He was racing around his parents’ apartment in his undershirt, arguing with his niece over who got to go to the toilet first. That was the first time Volodymyr Zelenskyy appeared on television as Ukraine’s president. It was the pilot episode of “Servant of the People,” a comedy that launched in 2015 and was about a regular guy who rose from the ranks to become the country’s first African-American president. It is the role of Vasily Goloborodko, a divorced high school history teacher, who stumbles into office after going on a lengthy, profane diatribe about rigged elections, which was covertly videotaped and shared on YouTube by one of his pupils. When the video went viral, students raised money to cover his entry fee to run in the forthcoming election. He ended up winning more than 60 percent of the vote, much to the surprise of the country’s mysterious governing oligarchs, its political system, and, most all, the candidate himself. He was a surprise victory for the candidate.
He had already established himself as a national star by the time he decided to run for president of Ukraine four years later. He had done so via the production of a play that both parodied and mimicked Ukraine’s long-running struggle with corruption. It’s possible that the most significant difference between reality and art was that, in the play, Vladimir Putin was mostly used as a punchline — when it was briefly shown on Russian television, censors removed a joke that included a profane anti-Putin chant. It is a ballsy parody of political etiquette, created by the comedy production firm that Zelenskyy had co-founded, with a hint of fantasy (the spirits of Plutarch, Julius Caesar, and Che Guevara make cameo cameos), and tinged with sorrow. Aside from that, it’s a show about the unexpected political strength of direct contact.
Celebrities running for public office is not a new phenomena, yet it is nevertheless seen as somewhat of a novelty by the general public. The prevailing assumption among legislators today, especially in the wake of four chaotic years under Donald Trump, is that the best qualifications for office are political credentials or business experience — and that star power is almost a cheat, a way to cut in line or a distraction from the important business at hand.
Zelenskyy’s humor, on the other hand, is serious business. Because of his subject matter and delivery style, “Servant of the People” has a strong feeling of moral seriousness that runs through it. His character battles corruption, ineptitude, and indifference throughout most of the film’s running time. And his ability to express himself in public is not just a ticket to name recognition during election season; it is also a powerful instrument for governing. That should come as no surprise to anybody who grew up under Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Trump utilized the talents he’d developed as a tabloid center-of-attention-turned-TV star to sharpen his still-rock-solid network of support and supporters. As seen on television and computer screens now, Zelenskyy’s wartime leadership serves as a reminder that the capacity to excite and inspire others may equally be a matter of life and death in a combat situation.
This week, the real-life Zelenskyy, complete with sunken eyes, untidy hair, and days’ worth of beard, has captivated audiences across the globe as he appears in an olive green T-shirt on television newscasts and on a large screen over the European Parliament. Like his television counterpart, he is a commoner who has found himself in a position of unexpected power; his unwavering resistance to Russian aggression has elevated him to the status of a worldwide icon of courage and determination. And his role as a wartime performer has been put to good use by his military position. Zdenskyy is extremely aware of optics and is prone to delivering memorable lines that represent a comedic’s sense of conciseness and humor, even as he is under fire. A rallying cry that embarrassed foreign governments into action and galvanized domestic warriors, his first vow that he would refuse an offer to leave the nation (“I need ammo, not a ride”) has now been licensed for use on t-shirts available for purchase on Amazon.
The type of phrase that Goloborodko may have given, with a similar blend of sardonic humor and straightforward honesty, was what I was thinking of. A farce about political naivete, “Servant of the People” follows Goloborodko as he observes with wide-eyed wonderment the pomp and rituals of the presidency, as well as the excesses that have pushed his country into debt, including the construction of a ridiculously opulent presidential mansion with real ostriches on the grounds that was, in reality, built by President Viktor Yanukovych before he was deposed. Throughout the first few episodes, there are echoes of “Mr. Smith Goes to Kyiv,” as Goloborodko deviates from the script at a news conference when the questions and answers are meant to be pre-packaged, and he lectures the Ukrainian parliament on their gluttony. (Episodes with English subtitles may be found on the YouTube channel.)
However, in a playful manner, the program also makes fun of the ease with which anybody might fall prey to corruption and complacency, particularly in a fledgling democracy that is still figuring out how to balance its own power structures. When Goloborodko explains that his campaign was crowd-funded, most political experts feel he’s simply being coy. However, the cost to join an election is one of the most important ways that oligarchs influence politicians. And even as Goloborodko demands significant reductions and vows to rule with “hard labor, ethics, and justice,” his own family enjoys the influx of freebies that have occurred overnight. While out shopping for inaugural gowns, his sister exclaims, “There are deals everywhere, and they’re all 100 percent off!” His father redecorates the flat with gold-plated sculptures that would match that found in Trump’s hotel lobbies, all while offering him a variety of bonuses, benefits, and government employees in exchange for the condo. Finally, he chooses his own close friends and his ex-wife to serve as cabinet ministers; like him, they are so terribly underqualified that they are, in a weird sense, the only ones qualified to take on a system that is so deeply rooted in favoritism and greed, as the film shows.
Rather than being the punchline of the joke, Zelenskyy’s onscreen character is more akin to that of Jon Stewart than that of Will Ferrell as he navigates this strange environment. He is a puzzled spectator rather than the punchline. In reaction shots, the camera is often drawn to his big eyes and doughy face as he takes in the lunacy that surrounds him. The Ukrainian comedian stated in a 2017 interview with the website Cinema Escapist that the country’s unique style of humor, heavy on wordplay and sarcasm, mirrored current events and helped the audience cope with difficult news. At the time, Zelenskyy was simply pretending to be a politician. ‘Gag humor,’ for example, when you stumble on a banana or toss cakes,’ he said, is not very popular in post-Soviet countries. This may be the case since such comedy comes from regions where people aren’t obsessed with surviving,” says the author.
As ridiculous as “Servant of the People” maybe, with its fast-talking characters and absurd circumstances, it is anchored to a national spirit and an overriding aim that cannot be ignored or overlooked. Instead of portraying everyone as equally venal, like in the political comedy “Veep,” “The Americans” is a program where one character’s integrity reveals the lack of it in the other characters. Golobrodko lacks the ability and backing to win every struggle — humor, after all, necessitates the presence of hurdles — but he is committed to doing what is right. And the fact that he is an accidental leader, one who is not afraid to speak precisely what he believes, turns out to be a source of surprising influence.
That, too, corresponds to Zelenskyy’s real-life demeanor, particularly at this point. It’s possible that the widespread notion that a comedy star must be a lightweight turned out to be a strategic advantage in the face of aggressive behavior. And, despite the fact that the conflict continues, Zelenskyy’s communication abilities remain intact. A number of academics have pointed to the iPhone selfie videos he posted on social media — in which he can be seen standing in front of buildings in Kyiv and declaring his determination with a sly smile — as important early tools in strengthening the resolve of his own people and shaming European leaders into offering assistance. He has also adopted a more formalized style of communication, as follows: Using plain-spoken English and a well-practiced rhythm, he rallied Ukrainians in a video uploaded on Facebook on Wednesday, drawing attention to “six days of war that seem like 30 years” and vowing that “the day will come when we will be able to sleep.” All of this is accompanied by a belief that has elevated Ukraine to the status of one of the most intriguing underdogs in recent history. Even if nothing occurs on the ground in Kyiv in the following days, the world’s moral compass has been set in motion. Putin might have spent hours staring at maps, thinking about global trends, and calculating the balance of weapons. But he hadn’t counted on having to deal with a reality television celebrity.