How Volodymyr Zelenskyy Went from Playing a President on a Comedy TV Show to Very Real Life

To the great dis­may of West Wing fans, Josi­ah Bart­let nev­er actu­al­ly became Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca. At some point, one sus­pects they’d even have set­tled for Mar­tin Sheen. Alas, play­ing the role of the pres­i­dent on tele­vi­sion has­n’t yet become a qual­i­fy­ing expe­ri­ence for play­ing it in real life — or at least not in the U.S. But things work dif­fer­ent­ly in Ukraine, which in 2019 elect­ed to its pres­i­den­cy the star of Ser­vant of the Peo­ple (Слуга народу), a com­e­dy series about a high-school teacher who becomes pres­i­dent on the back of an anti-estab­lish­ment rant gone viral. His name, Volodymyr Zelen­skyy, is one we’ve all become famil­iar with indeed since last week, when Russ­ian pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin ordered an inva­sion of his coun­try.

For as unlike­ly a head of state as Zelen­skyy, a more for­mi­da­ble test could hard­ly be imag­ined. The seri­ous­ness of the con­flict con­trasts stark­ly with the tone of Ser­vant of the Peo­ple, in light of which Zelen­skyy’s ascen­dance looks less like Mar­tin Sheen becom­ing Pres­i­dent than Veep’s Julia Louis-Drey­fus becom­ing Vice Pres­i­dent, or Yes Min­is­ter’s Paul Edding­ton becom­ing Prime Min­is­ter.

Still, the past decade’s fur­ther blur­ring of the lines between tele­vi­su­al fic­tion and polit­i­cal fact made the Zelen­skyy can­di­da­cy look less like a stunt than a gen­uine­ly viable cam­paign. Dur­ing that cam­paign the BBC pro­duced the seg­ment at the top of the post, which calls him “the come­di­an who could be Pres­i­dent”; Vice pub­lished the more detailed view above as elec­tion day approached.

Most offi­cials of Zelen­skyy’s rank are famous by def­i­n­i­tion. He had the advan­tage of already being well-known and well-liked in his home­land, but his per­for­mance so far under the har­row­ing con­di­tions of Putin’s inva­sion has won him respect across the world. There is now, in addi­tion to the fas­ci­na­tion about his rise to pow­er, an equal­ly great fas­ci­na­tion about that of Vasyl Holoborod­ko, the thir­ty-some­thing his­to­ry teacher he plays on Ser­vant of the Peo­ple. This Youtube playlist offers 23 episodes of the show, com­plete with Eng­lish sub­ti­tles. Give it a watch, and you’ll bet­ter under­stand not just Zelen­skyy’s appeal to the Ukrain­ian peo­ple, but that peo­ple’s dis­tinc­tive sense of humor — a vital strate­gic asset indeed in such try­ing times.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Why Rus­sia Invad­ed Ukraine: A Use­ful Primer

West Point Expert Gives Ukraini­ans Advice on Con­duct­ing Effec­tive Urban War­fare Against Russ­ian Troops

Why is Ukraine in Cri­sis?: A Quick Primer For Those Too Embar­rassed to Ask (2014)

“Borat” on Pol­i­tics and Embar­rass­ment — Pret­ty Much Pop: A Cul­ture Pod­cast Dis­cus­sion #67

Come­di­ans Speak­ing Truth to Pow­er: Lenny Bruce, George Car­lin & Richard Pry­or (NSFW)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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