Reviewed: Il Grillo canta sempre al tramonto by Beppe Grillo

Anyone for cricket?

Il Grillo canta sempre al tramonto
Beppe Grillo, Dario Fo and Gianroberto Casaleggio
Chiarelettere, 208pp, €13.90

Italy has been a land of political vanguardism. It was in the 15th and 16th centuries, as republican city states achieved a precarious but briefly vigorous existence. One of these, Florence, produced the founding genius of political science, Niccolò Machiavelli, who sought to make rulers realise that the state was not their possession but a public trust.

It was again in the vanguard in the 20th century: Benito Mussolini spun fascism out of radical socialism in the early 1920s. At about the same time, Christian democracy was first essayed in the form of the Italian People’s Party, founded in 1919 with the reluctant blessing of the Vatican by the anti-fascist priest Don Luigi Sturzo; after the war, Alcide De Gasperi revived it in the form of the Christian Democratic Party. In the 1960s, the Italian Communist Party evolved a socialdemocratic- tending “Euro-communism” that strongly influenced Mikhail Gorbachev, the last ruler of the Soviet Union.

Today, Beppe Grillo has established a movement that is the first web-based political grouping to make a breakthrough in serious electoral politics. Grillo’s Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S) – the Five Star Movement – won the highest number of votes in Italy for a single party in the February elections (coalitions of the right and left blocs produced higher tallies when counted together).

Grillo sees the internet as the medium through which the world is changing: “Thanks to the net, we have at our disposal a vast quantity of ideas and we can bring thousands of intellects to bear on one particular issue.” To which the playwright and Nobel laureate Dario Fo replies: “What is grander than a revolution?”

The exchange is part of a conversation, which also includes Grillo’s close associate and web genius Gianroberto Casaleggio, recently published in Italy as Il Grillo canta sempre al tramonto (“The cricket always sings at dusk” – the title is a pun on Grillo’s name, which means “cricket” in Italian). One of a sudden splurge of books on Grillo, Il Grillo canta reveals most about a politics that has passed from the web to the streets and finally to parliament and that now holds Italian politics to a kind of ransom. To understand the Grillo phenomenon is – for all its many “onlyin- Italy” features – to get some sort of handle on where politics everywhere in the developed world is going.

Grillo, who is 64, has been one of Italy’s most popular comics for more than 30 years. From the early 1980s, he developed a line in satire that was increasingly critical of the Church, celebrities and, most of all, politicians. With the help of Casaleggio, a long-time web entrepreneur, he has melded together a stage act, a political critique, a blog and citizens’ activism into a movement that presents itself as the direction in which politics must go. There’s something in this of Marx’s idealistic view that, under communism, the state would wither away and citizens would govern themselves. This isn’t necessarily a preserve of the left: in the UK, the Conservative MP Douglas Carswell has written: “The web . . . makes collective action and intelligence, free from any directing authority, possible on a size and scale that was previously impossible.”

Grillo, Casaleggio and Fo are explicit: remove governments, parties and, above all, leaders and the web will allow for self-government. “For the M5S,” Casaleggio claims, “‘leader’ is a word of the past, dirty, devious: ‘leader’ of what?” “In cities,” Grillo says, “we’re used to police and traffic lights, while there’s another way of moving about, which is not to have rules.” Grillo mentions New Delhi and Bombay, where, he says, traffic rules are worked out in the absence – or in the ignoring – of controls. Casaleggio invokes Periclean Athens, where: “Democracy was founded on the idea of community, common thought and shared values . . . Maybe the web can help to rediscover that inspiration which allows equality among intelligent beings. And for that, you don’t need a leader, a charismatic boss to whom you must turn.”

Yet, as many Italian commentators have noted, Grillo often acts like a boss. Fo encouraged his superstar status (and ego) by lauding the swim he made from the mainland to Sicily across the Strait of Messina (a little over three kilometres) in October last year to publicise the movement’s campaign in Sicily, saying that it showed “courage and determination . . . a new way of presenting yourself to people”. Grillo presents the new in old-fashioned celebrity clothes, trading on his fame and on that of those the media promote: when the movement recently chose who it wanted as its presidential candidate to replace Giorgio Napolitano, it voted for Milena Gabanelli, an investigative journalist who presents a sharp-edged programme on the state broadcaster Rai’s third channel.

As the M5S climbed in the opinion polls last year, Grillo issued stern prohibitions to its election candidates not to talk to the news media and in particular not to appear on the political talk shows that proliferate on Italian TV. Grillo writes: “We don’t want [the representatives of M5S] to appear on talk shows . . . We want talk shows to be abolished. Since I put out that fatwa, many people have begun to agree with us. The talk show is dead . . .”

Everything in politics must change or be destroyed – the personnel, the parties, even the language. Casaleggio mentions a talk he had with Romano Prodi, twice head of a centre- left governing coalition, who told him, referring to Grillo, “Comedy is comedy and politics is politics.” No, replied Casaleggio: people don’t see politics that way – they mix it all together and increasingly see politicians through the lens of satire and ridicule.

For the past two months, Grillo and Casaleggio have, through the exertion of strong control over their elected deputies and senators, all newcomers to national politics, refused to make a deal with the left coalition that narrowly won the plurality of votes. Its former leader, Pier Luigi Bersani, who announced his resignation on 20 April, sought desperately to get some sort of agreement that would have allowed him the necessary dominance of upper and lower houses. Grillo’s refusal to negotiate has often been couched in the most contemptuous terms: Bersani, buffeted by critics and competition in his party, was made to look weak. Grillo’s obstructionism has now forced the left to form a “grand coalition” with the right bloc, which includes Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom Party. This will allow the M5S leader to argue that the old parties have closed ranks against the future.

Grillo is a ranter, a tyrannical leader who denies leadership, one who lumps the good, the bad and the utterly corrupt in Italian public life into one nightmarish mass that must be abolished – as if societies were morality plays in which victory over the devil issues in the Kingdom of God. Yet he works a thick seam of disenchantment. There is disenchantment across Europe now. Soon, crickets will be singing everywhere.

John Lloyd is a contributing editor of the Financial Times

Beppe Grillo in Rome in April. Credit: Eyevine/Contrasto.
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Marc Maron: a conversation with the anxiety co-pilot

Now that the interview-based podcast WTF has had millions of downloads and featured guests from Iggy Pop and Barack Obama, what does its host Marc Maron want to say?

Richard Pryor decided to talk about race. Sam Kinison used his fame and his family history to talk about God. Bill Hicks asked why nothing produced in America seemed quite worthy of the people who consumed it. Now that the intimate, interview-based podcast WTF has had millions of downloads on iTunes and has featured guests from Mel Brooks to Iggy Pop and, this summer, Barack Obama, what does its host, the comedian Marc Maron – adopter of stray cats, recovered addict and vinyl hoarder – feel he has to say?

“I think the type of conversations that I have on the show are something that is missing in our lives,” Maron told me one recent Friday, down the line from the garage in the garden of his home in Highland Park, Los Angeles, where WTF has been recorded twice a week since 2009. “We’ve lost the knowledge that it’s not that hard to have an hour-long conversation with someone. You’re built to carry whatever problems they have. I think it’s good for the heart.”

If the Maron family crest bore a motto, it might be that timeless adage: “Wherever you go, there you are.” Born in 1963, Maron was raised by a real-estate broker mother and an orthopaedic surgeon father, first in New Jersey, then in Alaska, then in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “My father is and was both an overactive hypochondriac and a physician,” he wrote in his 2013 memoir, Attempting Normal, “which is a bad combination.” After studying English at Boston University, he began performing stand-up comedy at the age of 24.

“I don’t think of myself as a joke guy,” he told me. “Most of what I do is creating a dialogue around my own problems. Some people call it ‘navel-gazing’ but I’d prefer to call it ‘compulsive self-awareness’.”

And there have been many problems. Maron, now 51, began his 2013 comedy special Thinky Pain by telling the audience in the basement of the Village Gate nightclub in New York that he didn’t “have a lot of respect for people that don’t have the courage to lose complete control of their life for a few years”.

When Maron was 35, unhappily married, hoovering up booze, weed and cocaine most evenings, he met a beautiful aspiring comedian 12 years his junior, who told him he looked dreadful and offered to help him get sober. And she did, more or less. He divorced his first wife and pinned his hopes on his second. By 2009, he was living on the US west coast, divorced for a second time, barely able to work and newly dismissed from the morning talk show he’d co-hosted on the left-leaning Air America radio network.

“It was a period where I needed to talk a lot,” he said, “but also to sort of re-engage with something I think I had practised as a child: being part of somebody else.” With the former Air America producer Brendan McDonald, Maron began recording conversations with comedian friends, seeking advice, delving into their lives. He asked stock questions, such as “What did your old man do?” and “Who were your guys?”, as if they might provide some clue to where he had gone wrong. Then people started to listen.

“I started getting emails saying somehow or other the dialogue with my guests, or my monologues, were making people feel better or getting them through dark times,” he said. “I never anticipated people would get that type of help from the show.”

In a recent episode with Ian McKellen, Maron explained to the British actor that his listeners were “sensitive, slightly aggravated, usually intelligent people”, not so much “a demographic, more of a disposition”. By 2010, WTF had attracted a cult following. Robin Williams came to the garage and talked about his depression. Maron’s fellow stand-up Todd Glass came out as gay on the show after a string of suicides among young LGBT people. Friends whom Maron had known throughout his career, including David Cross, Sarah Silverman and Bob Odenkirk, joined him to reminisce. His 2010 interview with Louis CK, arguably the best-known US comedian of recent years, was voted the greatest podcast episode ever by the online magazine Slate.

“Comedians in their infancy are generally selfish, irresponsible, emotionally retarded, morally dubious, substance-addicted animals who live out of boxes and milk crates,” Maron wrote in his memoir. Yet, as they mature, they can become “some of the most thoughtful, philosophical, open-minded . . . creative people in the world”.

“The best comics are people that have taken the chance to live a life independent of mainstream culture and expectations,” he told me. “They’re constantly looking for an angle on the information coming in. They write things down. It’s the life of a thinker, or a philosopher, or poet – however you want to put it.”

I suggested that poetry was an ideal analogy for comedy, not only because poets reframe reality in a truthful way but also because they can be savage and resentful, particularly to fellow poets. It’s a fact Maron openly concedes about himself.

“I’m the clown that thought Louis CK’s show Louie should be called F*** You, Marc Maron,” he said at the 2011 Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal. The episode of WTF with Louis CK, a friend since the late 1980s, is remarkable not only for the moment when CK becomes audibly emotional as he discusses the birth of his first child, but for the way in which he unflinchingly airs his grievances with Maron, who confesses to envying CK’s success so much that they lost contact for a time. “You were being a shitty friend by being jealous,” CK says. “I could’ve used you . . . I got divorced. I got a show cancelled. I could’ve used a friend.”

So, in 2015, with a TV series about his life on the IFC cable network concluding its third series, the widely discussed interview in which Obama opened up about parenting, gun control and racism in the US and a series of high-profile appearances in Dublin, London and Sydney booked to showcase new material, surely the glass at last looks half full? “Maybe,” he said. “There are some people whose ego is able to accept the love and adoration of an audience. I’ve always been one to question that.”

Yet the improvements to his life – recognition, financial security, reconciliation with old friends – are undeniable. “Most creative people move through a tremendous amount of insecurity, which can turn to hostility. But the podcast became socially relevant and some of the insecurities dissipated. I could accept myself, for the most part, and realise that all the hard work I’d done for half my life had manifested into something that connects with people.”

Maron’s biggest anxiety today, he explained at the end of our talk, before opening the garage door to face the day, is that he’s “swamped with work all the f***ing time”.

“I beat myself up feeling like I should be out in the world, seeing a play or some art or something. Often, when I do monologues, I think, ‘I’ve got nothing to talk about.’ But then I go on and talk about nothing.”

The truth is that Marc Maron isn’t Richard Pryor or Bill Hicks – but that’s OK. We live in a different time. Perhaps what listeners need most is not more opinions, but a little help getting out of their own way: a co-pilot to navigate the anxieties of living day to day. “That’s exactly right,” he said. “The little things.”

Marc Maron performs at the Southbank Centre, London SE1, on 3 and 4 September

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses