How Comedian Beppe Grillo Changed Italian Politics

How Comedian Beppe Grillo Changed Italian Politics
Five-Star Movement leader and comedian Beppe Grillo gestures during a rally in Turin
(REUTERS/Giorgio Perottino)

An inconclusive vote in Italy’s parliamentary elections on Monday has led to a crisis that leaves the future of the country wide open. No single group has enough support among the people to take control of the government. Pier Luigi Bersani’s center-left coalition narrowly won the lower house of parliament (reportedly by less than 0.4% of the vote), while scandal-ridden former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, riding the waves of a perplexing political resurgence, was leading in the upper house due to his support in several regions that carry more senate seats, which would give him veto power, reports the New York Times.

Berlusconi demanded a recount of the lower house votes on Monday night and the various coalitions are reportedly hashing out a plan to move forward. The only thing for certain is that current Prime Minister Mario Monti is the clear loser in this battle, gaining little support with only 10% of the vote in both the lower and upper house. He essentially came in fourth place to a surprising candidate and the only person amid all this turmoil we can safely call a winner: comedian Beppe Grillo.


A joke-man famous in Italy for his appearances on variety shows and commercials, Grillo began to move toward social and political satire in the late 1980s, criticizing the former-Italian Socialist Party and their leader, Bettino Craxi, for widespread corruption. These jokes effectively, if not officially, got Grillo banned from Italian television. (It’s worth noting that much of the Italian media is owned and operated by politicians or men linked to politicians.) Grillo began making noise again in 2007 when he staged a rally across 20 cities in Italy, calling out politicians in office who had been convicted of crimes. More than two million Italians attended the rally in whole. In 2010, Grillo started the Five-Star Movement through his popular blog, which has quickly gained traction among a wide swath of people in Italy who are losing jobs, fed up with austerity measures, and disillusioned with both sides of the political spectrum. With the initial plan to form a lose group to represent people who are dissatisfied with the current political system, Grillo has inadvertently shut down parliament.

Since the Five-Star Movement is not part of one of the two major coalitions, Grillo was never going to be in a position of power. But the ruckus he’s caused has forced Italian politicians to take him seriously, and even try to bring him into the fold. As of this writing, the Guardian has reported that Bersani has publically reached out to Grillo, asking him to join his coalition. They may not want Grillo around but they have no other choice.

Even more amazing is that Grillo gained all this support without the help of traditional media – he refused to take part in debates, did not grant interviews, and gathered his supporters through his blog and social media.

The closest parallel we have in the United States is a figure like Stephen Colbert, a satirical comedian and talk show host who, through skewering the political system, managed to gain serious clout among people in left-leaning circles. Colbert’s “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear,” held with partner-in-crime Jon Stewart, was attended by 215,00 people in 2010. Even so, it’s hard to imagine Colbert actually being elected, or creating much of a stir, in the United States. Would Colbert have to drop the brash, sharp wit of his persona? Would the people who support him still take him seriously? He’s too funny, too good of an actor, too real – the only actors we elect are b-movie villains and action stars.

Grillo’s in a tricky position right now. If he refuses to join one of the main coalitions – and part of his campaign has been a refusal to join said coalitions – he may lose his chance to make a serious change. But if he does join with Bersani, his cooption into the official system may cost him the support of the young people who were attracted to his satirical attack on the political process. Is it possible for him to have the best of both worlds? Can he make change through comedy from the inside? Or does the satirical bite come from being an outsider to the process, and remaining there?