A hair and makeup artist was applying some last-minute touches to Jón Gnarr. With stiffly moussed hair and a crisply ironed shirt, the Icelandic man was looking downright mayoral as the groomer primped, layered, dusted and buffed.
Gnarr, it turns out, used to be a politician. In fact, he used to be a comedian. In further fact, he used to be both – a comedian who became a politician who has gone back to being a comedian but playing a politician.
“It does get a bit confusing, doesn’t it?” Gnarr said as he stepped away from the makeup artist. “I mean, I get confused myself.”
As Donald Trump seeks the U.S. presidency, he’s hoping to travel an unlikely path from “The Apprentice’s” boardroom table to the Oval Office’s Resolute desk. But Trump has little on Gnarr, whose story is unusual even by the standards of small-nation political goofiness.
On a lark six years ago, shortly after the 2008-09 financial crisis that brought the country to its knees, Gnarr decided to run for mayor of Reykjavik, launching what he called the Best Party. The bid was a stunt, a piece of real-time performance art meant to jolt viewers into considering the pointlessness of the electoral process.
It jolted, all right. Gnarr’s likability was so high –- or, perhaps, the country’s respect for establishment politicians so low – that he actually won. The actor completed a treacherous four-year term in the shark-like waters of Icelandic politics in 2014, when he opted not to run again.
For most sane people, that would have been enough.
After he left City Hall, he and a writing partner began penning a scripted comedy series that spoofed the former’s time in office and the underwater predators he swam with. They began creating the series even before the Panama Papers scandal this spring exposed three high-ranking government officials as holding offshore accounts, prompting the most senior of them, Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, to resign.
It occurred to me that instead of bringing politics to the stage, I could bring the stage and the circus to politics.
Several weeks ago, the show – in Icelandic but with English subtitles for European and U.S. export – began shooting. Gnarr stars as Ludvik, the lead character, completing an improbable circle.
Titled simply “The Mayor,” the series can safely be called the world’s first-ever political satire to be inspired by a real-life candidacy that was inspired by a satire. Think “Veep” if it starred and was created by Al Gore – and if Al Gore had begun his life as a comic.
“After the 2008 economic crisis, I thought about writing a play on politics,” Gnarr told The Times during a break on set. “Then it occurred to me that instead of bringing politics to the stage, I could bring the stage and the circus to politics.
“And now” – he said, pausing for effect – “I’m taking it back.”
While it unfolded thousands of miles from the continental U.S., Gnarr’s story reflects a familiar entwining of politics and entertainment. It also suggests the reductio ad absurdum of the populist moment. If professional politics is a joke and professional politicians no better than the rest of us, what really separates comedians and lawmakers?
On a recent Friday, Gnarr and a crew were in the basement of a nondescript building in central Reykjavik – it contained the Swiss Film Institute and the Canadian Embassy, as nondescript buildings in this city do — helping to demonstrate the pointlessness of these distinctions.
The performer, who will direct many of the season’s 10 episodes, was behind the camera. In one scene, the mayor’s smooth-operator deputy was trying to persuade a forgotten bookkeeper to come along on a political rocket ride the way that, say, Mike McClintock might be elevated to Secretary of state for expediency’s sake.
Gnarr and a few assistants wedged themselves into a corner and watched the scene play out on a monitor. Jóhanna Jóhannsdóttir, Gnarr’s wife and producing partner, sat on a step near him. Between takes, the former politician stood up and, dressed drably in what might be called mayor-core from an earlier scene, began giving notes to his actors. They nodded eagerly, drinking in his advice.
“This is a little easier than City Hall,” Gnarr said to a reporter.
Though his election had an air of the madcap — a campaign pledge included “a drug-free Parliament by 2020” — Gnarr’s time in office wasn’t easy. Combative officials, a skeptical establishment and an electorate that wasn’t sure what it had voted for combined to thwart some of Gnarr’s agenda. He made cuts in public-service employees — politically unpopular but fiscally necessary to get the capital back on its feet — but also angered establishment lawmakers by objecting to NATO’s use of Iceland for refueling and other missions.
“The first two years were horrible — every day made me sick to my stomach with the stress and the aggression,” he said. It got a little better — but only a little.
The satire of “The Mayor” is not subtle. But it does contain a measure of metaphor. Gnarr, for instance, has made Ludvik an alcoholic, a bumbling narcissist who can never remember what he’s promised to colleagues or constituents.
“The mayor doesn’t have the insight someone else does because he’s blacked out,” Gnarr said “He literally has no recollection of what happened.”
At 49, with a swoop of reddish-blond hair and a tendency to take long pauses between sentences, Gnarr is provocative in other ways. In recent years, he took on, and defeated, Iceland’s bureaucratic names commission to allow him to change his last name from the standard patronymic system (derived from a father’s given name) because he is estranged from his own dad. His comedy is of the dry Nordic kind. “I always say that, as I go through life, I change nothing but my personality,” he said apropos of nothing in particular.
Any reputation he’s garnered as an accessible everyman, he believes, is a myth.
“The main reason why the Best Party succeeded is that it wasn’t democratic. We made fun of democracy. We opened online polls where everyone could vote, but we didn’t register any votes because we already decided what we wanted to do,” he said, possibly kidding. “On our website, we’d say, ‘Have your opinion and speak your mind and we will listen,’ and then in the middle, it would freeze with an error. It was anti-democracy.”
“The Mayor” is being produced by Reykjavik-based Baltasar Kormákur, who as director of Hollywood films such as “Everest” and " 2 Guns” is arguably Iceland’s best-known entertainment commodity after Björk and Sigur Rós. He is a little confounded by Gnarr’s arc too.
“From comedian to mayor to comedian impersonating a mayor,” Kormákur said. “I’m hoping it ends at some point.”
Gnarr said it will; he doesn’t have any intentions to run again. It doesn’t sound like Gnarr’s former colleagues will fade from his life any time soon, though. Asked if “The Mayor” might be scrutinized by politicians so vain that they think the show is about them, Jóhannsdóttir said, “I think a lot of people will do that. It will be, ‘Who is this?’ ‘Is this person who’s cheating supposed to be me?’”
She paused. “Fortunately, they’ll have no idea. There isn’t just one person cheating in Icelandic politics.”