statements longing for everyone to just get along.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Joe Biden.
No laughing matter … Volodymyr Zelenskiy meets Joe Biden. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

She is unlikely to join the ranks of comics turned populists, which includes Italy’s Grillo and the former Guatemalan president Jimmy Morales. Morales rode to power on a wave of revulsion against grift in the Central American republic, his slogan: “Neither corrupt, nor a thief”. (Unlikely to fly in Brighton Pavilion, that one.) As with Zelenskiy in his show Servant of the People, Morales had rehearsed his political career on TV, playing a presidential candidate in the sitcom Moralejas (Morals). (Unlike Zelenskiy, he was also notorious for performing in blackface.) Like many a populist opportunist, it is felt that Morales under-delivered on his “drain the swamp” promises: as president he expelled a UN anti-corruption watchdog, while his brother and son were arrested on fraud and money-laundering charges. They were later acquitted.

Then there is Grillo. Unlike Izzard, the Genoan made his name with trenchant political comedy, and was banned from Italian TV in the 80s after joking about government malpractice. His Five Star Movement later rose from nowhere on the back of another slogan Izzard would be wise to avoid (“Vaffanculo”, or, “Go fuck yourself”), to become the largest in the Italian parliament in 2018. Disillusioned with politics, Grillo is now launching a new religion instead. “Initiates [must] break a mirror to quash their vanity,” according to reports, “while ‘exorcisms’ purging them of evil will involve banning their phones for a week.”

Izzard may prefer the example of Iceland’s Jón Gnarr, elected mayor of Reykjavík in 2010 on the promise of free towels in swimming pools and a polar bear for the city’s zoo. Gnarr ran as a joke, governed soberly – and declined to run again four years later, his popularity riding high.

Jón Gnarr, the former mayor of Reykjavík.
Standing order … Jón Gnarr, the former mayor of Reykjavík. Photograph: Jennifer Yang/Toronto Star/Getty

“If you don’t have a sense of humour, you’ve got problems,” Gnarr wrote in the memoir of his unlikely mayoralty. “It is as vital as emotional intelligence, but it’s often derided.” A clue to the new fashion for comics as statesmen, this. It’s no accident that the phenomenon coincided with a downturn in public trust in conventional politicians. If you think your elected representatives are lying to you, if you don’t believe they’re going to improve your life, the least you’re going to look for is someone who might put a smile on your face. At the same time, the skills a comedian refines (cultivating an appealing persona; public speaking and quickness of wit; weathering controversy with a smile on their face) overlap extensively with those required of politicians.

And, as Gnarr also writes: “Just because you’re funny doesn’t mean you can’t be serious.” It is notable that Izzard’s Brighton campaign website makes no mention whatsoever of her celebrated comedy career. For just as a background in standup can be an asset in politics, it can also be a liability. When comedian Al Franken, a former writer and performer on Saturday Night Live, ran for the US Senate, focus groups told him his Minnesota constituents had no wish to be represented by a clown. Opponents, meanwhile, trawled his comedy back catalogue for proof of frivolous character, demanding apologies for this or that off-colour joke. But “to say I was sorry for writing a joke was to sell out who I’d been my entire life”, Franken later wrote. If he was conspicuously serious-minded as a senator, it was only, said the senator, because “I wasn’t allowed to be funny any more”.

Ah well, apparently he can be funny again now, guest-hosting The Daily Show after quitting politics five years ago after sexual misconduct allegations. (In response to the claims, he said he was “tremendously sorry”, and “this will not happen again going forward”.) But the fact remains that ex-comedians are forever open to the allegation that they’re fundamentally unserious people. “People love the comedian Hayk Marutyan, but not the politician Marutyan,” ran one attack on the Armenian comic who was elected mayor of Yerevan. “He’s in demand in the real theatre,” it went on, “but he couldn’t play a good role in the political theatre.”

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Al Franken.
Elder statesman of comedy … former US senator Al Franken. Photograph: R Diamond/Getty

Which raises the question: is a comic sensibility really compatible with political ambition? Think back to 2019’s Wunderbar, when Izzard’s identity as a lovable, dotty, self-ironising standup dissolved on contact with all that earnest speechifying that closed the show. “It makes me feel really nervous that I’m doing this,” Barr told an interviewer when, long before her racist tweet row, she ran to be Green party candidate for the American presidency: “Like I’m fucking up my whole career and my whole life. [Because] on the offhand chance that I don’t win, I’m gonna need a job.” Is there any way back for a comedian after they turn to an electorate and say: take me seriously?

There are few recorded instances of comic-politicians returning to standup when their period in office ends. There are fewer still who actually succeeded in office, and effect meaningful positive change. It could be argued that the most politically potent comedians are those who never went into politics at all, such as the satirist Bassem Youssef, whose opposition to Egypt’s military regime saw Time magazine rank him among the world’s 100 most influential people; or the UK’s Mark Thomas, with a string of political victories to his name despite a lifelong aversion to Westminster and its denizens.

But Izzard won’t be swayed. “I have to do this in my life. I should stand up and be counted,” she told the Guardian a decade ago, back when she was planning a tilt at the London mayoralty. That didn’t materialise, and neither did she win the Labour candidacy in Sheffield Central last year. Will things be different in Brighton? Is her career retrospective Remix merely the latest in a series of would-be “last tours before politics”, or a final goodbye to Izzard the standup before a British answer to Volodymyr Zelenskiy finally takes to the political stage?

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The Guardian