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Volodymyr Zelenskiy and the evolution of political comedy

By Lisa Van Dusen      

The man likely to be Ukraine’s new president is a comedian who played the president of Ukraine in a Netflix series. This could be just the casting breakthrough we need.

Actor Volodymyr Zelenskiy played the president of Ukraine in a Netflix series and on March 31 won the first round of Ukraine’s actual presidential election. Photograph courtesy of Yaroslav Burdovitsyn
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If there were any residual doubt, anywhere, about the blurring of the line between fiction and non-fiction in public life, the victory of Volodymyr Zelenskiy in the first round of Ukraine’s presidential election on March 31 may have obliterated it.

Zelenskiy, 41, is the actor who played the president of Ukraine in the series Servant of the People, which I started watching on Netflix months ago and clicked out of because it was too implausible.

That was before the guy playing the implausible president plausibly ran for president and, it now appears, is on the verge of plausibly winning.

If all this sounds uncannily familiar, it’s because the president of the United States is also a man who segued from a role in a television series to a role as head of government, though somewhat less humorously.

At a time when godawful actors are being cast in political parts that require them to chew scenery in Godzilla quantities on a daily basis, the fact the Zelenskiy is a qualified professional rather than an available amateur in the Donald Trump/Jeff Callaway mould is a serious public service to the people of Ukraine.

Zelenskiy is a comedian, which is also an enviable bonus. Most actors cast as previously unthinkable politicians these days—including and especially Trump—are only funny, if ever, in the laughing at them not with them way, which is the cheapest form of comic relief. Beppe Grillo, leader of Italy’s right-wing Five Star Movement, is only funny if you’re an Italian post-truth anti-vaxxer, which is the narrowest political comedy constituency since Lincoln Chafee ran to be U.S. president on his fetish pull with Canadian blacksmiths.

That Zelenskiy will have walked out of Netflix and onto the world stage makes perfect sense in this world of nonsense because even more than our nuttered-up meatspace, Netflix is the place where anything can happen. The bad news about that is that it is becoming, as The Washington Post recently reported, a repository of misogynistic serial-killer paeans and epigenetically desensitizing cannibal bake-offs. The good news is that after years of saying I’d watch Ryan Gosling read the phone book, there’s now a series that’s just Ryan Gosling reading phone books.

The better news is that, with the launch last week of Apple TV+, there will be a whole new hatchery for political talent of a different kind. Steven Spielberg is not going to produce a cavalcade of cynical, dystopian slasher porn. And Oprah just might generate a series about a former talk show host and cultural icon who becomes an unlikely president as a seamless prologue to an unlikely presidency. In today’s battle for the brains of followers, readers, viewers, and voters, Apple TV+ just may be an act of political resistance.

Meanwhile, the excellent stand-up specials that offset Netflix’s more Acheronian content could be reconsidered as talent-scouting grounds by the new political masterminds.

Personally, I think John Mulaney is the Ryan Gosling of comedy, but after a week in the new politics he’d be wearing a diaper and suing his agent. Having worked in both comedy and politics, I’d venture that Dave Chappelle would be an inspired casting choice for comedian-turned-president. He exhibits precisely the sort of jolly amenability and willingness to follow orders, no matter how preposterous, that today’s political-fiction impresarios value as an asset. Trust me, boys, you won’t be sorry.

Of course, comedians being outsiders by nature, you might encounter the odd hiccup. You can’t always anticipate these things based on a headshot.

Lisa Van Dusen is associate editor of Policy Magazine and was a Washington and New York-based editor at UPI, AP, and ABC. She writes a weekly column for The Hill Times.

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