ROME A satirical puppet show is spoiled for choice in Italy's election campaign, with Silvio Berlusconi making a comeback while on trial for a sex crime and a shaggy haired comedian whipping up voter fury with a stream of obscenities.
Directors of Gli Sgommati, an Italian version of Britain's Spitting Image which has produced a special edition for this month's elections, say they have more material than they can use.
"We certainly have a lot of material to work with, because what our politicians say is often silly and I mean now even the pope has said he will resign!," Director Pietro Jona said in an interview.
Pope Benedict's announcement that he would be the first pontiff to resign in 700 years came in the middle of the campaign for the February 24-25 election, increasing the disorientation of many voters and providing even more material for the show.
The 76-year-old Berlusconi's hair transplant, sex scandals, political gaffes and shock campaign promise to pay back taxes make him a perfect character for the rubber puppet makers.
He is currently on trial in Milan for having sex with an underage prostitute at "bunga bunga" parties at his villa, the latest of up to 30 prosecutions during his career.
"Berlusconi is an excellent actor of the theatre of the absurd. We always try to underline what is most absurd about what he is saying," Jona told Reuters.
One element in a recent episode of the Sky TV show was a live debate between the centre-right leader and his rivals, which has not been possible in real life due to disagreements over who should take part.
In it, a dark brown Berlusconi puppet - reflecting his perennial sun-tan - goes head-to-head with the grey-tinged and serious outgoing technocrat prime minister Mario Monti and the bald, dull centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani.
"Characters like Bersani are the complete opposite (of Berlusconi) and we try to emphasize his clumsiness, his difficulty in communicating and his insecurity," Jona said.
Mocking politicians is particularly popular in Italy where a discredited political class is despised by many voters, who have become even more disillusioned by a swathe of recent corruption scandals.
That disgust has been a major factor in boosting another character on the puppet show, Genoese comic Beppe Grillo, whose obscenity-laced rants at rallies around the country have pushed him to third place in the polls, approaching 20 percent.
For the Sgommati director, Italian politics is unlikely to settle down after the election, and real life will continue to mirror the ridiculous events on his programs.
"The only thing I can see is the mess continuing. The mess we see in our show will carry on in real life after the elections," he said.
(Reporting By Antonio Denti, writing by Catherine Hornby; editing by Barry Moody)