For some three decades, an Italian comedian named Beppe Grillo has satirized – viciously, at high volume, naming names – the corruption of Italian politics. Last week, in Italian elections, he won the honor of being a part of the very thing he mocks.
When Grillo started doing comedy, in the early eighties, the Socialist Party – led by Bettino Craxi, prime minister from 1983 to 1987 – was in coalition with the Christian Democrats, and was a byword for theft from the taxpayer. Italians would say: The Socialists haven’t been in power before, they know they won’t last, so they have to make money quickly – a kind of resignation to the inevitability of political larceny that the British mind (mine) found quite shocking. Grillo was also shocked: or at least, he made shock the basis of his act. More than any other public figure, he fashioned from the venality of Italian political life a dark, bitter and yet hilarious comedy.
The politicians were furious that their good name should be so besmirched, and got him banned from Italian TV – which, in the eighties, was monopolized by the channels of the state broadcaster RAI, in turn under the control of the politicians.
This didn’t stop Grillo performing and becoming rich – he had a taste for Ferraris and speedboats, of which he now claims he is cured – but it did stop his message from disturbing the tranquility of Italian homes. When he was unbanned for a show in 1993 (it achieved stellar ratings), he revealed himself as outrageous and outraged as ever, and was off the air again.
I went to see his show in Florence three years ago at a gaunt and echoing stadium suited to rock concerts where one would have thought a one-man show would be swallowed up in the immensity of the place. Grillo’s was not.