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Laughter as a weapon

Zelensky’s homage to Beyoncé in 2014

Plenty of politicians have started their life as actors, says Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker. But Ukraine’s President Zelensky is more unusual – he was a clown. Before his 2019 election win he was known for “little else except his clowning”: his claim to fame was playing a bumbling politician in a Ukrainian sitcom. His opponents made jibes, but Zelensky embraced his comic capabilities. In one campaign video he sported a large (digital) red nose. “They called me a clown,” he said. “I am a clown, and I am very proud of it.” When asked in an interview if he could make Vladimir Putin laugh, he said of course he could, adding: “Laughter is a weapon that is fatal to men of marble.”

The Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin had a theory about the role of a comic in society. Clowns, he thought, with their softness, absurdity and giggling, help us to see past “brutal authority toward a freer life”. What’s more, the comic who is willing to degrade himself knowingly “is the one afterward most able to act with dignity”. That change from comedian to hero is behind the success of “every movie Charlie Chaplin ever made”. It also explains “what fires the world’s admiration of Zelensky”.