It must have been a surreal week for President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, who found himself fielding questions about his phone call with President Trump and whether he felt pressured to investigate Trump’s Democratic political rival Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.
Yet Zelensky remained poised and quippy throughout the press conference — as one might expect of a professional comedian.
Like Trump, Zelensky has a past as an entertainer: Before running for office, he was best known for his starring role in the TV show “Servant of the People,” in which he played a lovable goofball teacher accidentally elected the president of Ukraine.
By some strange twist of fate, I actually watched the first season of his show before he started his campaign. And after the firestorm of the past several days, I decided to give it a second look.
In “Servant of the People,” Zelensky plays a man on a mission to drain the swamp in his own country. Initially a humble history teacher, Zelensky’s Vasily Goloborodko becomes a viral sensation after a student furtively films him delivering a profanity-laden rant to a colleague on the blatant corruption present in Ukrainian politics.
“If I could have just one week in office, if at all possible, I would show them!” he yells. “[Expletive] the motorcades, [expletive] the perks, [expletive] the weekend chalets! . . . Have a simple teacher live like a president, and a president live like a teacher!”
The clip’s online success prompts his students to kickstart funds for a presidential campaign, which Goloborodko waves off as a joke. He finds it less funny the morning after the election, when he emerges from his bathroom to find Prime Minister Yuri Chuiko of Ukraine (played by Stanislav Boklan), flanked by security guards, standing in his hallway.
“Good morning, Mr. President,” Chuiko says.
Clinton-era political adviser Paul Begala liked to say that politics is “show business for ugly people,” an ethos the show cynically embraces. Chuiko, a figure reminiscent of Littlefinger on “Game of Thrones” who believes he can manipulate the humble schoolteacher, sets about grooming him for the spotlight. He guides Goloborodko through a bizarre makeover, complete with flashy watches, odorous colognes, and a tailor of Goloborodko’s choosing from a major European fashion house.
“You look fantastic,” the prime minister tells a dazed Goloborodko after a day of hairstyling, artificial tanning, and too-rough massages. “You’ll outshine everyone. Even Michelle Obama.”
In one scene, the history teacher realizes the inauguration speech he’s practicing is lifted from the Gettysburg Address.
“Nobody here will notice it, and Lincoln’s homeland will praise it,” Chuiko tells him. “You’ll have to ask them for money.”
Soon enough Goloborodko becomes disgusted with the opulent lifestyle being pushed upon him. He pushes back, rejecting the gilded trappings that he sees other Ukrainian bureaucrats accept as a matter of course. He eschews rehearsed speeches, instead preferring to speak plainly and from the heart.
And as the series progresses, he begins rooting out the corruption shot through Ukraine’s bureaucracy. He pares back the staff of wasteful parliamentarians, consolidating their extravagant offices into the same building he works out of. Trying to build a cabinet free of corruption, he recruits his own friends and acquaintances as ministers.
Goloborodko cuts a humble but ethical figure. True to his word, he ditches the complimentary presidential limo, preferring to carpool in his bodyguard’s pickup truck. He refuses the official presidential residence — filmed in an ornate mansion that one of Zelensky’s predecessors lived in — preferring to remain in the run-down apartment he shares with his parents, sister, and niece.
Much like Trump, Zelensky capitalized on the image made popular by his TV show to overturn the political establishment. After months of speculation, Zelensky announced on New Year’s Eve 2018 he would run against incumbent President Petro Poroshenko. That same day, his production company registered a new political party: Servant of the People.
In April 2019, Zelensky won with 73 percent of the vote, surpassing the 67 percent his character received on the TV show.
Also like Trump, Zelensky has an oppositional relationship with journalists. He ran his campaign almost entirely separately from his country’s traditional news outlets, preferring to communicate directly with voters through social media. He was expected finally to hold a press conference after his first 100 days in office in August, but he instead opted to do an “interview” filmed by his production company, taking softball questions lobbed to him by the actor who played Chuiko, the prime minister. Clips from “Servant of the People” were edited together with his answers, blurring the line between Zelensky and Goloborodko.
Though the parallels between Zelensky and Trump are numerous, the images they project are in many ways opposite. Trump describes himself and everything he does in superlatives. Zelensky emphasizes his humble origins. Trump used his TV show to showcase his lavish properties. On his show, Zelensky’s Goloborodko slept on a Kyiv park bench after having an argument with his family. Trump is known for trying to project toughness. Zelensky once mimed playing a piano duet with his genitals.
But when Trump spoke with Zelensky on July 25 to congratulate him on the electoral success of his Servant of the People party — a week after Trump suspended $400 million in military aid to Ukraine — any differences were muted.
“We wanted to drain the swamp here in our country,” Zelensky said, according to a rough transcript released by the White House. “We brought in many, many new people . . . we want to have a new format and a new type of government. You are a great teacher for us and in that.”
Max Jungreis can be reached on Twitter @MaxJungreis.