Fajitas on Ice

What’s the Mayor of Reykjavik Doing in Houston?

Stand-up comedian and former mayor Jón Gnarr might just be the next president of Iceland—but for the time being, he’s calling Houston home.

Photography by Justin Calhoun By Sarah Rufca Nielsen March 9, 2015 Published in the March 2015 issue of Houstonia Magazine


“I haven’t seen anyone with a sidearm.”  

This is Jón Gnarr’s biggest complaint about his first week in Houston, along with the expected grumbles about the traffic and the lack of pedestrian-friendly infrastructure.

“I expected Houston to be more macho, you know? More cowboy. More gun shows. I was expecting to see this J.R. [Ewing] type of male.”

We do our best to explain concealed carry laws, and assure him that once the rodeo hits town this month, all his preconceived ideas about Texas will be met, and then some. Sitting on the patio at the Original Ninfa’s on Navigation, where we’re introducing Gnarr to chile con queso and fajitas, no one seems to suspect that the mild-mannered redhead in the T-shirt and blazer is perhaps the most famous person in the world from Iceland not named Björk.

Following a teenage stint as a punk rocker known as Jónsi Punk, Gnarr starred in a popular sketch comedy show—his impression of Hitler singing “My Way” at karaoke is hilarious in any language. After that, he performed stand-up and wrote and acted in hit Icelandic sitcoms and movies (Gnarr’s 2009 hit film Bjarnfreðarson out-earned Avatar domestically its first weekend), before winning his greatest role to date in 2010—mayor of Iceland’s capital city, Reykjavik. 

That Reykjavikians would elect a punk anarchist comedian to such a post may seem extraordinary, but it was an extraordinary period in Iceland. The global crash that paralyzed nearly every Western economy in 2008 decimated Iceland’s. Its three largest banks collapsed after racking up €50 billion in foreign debt, nearly six times the country’s GDP. Icelanders, their savings wiped out by a worthless currency, protested outside parliament with pots and pans until the government called for new elections.

Such tactics didn’t suit Gnarr, a self-proclaimed pacifist, who instead joined with some musician friends (including members of the Sugarcubes, Björk’s old band) to form the Best Party. The name is a pun that only works in English, as in “I was at the best party last night.” It began as a satirical take on the culture of politics: when another candidate promised to build a family theme park, Gnarr countered by saying he would build a Disneyland in Reykjavik with the blessing of his close friend Walt Disney. Instead of whaling, he suggested training the animals to transport goods between ports. He promised a drug-free parliament “by 2020,” and vowed not to form a government with anyone unless they’d watched all five seasons of The Wire. Most importantly he swore to break all his campaign promises upon taking office. 

“Comedy has in a way reached its limits,” he tells us. “There are very few comedians now, today, who you would consider dangerous. And that’s every comedian’s dream: to be edgy, to be dangerous. What I did, it’s kind of next-level comedy, to take comedy to this platform. I would not be surprised if we see a wave of comedians entering into politics.”

Other politicians attacked Gnarr as a clown, but the absurdity of his Best Party struck a chord with a disillusioned electorate. On election night he and his allies surprised everyone by getting 34.7 percent of the vote, narrowly winning a plurality. 

As cities go, Reykjavik is small, only about the size of Beaumont, but to avoid a municipal bankruptcy and a Detroit-like fate, Gnarr was forced to run it with frugal precision, raising taxes, cutting services, laying off employees, and merging schools.

“I made decisions that had to be made but that no politician would have dared to make because they fear for their reputations and their careers,” he says. “That's why the political elite has to leave and will leave, because they are incapable of doing what has to be done.”

Despite his sometimes controversial decisions, Gnarr has remained an incredibly popular figure since leaving office last June. According to Gnarr, the latest polls suggest somewhere between 35 and 40 percent of voters want him to be elected the country’s president in 2016. 

“It’s something that keeps coming up in conversation; every day I will be asked about it,” he says. But for now he is in Houston, the first writer-in-residence at Rice University’s Center for Energy and Environmental Research in the Human Sciences, where his role is to build bridges between the academic world of energy and environmental research and the arts and media.

“Many people are misinformed about very important issues, me included. I don’t always know what to believe, what is fact and what is fiction, but I have first-hand experience with politics, and climate change is first and foremost a political issue,” says Gnarr. “Climate change is a fact and I know that firsthand from Iceland. We have very obvious signs of that. Everything is heating up there, and glaciers are melting away. Some have disappeared and don’t exist anymore.”

So what does he think about the Senate's recent failure to pass a bill declaring that climate change is real and caused by humans? “It’s a bit like if you are diagnosed with lung cancer. Is it because I smoked when I was younger? Well, it doesn’t really matter. You have lung cancer,” says Gnarr with a deep, throaty chuckle.

As for local politicians, he says he’s fond of Annise Parker and familiar with Rick Perry “mostly through comedy.” But why Texas? Gnarr could only say that he has a longstanding fascination with the state, and that his intuition told him it was the right opportunity. His Texas to-do list includes a trip to Marfa, a visit to one of Houston's megachurches, and—naturally—a tour of Southfork Ranch. 

Although his Rice gig is just a semester long, Gnarr’s visa is good for three years. He’s interested in perhaps taking on other jobs here, he says, probably because he’s really enjoying the Tex-Mex. He’s already partnered with the Mildred's Umbrella theater group for a reading of his play Hotel Volkswagen, its first performance in English, even as he works on an Icelandic TV show currently in production, a fictionalized version of his experience as the mayor of Reykjavik.

“I think it’s going to happen more and more, that people from the so-called creative industry—comedians, artists—they will go into politics. Because of the situation in most of the western world, I think people realize that creativity is needed. It’s the beginning of a very creative time.” 

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