An Icelandic Mayor Explains Why Amateurs Can Govern Better

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Jon Gnarr.Photo: Larry Busacca/Getty Images

Three years ago, on a flight to Iceland, I watched a cringe-style mockumentary subtitled I Make Sense of Humor, in which a fictional Icelandic comedian interviews real comics across Northern Europe. This episode’s guest, Jon Gnarr, claimed to have found the key to happiness. He demonstrated this by putting a shotgun into his mouth and threatening to pull the trigger.

Jon Gnarr, as I found out when I landed, was the mayor of Reykjavik. He was elected in 2010, not long after the country’s banking collapse, in a shocking upset after 35 percent of voters pulled the lever for his ad hoc protest party, the Best Party. Their platform had called for little more than free towels in public pools, a polar bear in the local zoo, a “drug-free Parliament by 2020,” and a pledge that any corruption would be committed openly. Gnarr left office two weeks ago, only the third Reykjavik mayor in 20 years to have served out a full term.

Gnarr!, a memoir published last week in English translation, tracks the long, strange trajectory of his life and career. He had dyslexia and ADHD and could barely write into his teens, did lots of drugs, got sober, played punk, and became one of Iceland’s most famous comedians before leading its capital city. Touring the U.S. on the way to a much-needed vacation in Costa Rica, Gnarr made some time last week to chat with us.

We’re meeting in Brooklyn Heights, not a hot spot for visiting dignitaries. I do know Björk has a place here. Are you crashing with Björk?
Yeah.

So how does it feel not to be mayor anymore?
I’m relieved, of course. It’s a load off my back. I haven’t had a real vacation in four years.

Is that why you didn’t run for reelection?
It is a part of the whole concept. I wanted to show that you can, as a regular person, get involved directly in politics. In the beginning, everybody was somehow waiting for me to change. In my opinion, I have not changed. My personality has not changed.

Has your view of politicians changed? You used to crank-call the CIA …
Probably I had prejudice about people working in politics, that they were selfish, how do you say — nepotistic? But most people working in administration or politics are, in my experience, basically ordinary people who are trying to do their best most of the time. What I think is the biggest problem with politics is probably alcoholism!

You had a very distinctive campaign, including a viral TV ad scored to “Simply the Best.” Did Tina Turner give you any trouble over it?
No. It’s brilliant. There are so many musicians in the Best Party and they said, “We have to have a campaign song.” And I insisted it has to be something completely stupid.

You never really planned on getting elected. Did you think of bowing out?
Well, there’s a saying in my family. I was a troubled youth, and when my father was talking on the phone my mother would sigh and say, “What has he done now?” When we opened the campaign, I could hear my mother’s voice. My first week in office, I got the feeling of, can I escape? Can I just move to Bali and come back in five years? But we realized this is something unique, and we cannot betray it. It’s a collective thing and if we back down, people are going to be even more angry than they were before.

Some Europeans seemed disappointed that the Best Party didn’t change the system from within. It reminds me a little bit of some liberal Obama backlash.
There is often a very unrealistic idea about the nature of democracy, that it’s somehow linked to our pursuit of happiness and fulfillment of life — that leaders are going to drastically change their whole lives. But that’s very rarely the case. When it happens, it’s usually in a very negative way.

You got elected as not just a regular person, but a celebrity. We’ve had a few of those — Schwarzenegger, Al Franken. Is that always a good thing?
If there was anyone in the U.S. that I would like to run for some political office, I would say Neil deGrasse Tyson. He’s a celebrity astrophysicist. I would support him. But if Tom Cruise would run for something, I’m not sure I would!

Isn’t that the danger of protest votes, though? The extreme right seems to be surging in Europe right now, partly in protest of Iceland-like crises.
I think there lies the value of the idea of the Best Party. It’s an alternative, but it’s not negative. During the “pots and pans revolution,” in everybody’s eyes was either fear or anger. So by voting for me they could invest their anger in me, because that’s how we give them the finger, by voting for Jon Gnarr.

Right, you could run as “anarcho-surrealists,” but then — give or take some cross-dressing — you govern like technocrats.
Yes, yes! But anarchism, it’s a very stigmatized word. For me, anarchism is basically very liberal democratic ideology. And I think municipal politics isn’t that much about politics. It’s mostly about logistics and practical matters.

On that front, what did you accomplish?
Reykjavik was in very serious debt and it could have easily gone a similar way as Detroit. The single biggest problem was the Reykjavik Energy Company (the city-owned geothermal-power monopoly). We made up a very ambitious rescue plan through 2017. And Reykjavik joined the organization Mayors for Peace.

That’s great, but not terribly exciting.
At times, it was very boring. I had to really study things that all my life I have considered very boring, like Excel and numbers and meetings that could last 15 hours. I had to remind myself to stay focused and concentrate. But with dedication and time, anybody can do it.

We have some politically minded comedians in the U.S. Are you a fan of Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert?
I’ve never been that fond of talk shows. My favorite comedian of all time was Bill Hicks. And Tig Notaro’s performance after she got diagnosed with cancer — that was probably one of the best stand-ups I’ve ever heard. Craig Ferguson — I think would make a great politician.

Is that a compliment?
Yes.

Are you going back to comedy?
I would like to be able to write more. I’m so interested in philosophy. I’m obsessed with Ludwig Wittgenstein and his debates with Bertrand Russell on religion and faith. Maybe I will write a guide for politics [based on] my life philosophy. Bruce Lee has been a role model for me. Also, the 12-step program of AA. We have often jokingly said that the Best Party is a democratic AA. And Taoism. Bruce Lee called it the religion of no religion, and the Best Party is the politics of no politics.

Is that a Tao character tattooed on your left arm?
Yes. And this [points to right arm] is the British punk band, Crass. And that [points to left forearm] is the emblem of Reykjavik.

You know, the former editor of the New York Times had its logo tattooed on her back. Then she was fired.
Ha-ha! No, I can be proud of it, you know. I ended gracefully.