Who's afraid of Beppe Grillo?
Maria Agostinelli | 30-06-2008 | ENG
(Translated by Anamaría Crowe Serrano)
For some years now, the new face of Italian society is a comedian: Beppe Grillo. Pioneer, showman, communicator par excellence. Loved and hated as much by the right wing as the left, the “Grillo phenomenon” is part of the restlessness many Italians feel towards the establishment. But it has yet to be fully understood. We spoke to Emilio Targia, journalist and spokesperson for Radio Radicale, co-author of Chi ha paura di Beppe Grillo? (tr. Who’s afraid of Beppe Grillo), a widely documented reportage written with the linguist Federica De Maria and the sociologist Edoardo Fleischner.

Who was Beppe Grillo?
Grillo’s artistic career took off in Genoa, a city rich in talent throughout the 70’s, where he appeared in cabarets and other venues. Fame came thanks to one of the great Italian TV personalities, Pippo Baudo, who appreciated Grillo’s particularly energetic brand of comedy and launched him.
After a few years of a brilliant TV career, Grillo began to focus his acts on everyday events and then on politics. In 1986 he came out with his famous line about the then Prime Minister, Bettino Craxi, and the Socialist Party, making jibes at their honesty. All hell broke loose: Baudo washed his hands of him and Grillo was removed from Rai television. Nevertheless, he continued to fill the theatre halls over the years. People didn’t forget him and continued to flock to his shows which were advertised solely by word of mouth, under a total absence of traditional advertising. Maybe it was thanks also to the fact of his absence from their television screens.

After a change at the helm at Rai, however, Grillo returned to television.
Yes, in various productions, among which a song festival in San Remo which got a really impressive rating thanks to a biting monologue from Grillo in which he compared the events manager, Aragozzini, to a “Bulgarian border officer” and invited the singer, Jovanotti, to go “work in a mine”.
But his TV peak came in 1993 over two nights of live broadcasting (i.e. unedited) when Grillo dictated his own terms to the Rai network: complete freedom over his texts and a paying audience in the studio. Both evenings were followed by about 13 million spectators. At the time, it was a figure that was only equalled by the football world finals.

His interest in politics and what goes on at grass roots matured after his prophetic statement on the disastrous Parmalat situation. It should be remembered that the revenue authorities went to Grillo’s house to ask for his sources of information. Where did he get them?

In the Parmalat case Grillo pin-pointed something that politicians had forgotten to cover up. The powers that should have been on their guard and some journalists who knew about the Parmalat situation haven’t spoken about it, either out of fear or “neglect”. It was such a sensational situation that many thought that the information in the public domain wasn’t enough to bring about such a catastrophic scenario. So no one was particularly worried. It was and had always been Parmalat, after all.
But there was something that didn’t quite gel. And Grillo only drew his conclusions from information that had already come out either in print or elsewhere. Then he issued a warning about the Parmalat situation using satire which, as we know, always goes well with politics. If his predictions had never come true, the whole thing might have been forgotten. But Grillo had foreseen correctly and had every reason to shout “I told you so!”, also stressing the fact that he had been the only one to do so.
At that point the revenue authorities immediately thought that Grillo had got his information from some inside source, but I don’t think that was the case. As a comedian, Grillo simply added up two and two with aspects of the situation that others preferred to overlook.

Parmalat, the hydrogen engine, and then the battle to keep Wi-max technology from the usual oligarchs of the Italian phone company: Grillo took one argument, got information on it and gave us his point of view. But how can the truth of his argument be verified?
I don’t think the most important thing is to rigorously check the validity of his statements because I think that the presence of alternative information is already miraculous, and it often came from a very sound source. Whether it was wittingly or otherwise – and I hope it was – in explaining that there existed the possibility of a hydrogen engine, Grillo was “guiding” those who were following him to reason one step further, to consider the fact that there is often a hidden truth behind what is said in public. He was promoting lateral thinking and maybe even his followers weren’t aware of just how far he was instrumental in this. Some of them took the “lesson” in the right way, as a prompt to “explore further”, whereas others were happy to simply laugh their angst away.

Grillo the comedian: in the book you describe the “three phases” through which his comedy is articulated.
1) Reading about daily events; 2) personalising them; 3) coming to a vociferous conclusion on their hidden truth. These three phases produce as many responses in the audience: 1) consciousness of the problem which had previously been unclear; 2) mass cheering for whoever brings down the corrupt, sinful adversary; 3) a feeling of collective action finally being put on the same level as liberating aggression, expressed both verbally and physically. In the end there is much pause for thought but there’s also that liberating laughter.

It has been suggested that Grillo’s audience feels some kind of self-gratification at hearing that their own country is heading for disaster. You could say it’s a very Italian attitude...
In an article published in La Repubblica in November 2004, Beatrice Manetti wrote that “Grillo is the only Italian capable of being loved by the people for telling them what makes them suffer most”. Grillo has Italy well sussed, and his audience is thoroughly Italian.

Grillo analyses, reasons, informs but, when you see his shows you get the impression that serious emotion only comes with shouted insults, urgent physicality, blunt wit. What gives Grillo his edge?
Grillo fills a vacuum that others can’t fill, and if a room is bare and empty, a shout can be heard all the louder. The vacuum is that of the establishment, the political class, economic powers. Grillo rightly says that in Italy, the world of economics has been replaced by that of finance because even someone in serious debt can try to buy out a bank or a newspaper. Grillo, on the other hand allies himself with the marvellous example of the old Olivetti business, with its research, its structure, its employee care. And its production.
Grillo waves reality in front of us and derides it with an energy that draws you in, with creative physicality, with the credibility he has from being an independent comedian and one who has also ruffled feathers. The result is that people are so distressed at not knowing who to turn to, they listen to him first of all and then follow him – often exaggerating and attributing added value to him that he doesn’t actually have. Grillo also has such a devoted following because there’s not much else to follow.

As a result, Grillo has invented a language for himself on the opposite end of the scale of political correctness. It is a language with a far from gentle approach which, apart from its content, disrupts, corrodes, insults.
This also makes it liberating. Italians see in Grillo what they never see in politics. As the actor Marco Paolini said, Italian politics has often opted for a strange “perversion towards the centre” which is also manifested in language: constant attempts to compromise at all costs, appease all sides or deal with broader issues. Grillo does the exact opposite: he says everything he thinks in an extreme, exasperated way. He takes a stance, doesn’t compromise.

Might he not end up being seen as populist or a demagogue?
His starting point is to read everyday events from the stance of a comedian, and communicate in a direct way. It might result in demagogue or “leader of the people” type behaviour but it’s accepted all the same because people feel that someone is at last making his voice heard, loudly and clearly, amidst so much generalised unintelligible murmuring.
Grillo’s and his supporters’ verbal violence has often been criticised, but we must remember that even though hundreds of thousands of people crowded to his “Vaffanculo-Day”, there have never been any injuries or brawls recorded. Of course, the slogan “vaffanculo” (tr. “up yours”) isn’t the most elegant, but as the journalist Marco Travaglio says, compared to the ones put forward by the powers that be, Grillo’s “up yours” smell of roses. People are tired and to rebel they need a new leader: Grillo is the new leader of communication because he’s like no-one else.

In the book you give a lot of space to Grillo’s blog, the fulcrum of his activity, which some people acclaim while others criticise bitterly.
Our reportage, in fact, started off from an analysis of Grillo’s blog and from its apparent “indecipherability” compared to other blogs. Grillo managed to make the Internet “hot”, whereas by nature it’s usually a cold medium. When you log onto his blog you get its physicality full on, whether from videos or the text.
Its slogan, “the means is the message,” then became “the absence is the message”: Grillo died a death on TV only to be reborn through the Internet even healthier than he had been before, where he could get quite a few things off his chest. Moreover, the blog is well researched, rich in facts compiled by an educated team, where Grillo shares all his findings and gives account of his initiatives.
These are the positive aspects. The negative ones lie in a tendency towards what many consider to be an “oligarchic” structure: Grillo’s blog is seen as a kind of stage where interactivity from below, at a horizontal level, is replaced by someone looking for the spotlight who speaks from a height down to an audience in the stalls…

What is the political significance of this blog?
It was the first blog to move the masses. Thanks also to the blog, Grillo was able to organise his V-Days and to collect hundreds of thousands of signatures over very few days for his three referenda. It goes to prove that some of his supporters aren’t just looking to have a liberating, aggressive laugh, but are interested also in concrete action. It’s also a warning to Italian politicians: in the whole history of the Republic, no-one has ever been able to collect so many signatures in so little time. The more politics snubs him, the more approval he wins. Proof of it is that on the second V-Day more supporters registered than on the first one, despite it having been written off as a flop by higher authorities.
In the same way, tarnishing Grillo as anti-political only succeeds in giving him more strength. The real anti-politics is in legislatures that, despite their number and length in office, haven’t brought about the important reforms which would be so beneficial to the country.

In the book you declare that many of the posts left by Grillo on the blog aren’t written by him at all. How did you come to this conclusion?
Based on the journalistic enquiries we made, we were able to deduce that Grillo doesn’t write everything on his own. He has a team of people who write for him using his political and artistic input. It would be impossible to manage a blog that has thousands of contacts on your own. And we managed to identify three or four different ghost writers. But, it’s completely understandable, I have to say, given the colossal amount of documents that go through the blog every day…

Could that not dilute the personal reputation Grillo has built for himself during his years of uncomfortable comedy and on which so much depends?
I don’t think that’s the point. What really doesn’t wash is Grillo’s self-referential habits which make him want to control everything that’s written about him. Yet, he is someone in the public eye so he ought to allow for diverging opinions about himself. This is the contradiction in Grillo, actually: if you espouse freedom of thought and action, if you promote freedom of the press on all matters and for everyone, you should be the first to subject yourself to the rule you advocate so vigorously.

What’s the storyline of your book, anyway?
Three people set out to follow the path forged by this man and the game becomes a fascinating and complex study project. Publication has been quite an editorial adventure because the book was supposed to be published by a different publisher who, due to problems with Grillo himself, pulled out in the end. Which wasn’t very nice of them. We insisted in the publication going ahead so as to portray Grillo as less of an ideologised figure. It’s not so much a question of being for or against him, as much as analysing him in an impartial, journalistic way, also to understand what he is a symptom of in present day Italy. But obviously the Italian publishing market prefers books that are about scandals and that present foregone conclusions.

Some of Grillo’s supporters went up for the last political and local elections with their own electoral candidates. What were the results?
I don’t think the figures are indicative because Grillo didn’t go forward in person.
He made no bones about going public with his intention not to vote because he was against this electoral law, because he felt it was making a laughing stock of him and because in his opinion these elections were a sham. Then he gave the so-called “blue flag” to some of the candidates. The criteria was that the candidates couldn’t have previous criminal convictions, couldn’t have held public office for more than two terms and couldn’t be members of a political party. On this subject, Daniele Luttazzi, an author of incredibly biting satire who is not immune to trouble with censorship, declared that it’s pie in the sky to try and make people less small-minded by simply applying formal rules or laws.

Summing up, then: who’s afraid of Beppe Grillo?
Probably the “Establishment”. Probably the powers at the top.
Probably, he himself is, a little bit.

(June 30, 2008)

Emilio Targia, Edoardo Fleischner, Federica De Maria
Chi ha paura di Beppe Grillo? (tr. Who’s afraid of Beppe Grillo?)
Selene, 2008
pp. 223; euro 15,00