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Opinion: Zelenskyy's comedy background is ever-present in his approach to nations

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky gestures as he speaks during a press conference in Kyiv on March 3, 2022.
AFP via Getty Images
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky gestures as he speaks during a press conference in Kyiv on March 3, 2022.

A comic has become the face of courage.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, unshaven, rumple tee-shirted, speaking from the street, or walking to visit wounded Ukrainian soldiers in a hospital, where he gave them medals and got them to smile.

Gary Shteyngart, the Russian-born American novelist, told us, "Zelenskyy has shown the world that Jewish comedians are not to be trifled with. Beneath all the laughs they have a backbone of steel."

Volodymyr Zelenskyy has a law degree but made his name as a comedian. He produced and starred in the series Servant Of the People, in which he played a slightly nebbish high school history teacher whose classroom oration against corruption goes viral and propels him to be elected president of Ukraine.

Four years after the series debuted, the real-life Volodymyr Zelenskyy was elected president. And while political opponents have questioned if he fights corruption quite as fiercely as the role he played, there has been worldwide admiration for him as a resolute leader of a nation under attack.

He has stayed in a city under siege, refusing a U.S. offer of evacuation with, "I need ammunition, not a ride."

He cited Shakespeare to the British parliament, telling them, "The question for us now is to be or not to be..." and then invoked Winston Churchill when he told Britons, "We will continue fighting for our land, whatever the cost. We will fight in the forests, in the fields, on the shores, in the streets."

Anne Libera, director of Comedy Studies at Columbia College Chicago, told us, "Comedy manipulates truth, pain and psychological distance with the intent to make others laugh ... Zelenskyy has a comedian's ability to connect."

President Zelenskyy told a joint session of the U. S. Congress this week, "In your history, you have pages that would allow you to understand Ukrainians, understand us now... Remember Pearl Harbor, the terrible morning of December 7, 1941, when your sky was black from the planes attacking you."

And yet he didn't try to sound as eloquent as Churchill, or as sonorous as FDR.
"He's an experienced writer of his own material who knows what works for him," Bob Falls, the Tony-Award winning director told us, "with the talent to project both anger and vulnerability. That is probably rehearsed (like all plays), and yet appears completely spontaneous and alive 'in the moment.'"

It is a comic actor's skill that Volodymyr Zelenskyy now brings to the tragedy around him as he fights to keep his county alive.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.