The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What happens when a comedian turns politician? Ukraine hopes it’s not the punch line.

Ukrainian comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who played the nation's president in a popular TV series, is photographed on the set in Kiev, Ukraine, on Feb. 6. (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)

Presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelensky, 41, is best known in Ukraine as a comedian. He has zero political experience — unless you count playing the president of Ukraine on a popular television sitcom. And yet, he is widely expected to win Friday’s vote in a landslide.

Analysts say that Zelensky’s background as a performer is an asset, rather than a hindrance. With the third season of his show, “Servant of the People,” hitting the airwaves last month, he had little need for expensive traditional advertising or probing interviews with political journalists.

Among Ukraine’s corruption-weary voters, his portrayal of a history teacher who won fame for a viral anti-graft rant before eventually becoming president strikes a chord, even if it isn’t real.

Zelensky’s journey from the small screen to political office has been remarkably swift, but it isn’t unprecedented. In recent years, a number of comedic actors have followed a similar trajectory, often with only limited experience in the field.

Guatemala: Jimmy Morales

Jimmy Morales has been president of Guatemala since January 2016. But not long before that, he was better known as a comic actor. Along with his brother, Sammy, he appeared in a popular sketch comedy show called “Moralejas,” or “Morals,” as well as in several movies.

He played a wide variety of characters during 16 years as a comedian, including, controversially, a character in blackface called Black Pitaya. At another point, he played a cowboy who accidentally became president.

Morales ran unsuccessfully for mayor in a town near Guatemala City in 2011 before joining a small political party in 2013 in preparation for the 2015 presidential election. He campaigned on an anti-corruption platform featuring a simple slogan: “Not corrupt, not a thief.” That message found an audience, and he won easily in a runoff, although critics say he has failed to live up to his message and has targeted anti-corruption investigators.

Iceland: Jón Gnarr

Jón Gnarr is a well-known Icelandic comedian. Ahead of a mayoral election in 2010 in the capital, Reykjavik, he formed a satirical political group known as “Best Party” to ridicule Icelandic politics. Among the group’s proposals: To have a polar bear at the city zoo, a Disneyland at the airport and a “drug-free parliament” by 2020.

Then the funniest thing happened: He won.

Gnarr ended up being mayor of Reykjavik, home to one-third of Iceland’s population, from 2010 to 2014. He implemented some of his proposals, including free towels at swimming pools, and approved Iceland’s first purpose-built mosque, before deciding to step down at the end of his first term.

The comedian-turned-politician was widely expected run for the Icelandic presidency in 2016, but he told reporters that the position (which is largely symbolic) was not quite right for him yet.

“I will not run for president at present, but I might want to do that at some point in the future,” he told reporters.

Italy: Beppe Grillo

Beppe Grillo became a comedian in the 1970s, appearing on national television in variety and travel shows before being given his own show. But as his comedic career stalled — in part because of his acerbic jokes about mainstream Italian politicians — he turned to blogging.

By the early 2000s, he was a full-fledged activist. He often took aim at Italy’s endemic corruption, drawing comparisons to American documentary maker Michael Moore, but others said that his group, the Five Star Movement, owed more to the resurgent European far right.

“We are nothing like them,” Grillo told The Washington Post in 2012. “We are moderate, beautiful people, and we are the only thing left standing between Italy and the real extremists.”

Grillo himself has never held political office, but the party he started has found significant political success, becoming the largest party in Italy’s parliament in 2018. The party’s leader, Luigi Di Maio, is now deputy prime minister and a partner in government with the populist party the League, led by the far-right Matteo Salvini.

The United States: Al Franken

The United States has seen plenty of performers become politicians — Ronald Reagan, most famously, was a popular movie actor before he became governor of California and later two-term president.

The most obvious case of a comedian swapping Hollywood and New York City for Washington, however, is that of Al Franken, a former Democratic senator for Minnesota.

Franken first became known as a writer and performer for “Saturday Night Live” in the 1970s and 1980s. He had his sights set on politics, however, and in 1999 published a fictional political satire titled “Why Not Me?” that imagined what it would be like if he ran for president.

“The candidate has sexual liaisons that are hardly credible, violates an implausible number of campaign finance laws, wins election on a platform of impossible simple-mindedness and is thrown out of office for preposterous behavior,” the New York Times noted in a review.

In 2008, Franken ran for the Senate, winning after a recount. He subsequently won reelection in 2014. There were rumors that he might run for president in 2020, which his office later denied. In 2017, he was accused of sexual misconduct by several women and following public criticism of his alleged actions, he resigned.