How to Become a Tyrant Sounds the Alarm with Dark Humor

Citizen Jones Co-Founders Jonah Bekhor and Jonas Bell Pasht talk to TV Real about the Netflix docuseries How to Become a Tyrant, narrated by Peter Dinklage.

Zeroing in on the most infamous dictators of the 20th century, How to Become a Tyrant exposes the well-worn playbook they used to accumulate and exercise their power. Aptly narrating the dark-humored Netflix docuseries is Game of Thrones star Peter Dinklage, who makes the case for tyranny while arming audiences with the warning signs and patterns that have turned up time and again over the course of history—and are repeating themselves once more in the present day. 

Citizen Jones, co-founded by Jonah Bekhor and Jonas Bell Pasht in 2014, is the production company behind the series, which is executive produced by the duo. “Our roots are in cinema and that informs our approach to storytelling and collaboration,” says Bekhor. “We want to make best-in-class series that are visually striking and bring out the best in the creative people we collaborate with. And if there is a strong, positive message our series can share with the world, all the better!”

In How to Become a Tyrant, Bekhor and Bell Pasht wanted to tackle the topic of tyranny in a provocative way in order to reach a broad audience. “There has been a disturbing rise in authoritarian impulses around the globe, and this subject feels urgent and important,” notes Bekhor. “It turns out that all tyrants—past and present—follow a nearly-identical playbook to achieve ultimate power, and we wanted to reveal those tactics in a manner that would grab viewers’ attention.”

The factual genre is awash in documentary features and series that delve into the lives and nefarious actions of dictators. Through its unique style and tone, How to Become a Tyrant aims to cut through the clutter and grab the interest of those who might not ordinarily sit down to stream a history series. “Those shows can feel dusty and unrelatable,” says Bell Pasht. “To cut through, we knew we needed a distinctive style that felt fundamentally different from other traditional docs about dictators. Among other things, we used animation as a signature element in the series. It gives the show a signature look. But more importantly, it’s a powerful storytelling tool that allowed us to reveal the surprising moments from each tyrant’s life for which there is no existing footage.”

Bekhor and Bell Pasht also realized that adding a dose of humor to the series could further up its appeal, provided it struck the right tone. Key to finding that sweet spot was Dinklage’s narration. “He’s definitely not a traditional narrator in this series,” says Bekhor. “Rather, he plays a character who is ostensibly attempting to seduce the viewer with the merits of ruling the world through any means necessary, but ultimately the narration combines with all the storytelling elements to convey a deeply cautionary tale. It’s a dark, sardonic tone. And had he not struck the right tone, it could have been incredibly offensive.”

We knew early on that the project presented a unique challenge and opportunity for our narrator,” adds Bell Pasht. “We also knew we wanted an iconic voice for this. Peter was such an obvious choice. He’s brilliant and a fan-favorite—but he’s also best known for playing the ultimate power insider on Game of Thrones. Who better than Tyrion Lannister to share the secrets for ruling the world?”

How to Become a Tyrant, by virtue of the unfortunate universality of power-hungry rulers, stands to be relevant and intriguing to international audiences. “The subject of tyranny touches audiences all over the world in different ways, and there is clearly a trend toward authoritarianism taking place in different corners of the globe,” says Bekhor, who adds that though history foretells of such cycles repeating, memories are often short. “Tyrants can be seductive; they are charismatic and they get things done. But history has shown that we continually allow them to rise to power because we simply aren’t familiar with the playbook they all follow.” 

With How to Become a Tyrant, Bekhor and Bell Pasht hope to offer a note of caution for audiences alongside the entertainment. “If you go into this series with an open mind, you just might recognize a few of the tyrant’s tactics in your own politicians,” says Bell Pasht. “Regardless of your political affiliation.”