Gnarr: Climate change is not a joke

Roughly two dozen Rice students gathered in Rayzor Hall’s Room 123 on a warm Thursday afternoon in late March to hear from one of Houston’s most famous temporary residents: Jón Gnarr, the Icelandic punk-rock comedian who became mayor of Reykjavík. Gnarr is at Rice this spring as the first writer-in-residence at the university’s Center for Energy and Environmental Research in the Human Sciences.

Jón Gnarr, the Icelandic punk-rock comedian who became mayor of Reykjavík, speaks with Rice students about the his life as a jokester and politician. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

“I am very many things, and sometimes I’m so many things, I get confused what I am,” the self-deprecating Gnarr told the students in Culture, Energy and the Environment: An Introduction to Energy Humanities, an environmental studies course taught by center Postdoctoral Fellow Matthew Schneider-Mayerson. Since Gnarr made a name for himself as teenage bass player in a punk band called Nefrennsli (“Runny Nose”), he has forged a career as an actor, goofball comedian, playwright, author, elected official and, as evident in his remarks to the Rice students, a passionate voice for climate-change awareness.

As Gnarr explained, his foray into politics in 2009 was anything but planned. With Iceland in the grip of the global financial crisis and the country’s three largest banks having collapsed under foreign debt, he had lost his Reykjavík advertising job. “In 2008, everything collapsed,” he said. “Suddenly, Iceland went patently bankrupt. There was a lot of frustration. People were upset and many feared for the future.” He became an avid consumer of news reports on the crisis and began to focus on his comedy. He’d never had much interest in politics, but audiences loved his running joke about how politicians could never just say, “I don’t know.” As his jokes lampooned politicians’ evasiveness, he philosophized about the specter of his own candidacy. After shows, people would almost always tell him, “You should really do this, you should go into politics,” Gnarr said. “They were enthusiastic about it.”

He decided to register a new party and run for mayor, and he contacted friends, often through Facebook, asking if they’d join the ticket for his political party. He decided to call it the Best Party — the hollowest, most ridiculous name that he could think of. “It (the party’s name) wasn’t based on any idea; it was a joke from my standup,” Gnarr said. “I would call my political party the Best Party, because it’s the best. It was idiotically funny.” The party’s campaign song was Tina Turner’s “Simply the Best” and had lyrics that translate, “We are the best, the bestest of parties.” His debate performances were, quite literally, a joke. He promised to bring a polar bear to the city zoo, promised free towels at public pools and promised not to keep his promises.

On election night, his Best Party shocked the political establishment, winning the election with nearly 35 percent of the vote and taking six of 15 seats on the Reykjavík City Council. Suddenly, Gnarr, the self-described “funny guy,” was one of Iceland’s most powerful politicians and had to tackle serious issues: The small city, only about the size of Beaumont, was on the verge of bankruptcy. He made the kind of tough, unpopular decisions that such times require: He raised fees, merged schools and laid off city workers. At the same time, he tried to lighten the mood and bring humor to the office — appearing, for example, in drag at the city’s gay-pride parade. He left office last year, by then so popular that a petition circulated urging him to run for Iceland’s presidency. He believes his tenure as mayor changed the way a lot of people worldwide think about politics and expects that many more “regular people” will follow his lead. “I realized that we were able to do things that professional politicians would not have been able to do because they have a political career to think of,” Gnarr said. “I didn’t have such a career. I didn’t intend to stay in office.”

While at Rice, Gnarr has been working on building bridges between the academic world of energy and environmental research and the arts and media. Earlier this year he partnered with Houston’s Mildred’s Umbrella theater group for the first performance in English of a reading of his play “Hotel Volkswagen,” and he also worked on an Icelandic TV show about his experiences as mayor. He has also turned his sights on the pressing issue of climate change.

“There is a very interesting view on climate change in Iceland,” Gnarr said. “Most people are for it. ‘Global warming’ sounds like music in Iceland, because finally Iceland is going to get warm. People will say this openly. It’s considered to be a serious issue for everybody except Iceland. I’ve sometimes been shocked by what mostly politicians allow themselves to say.”

Gnarr said he has been worried about climate change for years, while his country has mostly been focused on economic development, often to the detriment of the country’s natural habitat. “It’s very hard (in Iceland) to get out information on climate change. To have discussions with common people about climate change can be very hard. People are not very informed, and they’re very skeptical. If it was up to me, I would change Iceland into a renewable peace paradise of human rights and creativity and good music, and tourism would bloom, but it’s not up to me.”

“I think there’s a lot of parallels between the situation of Iceland in 2007-08 in the midst of this crash … and what we all face in the world today in context of climate change, because it’s a very depressing situation and so big a problem,” said Dominic Boyer, director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Research in the Human Sciences and professor of anthropology. Boyer had written a paper on the Best Party that caught Gnarr’s eye, which in turn led to a conversation and Boyer’s subsequent invitation to Gnarr to come to Rice. “(Why) bringing Jón to Rice was such a good idea was simply what we could learn from him in terms of trying to find joy and humility and a new sense of purpose in a time when all the signs should be telling you to ignore what’s happening … or, if you take it seriously, to be utterly paralyzed with despair. Neither of those are acceptable situations for us to be in. That’s precisely what the Best Party did. It didn’t accept those options; it created its own, new way of doing things.”

On April 6, Gnarr will give a reading and be joined by Boyer for a discussion of his forthcoming book, a literary memoir titled “The Indian,” at 7 p.m. at Brazos Bookstore, 2421 Bissonnet. For more information about this free public event, see http://brazosbookstore.com/event/jon-gnarr-indian.

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.