top of page
Comedians - 2.png
Why comedians go into politics

Nico Semsrott’s perspective sheds light on the crisis of the German left



His worn-out black sneakers tap on the creaky wood floor of the Mehringhof Theater’s backstage in Berlin. The tiny space is furnished with two old leather sofas, a small fridge, and no desk. Up on the wall, a modern-looking clock from Ikea stands out of tune in the otherwise vintage room. Its ticking punctuates the murmur of some two hundred people waiting for him. Nico Semsrott, a German stand-up comedian, slam poet, and demotivational coach, sits with his notes on his knees, memorizing his jokes one last time. He glances up at the clock: in seven minutes he walks in. He folds the notes back into his pocket and heads to the stage. If you were to observe a professional public speaker before a performance, you would likely see them engaging in some kind of warm-up exercise, like stretching, humming, or repeating tongue twisters to relax their muscles. Not Semsrott. I went to see one of his performances and watched him simply stand behind the black curtains, a beam of light shining on his face as he cleans his thin squared glasses – a strikingly different pre-show ritual that's even more surprising given that he is both a comedian and a politician. And he is in good company. Many entertainers animate today’s politics. Comedian Beppe Grillo's party won the elections in Italy, Jan Böhmermann’s “poem” on Erdogan caused a political crisis between Germany and Turkey, and English comedian Russell Brand campaigned for the Labor Party in the UK’s last elections. But why are comedians going into politics? “Because politicians are going into satire”, explains Semsrott with a smile “this is one of the jokes I forgot to use tonight”. Semsrott's party, "Die Partei," shocked German public opinion with provocative posters stating, "a Nazi could be hanging here." They raised public funding by selling money. They infiltrated 31 Facebook groups of AfD supporters and kicked out the administrators shortly before the elections. Their program includes proposals like rebuilding the Berlin Wall and their leader, Martin Sonneborn, now sits in the European Parliament. In a country famous for the stability (some would say boredom) of its politics and which has just opted for a second consecutive edition of a “grand coalition”, such initiatives are all the more jarring. Yet, in an age of hardening political divisions, the use of satire for political purposes should not come as a surprise. "Irony describes a kind of antidote to firm ideological thinking”, explains Professor Matthew Stratton, author of 'The Politics of Irony in American Modernism' and an expert on the interplay between politics and satire. Political satire isn't just one of the most popular genres in the field, its linguistic devices, typically mastered by comedians, are also effective in politics. In today's polarized political landscape, alternative methods to traditional journalism for holding power to account can play an important role. Ironic statements, by implying the opposite of what they state, can be very effective in covering fake news. While journalists might delve into complex explanations, comedians can simply call out and ridicule absurdities. “Journalism has its rules, and for a reason. But the engagement of satire can be beneficial for the system” Paul Hockenos, a Berlin-based journalist and political analyst, defends the profession’s role but agrees that the quest for sensational stories can spread misinformation. Moreover, irony can play a unique role that's beyond journalistic methods: it can act as a form of political rebellion. “The underlying idea behind improvisation is that the truth is funny,” explains Noah Telson, founder of Comedy Café Berlin, a major hub for improvisers in the city. He was a politically engaged teenager who grew up in New York State and spent much of his time in marches and protests against the war during the Bush administration. He then moved to theatre and tried to merge these two interests. “I am an improviser, but there is something political about it. If you break down how improv works, it’s built on the same premises as political rebellion. It’s an exercise in subversive behavior. It’s all about taking an idea and flipping it on its head to show how false or ridiculous it actually is.” Nico Semsrott’s performances align with this theory. His jokes, often targeting the German far right, are based on true events that he reads in newspapers or chooses from his life. Every year he adds 20 to 30 minutes. This time he is also including a slideshow. But PowerPoint is famous for working fine only until you need it. After one last intimidating glance at the VGA cable connecting his old, dusty laptop to the projector, stiff and wary, on the alert for banana skins, Semsrott takes the stage A big round of applause welcomes him. Against the white screen behind him, he looks like a black ink sketch straight out of a Wes Anderson storyboard. Everything is perfectly symmetrical. He hardly moves. His arms hang along his body, like puppets softly dangling at his voice's slightest vibration. The audience, engrossed in his flat-toned speech, sits on the edge of the chair, eyes wide open, looking out for hidden jokes. Around the hall, a dozen posters reflect the green light of the emergency exit signal in the otherwise pitch-dark room. It may seem improvised, but Semsrott knows exactly where he is going and plays with his audience like a musician with his instrument. He has long been in the business of making fun of politicians, but only recently did he enter politics. Why? “Because I am a disillusioned social democrat”, explains Nico. “I don’t feel represented by the SPD because they work against the poor and the young.” The relative decline of the social democrats in a country with a relatively healthy political and economic situation is intriguing, but it also offers a unique perspective on the reasons behind the political disillusionment that is driving comedians into politics. But Professor Stratton warns against oversimplifications. It is tempting to see irony as an inherently progressive tool that comes in handy when going against right-wing populism. After all, there is no such thing as a conservative John Stewart, and left-leaning ironic posts are killing it on Facebook. However, Stratton points out that irony's role is multifaceted. "Can irony be used to dismiss populism? Sure. Can irony be used to generate and support populism? Sure. In the American context, the so-called alt-right has generated a great deal of online enthusiasm for its tenets through a kind of ironic distancing from certain narratives as a means of embracing them. For example, promulgating openly racist memes but defending their use as ironic or humorous.” The use of irony has one more problem. Strategies like those commonly employed by Die Partei usually lack practical solutions. For example, the Die Partie's manifesto pledges to “further complicate the German tax system so that large companies can no longer find money-saving loopholes”. Semsrott concedes that such statements are not constructive. “It’s not good for the discussion. It’s not good for the debate but that’s not the point. It’s a reaction.” Although Die Partie doesn’t have a significant political weight yet, its growth is noteworthy. Fueled by disillusionment with the SPD's politics and scared by the rise of the right, it represents a stress indicator of the left. “There should always be serious politicians, but perhaps the situation is so desperate that I will be drawn more and more into politics.” Semsrott speaks hesitantly; his eyes wander around the ceiling looking for the right words. His statements are obscure and dense in meaning, a far call from the funny tone in his performances. “This is my enemy: the radicalization and simplification of every aspect of our life. The whole debate is based on yes and no – thumbs up or down. But there is so much more! Irony unveils the ambivalence. It’s the tool of the powerless. An act of defense. A call for help.”

bottom of page