Hizzoner Jon Gnarr tries to play it (almost) straight

February 6, 2012

REYKJAVIK, Iceland – Mayor Jon Gnarr Kristinsson – better known as comedian Jon Gnarr – relaxes in a rocking chair in a comfy sitting chamber, just off the conference room that’s part of his suite of offices in Reykjavik City Hall.

It’s a cold morning – windy, snowy (“Our snowiest winter ever – and they blame it on me,” Gnarr laughs), temperature in the 20s – and, since it’s only 9 a.m., it’s pitch dark. The sun won’t come up for another hour or more, never achieving more than an early twilight brightness in its four hours of daylight.

Gnarr is explaining that Olafur Grimson, the president of Iceland, announced recently that he would not to run for reelection this year.

“He’s going to quit,” Gnarr muses. “So the media did polls about who people want to replace him. And my name has been in the top four.”

He smiles a devilish – but slightly weary – smile. This is heady stuff for a radio and TV comic who ran for mayor of Reykjavik in 2010 as a joke – a piece of comedic performance art, if you will, about what he referred to as “the power of silly thinking” – and wound up winning. Now, a year and a half into his term, his name is being bandied about to run the country.

No, he says, he has no interest in being the president of Iceland; after all, he never really meant to be mayor of Reykjavik. But he’s going to take advantage of the moment, as any good performer would: by staging a press conference to discuss his thoughts about the presidency “where I’ll give a long, complicated speech,” he says, the wink audible in his voice.

“It’s fun,” he says. “And it only gets funnier with time.”

Now Gaukur Ulfarsson’s documentary about Gnarr’s mayoral campaign, appropriately titled “Gnarr!,” reaches American shores, when it becomes available Feb. 7 through video-on-demand via Focus World, an offshoot of Focus Features. The film, which played the European film festival circuit last year (as well as New York’s Tribeca Film Festival), quickly thumbnails Gnarr’s motivation in running for office – a reaction to and chance to make sport of the staid power-brokers who caused Iceland’s financial collapse in 2008.

Gnarr, known for his comedy on TV, radio and film, created his own party, the Best Party, and announced his candidacy. The party was part punk, part surrealist – but the longer the campaign went on, the better Gnarr began to look, his subversive sense of humor poking fun at just how boring his opponents were; at one point in the film, he gets up and walks out of a candidates’ forum because he finds it so tedious.

But, sitting in city hall occupying the mayor’s chair, Gnarr rarely has the option to just get up and leave: “And sometimes these meetings can be horrible, up to six hours long,” he says. “I don’t like being in a big meeting of confused and angry people. It’s very tiring.”

How does he cope? “I play Fruit Ninja on my iPod,” he jokes.

Almost as soon as he took office, Gnarr came under attack from the still-smarting (and recently ousted) powers-that-be: that he was just a dreamy artist with no realistic sense of how to make things work in Reykjavik. The fact that he was inheriting a city still struggling to right itself financially – and was forced to make tough choices about free kindergarten, among other things – didn’t make it easier.

But Gnarr has tried to keep his sense of humor. Beside being the grand marshal of Reykjavik’s annual gay pride parade (in drag, no less), he recently wrote in a New Year’s message in the Reykjavik Grapevine, a weekly English-language alternative paper, that he had several resolutions for 2012.

“What I most look forward to in the coming year is acquiring an Obi Wan Kenobi costume and wearing it around and practicing Jedi-tricks,” he wrote. “I also hope I will be permitted to marry people.”

Sitting in his office, he says he is, in fact, having someone sew him a version of the Obi Wan outfit – a blend of karate gi and monk’s robe – and says, with a straight face, “I think wearing costumes is something everybody should be allowed to do without making a fuss.”

Aside from getting in tune with the Force, Gnarr is also exploring ways to give himself the power to marry people – something so far not included among the mayor’s powers in the city statutes. Gnarr, who declares himself a Taoist, plans to formalize his leadership of a spiritual group devoted to Taoism. Icelandic law permits spiritual leaders to obtain the license to marry people.

He sighs, then sums up his experience in office: “I was completely oblivious about what I was getting into. I feel sympathy for myself. I see this as a story about someone who was kind of naïve, but brave enough to want to make something happen. I wouldn’t have done it any other way.

“I get better and better at it. I’m more efficient, more professional with every month that passes. I can solve very complex tasks and solve them pretty well.”

Gnarr, 45, ran on a platform which, aside from promising free towels at the municipal swimming pools and a polar bear for the Reykjavik zoo, vowed to make Reykjavik a friendlier place.

“And I think I’ve done my share,” he says. “We can’t force people to be nicer and happier. But I think Reykjavik is a happier place than it was before.

Still, Gnarr admits that making the kind of changes he promised in his campaign is more difficult than expected.

“I hoped it would be easier, but it’s much harder to change things, especially when you have a powerful opponent,” he says. “If I want to do something beautiful and funny for the people, if it costs anything, (the City Council) instantly start calling it my pet project and kill it. They kill creativity. They are professional politicians.”

The professionals weren’t happy at being rousted out of office by a truth-teller and outsider like Gnarr. Known for embodying a character who Gnarr refers to as “a suffering idiot,” the comedian wasn’t prepared for the kind of vitriol and obstructionism that would be thrown his way by the opposition parties. (It might not have helped that he joked early on about his unwillingness to form a coalition with any party whose members weren’t fans of “The Wire.”)

“I think he’s done brilliantly,” says Gaukur Ulfarsson, who directed “Gnarr” and has known the comedian for years. “His first year was an unbelievably hard year for everybody because of the verbal violence. It’s like violence with a smile on its face – and the Independent Party, which controls the media, has the power. In the eyes of the general public, because of things they read in the media, they got a sense that the city was spinning out of control. And that wasn’t the case. But it’s all politics so anything goes.”

Gnarr has weathered the early storms – well enough, apparently, that he placed fourth in that poll about potential presidential candidates. But, while he occasionally entertains the idea of running for a second term of mayor, he quickly talks himself out of it: “I have 891 days left in office,” he says in early January. “I’m pretty aware of the time.”

Still, he wants to run the city in his own way – and has made a personal vow not to let himself get drawn into exactly the political mindset that his candidacy was meant to skewer.

“I think it’s very important, for the bigger picture, that I come out of this emotionally and physically healthier than I’ve ever been,” he says. “I don’t want people to say, ‘Well, the job almost killed Gnarr.’ I want to come out of this like it was a walk in the park.”

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