REYKJAVIK, ICELAND—On a recent and characteristically grey Icelandic afternoon, a small crowd gathered beneath the fluorescent lights of Kolaportid, a cluttered flea market inside a warehouse near the old harbour.
A local celebrity was making an appearance — the mayor of Reykjavik. He was coming to renew the lease for the building, where vendors hawk everything from second-hand sweaters to foul-smelling slices of hakarl, the rotten shark delicacy that has somehow found a willing market.
At 1 o’clock, Mayor Jon Gnarr arrived and seated himself at a folding table beneath balloons and a banner reading “Kolaportid: serving the public for 25 years!” Then he dutifully played his part in a well-worn political scene: he signed papers, shook hands and delivered a short speech.
“It’s a big day for me,” the 47-year-old said, his arms crossed and sweater sleeves rolled up to reveal two tattoos: a punk band logo on one arm and Reykjavik’s official coat of arms on the other. “I feel like I’m closing a circle because I started my campaign here.”
Four years ago, Gnarr made a different kind of scene at the market, announcing with exaggerated grandiloquence that he was running for mayor with the “anarcho-surrealist” Best Party. The Icelandic comedian, famed for his absurdist wit, formed the party as political satire, to critique the ruling elite blamed for dragging Iceland into an economic meltdown in 2008.
The campaign started as a joke — but the punchline was that Gnarr actually got elected.
Since then, Gnarr has been lionized as “the world’s coolest mayor” by his fans, who include Noam Chomsky and Lady Gaga (“I love the mayor of Iceland,” she once tweeted). He was the anarchist comedian elected on a promise to break his election promises; he was a punk rock mayor who dressed in drag, gave Yoko Ono honourary citizenship and entertained 95,000 Facebook followers with mayoral selfies and YouTube links. He was the high-school dropout who snuck into the halls of power, vowing to shake up the establishment.
But as his first-and-only term drew to an end last month, Gnarr found himself smiling for the cameras and signing a building lease — the kind of cookie-cutter political scene that faux-mayoral-candidate Gnarr would have poked fun of. So what happened exactly? Did four years of being the world’s coolest mayor change politics — or did it change Jon Gnarr?
For many Icelanders, the fact that Gnarr was still standing after four years was a significant change for Reykjavik — he is only the third mayor in 32 years to finish an entire term.
“Despite this being a party of comedians — or a comedian — they took their job pretty seriously,” says Gunnar Kristinsson, a professor of political science at the University of Iceland. “They were successful in a number of ways that lent stability to the running of the municipality.”
In his new book, Gnarr! How I Became the Mayor of a Large City in Iceland and Changed the World, Gnarr says he has emerged from his short political career unchanged. More mature, yes, but unscathed in character and still a political outsider. Exhibit A: he decided not to run for re-election late last year, even though opinion polls at the time suggested he would win.
“I often see myself as a probe on some alien hostile planet, gathering information and taking photographs and samples,” says Gnarr, speaking carefully and thoughtfully during one of his final interviews as mayor. “I’m like Curiosity (the Mars Rover).
“Now I have loads and loads and loads of raw data and I have to process it,” he continues. “I suppose I will write a book. Like, The Human’s Guide to Politics or something.”
Gnarr’s career as a professional misfit began on the day he was born.
In his book, Gnarr recalled being “the result of a drunken, day-bright May night” between his Communist cop father and his mother, a hospital cafeteria worker.
“When I had finally arrived in the world, to make matters worse I turned out to be a redhead,” he wrote. “(This) raised all sorts of questions. Dad’s hair was raven black.”
Gnarr’s childhood was difficult, marked by bullying, psychiatry appointments, learning disabilities and an utter disinterest in school. He dropped out of high school after discovering the world of punk, which became an alternate education that introduced him to the subjects that shape his views even today: anarchism, surrealism and philosophy.
After stints as a cabbie and assembly line worker for Volvo, the child who once aspired to be a circus clown found his calling as a comedian. Gnarr achieved local fame as a radio host and actor, best known for portraying a Marxist gas station manager on a popular TV series. He married Johanna “Joga” Johannsdottir — a close friend of the musician Björk — and had five children, now aged 9 to 28.
Gnarr had no interest in politics — until 2008, when Iceland plunged into one of the world’s most spectacular financial meltdowns.
Iceland’s three main banks had grossly overextended themselves — when the global recession hit, their combined assets were worth nearly 10 times the country’s GDP. Seemingly overnight, the Icelandic currency, the krona, lost more than half its value and unemployment rose to nearly 10 per cent.
Icelanders, many of whom saw their mortgages skyrocket and retirement plans evaporate, were angry. In this law-abiding nation where the police don’t carry guns, crowds of protestors became brick-throwing mobs; the air in Reykjavik filled with tear gas.
“All the protests were happening in front of the parliament,” recalls Johannsdottir, her husband’s most trusted but unofficial political adviser. “We walked down there just to see what was going on . . . and then when we were on our way back, it was always, ‘What is it that I can do? I don’t want to throw pots and pans.’”
Gnarr’s projectile of choice is a well-aimed joke. As he recalled in his book, he paid about 5,000 kronur — roughly $43 at the time — to register the Best Party. Just like that, he was a political candidate.
Through a mutual friend, Gnarr was introduced to Heida Helgadottir, a Washington-born single mother of two with a big smile and friendly wink. He asked her to run his campaign.
“He wanted to infiltrate the system — he said the system was always infiltrating his life,” Helgadottir, 31, recalls. “And he just wanted to bring some joy to it all.”
Helgadottir’s experience consisted of a political science degree and a marketing job at an artificial intelligence lab. Even still, she was far more politically savvy than Gnarr, who literally had no clue what he was running for.
“One of the things that I needed to explain to him upfront was that he was actually running for municipal office,” Helgadottir chuckles. “He got the municipal and (parliamentary) elections mixed up . . . I needed to clear that up. He was just like, “OK, what does the mayor do then?”
A ragtag collection of artists and musicians joined the party. Group portraits of the Best Party tend to look like album covers — members include a blond food blogger and human rights activist nicknamed “Palestine Eve,” a musician who once sang with Björk, and a coarsely bearded rocker with a penchant for ’80s-era sports jackets made from tweed and corduroy.
Gnarr’s promises included a polar bear at the local zoo, a Disneyland at the local airport and free towels in public swimming pools. The Best Party’s tongue-in-cheek platform promised to fight corruption by “indulging in it publicly” and to listen to women and seniors — “everyone seems to agree that these people have nothing substantial to say anyway.”
And finally, the coup de grace for political campaigns of the Internet age: a campaign video that went viral, set to Tina Turner’s “The Best” and featuring Gnarr tenderly petting a rock and maniacally shouting campaign promises from a landmark overlooking Reykjavik.
“We want a city that’s cuddly and clean and cool/and top-notch stuff as a general rule,” Gnarr sang in the opening verse.
The Best Party won the election with 34.7 per cent of the vote. Iceland’s political establishment was stunned. “This is a big shock, a crash landing for the four political parties,” then-Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir told the public broadcaster.
But perhaps nobody was more shaken than Gnarr. It quickly became clear that Reykjavik — despite being a modest city with about 120,000 residents, or roughly the size of Guelph — had big problems, which he was responsible for solving.
“We had many such meetings where it was like, ‘OK, how the hell can we get me out of this?’” Gnarr says. “I was the victim of my own joke.”
Gnarr had upset the political establishment and made enemies on both sides of the spectrum. But his first task as mayor was to find an ally at city hall. The Best Party won six of council’s 15 seats; they needed a coalition partner to form a majority.
The right-leaning parties were out of the question; they considered Gnarr a buffoonish “clown” and criticized him openly. “It was a mix of contempt and hostility,” he recalls. “They early on adapted the method of trying to break me.”
After declaring he would only enter a coalition with someone who watched his favourite television show, The Wire, Gnarr wound up partnering with the Social Democrat party led by ex-physician Dagur Eggertsson (who had not watched the show but promised to do so).
“It was a leap of faith, you could say,” admits Eggertsson, who had already served at city hall for eight years before meeting Gnarr, including a 100-day stint as mayor.
Gnarr’s mayoralty has been marked by an unapologetic honesty that has sometimes exposed him to criticism. When he once responded “I don’t know” to a journalist’s question, his critics pounced — but voters appreciated it. “People were coming up to me and saying, ‘This is the first time ever that I’ve seen a politician on TV admitting that he doesn’t know (something),’” Gnarr recalls in a recent interview.
But if anyone who voted for the Best Party expected four years of nothing but giggles, they would have been quickly disappointed. Once in power, Gnarr had to do what every mayor before him has done — try to balance the budget. Under his administration, taxes have been raised, schools have been controversially merged, and people have been laid off. Some of Reykjavik’s artists, who assumed they now had strings to pull at city hall, were let down.
“A big problem in Icelandic politics has been nepotism,” Gnarr says. “So when we got elected, many people within the creative industry assumed their time had come now for nepotism. Many were quite disappointed.”
A sleep-deprived Gnarr once publicly broke down in tears after realizing the budget he was crafting would potentially cut a youth program — one that had helped him when he was a troubled teen. As it turned out, the program was safe — but Gnarr says he still would have eliminated it if necessary.
“As long as I can explain it and rationalize it,” he says. “We have had to execute a lot of very difficult decisions.”
The most difficult one, he says, was saving the utility company Reykjavik Energy, which was near-bankrupt when Gnarr came into power. City council loaned the company 12 billion kronur (about $114 million), raised energy bills by nearly 30 per cent and laid off more than 60 people, including the father of Helgadottir, who ran Gnarr’s campaign. (“They were not very happy with me,” she recalls with a sigh).
These were unpopular moves — and perhaps Gnarr, as an outsider, was the only one who could have made them.
“I have never invested in this,” he says. “Most (politicians) have a lot to lose; they have a career and a past. . . . But I don’t care. I don’t intend to get re-elected.”
But the people of Reykjavik have plenty to lose when a comedian is given the power to make decisions about their lives — so how do they feel about their outgoing mayor? In Kolaportid’s yellow-walled cafeteria this May, Gnarr had some unlikely fans in a group of retirees chatting over Styrofoam cups of coffee.
“He’s done a good job,” nodded Sveinn Johannesson, a 68-year-old printer who voted for Gnarr. “Now it is peace, not conflict (at city hall),” added Gisli Ingolfsson, 71.
But serious problems continue to bedevil Reykjavik. And for David Jonsson, a 29-year-old with knuckle tattoos and an AC/DC shirt, Gnarr’s pronouncements on human rights in China have done little to help people survive in Reykjavik, an increasingly expensive city to live in.
“He just has fun at people’s expense,” said Jonsson, who sells Asian snacks at Kolaportid. “You know who loves Jon Gnarr? Hipsters. Indie people. That’s who.”
Kristinsson, the political scientist, says Gnarr has been more interested in what he considers “soft, postmodern issues” — bike lanes, public spaces and gay rights. For casual observers of Iceland, Gnarr’s most memorable decisions as mayor have been his drag costumes for Pride parade.
“I don’t think he’s been a very active mayor,” Kristinsson says. “He doesn’t interfere a lot with the day-to-day running of the city — and that possibly is a good thing, because it leaves professional administrators to run large parts of the municipal operations.”
But Kristinsson says Gnarr has altered Iceland’s political landscape. While the Best Party is now dissolved, its successor — the Bright Future party, of which Helgadottir is chairman — landed six candidates in parliament during last year’s federal election.
And even though Bright Future performed poorly in the municipal election on May 31, winning only two seats, the Social Democrat’s Eggertsson — Gnarr’s former deputy — is the new mayor. He has formed a four-way coalition with the Left-Green party and two parties that didn’t exist three years ago: Bright Future and the Pirate Party, led by a poet who has worked with Julian Assange and WikiLeaks.
“He’s shown that the conventional formulas of what a politician can do and can’t do — they don’t apply to the same extent that they did,” says Kristinsson. “They don’t all have to have perfect haircuts and wear a tie.”
Eggertsson agrees that Reykjavik’s anarcho-surrealist mayor fundamentally changed politics. When asked how, exactly, Eggertsson pauses.
“We start every day with a big warm hug,” he says with a perfectly straight face. “That’s not very usual in politics at all.”
Gnarr’s last day as mayor was Monday and he is now on a book tour in the United States. He has no idea what he will do next.
Whatever it is, however, he will have fun doing it. On June 10, Gnarr wrote on his Facebook page: “So, it’s back to comedy for you? I hear this every day. I don’t know what to say. I never left so how can I go back?
“Comedy is life in my opinion. It is the greatest truth and meaning of everything. It is the next stage of the human intelligence and one of the few things that distinguishes us from other animals. We can make fun of a sheep but a sheep cannot make fun of us. I can make fun of politics but politics cannot make fun of me.
“Humour is what comes closest to what we call free will. I will continue to exercise and enjoy it.”