Comedian with a head for business

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Fabian Unteregger: «What interests me now is unearthing potential for innovation
Fabian Unteregger: «What interests me now is unearthing potential for innovation.» (Photograph: ETH Zurich / Gian Marco Castelberg)
ETH alumnus Fabian Unteregger is one of Switzerland’s most successful cabaret artists. But bringing people together and coming up with solutions is where his passion lies.

"I absolutely adore cake. And, as a food scientist, I have to test desserts on a frequent basis to check they’re still up to scratch!" says Fabian Unteregger with a wink as he settles down for our interview at the famous Sprüngli Café in Zurich. Unteregger is a successful comedian and ETH alumnus with a doctorate in medicine - and he happens to consider regular activity much more important than always following a healthy diet.

His early childhood was spent in Bottmingen, a municipality close to the city of Basel. Eventually, a job opportunity led his father to move the family to Zurich. Unteregger soon made new friends, seamlessly switching from the Basel to the Zurich dialect of Swiss German. This talent would later come in handy for his impressions of Swiss celebrities, which have since made him a household name. From the Zurich vernacular of Christoph Mörgeli, a member of the Swiss National Council, to the Basel dialect of tennis ace Roger Federer and the Wallis variety of federal councillor Viola Amherd, he mimics the regional language and vocal mannerisms of his chosen subjects to hilarious effect. As well as having his own stage show and radio programme, he is also a regular guest on television - yet comedy is only one facet of his extraordinarily diverse life.

From ETH to the US

His chief interests at secondary school were chemistry and biology, a preference for sciences that continued into his university years. In 1997, he embarked on a degree programme in food science at ETH Zurich. "I wanted to study something that’s relevant to everyone, and nutrition ticked all the boxes," he says. His time at ETH also sparked an interest in mathematics, and he was particularly drawn to subjects that offered real-world applications. Most appealing of all was the research on ice cream conducted by Erich Windhab, now an emeritus ETH professor, whose findings were readily adopted by industry.

Unteregger also relished the diverse, interdisciplinary nature of his degree programme, and particularly the broad knowledge it gave him of economics and business management. "I never intended to work for a food company," he says. "That’s why I looked for a job in marketing after my degree, because I figured that’s an important topic for any company." It wasn’t long before he was hired by a US multinational as a product manager.

TV opportunities

With his wealth of talents, becoming a teacher was still very much an option. An ETH teaching certificate in his pocket, he applied for a post as a biology teacher at the secondary school in Wiedikon, where he had once been a pupil. But his certificate said "food science", not "biology", and the school had to give preference to biology graduates - so he was soon left pondering a new career direction. In retrospect, he feels this was one of the best things that could have happened to him; suddenly, the performing arts became a real option. Alongside his day job, he started getting involved in "theatresports", a competitive form of improvisational theatre, gradually honing his stage presence over the course of a hundred or so shows. It was then that Unteregger tapped into an entrepreneurial streak that seems to have benefited him through much of his career: "After all that group improvisation, I realised that, from a marketing perspective, I needed a standardised product, something predictable that other people would recognise. And that’s how I got started as a solo comedian." He quit his job and soon had the Swiss broadcasting company SRF knocking at his door. Before the first episode of the satirical late-night show Giacobbo/Müller even aired, Unteregger was already part of the team. His star has been on the rise ever since. Unteregger became his own boss and successfully turned his comedic talents into a career.

In our conversation, Unteregger is open and articulate, with a keen wit that is never crass or brash. Asked if that combination serves him well in his public appearances, he says that he’s not the pushy type. Yet even during his time at ETH, his fellow students were adamant that he should be the one to give the end-of-year speech. "I enjoy watching and analysing people, and I can quickly tell what drives them," he says. As if to demonstrate his sensitivity to people and their moods, he immediately comes up with a pithy analysis of the conversation playing out at the table next to us. When he walks into a room and senses tension in a group, he also uses humour as an icebreaker.

Humour and languages open doors

Just like humour, Unteregger also sees languages as a useful tool - in his case, as a means of making meaningful contact with others. Learning languages also makes him feel more independent, helps him overcome prejudices and improves his understanding of foreign cultures. He is currently learning Arabic, his eighth language after German, Italian, Swedish, French, English, Spanish and Swiss German.

A trained helicopter pilot who also plays piano, drums, bass guitar and ukulele, Fabian Unteregger is not someone who likes to sit around doing nothing - though he does make sure to get seven hours of sleep every night. After completing his ETH degree programme, his unquenchable energy drove him to study medicine at the University of Zurich, followed by a doctorate at the University of Basel. During the pandemic, he combined his job as a comedian with shifts on an emergency ward, including nights and weekends - an eye-opening experience that taught him a great deal. He also picked up experience in ultrasound scans working as a doctor at Kantonsspital Winterthur, where he completed an accredited sonograph training programme. Working in hospitals has given him an insight into how they are run, and he can’t help putting on his entrepreneurial hat to pinpoint how deficiencies in healthcare leadership might be handled in a business setting: "They really are two very different worlds!"

Support for start-ups

Since his stint on the emergency ward, Unteregger hasn’t had time to carry out any more medical duties, but that doesn’t mean he’s left medicine behind. "What interests me now is unearthing potential for innovation," he says. Before finishing his degree in medicine, he founded Swiss Healthcare Startups, a networking platform that aims to bring together established businesses and start-ups. Companies can learn a lot from the start-up mentality and culture, he says, as this often involves working under pressure and embracing the development of risky new products. Unteregger is impressed by the technologies and solutions that emerge from the start-up ecosystem, but he has never seriously considered setting one up himself: "I’ve had the huge privilege of being my own boss for the past 14 years. My talent lies in mentoring and supporting start-ups on their journey."

And it’s not just talented entrepreneurs and fledgling companies that benefit from his work beyond the comedy circuit. To express his gratitude for the education he received, he has also pledged to give something back to his alma mater, ETH Zurich, both as a donor and as co-founder of the ETH Circle, an international network of ETH Zurich ambassadors. He is keen to share the expertise he has acquired from supporting start-ups and working in the fast-paced entertainment industry. He is particularly interested in efforts to extend ETH’s reach. "ETH is a powerhouse like no other, and we need to broadcast that around the world," he says.

If Unteregger could give one piece of advice to today’s students, what would it be? "Focus on what you’re good at and what makes you stand out from the crowd," he advises. "But the most important thing is finding joy and passion in what you do. Life is so much easier when you love your work!"
Karin Köchle