Tschugger (“Cops”, TV 2021) // Swiss German Comedy (Interview with Donat Feijóo)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Bax (David Constantin) is a passionate “Tschugger” in the isolated Upper Valais region of Switzerland. For Swiss Germans, the Valais is the “Wild West” of isolated rural Switzerland, its dialect renowned as one of the trickiest. “Tschugger” is their word for “cop”.

Our hero still lives off the cannabis farm case he cracked ten years before (the real-life Rappaz affair). But valley life has gotten grimmer since those halcyon days. His girlfriend’s left him, his boss has put him on traffic duties and at the latest station piss-up his hand got shot through by a sequestered automatic.

But something’s afoot. When a couple of local losers organize a shipment of weed to fly by drone over the Italian border, they get more than they bargained for. A van full of prime tomato sauce, a chase on a building site crane and a hilariously unsexy handjob are only some of the delights in store for our Tschugger and his dopey but lovable sidekick Permin.

Cop with moustache: Bax. Cop with flag: Permin.

Bizarrely, SRF rejected David Constantin’s first Tschugger pitch for being too close to the first season of Wilder. Not only are the two shows utterly different in genre and tone, it also seems there are much more than four years between them. Wilder painstakingly reappropriates all the Scandi Noir stuff from the early 2010s, but Tschugger is a more modern, original beast and belongs squarely in the 2020s. It loosely references US cop shows from the Seventies and Eighties, especially in the soundtrack and opening credits. But the aesthetics are just window dressing for a parade of witless stoners, wannabe gangsters and creepy rich guys, like “your uncle who comes back from Thailand and starts hitting on your cousin”. In short, overexcitable provincial types who take themselves much too seriously are yanked down a peg or three in a flurry of one-liners and self-aware interludes.

A plethora of dumb-but-clever comedy bits keep things “tschugging” along, because if there’s nowt those internet-savvy young folk like better, it’s bum jokes and gross-out humour (the scenes with an outhouse and an ear are both a guaranteed “ew!”).

The iconic character is surely the little bastard of a kid who pops up from time to time to mess with the cops and show them the finger (“schiiss Tschugger!”). Most of the gags land sweetly, and are tempered well with some good old-fashioned sympathetic moments. Bax and Pirmin have that that crucial sliver of vulnerability to make us root for them.

The show’s main flaw is obvious to anyone who watches all five episodes (do watch them!). While its tight opening locks us into the mystery, the season’s ending is a total mess – the filmmakers really needed a six- or seven-episode budget, not five, to tidy up loose plotlines. Luckily, SRF have already signed them on for a new season. Can’t wait!

Swissness Difficulty Level: Chasseral (easy).
Language: Swiss German. Walliserdütsch is the most difficult to understand of all of them, so subtitles essential!
Availability: Free on PlaySuisse.

Swissness Lab Report: Swiss German Comedy (with Donat Feijóo)

I don’t feel much of an expert on Swiss German comedy. Luckily I could ask one of Zurich’s funniest performers, professional improviser Donat Feijóo. Donat (28) plays improv theatre and teaches workshops with the Zurich ensemble anundpfirsich; he’s performed in the USA, Canada, Germany and France, and of course all over Switzerland. I caught up with him on Zoom.

Donat Feijóo, have you seen Tschugger?
Of course, it was good! A very well made Swiss show.

Why did you like it?
I liked the world it took place in – a Sixties world, but they were still on TikTok. And the characters in that world were very specific and somehow off, kind of weird, but still within what could be true. The world-building and characters were very specific, and still close to what feels real.

You watch a lot of American comedy, and some German stuff too. What was particularly Swiss about Tschugger, if anything?
Maybe because it isn’t specifically Swiss! It reminds me of Fargo. You know Fargo? The first season is very similar to Tschugger. It has that same Tarantino-esque vibe with its characters and very dry humour.

I don’t know if it’s really that Swiss, to be honest. I mean, it has that dialect thing, which makes up a lot of the vibe too. It’s such a specific place in Switzerland, and they have a very specific dialect which is already kind of funny. But besides that… I don’t know.

There are specific pop cultural references.
Several of them. Cedric Schild, a TikTok dude from Zurich, plays the intern.

What jokes go down best with a Swiss German crowd?
A big part of comedy is timing, that’s the same everywhere – you’re good at timing or you’re not. It’s the same in America and Switzerland and Hong Kong. But besides that, specificity is a big part of comedy. I do different jokes when I’m playing in Zurich, Basel, or Germany. And this is also why Tschugger feels Swiss.

Audiences in Zurich have, with some certainty, the same level of knowledge of pop culture references. A very easy example: the FC Zurich vs Grasshoppers thing. You can only do that in Zurich, but it will always get reaction. On a bigger scale, Migros vs. Coop [two biggest Swiss supermarket chains] . Very specific references, but things that everybody knows.

One more thing is dialect. I do Swiss dialects on stage and they get reactions. People are proud of their dialects in Switzerland, that’s a big difference to Germany, I believe. In Zurich I do Basel dialect and it gets a reaction because of that fight between the two cities. That Kantönligeist, that language barrier, is very Swiss.

In this fun English trailer, the “foreignness” of the voiceover’s Upper Valais dialect, Walliserdütsch, is adapted to become a self-consciously Swiss-accented English.

Are there any differences between the urban crowd and out in the country?
Hard question. Some stuff is the same. Let’s say I’m playing a character who dreams big. And I say, “I want to go out in the world, live the life… I want to go to Schlieren” [unglamorous suburban neighbourhood of Zurich]. I’d get a laugh in the city, and in the countryside. Those universal archetypes. But I probably do more pop culture references in the city.

You’ve played with French and Swiss French improvisers. Do they have a different type of comedy?
French improv feels a bit more physical than than German and Swiss and stuff. Maybe it has more influence from the Commedia Dell’Arte and clowning.

Tschugger has less physical comedy, but does it very well.

I’ve seen improv in the US and it had a lot of dick jokes – if in doubt, throw a penis in there.
But it’s the same thing here. You just have to be a tiny bit more civilised while doing it. Just go for a sex joke, not a dick joke. It always works, just be more civilised!

I remember a very funny scene you played in. You and another performer were being directed from off-stage. The scene was a serious one, you two doing monologues, with an invisible wall between you, like a metaphor for a communication barrier. A very sober scene, emotional, with escalating tension. And the off-stage director told you: “Now imagine there’s a hole in the wall.” And you said…
He hated that joke…

…you said “What height?” with this perfect, not-quite-innocent delivery.
He absolutely hated me for it!

But the Zurich audience loved it! Maybe Swiss German comedy’s getting less reserved.
Not true! An American would say, “Should I put my dick in it?” I make the same joke, but a bit more civilised…

Donat Feijóo in action (left). Image rights orubolo.ch | anundpfirsich

Apart from a couple of trends – dialect, lack of physical comedy – Donat Feijóo emphasizes the global universals of comedy, and questions if Tschugger is really so Swiss. But maybe this betrays a modesty to match this idea of the “civilised” comedian. This term resonates strongly, as I’ve always associated the term anständig (decent) with Swiss moral values. Leave it to the US and UK to show off a unique “brand” of humour, while little old Switzerland quietly does its own thing. Maybe that’s why international improvisers love sharing a stage with Donat.

As we wrap up I suggest, and Donat agrees, that the Swiss generally like their humour “safe” in the sense of not too close to the bone – not seeing people in too much trouble, knowing they’re “allowed to laugh”. Perhaps that explains why there’s less pure surrealism here than in the UK, less crass “banter” and PC-baiting irony. And compared to the US, I hear less “extreme humour” – gross-out, rants, wackiness. Fewer dick jokes.

The two most “shocking” moments of Tschugger – the outhouse scene and the ripped ear – stood out. The former didn’t work for me, the latter was subtler and hilarious. But the fundament remains dry-ish, situation-based humour, with a good dose of the classics: pop culture references, good timing, and sex jokes. You know… civilised!

Donat Feijóo performs with anundpfirsich at the Theater Zollhaus in Zurich. You can check out his coming shows and courses (in English and German) at their website.

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