Beppe Grillo: The comedian exploding Italy’s establishment

Popular Italian comedian Beppe Grillo has shaken up the country's political scene with his foul-mouthed rants against austerity. Should Italy's technocratic government be worried?

On 8 September 2008, two million people in 250 cities across Italy celebrated an unofficial new national holiday, says The New Yorker. The event had been organised by Beppe Grillo, Italy's most popular comedian, to protest against endemic corruption in the national government. At the end of the day, a weary but triumphant Grillo took to the stage in Bologna's Piazza Maggiore. "We haven't arrived at our destination yet this is just the beginning," he yelled. He was right.

Four years later and Grillo's Cinque Stelle (Five Stars) movement is the most potent new political force in Italy, says Der Spiegel. Last month it "came from nowhere" to notch up double-digit results in the country's local elections, securing 15% of the vote in Genoa, Grillo's home city, and 20% in Parma.

The Italian media have proclaimed "a revolution at the polls". Grillo's opponents call him a demagogue. It's easy to see why: "he shouts and he curses and tears at his white hair" and calls himself "the Detonator" a demolition expert whose target is the political establishment.

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Grillo's frequently foul-mouthed tirades are no longer centred on Rome alone: he's targeting the euro and austerity too. "All across crisis-hit Europe, desperate voters are turning to populist and radical parties. In Italy, they're flocking to Beppe Grillo."

Grillo grew up in San Fruttuoso, a lower-middle-class neighbourhood near the port of Genoa. "Everyone at the port was on the take," he told The New Yorker. In his teens, he began playing guitar in local nightclubs, expanding his between-song patter until he was doing stand-up comedy.

Moving to Milan, his big break came when he got a part in a variety show on RAI, Italy's national TV network, and began improvising comedy monologues, lampooning everyone from politicians and sports stars, to the Pope. "By the late 1970s, Grillo was a national celebrity."

Grillo's TV career didn't last long. Politicians were furious and soon got him banned. That didn't stop him performing live and becoming rich, says Reuters. He developed a taste for Ferraris and speedboats, "of which he now claims he is cured".

In 1981, while driving with friends in the Alps, Grillo lost control of his car and plunged into a ravine killing three of his passengers. He was later convicted of "negligent homicide". He sold most of his assets to provide a fund for a badly injured survivor. "The accident changed Beppe," says his brother Andrea.

In 2005 Grillo began a blog, an immediate hit that gave him the platform he needed to start Cinque Stelle, recruiting a growing army of grassroots supporters nicknamed the "grillini" ("little crickets"), mainly focused on righting local wrongs. Can the movement make the transition to the national stage? asks The New York Times. We'll soon find out. For now, there's nothing stopping the "caustic comedian" who is altering Italy's political map.

What show business can do for politics

Beppe Grillo is often compared with Michael Moore. But he's actually funnier than the American activist and a good deal less chippy. "Beppe, you're a great man," shouts one passing admirer."No, I'm just big," he replies, patting his belly. With an energy that belies his 63 years, Grillo's style is "a mix of the extravagant and intimate", says John Lloyd on Reuters.

In his comedy shows and political meetings, "he scorns the stage, roaming among the audience" occasionally grabbing someone's head and clasping it to his chest, "as if providing a moment's refuge from a cruel world". He maintains a running commentary throughout, which "shifts from the bitter to witty and back again in seconds".

Until fairly recently no one in Italian political circles took Grillo seriously, says Tobias Jones in The Guardian. "He was a stone in the shoe and nothing more." That's changed.

Despite being barred from standing for office due to his manslaughter conviction, Grillo has become a magnet for a younger, "more serious" generation of local politicians, "united in their distrust" of conventional politicians and a desire for greater grassroots democracy, says Der Spiegel. Grillo does not "offer any serious ideas". But he is "lending his face" to followers who do.

Italy "has been the largely unacknowledged crucible of new political movements over the past century", says John Lloyd. Fascism sprang from "the teeming brain" of Benito Mussolini; Christian Democracy from the Vatican's fear of rising socialism; and the Italian Communist party's version of "Eurocommunism" exerted "a profound influence" on Mikhail Gorbachev.

More recently, Silvio Berlusconi "has been the progenitor of the overt marriage of media and politics". Grillo is in this line. He is groping towards a new kind of "direct democracy" all the more potent in a country run by an unelected, technocratic government. "He has shown, in a different register from that of Berlusconi, what show business can do with, and for, politics."