Opinion | How Zelenskyy’s Acting Career Showed Hints of His Powerful Underdog Leadership

The first time Volodymyr Zelenskyy appeared on television as the president of Ukraine, he was running around his parents’ apartment in his undershirt, fighting with his niece for bathroom time. It was the pilot episode of “Servant of the People,” a sitcom that premiered in 2015, about a common man who became an unlikely president. Zelenskyy’s character, a divorced high school history teacher named Vasily Goloborodko, stumbled into office after making a long, profane rant against corrupt elections, which one of his students secretly filmed and posted on YouTube. When it went viral, students crowdfunded his fee to qualify for the upcoming election. He wound up winning more than 60 percent of the vote — to the shock of the nation’s shadowy ruling oligarchs, its political apparatus and, most of all, the candidate himself.

By the time Zelenskyy actually ran for president of Ukraine four years later, he had become a national celebrity, with a show that both mocked and paralleled Ukraine’s longstanding battles with corruption. (Perhaps the biggest difference between life and art was that, in the show, Vladimir Putin served largely as a punchline — when it briefly aired on Russian TV, censors cut a gag involving a vulgar anti-Putin chant.) “Servant of the People,” produced by the comedy production company Zelenskyy had co-founded, is a ballsy satire of political manners, with a hint of fantasy — the ghosts of Plutarch, Julius Caesar and Che Guevara make appearances — and a touch of melancholy. It’s also a show about the surprising political power of direct communication.

The phenomenon of celebrities running for office is hardly rare by now, but it’s still largely treated as a curiosity. Today, especially after four chaotic years of Donald Trump, the prevailing assumption among politicos holds that the best qualifications for office are political credentials or business experience — and that star power is almost a cheat, a way to cut in line or a distraction from the serious business at hand.

But Zelenskyy’s comedy is serious business. His choice of subjects, and his brand of humor, convey a sense of moral gravity, which courses through much of “Servant of the People” as his character takes on corruption, incompetence and apathy. And his talent for public expression is not just a ticket to name recognition at election time; it’s also a potent governing tool. That should be no surprise to anyone who remembers Ronald Reagan. Trump used the skills he'd built as a tabloid centerpiece-turned-TV-star to hone his still-rock-solid base. Now, Zelenskyy’s wartime leadership, filtered through television and computer screens, is a reminder that the ability to motivate and inspire can also be a matter of life and death.

The real-life Zelenskyy, with sunken eyes, unkempt hair and days’ worth of stubble, has captivated the world over the past week, as he appears in an olive green T-shirt on TV newscasts and the giant screen above the EU chamber. Like his TV counterpart, he’s an everyman who has fallen into unexpected power; his unflinching response to Russian aggression has made him an international symbol of bravery and resolve. And his wartime stance has made ample use of his skills as an entertainer. While he’s truly besieged, Zelenskyy is also acutely aware of optics, and prone to deliver memorable lines that reflect a comedian’s sense of brevity and wit. His early declaration that he wouldn’t accept an offer to leave the country — “I need ammunition, not a ride” — became a rallying cry that shamed foreign governments into action and inspired homegrown soldiers; it’s now being sold on t-shirts on Amazon.

It was the kind of line Goloborodko might have delivered, with a similar mix of wry humor and blunt honesty. “Servant of the People” is a farce about political naivete: Goloborodko starts out with wide-eyed wonder about the pomp and rituals of the presidency and the excesses that have put his country into debt, including a ridiculously opulent presidential mansion with real ostriches on the grounds that was, in real life, built by President Viktor Yanukovych before he was deposed. There are ample shades of “Mr. Smith Goes to Kyiv” in the early episodes; Goloborodko goes off-script at a press conference, where the questions and answers are supposed to be pre-packaged, and lectures the Ukrainian parliament on its gluttony. (Episodes with English subtitles are available on YouTube.)

But in a lighthearted way, the show also comments on the ease with which anyone can sink into corruption and complacency, especially in a new democracy that’s grappling with its own balances of power. The fee to enter an election is one key way that oligarchs control the politicians; when Goloborodko explains that his run was crowd-funded, most political insiders assume he’s just being coy. And even as Goloborodko orders massive cutbacks and pledges to govern with “hard work, integrity and fairness,” his own family basks in the sudden glut of freebies. “There are sales everywhere, 100 percent off!” his sister declares after shopping for inauguration dresses. His father redecorates the apartment with gold-plated statuary that would rival Trump’s hotel lobbies, while promising away various perks, benefits and government jobs. Eventually, he installs his own close friends and his ex-wife to be his cabinet ministers; like him, they’re so profoundly underqualified that they are, in a strange way, the only people qualified to take on a system so deeply entrenched with patronage and greed.

As he navigates this unfamiliar world, Zelenskyy’s onscreen persona is closer to Jon Stewart’s than Will Ferrell’s; a bemused observer, rather than the butt of the joke. The camera often finds him in reaction shots, settling on his wide eyes and doughy face as he takes in the absurdity around him. In a 2017 interview with the website Cinema Escapist — back when he was only a make-believe politician — Zelenskyy said life in Ukraine had bred a particular brand of comedy, heavy on wordplay and satire that reflected current events and helped the public grapple with challenging news. “Gag humor — where you slip on a banana or throw cakes, for instance — isn’t really popular in post-Soviet territories,” he said. “Perhaps that’s because such humor is borne from places where people aren’t preoccupied with survival.”

Indeed, as silly as “Servant of the People” can be, with its fast-talking characters and farcical situations, it’s tethered to a national spirit and an overarching goal. This isn’t a political satire like “Veep,” where everyone is equally venal; it’s a show where one character’s integrity exposes other characters’ lack of it. Golobrodko lacks the skill and support to win every battle — comedy needs obstacles, after all — but he knows what’s right. And the fact that he’s an accidental leader, willing to say exactly what he thinks, becomes a source of unexpected power.

That, too, tracks with Zelenskyy’s real-life persona, especially now. A global assumption that a sitcom star must be a lightweight might have turned out to be, in the face of aggression, a strategic benefit. And as war rages on, Zelenskyy’s powers of communication persist. Academics have pointed to the iPhone selfie videos he posted on social media — standing in front of buildings in Kyiv, stating his determination with a sly smile — as key early tools that steeled resolve among his own people and shamed European leaders into offering support. He has embraced more formal-looking communication, too: In a video posted to Facebook on Wednesday, he rallied Ukrainians in plain-spoken language and a practiced cadence, calling attention to “six days of war like 30 years” and promising that “the time will come when we will be able to sleep.” It all comes with a conviction that has turned Ukraine into one of the most compelling underdogs in recent history. No matter what happens on the ground in Kyiv in the coming days, the world’s moral compass has been set. Putin might have stared at maps, pondered geopolitical trends and calculated the balance of weaponry. But he didn’t count on facing a TV star.