Beppe Grillo, Five Star Founder and Comedian, on Putin's 'Clear Ideas,' the 'Dysfunctional' EU and Italy's 'Cultural and Mental Misfits'

Giuseppe 'Beppe' Grillo Alessandro Albert/Getty

Giuseppe "Beppe" Grillo, 69, rose to prominence as a comedian, skewering the hypocrisy and venality of Italy's political class. When he formed the Five Star Movement in 2009, his anti-­establishment, euroskeptic stance quickly made the upstart party a player in Italian politics. His supporters: mostly young, working-class Italians who had become disillusioned with the traditional left. After winning 32 percent of the vote in the March election, Five Star became the single biggest group in the country's Parliament. In the wake of his party's victory, Grillo refused to take a seat in Parliament or in a possible coalition government, instead preferring to guide the movement from the outside.

His colleagues have needed some help. The country's economy has sputtered, and Five Star initially struggled to form a coalition government. Grillo, however, has remained optimistic about his party's future. As of publication, Five Star was nearing a governing agreement with the hard-right League party. Weeks prior, although he once said he enjoyed "eating" journalists "just for the pleasure of vomiting them up again," he spoke to Newsweek before a stand-up performance in Ancona.

How did your movement begin?
It all started from my encounter with Gianroberto Casaleggio, the manager of a small internet firm, who had just published a book on Genghis Khan and the web. I wanted to start a blog, and he helped me. Together, we created a [popular] blog.... I was just a comedian, a crowd motivator. He put the power of the web at [my] disposal, and the experiment worked.

A Five star Movement rally. Danilo Balducci/ZUMA Wire/Newscom

Why did this new political experiment succeed in Italy?
We were like an ark open to all the cultural and mental misfits of our country. I covered the whole of southern Italy in a camper van. Our movement is the force of the web combined with the town square. Their symbiosis is the key.

You didn't assume office. Why? And what's your role in the movement now?
Have you ever heard about the immortal move in the game of chess? When a player sacrifices the important pieces in order to win with a single pawn? This is my case. I am a kind of noble father, a patron. I observe it from outside and would intervene only if it strays off course.

How do you live your double life of a comedian and a politician?
It is an internal dualism that makes me an insomniac. People don't know anymore if they are coming to watch a spectacle or a political rally.

Donald Trump also came from show business. Did it help him?
I observed that mainstream media was so totally against him that, at the end, they helped him. The same has happened with the Five Star Movement…. [The media] achieved the opposite of what it aimed for. Same happened with Brexit.

Is the Five Star Movement on the left or the right?
Left, right, populism…all are meaningless concepts. Unintelligible for the new generations. Artificial intelligence is destroying the traditional world of work. Old nation-states have been emptied from within, and we are going back to the age of city-states.

Beppe Grillo
Grillo speaks in Rome during a march in support of the 'No' vote in the constitutional reform referendum in 2016. Remo Casilli/REUTERS

What do you think about fake news and Cambridge Analytica?
I don't see the scandal unless one behaves like a child. It is so obvious that we are constantly monitored and manipulated both in advertising and in politics.

And immigration?
The immigration flows have to be controlled. We have to know who comes into Italy. The problem shouldn't be left to oversized, dysfunctional nongovernmental groups.

How do you feel about Russian President Vladimir Putin?
He is certainly somebody who has clear ideas. I don't fear Putin at all. Russia wants to make commerce, not war. Anti-Putinism costs us billions in sanctions.

What is the Five Star Movement's vision for Europe?
The European Union had many merits in the past, but now it is dysfunctional. It needs reform. The European Parliament has no power; the decisions are taken by the commissioners. And if you look at who sits on the commissions, you will find one politician surrounded by seven lobbyists. Guess who makes the decisions?

Our vision for Europe is inspired by the Swiss model of direct democracy. We are in favor of a consultative referendum on the euro. It might be a good idea to have two euros, for two more homogeneous economical regions. One for northern Europe and one for southern Europe.

Will the Five Star Movement form a government?
It will take some more time, but it will happen. If we aim to lower taxes for small and medium businesses, if we aim for a citizenship income, if the end is to improve the life of the people, we can then find an agreement.