Taking the mickey out of Swiss politicians

Yann Lambiel performing at last year's Paleo festival in Nyon Keystone

A master of lampooning Swiss politicians, Yann Lambiel has imitated a wide range of personalities in the public eye, but politics is not really his thing.

This content was published on August 31, 2011 minutes
Laureline Duvillard,

A household name in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, the 38-year-old comedian co-authors and presents shows in theatres and on radio, notably the popular Sunday satire, La Soupe (The Soup).

Ahead of the October 23 parliamentary elections Lambiel draws similarities between the worlds of politics and comedy but says he cannot take politicians seriously.

Strong personalities, including the former interior minister, Pascal Couchepin, or Robert Cramer, a senator from Geneva, are his favourite politicians to parody. What does politics mean to you as a comedian and political sketch writer?

Yann Lambiel: I had no interest whatsoever in politics before I met Thierry Meury [a comedian] about 15 years ago. He introduced me to the funny side of politics and I began to take some interest in politicians. But actually I prefer to analyse the way people talk and express themselves.

To remain credible, a comedian must not take sides and I have a go at politicians of all political convictions.

I may be very critical of politicians but I also admire them. Because they have to come up with solutions and it takes such a long time to convince others. There are people like Senator Dick Marty who are willing to take risks and he has a lot of guts.

But then there are also those slightly crazy fanatics. We had a few of them – and I mention no names – in our radio show. They seem to share certain political convictions and bizarre ideas and they can be scary to look at. What is your family’s political background?

Y.L.: There were three different brass bands in the village of Saxon where I grew up. I joined the band of the [centre-right] Radical Party, like my father and grandfather – but really for the music not the politics. I soon learned that I liked to try out other things and, above all, I did not want to be a member of a political party. You have been a member of the La Soupe radio show for more than 11 years. How has political satire evolved in that time?

Y.L.: Today, politicians can be contacted everywhere and they are asked to give their opinions on almost anything. This has changed what they say and how they say it. One indiscretion can have serious consequences.

Nowadays the cabinet members are much less respected. When we launched La Soupe, we were asked whether we had permission to poke fun at the government. What do you expect from the parliamentary elections?

Y.L.: Not much. The more politicians we invite to La Soupe the more I get the impression that politics is ruled by money, power and lobby groups. I heard that some political parties have a budget of SFr15 million ($18.3 million) while others have just SFr2 million. Something must have gone wrong.

It’s not clear who the lobbyists are and who is financing the parties. For me the whole mafia-like structure does not inspire much confidence. Nobody is utterly stupid but nobody is completely above suspicion either.

I’m disillusioned with politics and I get the impression nothing ever really changes. I try to take part in votes. It’s more complicated with elections because you have to support people.

But I have a problem taking politicians seriously and I tend to look for flaws and weakness first. My job as a comedian is to undermine their credibility and to make fun of them. I live among these clowns and it’s hard to believe them. Who is your favourite politician now that Pascal Couchepin is no longer in the news?

Y.L.: For practical reasons I like extrovert politicians who do not mince their words. I’m interested in their potential for caricature. Robert Cramer [a Green Party member and senator from Geneva] is great. He makes me laugh and he is a good politician.

I like watching politicians in debates. I think there are similarities between their job and mine: everything is staged, rehearsed and we both use stereotypes. How do Swiss politicians take the lampooning?

Y.L.: In the early days of La Soupe we had more feedback than now. Apparently it occurred to the cabinet ministers to discuss our satirical impersonations.

Couchepin invited us to his impressive office in Bern when he was still new as a cabinet minister. He wanted to know why we made fun of him: ‘If I understand correctly, the aim of your show is to portray me as a nincompoop,’ he said. We couldn’t agree more.

These days there’s hardly any reaction. Most politicians are flattered to be lampooned. Politicians like being talked about – possibly with the exception of Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey. She doesn’t understand why we make fun of her and she cannot laugh about herself.

Outside view

Ahead of the October 23 elections, publishes a short series of articles about public figures and their views on politics.

The personalities come from the world of science, business, sport and the arts.

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La soupe (The Soup)

La Soupe is a comedy show broadcast every Sunday by French-language public radio.

Launched in 2000, the 90-minute programme features a number of French-language comedians.

Yann Lambiel made a name for himself in the show with his sketches of Swiss politicians.

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