Jón Gnarr is wearing shorts the way someone who is not used to wearing shorts wears shorts: with a tweed sportcoat, tall black socks, and suede ankle boots. He keeps his ruddy blond hair clipped to a Nordic norm, cropped close on the sides and long on top, and the screenprint of a mustachioed baby peers out from his t-shirt. He would blend nicely with the punkish, urban clash that populate the streets of his hometown in Reykjavik, Iceland, but here, on a lawn in the center of Rice University’s campus, on a hot and humid March afternoon, Gnarr sticks out like an arctic tern in Texas.
Gnarr moved to Houston from Iceland, where he is a sketch comedian, outspoken anarchist, atheist, former taxi driver, and, thanks to a joke that went a bit too far, the most recent mayor of its capital city. This last stunt garnered him global notoriety, some book deals and a documentary, and made him the most famous person from Iceland who is not Björk. But here, fame is beside the point. Houston needs a revolution, and Gnarr is well-equipped to light the fuse.
“The fundamental thing that we have to do and that we really want to do is to try and make politics more creative, more fun, and more appealing to people. In most parts of the world, politics is a horrible culture,” Gnarr told me.
Gnarr, and the folks at Rice who brought him here, believe that effectual change in the political system will only happen if the system is more inviting, interesting, and less full of unpleasant people. Gnarr was plucked for the job because he has plenty of experience hijacking political institutions, and making unpleasant politicians angry.
In 2009, just after Iceland suffered the most devastating economic collapse in Western history (relative to its size), Gnarr launched a satirical political party that he called the Best Party. The party promised free towels at public swimming pools, to add a polar bear to the zoo, to listen to women and the elderly more, and—most famously—to break all of its promises. It was an outrageous joke built upon a finely tuned mix of nonsense and sincerity, sometimes so subtle that people had a hard time discerning which one it was. But that was part of the point.
Gnarr made his character equally hard to pin down. At times, he was a walking piece of political hyperbole; he wore broad-shouldered power suits, kissed babies, and made it absolutely clear that neither he nor the party would form a coalition with anyone who had not seen all five seasons of The Wire. On the flip side, he could be blindingly sincere. His absolute lack of political experience made him all the more enticing to the politically disengaged, so much so that they turned out en masse to vote on Election Day and tipped the ballot count. Incredibly, the Best Party won, and Gnarr spent the next four years as the mayor of Reykjavik, the longest he has ever held one job. It was, all things considered, mostly an accident.
But here, the anarchist ex-mayor of the capital of the world’s most peaceful and geothermally-powered country, eats a smoked salmon lunch in the firearm-and-fossil-fuels capital of the US. What kind of joke is this?
“We’re concerned about the human species,” he says. “We’re making the planet uninhabitable, and politicians aren’t as aware of it. Or at least they’re not talking about it.”
He moved at the behest of Rice University, more specifically the Center for Energy and Environmental Research in the Human Sciences, which is the only research center in the world dedicated to intersecting the arts with debates over energy and climate change. Researchers there think the Best Party might have a thing or two to teach Houston, and so they asked him to come as a writer-in-residence during this past spring semester.
Climate change is neither sexy nor delightful, which means it gets sidelined from public discourse more than it ought to, especially considering it’s largely considered one of the the most significant looming crises of the twenty-first century. But that’s where Gnarr comes in. He has a knack for making the best of the worst—he repurposed Iceland’s economic disaster to make dark comedy, and managed to enthuse the most disillusioned, apathetic sect of his city by making politics entertaining. Staging a humanist intervention is nothing he hasn’t done before, and doing it in Houston would mean shifting the conversation at the heart of the fossil fuels industry.
Consider this: Houston is home to 5,000 energy companies, ninety percent of which are oil and gas—a literal nexus of power. But Houston is not Iceland, and Texas is still foreign territory for Gnarr. His success at home was due in great part to how well he tapped into the emotional condition of his city, as good comedians do. Can he spark a cultural revolution in a place whose issues—like racism—are so foreign to him he won’t even do stand-up here?
Anthropologist Dominic Boyer, the director of CENHS who invited Gnarr to campus, thinks he might be able to. It was Gnarr’s ability to influence human behavior and encourage philosophical and critical thinking that drew Boyer to him in the first place.
“Energy transition, global warming, and climate change are issues that require changes in behavior, habits, and understanding. They raise ethical challenges—profoundly philosophical questions to which the humanities, social sciences, and arts have a lot to contribute because this is the stuff we have been thinking about for four centuries,” Boyer told me.
Boyer, inspired by the Best Party’s success with changing Reykjavik’s citizens’ sense of what’s possible in government, thought Gnarr could bring that same spirit of divergence to Houston. But is it possible to take the loaded and fraught topic of climate change and make it less about politics and biases and more a matter of quotidian life? What car should I drive? Does it matter if I turn off the lights? Does anything I do make a revolutionary difference? And can that be done in Houston, the country’s energy hub? Or in Texas where, despite more recent, progressive moves toward wind power and Smart Grid enhancements, the state still regularly sues the EPA, recently outlawed local fracking bans, and continues to preserve the interests of big oil and gas?
If it can, influence would stretch far beyond Houston.
“This is where the project has to happen for maximum impact,” says Boyer. “You have to address people who work in the industry. The industry has a lot of smart people in it, who have a conscience, who are worried about the future. But they’re path dependent, and they need their jobs.” To Gnarr and Boyer, the only hope of change is change on a municipal level—it will take a lot of tiny conversations and day-to-day shifts to move a population’s collective behavior towards a measurable impact.
When I meet with Gnarr on one of the lush campus lawns, I can’t help but feel a twinge of irony at the situation, not least because the last time we spoke while he was on a book tour in Los Angeles for his most recent memoir (he’s written four), he referred to Texas as “Mordor,” the fiery seat of evil in Lord of the Rings. The 48-year-old has spouted inflated, nationalist affirmations like “we all become Texan when we die.” He knows Rick Perry, but “only through comedy.” For Gnarr and comics like him, Texas is a reliable target due to its global reputation (deserved or not) as a place where the stereotypically American arms-wielding hypermasculinity is on full display, the low-hanging fruit of satirical comedy.
And yet, “I love it,” he told me. “I thought it would be more macho, but I haven’t seen a single gun.” He sounds disappointed.
He speaks slowly, with the melodic upswing and crisp contours of an Icelander’s English. Occasionally, a riotous laugh breaks loose like a giant bubble rocketing to the surface of the ocean. Then, he’ll take a long pause before he speaks again.
I traveled from California to Houston during rodeo season, interested in seeing it myself, but more excited about the potential catastrophe of bringing an anarchist philosophe and peace-loving empath to the giant parade of machismo and guns that I imagined (and sort of hoped) the rodeo would be. To my disappointment, he’d already been to Houston’s two-week Livestock Show and Rodeo. Three times. He was enamored by nearly the entire production, except the part where men wrestle steers to the ground. “The terror in the animal’s eyes, you feel it,” he said. And then, with trademark equanimity, “but Iceland kills plenty of whales.” Gnarr’s business is to champion the underdog (or steer, as it were), to rise against pain and powerlessness. He has known violence, and it made him a pacifist. He is not the man the rodeo has in mind.
But Texas has been good to him. He loves the weather, the art, the food. He is here as a voice of reason on behalf of a good university, and he has plenty of time to write. (While at Rice, Gnarr made headway on a memoir about his mayorship—a broadly-requested manual to starting a Best Party in other cities across the world—and a TV show about the mayor of Iceland who has connections to Houston. He calls this last one “fiction.”)
More importantly, the courts here legalized his name, ending his longstanding battle with the notoriously rigid Icelandic Naming Committee—which is a real, actual committee— that never recognized his choice to drop the surname Kristinsson (which belonged to his father, a stern Communist policeman from whom he has always been keen to distance himself). He celebrated the decision with a tattoo of Texas on his right bicep, placed between a pirate flag and the insignia of his favorite punk band, Crass. To be tallied with Gnarr’s other tattoos—the flag of Reykjavik and a Taoist symbol—is to inherit part of his heart.
We are only a few sips of iced tea into talking and already we’ve landed at the most frequent stop that earnest conversations with Gnarr tend to make. I’ve challenged him about his idea of free will, namely that humans don’t have any, and he has boomeranged back, adamantly, to what is more or less his mantra: “We have very little free will if any, and what comes closest to free will in the human brain is humor. The essential truth to our existence is comedy. It’s nonsense. There is no sense to our existence. The ‘Tao’ that can be explained is not the essential Tao, and the joke that can be explained is not funny. There is a strong relationship here. It’s the truth,” he says. And then, he laughs.
I’ve been a Monty Python acolyte since I learned to work a VHS, and watching John Cleese teach self defense against the attack of fresh fruit always seemed to harmonize with my experience in the world more than most things, so this makes sense to me. But these are oddly large and existential matters—the human condition, the purpose of living—to crop up in an interview with the ex-mayor of any city. But Gnarr was an exceptional mayor, the kind who takes his advice from Bruce Lee and the Tao Te Ching, and he governed his city at an exceptional time.
When the stunning collapse of the Icelandic banks threw the country $85 billion into debt, ten times the country’s gross GDP, Icelanders lost their savings, cars, and apartments. The coalition that had deregulated the banks now wanted to saddle citizens with the debt, and in January of 2009, the people of Reykjavik converged on the steps of parliament banging their kitchenware. The protest, known as the “Pots and Pans Revolution,” was the first time Icelandic police had used tear gas in sixty years. Effectively, it forced the right-wing Independent Party to resign from power and kicked off a crowd-sourced effort to write a new constitution. Still, morale was wretched, and Gnarr, as acutely attuned to friction as any good comedian is, felt called to provide relief.
At the National Registry, armed with a list of his friends’ names and Facebook photos, it cost surprisingly little to register a new political party. He gave it the “stupidest name” he could think of, and mistakenly thought he’d signed up to run for Prime Minister. In a pre-election video diary, he lists hardly any credentials besides a test he had failed for a mariner’s license. The Best Party built the ugliest website possible, and their message was simple: “Nobody needs to be frightened of the Best Party because it’s the best. And we only want what is best—if we didn’t, we’d be called the Worst Party or the Bad Party.”
To the city, it was a delight.
They spliced together excerpts of other parties’ manifestos, the way Dadaists of the twenties wrote poems with cut-up newspapers. The logo looked like a thumbs up, except that the thumb was drawn so long that it looked aggressively suggestive. They did everything a party would do to self-destruct, and the poll numbers grew higher.
Members of the Best Party called themselves “anarcho-surrealists.” They were artists and musicians that included founding members of the punk band HAM and Einar Örn of the Sugarcubes. Their “ten-point platform” had twelve points, and they filmed a popular campaign video set to Tina Turner’s “Simply the Best.” In it, Gnarr stands on a lookout above Reykjavik and promises, shaking his fist to the sky, to put a Disneyland near the airport, and a polar bear in the zoo. The lyrics mimic the warm and vapid language of campaign discourse: “we want a city that’s clean, cuddly and cool/and topnotch stuff as a general rule.” It was a huge hit.
The party’s platform was absurd, but it struck sincere too: “Those responsible for the banking crash are now being asked to pay,” and “Debt relief for everyone! On this point, we will simply let the people decide, because the people themselves always know best what’s good for them.” Even the surreal bits were reflective; the polar bear in the zoo referenced a real polar bear recently shot by Icelandic police after it swam from the melting ice in Greenland, and Disneyland referenced the need to address growing tourism. Gnarr never prepared his speeches, and they often took a left turn: a reflection on the Moomin elves, Schrodinger’s cat, or the possibility that Jesus was gay. Putting himself on the spot kept him vulnerable and honest, a habit he can’t seem to break.
“I have this drive to always create or seek situations like this. Situations of insecurity. When I used to do stand-up, there was always this moment, five minutes before the show, of sheer terror. I suddenly realized I have nothing to say. And no one is going to laugh. It’s going to be a fiasco. And then I ask myself, ‘why am I doing this? Why can’t I be like normal people and have a job? Why do I always have to put myself at risk?’ Then I walk out on the stage and it’s this sense of insecurity and vulnerability, and from that comes some magic,” he said.
The Best Party didn’t call itself a party, it called itself a “state of mind,” and on Election Day it netted almost 35 percent of the vote, the highest of any party and two percent short of an absolute majority. As it turns out, the best way to be taken seriously was not to be serious at all.
“We just wanted to stand for kindness, fun, and empathy. There is no structural place for empathy except in the Humanist party or wherever, so it becomes something totally different in politics,” said Gnarr.
But once Gnarr became mayor, responsibility settled on him like a cold, heavy stone. He was elected because he was an outlier, but being an outlier in the council that governed the city sparked such a hostile backlash that he could hardly cope.
Heiða Helgadóttir, Gnarr’s close advisor and the campaign’s only salaried employee, helped to keep him anchored. She was a lucid touchstone for him when he had doubts about running, and she was better at discerning whom to trust. She had a political science degree and was the one behind the camera giving the thumbs up or down, reminding him which way to vote during diplomatic cyber-conferences. She is slight, with luminescent blue eyes and an easy laugh. In a hotel bar in downtown Reykjavik, she spoke about Gnarr’s famous naivety as a dangerous soft spot.
“I think he was just genuinely shocked at how mean people could be. He has this openness about him. He wants everybody to be happy, and he just genuinely believes that’s everybody’s right. But in this game especially, there are people who want something totally different,” she told me.
As a stand-up comedian, Gnarr was used to an audience that was on his side, but political life turned out to be quite the opposite: the worst fear of his comedy career. When he started showing up to city council meetings wearing nail polish and, six months after his mother died, her lipstick and perfume, tempers caught fire. He took everything that was threatening to an institution that conflated seriousness with aptitude, and masculinity with power, and wrapped it around himself like a bright pink pashmina.
Despite the backlash, Gnarr stayed astonishingly placid; it was a composite strategy, a snowball of survival tactics wrought from his childhood under an emotionally abusive father, bundled with principles plucked from the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu and a few Bruce Lee movies. Tzu calls it Wu Wei, or “non-action;” Bruce Lee calls it “the art of fighting without fighting;” Gnarr calls it “the style of no style;” and the Best Party has its own partly inexplicable name for it: “sustainable transparency.”
“In practice, it means when someone is behaving foolishly, or saying bad things about you, you don’t have to retaliate. You don’t have to act on it. The bad energy that this person is sending out will travel a while, and then it will come back to that person without you ever having to do anything, ” said Gnarr.
This strategy of non-engagement pieced itself together during Gnarr’s childhood. He was an odd, impetuous kid with a tough family life, and the media made much of the fact that he had dropped out of school, couldn’t write until he was ten, and was diagnosed early as mentally disabled. He wasn’t. He was just a kid who didn’t fit the system.
But when he was in his teens living in the suburban outskirts of Reykjavik, he stumbled on the English anarcho-punk band Crass. Later, at 18, he met Sigurjón Kjartansson, a founding member of the punk band HAM, and the two linked up with Kjartansson’s filmmaker friend to do some sketch comedy. Gnarr was driving a cab at the time, but as the pair started to book live gigs, he realized there could be money in it for him so he developed a stand-up routine, went solo, and gave Reykjavik its new favorite local comedian.
His comedy career blossomed, and he wrote and starred in a popular show called Fóstbræður where he performed the kind of bizarre sketches where Eartha Kitt harasses him over the phone and pretends to hold his wife hostage, and then eventually murders him, all in order to use his bathroom. He also held down more conventional work at an advertising agency, which he promptly left when the crisis hit. After Gnarr won the mayor’s seat, Boyer got wind of the Best Party and planted the idea of bringing Gnarr to Houston when the two of them met in Chicago during a Björk concert. In the end, despite good odds of reelection, Gnarr did leave office and moved his family to Texas, to see if the absurd, participatory methodology of the Best Party can work for an issue like climate change in a state known the world over for its oil and gas industry.
If Houston is to take a lesson from Jón Gnarr, it’s taking a lesson from Bruce Lee too, and that’s probably not a bad thing at all. In a famous scene from the Kung Fu film, Enter the Dragon, a brute challenges Bruce Lee to fight him while they’re both on a boat. Lee suggests they take a lifeboat to a beach to fight, but as soon as the bully has climbed in, Lee loosens the rope and lets the lifeboat drift to sea. The way Gnarr tells it, this is where he learned that the best way to fight is to play a different game entirely.
“His philosophy in fighting, and life, was to be like water. Be in the flow; don’t be in the style. The style is too rigid. We need to be in harmony with what’s happening, we need to be synchronized. With ideologies, and politics, you have to take a stand to be part of a political party, and it becomes stagnant and predictable. It kills creativity. You cannot be creative within it because it’s already structured, there’s no room for a new method or a new style,” said Gnarr.
When Gnarr calls the Best Party a “state of mind,” not a political party, this is what he means. No one could join it, few could describe it, and the great majority of it was improvised on the spot. The Best Party was not a new kind of politics; it wasn’t politics at all.
Bruce Lee invented a new discipline of fighting, Jeet Kune Do, to help liberate martial arts students from Kung Fu’s rigid form. The way Lee describes it in the September 1971 issue of Black Belt magazine bears remarkable resemblance to the way Gnarr and Heiða Helgadóttir described The Best Party to me. Lee writes: “I have not invented a ‘new style’…Jeet Kune Do is not an organized institution that one can be a member of. Either you understand or you don’t, and that is that….My movements are simple, direct and non-classical. The extraordinary part of it lies in its simplicity,” wrote Lee.
The Best Party was Gnarr’s Jeet Kune Do. Gnarr was less interested in the Best Party as a lasting political party than he was in its potential to free the people, and the government, from the constraints that political culture had imposed on the city’s ability to give its citizens a good life. The strength of both the Best Party and JKD laid in their resistance to definition; neither could be grasped in its entirety because neither was exactly “for” or “against” anything. To classify JKD would be to miss the point. And to call the Best Party a political party would be to miss the joke. As Helgasdottir says, “If you get it, you get it, and if you don’t, you never will.” Lee would approve.
That the party resisted classification so well is in great part why Boyer wanted to study it. Gnarr had initially landed on Boyer’s radar because the Best Party echoed a legacy of political humor that Boyer was studying at the time—a phenomenon popular in Eastern Europe in the eighties marked by actors who would inhabit caricatured authority figures in a way that made it ultimately unclear whether it was sincere or parodic. There is no English word for this, but the Russians call it stiob. It echoes the increasingly popular parodic personas of actors like Stephen Colbert, or The Yes Men. The strength of this deep kind of performance art, wherein the actor takes his character past its logical conclusion, is the way it forces anyone watching to confront a slightly exaggerated reality that is frighteningly close to the one they are actually experiencing. Stiob holds up a mirror and forces examination, but it only happens if artists are at the helm.
“I think that what Jón epitomizes to me is the kind of political boldness and creativity that we need now more than ever to imagine what politics should be in the era of climate change. They can’t be politics as usual, or something that people say is impossible. If it’s impossible, then we’re done for,” said Boyer. And if it’s boring, so much for the worse.
Gnarr proved, in some sense, that the seemingly impossible was possible. The Best Party reframed what could be done by getting elected, and in the end, by saving the city and shifting its interests. The party was unexpectedly effective; it stabilized the economy by refinancing loans to the city’s geothermal energy company, combining schools, and making the hard decision to cut social programs. They advocated for jailing the bankers and government officials who were responsible for the crisis, four of whom were eventually, and famously, convicted. When it came to doing things they didn’t know how to do, they asked for help and got it.
“The Best Party showed that despite having no political experience, regular people can really take back political institutions without this leading to a disaster, only by applying common sense and decency and being willing to say ‘I don’t know’ and ‘I need to ask somebody for help,’ you know?” said Boyer.
This is essentially what the Best Party set out to do. In world where no discourse, much less sincere political discourse, could closely approximate the truth of human experience, the Best Party did away with politics altogether and took up humor to better narrow its aim. Climate change is depressing subject matter that baits the essential issues of what it means to be a human in the world, but this is Gnarr’s unique talent: to bring laughter out of situations where there ought only to be tension and misery, to alchemize powerlessness into enticing, actionable possibilities in the face of disaster. To Boyer, philosophical inquiry is critical to finding creative solutions around climate change, and humor can provide an essential entry point. In the least, it can get the conversation going.
Gnarr and Boyer had a few stunts planned while he was here, but not all of them worked out. In April, they hoped to stage a piece of guerilla theater on the steps of the Texas Capitol, wherein Gnarr would announce that he was running for governor of Texas—something he has threatened to do more than a few times. While he’d wax on about how we all ought to be taking environmental matters more seriously, an incognito improv troupe would upstage the entire speech with an outrageous protest about the wonders of fossil fuels. At some point, the threshold between reality and parody would be ambiguous enough to provoke some questions that, hopefully, would get the conversation rolling. Due to some organizational mishaps, the crew ended up hosting a conversation at Austin’s Nerd Nite instead. When he wasn’t planning pranks outside the university, Gnarr spent time interfacing with students and giving advice to the stand-up comedy club, and spending hours a day at his writing desk.
Gnarr’s residency ended in June, but his partnership with Rice may not be over. Boyer mentioned the possibility of collaborating in the future on a dark TV comedy about climate change which, if Gnarr’s TV career is any indicator, could be quite the promising soap box. His memoir and how-to guide to starting a Best Party is well underway, and though he has not sparked a cataclysmic revolution in Houston, he has planted the seeds of provocative art that—if history repeats itself—could provoke other artists to take the steering wheel. It’s already happened once, in a small town in northeast Germany, where Silvio Witt, a comedian, is now mayor thanks to support from Gnarr and the framework laid by the Best Party.
In the meantime, Gnarr faces some similar issues at home. The country is channeling its geothermal energy supply into things like aluminum smelters and bitcoin servers, and Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson recently spoke about the great opportunities that global warming would bring to the arctic north (not least of which, opening up new places to drill for oil). Because the Best Party was meant to be an intervention, or “surprise party,” it disbanded at the peak of its popularity and is no longer around to intervene in quite the same way that it was, but a replacement called “Bright Future” rose in its place. Sigurdur Bjorn Blondur, the bassist for HAM and Gnarr’s personal advisor when he was in office, describes Bright Future as “a body that allows good, well-meaning people to take direct part in politics on their own terms. It should be a shelter for the non-stereotype politician, a vehicle for artists and other creative people to put forward ideas on how to develop society.” Bright Future didn’t fare so well at the last election, likely because it took a less popular stand on a controversial issue, and lobbied for Iceland to join the European Union. Otherwise, Gnarr says the party didn’t inherit the Best Party’s success because it is too polite, not bold enough. But he has hope.
The Best Party cleared the trail between citizens’ doorsteps and the seats of power, which is what it meant to do, what Bright Future aims to keep doing, and what Boyer hopes for the future of American politics, Gnarr talks about becoming a politician because he was forced to, in the way someone takes over painting a house when the hired painter is doing it wrong. In order for citizens to step into seats of power, they must first believe they’re qualified. To take a page from Gnarr’s book, that means little else but common sense and a decent heart.
“There’s not going to be one savior who is going to lead us out of this. It’s going to be all of the normal people making normal changes we can that’s really going to shift things. And Houston is a great place to stage that type of an intervention,” said Boyer.
Indeed, Houston is a perfect setting. As long as it can take a good joke.