Send in the Clowns

New York -- Beppo Grillo is one of Italy’s most famous comics. He is also one of Italy’s most influential political commentators. His blog attracts 160,000 hits daily, and if he could run for prime minister (he can’t, because of a criminal record), more than half of Italy’s voters, according to a poll last year, would have considered voting for him.

Grillo is yet another reminder of a modern phenomenon: the important role of comedians in contemporary politics. Until a few years ago, the one TV program most Mexicans turned to for political information was called The Morning Quickie, broadcast from 6-10 a.m. The host, interviewer, and main commentator was Victor Trujillo, better known as Brozo the Clown, adorned with a green wig and a red rubber nose. It was Brozo the Clown who exposed a major corruption scandal in the office of a former Mexico City mayor.

While staid TV pundits ask the usually vapid questions during presidential debates in the United States, candidates know that the really important thing is to get laughs on the comedy shows of David Letterman or Jay Leno. And, for several years, American liberals have looked to Jon Stewart, another comic talent, for critical political commentary.

Of course, comic entertainment in politics is not just a modern phenomenon. Nero was a murderer who understood that he had to amuse the masses to gain popular support. Then there is the long tradition of the court jester with license to criticize the despot by sweetening his barbs with jokes. The annual Gridiron Club Dinner in Washington, where the president is lampooned by the press, is a relic of this custom.