Meet Jón Gnarr, the funniest mayor of all time – The people we met on the way

I interviewed Jón Gnarr in March 2017, while researching a piece on Iceland’s pool culture.

Interviewing Jón Gnarr over the phone, it’s hard to stay on topic. I’m ostensibly interviewing him about Iceland’s bathing culture, on which he has a lot to say, but the conversation keeps veering off-topic—towards Hitler, nudity, the awkwardness of male conversations in supermarkets and, inevitably, how Gnarr became one of the least likely city mayors in the history of the world.

To recap his story very briefly, Jón Gunnar Kristinsson started out living in a Reykjavík suburb with an emotionally distant, sometimes abusive father, and a mother who struggled with alcoholism. He had ADHD, and refused to go to school, eventually replacing plans to be a pirate or a clown with the more tangible one of being Jónsi Punk, an anarchist who played bass in a band called Runny Nose. At 14, his parents sent him to a special boarding school for troubled teens. He has said it was more like a prison, with bars on the windows.

Back in Reykjavík in the latter half of the 1980s, he wrote poetry and did self-excoriating stand-up routines, sometimes punctuated with humorous songs. He joined Greenpeace and other activist groups, and hung around with the Sugarcubes, a new alt-rock band that had a keyboard player and singer called Björk. To pay the bills, he had a beige office job working for Volvo, and sometimes drove a Reykjavík taxi.  

Kristinsson, as he was then, started making something for a name for himself in 1994, when he and SigurJón Kjartansson started a scabrously funny morning radio show called Tvíhöfði. The pair went on to become the core writers and actors in sketch comedy show Fóstbræður (roughly, Blood Brothers), which began in 1997 and quickly became Icelandic water-cooler TV, comparable to Saturday Night Live in the US or The Fast Show in the UK.

By the time he changed his name to Jón Gnarr in 2005 (he wanted to drop his father’s name), he was a recognised face and name in this volcanic, icy country of around 350,000 souls. In 2006, he wrote the first part of a trilogy of semi-autobiographical novels, two of which have since been translated into English. He was both a co-writer and actor in 2007’s Night Shift TV trilogy, which was watched by more than one in five Icelanders, and starred in 2009’s Bjarnfreðarson, a comedy film from the same director which bested Avatar at the Icelandic box office.

But when he formed the Best Party in 2009, for a run at mayor of Reykjavík in the 2010 elections, everyone thought it was a joke. And they were mostly right. It was designed as a form of protest—or a “democratic self-help group”—against the bankers and political establishment who had led Iceland off the financial precipice in the global crash. The general consensus in the hot tubs of the capital was that the old anarchist was just having a laugh.   

Kicking off his campaign with a song inspired by Tina Turner’s ‘Simply the Best’, the Best Party manifesto pledged, “We promise to stop corruption. We’ll accomplish this by participating in it openly.” Other pledges included free swimming pool entry and free towels, an Icelandic Disneyland, and installing a statue of his friend Björk in the harbour, with shining lights as eyes (the fact that most of the pledges would be immediately dismissed was part of the joke). The party logo was a deliberately terrible clip-art image of a thumbs-up. Before one campaign-trail debate, Gnarr ran into a woman he didn’t recognise in the corridor—after introducing himself, he learned that she was the incumbent mayor, Hanna Birna Kristjánsdóttir.  

But Gnarr wanted his joke to have point; to be more than just a nihilistic two-fingered salute to the suits who’d screwed society. Behind the jokes, the Best Party had a backbone of seriousness—a cuddly socialism that promised free dental services and bus rides for children and disabled people, promoted gender equality, and promised “to listen to women and old people more”. He vowed earnestly that he would not go into coalition with anyone who had not watched TV show The Wire. The more he came across as honest, decent and a tad guileless during TV interviews, the more—to the mounting horror of his rivals—his poll numbers went up.

And then he won. “I really hadn’t thought it through at all,” he says of his shock victory. “I was completely naive, and had this distorted idea of what a mayor actually was. I remember on the day after the election, I got a call from City Hall saying, Come and look at your new office. I honestly imagined a little room, with a desk, a chair and a phone. I had no idea that my ‘office’ was a floor of a building, with 50 or 60 really smart people working there. When I arrived, it was lovely, until someone told me: Tomorrow we’re going to start working on the budget. I was like: Who? Me??”

Things got serious pretty quickly, and as he says: “I felt this huge weight of responsibility. I utterly regretted the whole thing.” With the city in serious debt, and threatening to go the way of Detroit, one of his first big jobs was a rescue plan for the ailing Reykjavík Energy Company, the city-owned geothermal power monopoly. “The solution was tough, involving lay-offs and a serious price hike,” says Gnarr. “I had people shouting at me in the streets. But I had an advantage in that I wasn’t a career politician, and knew I only wanted to be in office for one term. So when people would shout that they’d never vote for me again, I’d say: That’s fine, I’m never running again.”

When people would shout that they’d never vote for me again, I’d say: That’s fine, I’m never running again.

He made plenty of unpopular calls. He had to merge schools to cut education costs, and had to sign off on rounds of public sector lay-offs. He enraged the Icelandic Parliament by refusing to dine with visiting Nato commanders, as he didn’t see why Iceland should be a harbour for warships or a fuel stop for CIA rendition flights. The promises of the Björk statue, the Icelandic Disneyland and the free pool entry for all didn’t materialise, even if he pushed hard for the latter. So many people complained to him in the hot tub that he had to stop going.  

Yet, somehow, despite desperately wanting to prove that he was no gimmick, Gnarr never quite turned into just another politician. Not long after laying off 60 people at the energy company, he started “Hello Day”—September 1st—when Reykjavík residents were encouraged to greet each other as cheerfully as possible. He introduced morning hugs in the mayoral office, and would come to work some days wearing red lipstick (he’d go further for the city’s Gay Pride marches, dressing in full drag). He protested against China’s treatment of the human rights activist Liu Xiaobo, saw in the building of Iceland’s first mosque, and would frequently answer questions with a curiously revolutionary answer: “I don’t know”.

And there was still a disarming haplessness about him, perhaps best summed up when he got a tattoo on his arm of the Reykjavík Coat of Arms. If that alone wasn’t rich enough in metaphor, the tattoo subsequently got infected, forcing him to spend a few days in hospital.

But for all that he was frequently referred to as a clown (childhood ambition: tick), he left office in 2014 having helped turn around the city’s economy, and having been only the third Reykjavík mayor in a century to complete a full term. Polls suggested he could have won a second handily, and he was generally considered to have done a decent job, as an old guy in the hot tub would later confirm. “This guy looked like Gandalf, and he said he’d been surprised by me,” recalls Gnarr. “He told me that I might just be a great man, and he knew this because he’d met a few in his time. When I asked him who the greatest was, he paused for a bit, then said… Hitler.”  

But Gnarr is the antithesis of any kind of absolutism. His appeal seems bound up in his flaws and his emotional honesty about them; and the fact that he’s always come across as a human, rather than a vessel for some ideology. “Being mayor was really, really difficult, and I was really naive at the start,” he says. “I still am. But I never pretended I was something I wasn’t, and just tried to make the best decisions I could. I think people responded to that.”

I never pretended I was something I wasn’t, and just tried to make the best decisions I could. I think people responded to that.

After leaving office, he disbanded the Best Party, with members going on to form Bright Future, a liberal democratic party which won and has subsequently lost seats in the Icelandic Parliament. The new mayor is the handsome Dagur Bergþóruson Eggertsson—supposedly Iceland’s answer to Justin Trudeau—whose Social Democratic Alliance had been in coalition with Gnarr’s Best Party. Driven by an epic tourism boom, Reykjavík is thriving, even if Gnarr admits that some locals are grumbling that “the city seems to be marketing it itself more at tourists than locals”.

Today, Jón Gnarr may be a happily-married former mayor with five children, including a daughter who is a fitness model and tae kwondo black belt boasting almost 100,000 Instagram followers. But he’s still busy on projects that aren’t exactly typical of former mayors. Yes, he wrote the book about the time at City Office, but he’s also appearing in rock musical, and is writing an absurdist play set in a Costco supermarket, inspired in part by his observations of communication, especially between men, in the social media age. “Last summer, I met an old friend in my favourite Reykjavík bookstore,” he tells me. “We had that same old conversation. How are you? Fine. An hour later, he posted on Facebook that his father had died. But somehow there was no place for that in our conversation.”   

Gnarr, though, isn’t really one for blandly fitting in, even if he tried to be. “I’d like to be a part of things,” he wrote in The Indian, the first book in his childhood trilogy. “It’s just that I’m a bit weird. I’m not like the others. I feel bad about myself. I feel so bad that I get tears in my eyes when I think about it.”

In comfortable middle age, he hasn’t totally renounced the lonely child or the anarchist teen in him. “I don’t feel I’ve changed much since I was 19,” he tells me in an email, saying that if he could be tied down to any belief systems, they’d be Taoism, and laughter. “I just think that so many belief systems—whether that means Marx, Jesus or your iPhone—will eventually let you down,” he writes. “Everything becomes ridiculous sooner or later, and our whole existence is comical. People think I’m joking when I say I believe in laughter, but I’m not.”

In a world increasingly run by clowns who take themselves and their ideas deadly seriously, electing a punk comedian with a propensity for drag and humility perhaps doesn’t seem like such a ridiculous call, after all.