Why Zelenskyy's background in comedy really matters

Forget about Paddington for a minute. The comedy that made Zelenskyy famous was also political

By Sophia A. McClennen

Contributing Writer

Published March 12, 2022 7:30PM (EST)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addresses the nation after Russiaâs decision to recognize the Donetsk and Luhansk regions as independent states, on February 22, 2022, in Kiev, Ukraine. (Ukrainian Presidency / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addresses the nation after Russiaâs decision to recognize the Donetsk and Luhansk regions as independent states, on February 22, 2022, in Kiev, Ukraine. (Ukrainian Presidency / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The graphic logo for Kvartal 95 (95th Quartile), the comedy troupe turned production company co-founded by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in 1997, features a cute animation. In it, a young man of slight build struggles to do a pull up, kicking his feet and wiggling himself until he barely gets his chin over the bar. In a matter of seconds, the viewer grasps an adorably underpowered, yet persistent, feat of strength.

Watching it now, as Zelenskyy is fighting for his people, his own life, and for the freedom of Ukraine against a ruthless and formidable invasion by Russia, feels uncanny. But the symbolism behind it is a useful reminder of Zelenskyy's background. Perhaps, most critically, understanding its message offers perspective on the tenacious, unwavering leader of Ukraine that most coverage of him has so far missed.

RELATED: Politics & performance: Why Zelenskyy succeeds where others fail

Much media coverage has noted that Zelenskyy's history as a performer, especially a comedian, has been instrumental to building his image and creating his aura of integrity in the midst of the Russian invasion. For example, Vox critic Emily St. James zeroed in on the fact that Zelenskyy was the voice of Paddington Bear in an essay that underscores how Zelenskyy has brought a performer's skills to wartime politics. That essay linked to clips of Zelenskyy dancing, and even mentioned a Zelenskyy skit in which he appeared to play the piano with his penis.

Zelenskyy's skills as an entertainer and media success have served him well, for sure. Ever since politics entered the era of television and a sweaty, pale Richard Nixon had to face off to a dashingly handsome John F. Kennedy in one of the earliest televised debates, it has been widely understood that visual charisma offers a critical boost for those seeking political power.

But most media coverage that highlights Zelenskyy's background in entertainment fails to appreciate the fact that Zelenskyy's comedy was not principally just slapstick humor; it was satire — specifically, satire connected to a clear struggle for social change. Commentary that emphasizes skill at working camera angles or taking selfies nails how good Zelenskyy is at managing his image, but it's also important to note that skill was not developed purely for entertainment. 

Yuliya Ladygina, Assistant Professor of Russian and Global Studies at Penn State University, was born, raised and educated in Kyiv, Ukraine. She tells me Zelenskyy "has been a political commentator all his life." 

As many who have covered his background in entertainment have pointed out, Zelenskyy's current role as president of Ukraine was preceded by him playing the president of Ukraine in a televised series called "Servant of the People" that ran from 2015-2017, and also included a 2016 feature film. That show told the story of a history teacher who was catapulted into national fame after a video of him ranting about political corruption shot by a student went viral.  The teacher gets elected to office, only to encounter a series of challenges to leading the country as an honest, sincere man who simply wants to serve the people. The fact that his political party is named after the series and the fact that the party was founded just after the series ended has led many to assume that the series led to the presidency. Rather, Ladygina explains, the character for the show came out of the longstanding political edge to Kvartal 95's satirical entertainment.

In a Vox video on eight moments that help explain Zelenskyy, viewers get a bit of this longer background. Well before Zelenskyy starred in "Servant of the People," he was part of the Kvartal 95 traveling comedy troupe, and they regularly featured political skits. That experience, as Olga Rudenko from The Kyiv Independent (who has also criticized Zelenskyy's leadership) explains in the video, made Zelenskyy the "best and most recognizable comedian in Ukraine and the most successful one." Chatham House's Orysia Lutsevich points out that the troupe tended to include both "primitive humor" and "sophisticated making fun of politics."

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For Ladygina, that combination of slapstick, silly humor with biting political commentary has been lost on most Western media. The Kvartal 95 group was committed to offering the public sharp political satire that would help make sense of the absurdities, ironies and abuses of power that governed post-Soviet Ukrainian society.

"Yes, it was entertaining. Yes, he made money," Ladygina said. "But his comedy was meant to be political and effective and to comment on the flaws in the political system."

To offer a comparable cultural context, we might liken it to "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" which aired on CBS from 1967-69, during the Vietnam War era. That show also had plenty of silliness but was so bitingly political that it was eventually censored.

Covering Zelenskyy as just a comedian-turned-politician, Ladygina emphasizes, doesn't properly contextualize Zelenskyy as having been politically engaged before.

"People in Ukraine have been watching this guy since 1997. They know him, they know his jokes, they know him personally and they know his objectives." For them, she explains, there wasn't an abrupt transformation from a comedian to a politician, since politics were already part of his show. 

The overemphasis on Zelenskyy as the voice of Paddington Bear, or as the affable everyman in "Servant of the People," may even be a residual response to Russian propaganda efforts to portray Zelenskyy as soft, unprepared and silly. From the moment that Zelenskyy was elected there was a concerted Russian effort to discredit him. The Vox video I reference above also includes a clip of Zelenskyy's victory speech, where he states, "To all post-Soviet countries: Look at us. Anything is possible." That comment, Lutsevich notes, seemed deliberately aimed at Russia, leading, in her view, to Putin beginning to hold a serious "grudge" against Zelenskyy.

Thus, Ladygina points out that the image of Zelenskyy as a bumbling clown rather than a democratic alternative to oligarchy was promoted to hurt Zelenskyy, as his open commitment to advancing democracy in Ukraine posed a direct threat to Putin's Russia.

While many commentators seem to think Putin expected Zelenskyy to be easily played due to his inexperience, Ladygina suggests Putin may have had his own concerns well before Zelenskyy took office, especially because Putin had seen Kvartal 95 perform and even initially liked the show. This changed over time, she explained, especially as Zelenskyy played Putin in skits for the comedy troupe. The series "Servant of the People" was censored in Russia after having a Putin joke in its first episode, but Ladygina reminds us that prior to the TV series, Kvartal 95 performances had been banned in Russia for being too political.

Moreover, it is critical to note that Zelenskyy had his own celebrity success in Russia well before the 2019 election. When "Servant of the People" briefly aired in Russia, for example, its ratings outperformed Russian sitcoms.  

What is troubling is that the image of Zelenskyy that benefits Russia — that of a soft entertainer — gained considerable traction, which perhaps explains why mainstream media almost seems "surprised" at his bravery. Coverage, for example, of Zelenskyy's approval ratings drop as President of Ukraine prior to the Russian invasion, doesn't usually account for Kremlin-led efforts to portray Zelenskyy as weak and ineffective.

"They think he is a clown," Ladygina explains. "But this is a very smart person with a degree in law who has been a committed political commentator, a steadfast critic of corruption as well as a successful businessman. He isn't just an actor — he writes the jokes and the scripts and is a critical part of the creative process. Many of the lines that make sharp comments on Ukrainian politics are coming from him and his ideas. That side to his story is overshadowed by the silly image."

When we rethink the backstory of Zelenskyy in this new light, we are then able to note another considerable issue that has been missed by most coverage. Zelenskyy's comedy was not just intended to get people to smile as a distraction —  it was satire. Specifically, it was a millennial version of satire that engages more directly in politics.

Satire is a unique form of comedy, one that relies on creative irony.  Here the comedian isn't getting laughs because they fall down or make someone look silly; they get laughs because they hold up a creative mirror to the absurdities, injustices and abuses of power that govern the world. The goal of satire is to get the audience to think, to recognize the flaws in the status quo and to see that the sorts of narratives offered by those in power can be changed. Using satire to coax the public to think differently is even more essential when the public is being ruled by fear and repression. As Stephen Colbert explains, satire "alleviates fog off of the mind, because when you're laughing you can't be afraid. And, when you're not afraid, you think better. Laughter leads to thinking."

But today's satire is often not just a comment on the flaws and follies of the world and a call to rethink them. Today's satirists aren't simply court jesters. As I've explained in relation to the rise of satirists as political actors in the Trump era, there has been a steady increase in satire playing a direct role in political action. Today's satirists inform and educate the publicrun for officepropose legislation and engage in all sorts of political activities.

Earlier, I made the comparison between Kvartal 95's comedy troupe and The Smothers Brothers. Interestingly, one of the regulars on The Smothers Brothers, Pat Paulsen, also ran for president. But, unlike Zelenskyy, Paulsen's campaigns were entirely satirical. For example, he ironically would answer any criticism with the catchphrase: "Picky, picky, picky."

In contrast, Zelenskyy's campaign might have included plenty of stunts, but it was always sincere. Again, as a point of comparison, we might think of Jon Stewart's actions to support war veteransJohn Oliver's attack on the coal industrySamantha Bee's activism for women's reproductive rights or Michael Moore's advocacy for clean water in Flint, Michigan. These are satirical comedians who are very serious about social issues. For them, satire isn't a distraction from politics; it is politics.

Zelenskyy's satire is in this same family of using ironic wit to foster political change and using the charisma of comedy to help defend and advance democracy. When asked about the overlaps between his character on "Servant of the People" and his campaign, Zelenskyy explained, "I didn't invent all this [the show]—I felt all this, I am really feeling all this…It would have been impossible to create it all simply because I am a good actor and because someone wrote it well. We wrote it together, we all lived it together."

Zelenskyy's experience traveling across Ukraine as part of the Kvartal 95 troupe meant that he would also have gained a wide understanding of the issues that mattered to the people. Ladygina notes, "Zelenskyy is not performing sincerity because sincerity has been part of his connection with Ukrainians since the late '90s." Well before launching the Servant of the People political party, Kvartal 95, for example, had launched a number of social programs, including a campaign to encourage women to get mammograms, and also contributed funds for the Ukrainian military.

The main character of the "Servant of the People" is named Vasily Petrovich Goloborodko. His last name, Goloborodko, offers insight into the satirical wit of the show. Ladygina, a native speaker of Ukrainian and Russian, explains that Goloborodko means "beardless" and symbolizes a man without experience. Choosing that name, then, was an early and obvious sign that the show wanted to position the protagonist — someone from outside the political elite, who could be honest, sincere and committed to a better Ukraine — as what the country needed. But they also knew that having honest outsiders try to fight the Goliaths of corruption, oligarchy, Russian imperialism and international pressures would never be easy.

When we see that Zelenskyy's comedy repertoire wasn't just entertaining — it also posed creative ways to think about how to improve the future of Ukraine, and offered a funny look at how hard those changes might be to make — then Zelenskyy's unwavering commitment to his people makes perfect sense. Just because he is witty, media savvy and pretty good at dancing, doesn't mean he isn't serious.

Read more about the political power of comedy: 

By Sophia A. McClennen

Sophia A. McClennen is Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. She writes on the intersections between culture, politics, and society. Her latest book is "Trump Was a Joke: How Satire Made Sense of a President Who Didn't."

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