In Italy, a comedian is getting the last laugh

Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images - Italian comedian Beppe Grillo is interviewed at his home in Genoa. Bushy-haired Grillo, with a passion for the environment and a fondness for expletives, is shaking up his country.

PARMA, Italy — He looks like Jerry Garcia, jokes like Jon Stewart and says the world has nothing to fear from Italy’s funniest man. So why is Europe trembling from the political earthquake that is Beppe Grillo?

For answers, look no further than the TV comedian-turned-political phenomenon’s recent address in this ancient city renowned for wheels of Parmesan cheese and slabs of prosciutto, and now the epicenter of the “Grillo revolution.” Four months after his Five Star Movement swept into government here in a surprise victory that sent his national profile soaring, he stood in a town square and delivered a breathless tirade against “the forces” seeking to destroy Italian society.

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Beppe Grillo is a controversial Italian comedian shaking up Italian politics. Here's his backstory.

In the country that could make or break the future of the euro with its next election, he described Germany and France as European paymasters who would bleed Italy dry. He called for a referendum on the euro and said Rome should follow in the footsteps of Argentina and Ecuador by suspending payments on the national debt. He called Mario Monti — Italy’s interim prime minister hailed by European leaders for pushing painful economic reforms on a reluctant nation — the “Rigor Monti,” a pun on rigor mortis, that is turning Italy into a corpse.

Last year, opinion polls showed support for Grillo’s movement hovering below 4 percent. But as he fills the political vacuum here, more recent surveys suggest that almost one in five Italians now back it, placing his movement only single digits behind the nation’s two leading parties in popularity. He is touting his Italy-first revolution from open piazzas across the nation, drawing inevitable comparisons to Benito Mussolini. But Grillo, whose left-leaning anti-corruption message more closely mirrors that of American liberal Michael Moore, says those who accuse him of echoing Il Duce are missing the point.

“They are calling me a populist, calling us Nazis, calling me Hitler, but they do not understand,” he said in an interview. “What is happening is that our movement is filling a similar space as the Nazis did in Germany or [nationalist Marine] Le Pen has in France. But we are nothing like them. We are moderate, beautiful people, and we are the only thing left standing between Italy and the real extremists.”

In populist company

Mired in debt, locked in a cycle of austerity and confronting a crisis of leadership, parts of Europe are facing a period of economic and political upheaval that some liken to the disenchantment of the 1930s, when the Nazis rose to power. Across the region, unconventional and unpredictable political forces are taking root. On the streets of broken Greece, the right-wing pseudo-militias of the Golden Dawn organization are menacing immigrants, racial minorities and political opponents. In Austria, the 80-year-old anti-euro billionaire Frank Stronach has 10 percent support in the polls despite not even having launched an official party. Over the past year in France and Finland, nationalists have posted their strongest election results ever.

But here in Italy, Grillo’s core followers are anything but a mob of Il Duce-loving extremists. Rather, his movement began in the mid-2000s as a group of netizens linked by social media and united by a shared disgust with Italian political elites, including chauffeur-driven lawmakers with criminal records and CEO-level compensation. Nevertheless, pundits see his rise as underscoring the political uncertainty in Italy that is quickly becoming one of the biggest wild cards of the European debt crisis.

In a nation that — unlike Greece — is considered too big to fail, last year’s emergency appointment of Monti, a technocrat and former university president, to take over for the sullied playboy Silvio Berlusconi was seen as Europe’s saving grace. Just as Italy was falling off a cliff, Monti forced through tough austerity measures that reassured investors and pulled Rome back from the brink.

Last week, Monti did not rule out continuing as prime minister if asked, though whether he would be depends largely on whether those who support him in Italy’s center-right parties win at the ballot box. But he added that he would not run as a candidate, effectively leaving the premiership up for grabs.

Even as Europe appears to be getting a grip on its three-year-old crisis, Italians in the coming months could open its most troubling chapter yet. They are ditching traditional political parties in droves, with the fracturing political landscape making the scenario of a weak, divided parliament or one skeptical of Monti’s reforms increasingly likely.

Grillo’s call for a referendum on the euro in Italy and his anti-austerity message put him in similar company as an array of populist leaders in Europe, including Le Pen in France, Stronach in Austria and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands. But although few — including Grillo himself — expect the wild-haired, acerbic comedian to rise to national office, political leaders say anything is possible in the current climate.

“Grillo represents a sort of blurring of the far left and far right,” said Massimo Franco, political columnist for Corriere della Sera. “He is a thermometer of Italy’s political temperature, and the success of a demagogue like him would send a dangerous message to our allies in Europe that credibility and sacrifice are no longer on Italy’s agenda.”

Transition to activism

Yet, to a segment of Italians, the funny man and anti-corruption crusader from the musty port of Genoa has seemed almost prophetic. In September, a scandal broke over allegations that local lawmakers from Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party embezzled funds and hosted lavish toga parties. Leaked images of party elites being fed grapes and cavorting in pig masks with women only seemed to prove Grillo’s point that Italy’s political class is morally bankrupt and beyond salvation.

Enter Grillo. The 64-year-old comedian rose to national fame in the 1970s and 1980s. His lampooning and disrespect of the political class led to his blacklisting by state television in 1987. When Italy’s then-Prime Minister Bettino Craxi, a Socialist, was on a visit to China, Grillo joked that a party colleague had queried of Craxi: “If all the Chinese are socialists, too, who do they steal from?”

Today, the father of four from two marriages, including his current one to a half-Iranian wife, lives in Genoa in a gracious villa befitting a man who became one of Italy’s best-known celebrities.

The funny man transitioned to full-fledged activism in the 2000s, launching a popular blog (200,000 hits a day) and forming a Web-based community that held “revenge” protests in which the public gathered to chastise traditional politicians.

After winning a series of minor victories in local elections, Grillo’s movement harnessed the economic crisis as an issue, scoring its biggest victory in May, when its candidate won the mayoral seat in Parma, a city of about 413,000. Victory came despite the party’s decision to reject state funding for political parties, instead operating the mayoral race on a shoestring budget of $7,500 raised through T-shirt and book sales and the aid of Grillo’s personal fortune.

Qualms have arisen since then. With the movement as shocked as anyone by its success, it took the new mayor, former computer technician Federico Pizzarotti, about 40 days to pull together a working cabinet. Though pundits in the city say it is too early to tell whether the party can deliver on its promises — including a pledge to stop a new incinerator from opening — it is also too early to determine whether it will fail.

Pizzarotti may be mayor, but Grillo is the star of the show. Grillo’s growing popularity and strong skepticism about the euro are sending jitters through Europe’s political establishment. On a visit to Italy last month, Martin Schulz, the German socialist and president of the European Parliament, said, “I think it is more dangerous when comedians become politicians than when politicians go to see a comedy.”

In an interview, Grillo called himself the “spokesman,” rather than the leader, of a freethinking movement. But the strongest accusations yet that he brooks no dissent in the organization surfaced recently. Giovanni Favia, 31, a regional council member from the movement, was caught off-camera complaining of a lack of freedom to act independently within the movement. In response, Grillo cut off all contact with Favia. The young council member said he has since received death threats from the movement’s followers, including one posted on Facebook saying he should have his throat slit in public.

Yet even Favia says he still sees Grillo as the only instrument in Italy capable of ushering in real change.

“He is the only one brave enough to break the grip of the old parties,” Favia said. “The figure of Beppe Grillo is a necessity if Italy is going to be a different place.”

 
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