WHY COMEDIANS GO INTO POLITICS?

The perspective of German comedian Nico Semsrott sheds a light on the crisis of the German left.

His worn out black sneakers foot-tap on the creaky wood floor of the Mehringhof Theater’s backstage in Kreuzberg. The tiny place is furnished with two old leather sofas, a small fridge and no desk. Up on the wall, a modern-looking clock from Ikea sings out of tune in the otherwise vintage room. Its regular ticking punctuates the murmur of some two hundred people waiting for him. Nico Semsrott, a German stand-up comedian and slam poet, sits with his notes on his knees, trying for the last time to memorize all the jokes he has prepared for the night. He glances up at the clock, in seven minutes he walks in. He folds the notes back in his pocket and wends his way to the stage.

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If you were to observe a professional public speaker such as a comedian or a politician before a performance, you would likely see them engaging in a series of basic warm-up exercises. They are fundamental to “place the voice in the mask” and to loosen the muscles. Not Nico. He simply stands behind the black curtains cleaning his thin squared glasses. Even more surprising, since Nico is both a comedian and a politician. And he is in good company. Many other entertainers like him animate today’s politics. The party founded by former comedian Beppe Grillo vies for power after Italian election. Jan Böhmermann’s “poem” on Erdogan caused a political crisis between Germany and Turkey. Russell Brand campaigned for the labor party in the UK’s last elections. But why are comedians going into politics? “Because politicians are going into satire”, explains Nico with a smile “this is one of the jokes I forgot to use tonight”.

 

Semsrott’s party shocked German public opinion with controversial posters reading: “a Nazi could be hanging here”. They raised public funding by selling money. They snuck into thirty one Facebook groups followed by AfD’s supporters and kicked out the administrators shortly before the elections. Their program includes re-erecting the Berlin wall, and their leader, Martin Sonneborn, now sits in the European Parliament. In a country famous for its political stability and which just opted for a second consecutive edition of a “große koalition”, such initiatives are even more surprising. But in an age of hardening political divisions, the use of satire for political purposes should not come as a surprise. “Irony describes a kind of antidote to firmly ideological thinking”, says Matthew Stratton, author of The Politics of Irony in American Modernism, who has long studied the interaction between these two fields. Not only is political satire one of the most popular genres in the field, but the linguistic devices typically mastered by comedians can be employed in politics.

 

Perhaps we’re in a period that needs to control politics by means other than the ‘fourth estate’. And since irony functions by implying the opposite of what it says, it can also be used to put politicians on the front line, hence becoming a powerful weapon in the protesters’ arsenal. As a result, comedians often do a better job than journalists in covering ideologically oriented statements. “Journalism has its rules, and for a reason. But the engagement of satire can be beneficial for the system” Paul Hockenos, a Berlin-based journalist and political analyst, defends the profession’s role, but agrees that the newsrooms’ tendency to look for scoops as a mean of reaching bigger audiences can promote fake news and defeat the purpose of informing the public opinion. Comedians, on the other side, can just call bullshit and make fun of it.

 

Moreover, irony can even become a form of political rebellion. “The underlying idea behind improvisation is that the truth is funny”, explains Noah Telson, founder of Comedy Café Berlin, a major hub for improvisers in the city. He was a politically engaged teenager who grew up in New York State and spent much of his time in marches and protests against the war during the Bush administration. He then moved to theatre and tried to merge these two interests. “I am an improviser, but there is something political about it. If you break down how ‘improv’ works, it’s built on the same premises as political rebellion. It’s an exercise in subversive behavior. It’s all about taking an idea and flipping it on its head to show how false or ridiculous it actually is.”

 

Nico Semsrott’s performances confirm this theory. Many of his jokes are intended to mock the German far right. He bases them on true events that he reads in the newspapers or chooses from his life. Every year he adds 20 to 30 minutes. This time he is also including a slideshow. But PowerPoint is famous for working fine only until you need it. After one last intimidating glance at the VGA cable connecting his old, dusty laptop to the projector, stiff and wary, on the alert for banana skins, Nico goes on stage.

A big round of applause welcomes him. Against the white screen behind him, Nico looks like a black ink sketch quickly made in illustrator by Wes Anderson’s storyboarders. Everything is perfectly symmetrical. He hardly moves. His arms hang along his body, like puppets that softly dangle at the slightest vibration of his voice. Dipped in the flat tone of the speech, the audience sits on the edge of the chair, eyes wide open, looking out for hidden jokes. Around the hall, a dozen posters reflect the green light of the emergency exit signal in an otherwise pitch-dark room. It may look improvised, but Nico knows exactly where he is going and plays with his audience like a musician with his instrument. He has been in the business of confronting politicians for a long time. But only recently did he enter politics. Why?

 

“Because I am a disillusioned social democrats”, explains Nico. “I don’t feel represented by the SPD because they work against the poor and the young. Schröder did the most horrible things to the social system.” The relative decline of the social democrats in a country with a relatively healthy political and economic situation is intriguing, but it also offers a unique perspective on the reasons behind the political disillusionment that is driving comedians into politics. It is tempting to see irony as an inherently progressive tool that comes in handy when going against populism. After all, there is no such a thing as a conservative John Stewart, and ironic posts are killing it on Facebook. But Stratton dismisses such a debate as a timeworn academic ritual of linguistic experts. “Can irony be used to dismiss populism? Sure. Can irony be used to generate and support populism? Sure. In the American context the so-called alt-right has generated a great deal of online enthusiasm for its tenets through a kind of ironic distancing from certain narratives as a means of embracing them. For example, promulgating openly racist memes but defending their use as ironic or humorous.”

 

Moreover, ironic statements don’t offer any practical answer. For example, the Die Partie manifesto pledges to “further complicate the German tax system so that large companies can no longer find money-saving loopholes”. Therefore, It is clear that its use cannot represent a solution. “It’s not good for the discussion. It’s not good for the debate – admits Nico – but that’s not the point. It’s a reaction.” Although Die Partie doesn’t have a significant political weight yet, their growth is noteworthy. Disillusioned by the SPD and scared by the rise of the right, they represent a stress indicator of the left. “There should always be serious politicians, but perhaps the situation is so desperate that I will be drawn more and more into politics”.  Nico speaks hesitantly; his eyes wander around the ceiling looking for the right words. His statements are obscure and dense in meaning, a mongrel mouthful of rage and hope. “This is my enemy: the radicalization and simplification of every aspect of our life. The whole social media works on yes and no – thumbs up or down. But there is so much more! Irony unveils the ambivalence. It’s the tool of the powerless. An act of defense. A call for help.”

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