Beppe Grillo: the 'clown' who is no joke

The comedian and former politican is proving to be deadly serious after his success in Italy's national elections.

Beppe Grillo. Illustration by Kagan McLeod
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"It's crazy! It's the craziest thing!" This became the trademark of Beppe Grillo in his career for more than four decades as a comedian. But this very phrase must be on the lips of all Italians - and perhaps commentators around the world - as the balance of power in Italy falls into the lap of this 64-year-old Genovese demagogue. To label him a demagogue may draw the ire of his supporters; to them he is a visionary. To others, he is a loose cannon, a subversive, a nuisance, a clown. But if he were a clown, he is the most compelling clown to grace the Italian stage since Canio in I Pagliacci.

In Italy's national elections this week, Grillo's Five Star Movement (M5S) came third. But while the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) attracted a little fewer, it may attain a slim majority in the lower house with support from allies. M5S has generally been disdainful of deals and coalitions and ran alone, which reflects the campaign in which its leader, according to the Financial Times, made a 10,000-kilometre journey through 77 cities with three assistants in a camper van. In fact, Grillo has already rejected outright an offer from the PD this week.

It is an astonishing outcome for a party that is just four years old and that emerged from Grillo's blog, begun in 2005. M5S's five stars stand for water, transport, internet accessibility and the environment, but it has earned its momentum from its - essentially Grillo's - fearless, audacious, ferocious attacks on what he sees as the inertia, nepotism and vice of the country's politicians.

Giuseppe Piero Grillo (he was always known as Beppe) was born in 1948 in Genoa, growing up in lower-middle class San Fruttuoso. His father, an uncommunicative but caring man, owned a small business that made acetylene torches. His mother was an artist and pianist who loved and laughed at his jokes as a boy. In a New Yorker profile in 2008, Tom Mueller wrote that Grillo's father would call his son an idiot but, years later, he had memorised his son's better jokes and would repeat them at a bar after work.

Genoa provided rich soil for her son to prosper. Under the director, Luigi Squarzina, Genoa's Teatro Stabile was the most prestigious theatre in the country. The actor, director and comedian Paolo Villaggio, with his grotesque and paradoxical characters, was a source of inspiration for the young Grillo.

As a teenager he performed in nightclubs, singing and playing the guitar. In between songs he would do stand-up - parodying clients or mocking the staff. At his father's insistence, he gained a degree in accounting from a local college and briefly joined the family firm, but he found it unpleasant. In 1971, he left to devote himself to comedy, but he could not support himself on gigs alone and worked part-time as a salesman for a jeans manufacturer. That did not prove to be a good fit, either.

According to Mueller, Grillo took a train to Milan and continued working in small clubs for about two years when, in 1977, he won an audition with RAI, the national radio and television network. His first show, Secondo Voi, was entirely scripted but - irrepressibly - he was soon delivering comic monologues on politicians, stars - even the Pope. By the end of the 1970s he was as much a celebrity as some of those he teased.

In 1980, driving with friends in the Alps, he hit a patch of ice, lost control of his car and plunged into a stream. A couple and their young son were killed; the other passenger was seriously injured. He was convicted of negligent homicide. Grillo sold his house and most of his assets, voluntarily handing over about US$600,000 (Dh2,203,860) for the benefit of the couple's orphaned daughter. His brother, Andrea, told Mueller: "Ever since then, he's been a little less happy, a slightly darker person."

To the increasing discomfort of RAI, his comedy became more political. In 1986, he made a joke about corruption and the then prime minister, Bettino Craxi. The prime minister protested, and Grillo was not seen on television for seven years until Craxi resigned and fled to Tunisia - after being charged with corruption. When he returned to the small screen in 1993 (briefly, before being promptly banned again), Grillo attracted a record number of viewers.

He took his comedy through the country, performing in small towns, eschewing the stage to walk among his audiences. In the early 1990s, using his forensic accounting skills, he began to speak about corporate corruption. The SIP, a national phone company, was operating an early scam he went on to uncover. A decade later, it was Parmalat. He had been speaking about its solvency for two years when it collapsed, to the surprise of the financial press, politicians and Standard & Poor's. It was all, he said, in the financial statements - all publicly available information.

In 2005, he began a blog (, which, by 2007, was listed in Time magazine's annual blog index with the suggestion that "America could use a political satirist fuelled by this sort of outrage". It is written in Italian, English and Japanese and has been ranked as one of the 10 most visited blogs in the world. He has been dubbed an Italian Michael Moore and a Genovese Stephen Colbert, but they both pale in comparison to him. By May last year, he had 550,000 followers on Twitter and more than 850,000 "likes" on Facebook. With the election, that figure will have multiplied.

At the end of 2005 he bought space in the International Herald Tribune, claiming that Italian parliamentarians convicted in a court of law should not have the right to represent citizens.

On September 8, 2008, he captured international attention with his V-Day celebration in 220 cities across Italy. "V" stood for the classically cruder Italianate version of "get lost". Grillo appeared in Piazza Maggiore in Bologna with a huge screen behind him displaying the names of 24 politicians with criminal convictions who then represented Italy. There were another 57 appealing convictions, or who had been pardoned or beneficiaries of the statute of limitations. Grillo declared: "Nearly 80 crooks in parliament - that's about one crook in 12. It's worse than Scampia, the most dangerous Naples slum, which is infested by the Camorra, the Neapolitan mafia. There the criminals are only one in 15!"

In late 2009, Grillo announced, on his blog, the birth of Movimento 5 Stelle: "It will be born on the Internet. Italian citizens without a criminal record and who are not members of any political party can join … the parties are dead. I do not want to found 'a party', an apparatus, a structure of intermediation. Rather, I want to create a movement with a programme." This, of course, has meant that Grillo himself, given his conviction in 1980, cannot stand for the Chamber or the Senate. He even denies that he is the movement's leader. But he is clearly its founder, its muse and herald.

The movements operated both online and off. Using the "meetup" network, support groups sprang up and now number 700, with a membership of more than 100,000 numbers. The next step was, of course, political representation.

Speaking to a crowd in regional Milan during the local election campaign in May 2012, Grillo pointed to a line of fresh-faced M5S candidates, "These kids, they may be inexperienced; they still haven't learned how to rig a budget, or give contracts to their friends." He achieved a national average of 9 per cent in the first round of that election, with nearly 200,000 votes, and four mayoralties in the run-off that followed. As Grillo puts it: "MS5 has its feet on the ground and its head on the web." In October, in the regional elections in Sicily, it won more votes than any other party.

Buoyed by this success and the desperation of voters, appalled by a bloated bureaucracy, ageing overpaid representatives, and stricken by worsening economic conditions, M5S entered the national election.

The big rally of its campaign was in one of Rome's vast piazzas with several hundred thousand supporters. It seems extraordinary that any politician could overshadow Silvio Berlusconi, but Grillo leaves the former prime minister in the shade.

What opponents say of him is probably as unprintable as Grillo's views of them, but sober commentators do question MS5's ability to govern. Its approach to macroeconomic policy has yet to be formed. Its candidates are chosen by online surveys and as, Frederico Fornaro, a historian of the Movement, told The New York Times, "It's one thing to raise a ruckus, another to govern."

Well, the Genovese comic has caused a ruckus; who knows where it might end?