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The challenges of parodying politician Horst Seehofer

Gaby Reucher eg
July 4, 2018

Seehofer's style makes him an easy target for satirists, yet impersonator Wolfgang Krebs finds the politician's hardline stance challenges his own sense of humor. Krebs gave DW a special birthday impression of Seehofer.

Cabaret artist Wolfgang Krebs as and with Horst Seehofer
Cabaret artist Wolfgang Krebs as and with Horst SeehoferImage: picture alliance/dpa/T. Hase

Happy Birthday, Me! Wolfgang Krebs parodies CSU's Seehofer

Comedian Wolfgang Krebs is relieved. Following a last-ditch government compromise over migration policy, Horst Seehofer remains Germany's Interior Minister, the coalition didn't collapse — and Krebs will not have to completely have to rewrite his current cabaret show. (In Germany, "Kabarett" is a comedy genre that specifically refers to onstage satirical revues of political and social topics.)

In his act, the Bavarian cabaret artist impersonates the main characters involved in the latest political dispute: Bavarian Premier Markus SöderInterior Minister and CSU leader Horst Seehofer, as well as Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has studied how they move, imitates their voices and dresses up just like them. 

The quarrel between the government's sister parties, Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Christian Social Union in Bavaria (CSU), on Germany's refugee policy made Krebs feel nervous over the last few days. He watched debates on news channels until late in night, especially those between Seehofer and Merkel.

"I'm thankful that I didn't have any live performances during that period," he says. The World Cup had given him a break, but his next gig is on July 4, right on Horst Seehofer's birthday.

Horst Seehofer's real-life satire

"If Seehofer had actually resigned, I would have had to completely redo his role in my current cabaret program; that would have required a lot of work," Krebs explains.

Now the cabaret artist can simply pick up one of Seehofer's latest infamous quotes: "I won't tolerate being sacked by a chancellor who is only chancellor because of me," he told the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper. Krebs knows that he only needs to repeat the politician's own words and the audience will crack up.

From school clown to stand-in for politicians

Wolfgang Krebs started doing theater in school, where he also got into imitating his teachers.

At the end of the 1980s, he was impersonating former Chancellor Helmut Kohl and long-term forerm CSU Chairman Franz-Josef Strauss. Krebs also had a field day spoofing former Bavarian Premier Edmund Stoiber.

Then one day, Stoiber refused at the last minute to appear in a special Carnival program on Bavarian TV, and Wolfgang Krebs jumped in to replace him on the show.

He has since made a career of imitating political and public figures — along with Merkel and Seehofer, former football manager Franz Beckenbauer is another one of his specialties.

Kabarett artist Wolfgang Krebs impersonating Angela Merkel
Krebs impersonating Angela MerkelImage: imago/Michael Eichhammer

Increasingly difficult to empathize with Seehofer

When Wolfgang Krebs parodies these people, he tries to empathize with them, taking on every detail of their character.

"When I imitate Horst Seehofer, I literally puff myself up, holding my head up high and pulling my shoulders back to show off how great I am," says Krebs. The political satirist is actually a few centimeters smaller than the CSU leader.

Wolfgang Krebs
Wolfgang Krebs as himselfImage: Melanie Wirth

But Krebs has been finding it increasingly difficult to feel empathy for the German interior minister, "ever since the so-called refugee crisis in 2015," during which period  he could no longer recognize Christian values in the positions of the man leading the Christian-democratic and conservative political party.

When the photo of Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi lying dead on the beach made headlines, Krebs discussed it with Seehofer at an event. "I asked him, doesn't that touch you?"

Seehofer appeared a bit uncomfortable with the question, remembers Krebs. The politician answered that he was doing everything he could to make sure that people coming to Bavaria as refugees were well taken care of, but he also added that he wanted to know who those people coming into his state were.

Seehofer: The perfect target for satirists?

Wolfgang Krebs can understand that politicians pick up on the Bavarians' anxiety, but he is stunned by the turn of the debate. "It appears preposterous to me, as the current dispute is about five asylum-seekers a day and no longer hundreds of thousands as was the case three years ago."

Seehofer's calls to creating a hard limit on the number of refugees accepted and to establish "transit centers" for asylum-seekers do not feel like laughing matter for Wolfgang Krebs, making it difficult for him to parody the politician. "I add other absurd limits to overemphasize and expose the whole thing, but not everyone understands that, and I don't want people to believe that I'm calling for even worse things."

It feels like a tightrope walk, the satirist says. "It used to be a more innocent thing to impersonate Horst Seehofer. Topics like digitization or homeland were harmless." When dealing with refugees, comedians need to make sure they aren't sounding like a far-right populist or even a Nazi. "The CSU's current vocabulary promotes a nationalist view of Bavaria, because they believe they should be attracting right-wing voters. That makes it difficult for a Seehofer impersonator."  

Wolfgang Krebs as Horst Seehofer
Wolfgang Krebs as Horst Seehofer: He used to be a more innocent politician to parodyImage: Carsten Bunnemann

Observers see the dispute between the CDU and the CSU as part of the Bavarian party's campaign to win over voters from the far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) in the upcoming state elections. "The conservatives in Bavaria will think that Seehofer got his way; that he finally banged his fist on the table, even if it goes against the trend," believes Krebs.

Even after the agreement between the Christian Democrats and their sister party in Bavaria, uncertainty remains. People will not forget how Horst Seehofer threatened to resign, only to take that back shortly afterwards.

That makes him the perfect target for political cabaret artists.

Wolfgang Krebs actually has a satirical sentence that always works in the mouth of his Seehofer impersonation: "I promise you consistency or inconsistency, but not this constant back and forth." In the current context, the line once again hits the mark.