COMEDIAN BEPPE GRILLO MAY BE BANNED FROM TV, BUT
HE HASN’T LET THAT STIFLE HIS UNIQUE POLITICAL HUMOR
Maybe Beppe Grillo should have been a state auditor instead of a comedian. Back in December 2003, Italy was rocked by the Parmalat scandal, in which the Italian dairy conglomerate imploded in a vacuum of debt and deception that became the largest bankruptcy in European history. But Grillo had seen it coming. As early as 2001, he had a whole routine built around the Parma-based firm’s dubious balance sheet—noting that even as a multibillion-euro debt was piling up, Parmalat was expanding its product line to include a new milk that contained the fish-based supplement Omega-3. Grillo would walk through the crowd dunking a dead fish in a glass of milk, looking for a taste tester: “Drink it. Drink it. What’s the problem? It’s Omega-3!” It’s the quintessential Grillo tragicomic formula: use a touch of over-the-top humor to probe the serious social issues that leaders don’t want to touch.
The Parmalat skit was a far cry from Grillo’s early days on the Italian stand-up circuit. Back then he suffered from what he calls “punchline fever. I lived for that moment when the crowd breaks out laughing. So it was one joke, one punchline after another.” That fever broke in 1985, when Grillo decided to tackle topical humor. It began with venting his disgust for the melodramatic drivel he saw on television, then expanded to include riffs about false advertising and polluting consumer products. Grillo was still funny, but his jokes were now draped around barbed social commentary.
Then in 1987, during an appearance on the rai public television network, Grillo took a swipe at then Prime Minister Bettino Craxi that referred to ongoing suspicions of corruption. When the host of the show walked off, Grillo quickly realized that in the highly politicized world of Italian state TV, he was doomed. “The doorman wouldn’t even look at me,” he recalls with a wink. Craxi’s career ended in disgrace six years later after a vast corruption scandal, but ever since, Grillo has been persona non grata on state-owned stations and on Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s private Mediaset network.
Instead, Grillo barnstorms around the country in sold-out arena shows, using the stage ever more as a platform for his crusades against government and corporate malfeasance. A big, bearded bear of a man, the 57-year-old Genoa native likes to roam through the crowd, mixing the physicality of John Belushi with the social conscience of José Bové. Grillo is that rare class clown who does his homework. He’s also started a blog that, not yet a year old, is already the most-trafficked in Italy. His favorite target these days is Bank of Italy governor Antonio Fazio, whose resignation has been widely demanded because of allegations of conflict of interest. Sometimes, when body politic is sick, laughter is the best medicine.