The Mancunion

Britain's biggest student newspaper

Interview: Andy Zaltzman

The Satirist for Hire took a break from his nationwide tour to talk to The Mancunion’s Liam Kelly

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Andy Zaltzman is the British-based half of the global hit topical podcast The Bugle, and is on tour with the most interactive comedy show you could imagine. His new show, Satirist for Hire, gives audiences the chance to have the issues they care about satirised by one of Britain’s leading comedians.

Zaltzman invites his audiences to email in a general grumble or specific bleat in advance. He will then “butter their political hot potato to order, and then serve it back to them at a show of their choosing.” So far the tour has included a 12-day run at the Edinburgh Fringe, and six nights at the Soho Theatre in London.

I start by asking how the tour is going: “Good, so far. I did a week in London last week at Soho, and I was in Glasgow and Newcastle before that. I’ve got Exeter tomorrow, which is where the full tour element comes in.”

He continues saying that he’d “wanted to do something that was more interactive than what I’d done in stand-up before. I’d been fairly tied to written material, and I wanted to slightly force myself out of that. I also thought it would be interesting to do, and hopefully to watch. Involving an audience in the subject matter and getting them involved in the gig means that it is a much more conversational show than I’ve done before.”

Inevitably, involving the audience so much could have caused trouble. “I think I’ve been able to cover everything that’s been emailed in, even if it is from a fairly obtuse angle. But there’s some issues that are quite technical; a guy emailed in about BitCoin, and I didn’t know much about it, so I read up about it—and ended up reading quite a lot about it—and I ended up understanding it slightly less than I had at the beginning.”

I ask him about the most ridiculous request that he has been given on tour: “A guy asked me on behalf of his brother to satirise all 719 Pokemons during the run in Edinburgh. That was one of the most idiotic I’ve ever had. Last week a guy wrote in complaining about the lyrics in a Carly Rae Jepsen song, and in the same show I had some stuff about the ISIS situation in Iraq.”

Surely there is no odder juxtaposition than Carly Rae Jepsen and ISIS? (Then again, if Bashar al-Assad enjoys LMFAO, as reported on Bugle #196, perhaps ISIS members could like Carly Rae Jepsen).

With such controversial subject matter, I approach the heckling problem: “The heckling tends not to be aggressive, but occasionally I get some quite reasoned economic information shouted at me. In one of the shows in Scotland I did I made a comment about being worried that a Scottish ‘Yes’ vote would lead to permanent Tory government and it ended up with someone in the audience shouting ‘No, that wouldn’t happen, they’ve done a study!’, and someone else ‘Yes it would, they’ve done a study!’ ” [Laughs] “The audience was heckling itself on that occasion, [so it was] not the standard heckle.”

Laughter punctuated my conversation with Andy, and anybody who has seen his live material or heard the Bugle knows that laughter, perhaps not surprisingly, is an integral part of his act. Laughter proves that he is a comedian who absolutely loves his job, revelling in making others laugh.

However, he recently got into hot water when the Daily Mail reported his suggestion that there could be a referendum held on whether the Queen should be beheaded. This comment, he says, was taken out of context by the Mail journalist who reported the story.

“It was a rather curious thing, as I wouldn’t describe myself as a naturally controversial comedian or one who seeks to offend. I did a little quip on the radio during a topical panel show on BBC 5 Live, where we were suggesting ideas for other referendums that could be held [after September’s Scottish independence referendum]. I suggested that we needed a referendum that unifies, rather than divides people, so I suggested the one figure that almost everyone likes and respects is the Queen.

“So I suggested this referendum on whether or not we should behead the Queen, because everyone would be on the same side—even the most hardcore republicans don’t have that strong a feeling against her personally.

“Obviously they only reported the ‘comedian suggests referendum to behead the Queen’ bit, and failed to realise that the joke was both pro-monarchy and pro-democracy; but they made an inference from my use of the word ‘beheading’ that it was a reference to the ongoing situation in Iraq, which obviously wasn’t intended. I was thinking of Charles I.”

Zaltzman laughs when I suggest that we had been beheading monarchs long before ISIS started beheading journalists and aid workers. (“Henry VIII set a strong example.”)

“Anyway, I thought it was best to just not respond to it. I had a few mild… I wouldn’t say death threats, but invitations to become dead, from people on Twitter.”

We then move on to discussing Zaltzman’s magnum opus: The Bugle. The topical podcast, co-hosted by fellow Brit John Oliver, has just commenced “season two” after a summer hiatus that allowed John to film his spectacularly successful HBO show Last Week Tonight. I asked Zaltzman to evaluate the general health of the podcast, as well as the genre of political satire more generally.

“I think it might be slightly more infrequent, but I think we’ll carry it on, I know John wants to keep doing it. If it isn’t as regular I think we’ll still continue with it.”

When asked whether he envisaged the Bugle getting as big as it has, Zaltzman said, “when we started, neither of us had really had anything to do with podcasts, but it gave us an opportunity to do a topical show that we had full control over. Yeah, I don’t think we really knew how it would go; when we started John had a bit of a following from The Daily Show.”

“Obviously [political satire] is very healthy in the States, as there is a very well-established tradition of having political commentary on television every day. Over here there’s never been the same commitment to televised political comedy; shows are either very light [politically] or panel shows, and it’s hard to satirise the issues in 20 seconds. There’s a lot on the circuit, more than when I started, and you would think that it would at least translate to radio. It needs commitment from commissioners to make and support a show that aims for proper political satire.”

A panel show such as Mock the Week would, presumably, be the perfect televisual outlet for a proper satirical comedian like Zaltzman. Bewilderingly, he has never made an appearance on the programme.

“I sit by the phone every day waiting for the call [from Mock the Week]. I’m sure there is a reason for it, but I don’t know what that reason is. They obviously just think I’m shit. No, I don’t know.” [Laughs]

Zaltzman has earned a reputation for being somewhat liberal in his definition of the word “fact”. To him, “facts” tend to be elaborately constructed half-truths, untruths, and God-I-wish-they-were-truths, and these have become a staple of his act. This ability to invent ridiculous stories is something that goes back to his time at university, when he was sports editor of The Oxford Student.

“I loved it, largely because I filled the sports pages with a similar style of bullshit to what I fill the Bugle with. I made up events that hadn’t happened and did really stupid stuff, like saying that Marlon Brando showed up to watch the women’s rugby team in action. It was great fun to do, and I really enjoyed laying out newspapers, it was quite satisfying in a strange way.”

He did not get in trouble for making up the sports news at Oxford, as he was friends with some of the team members and they would “rather be in the paper surrounded by bullshit, than not be in the paper at all.

“But it did mean that, when I left university and had to get a job, I was left with a portfolio full of complete nonsense, and it’s quite hard getting gainful employment with that.” [Laughs]

His current employment is certainly gainful, however, and with this success comes wisdom: “In terms of stand-up, the best thing to do and the only real way to learn it is just to do it, to do gigs, and learn not to be too upset by failure. It’s very different now from when I was starting out, as the internet means that you are able to put whatever you want up without having to wait for things to get commissioned.

“It’s quite hard to explain to my children what I do for a job, given that a lot of it is sitting in my shed making up nonsense.” That is, in essence, the daily life of a student—though Andy, deservedly, gets paid to do it.

Andy Zaltzman will be at The Lowry in Salford on Sunday the 9th of November. More details and tickets for the shows are available at http://satiristforhire.com