It must be a hectic time in the career of Andy Zaltzman. Since the start of the Tunisian revolution in December 2010 there has been little time to stop and take stock for the political comedian and co-host of The Bugle podcast. Whether it has been the lack of western involvement in Syria, the unfailing bravado of Colonel Gaddafi, or Silvio Berlusconi being hit in the face with a ceramic chapel, there has not exactly been a shortage of topics to brilliantly, ruthlessly satirise.
With co-host John Oliver, he has now spent four years casting his eye over the news, once a week in podcast form, firstly in an incarnation hosted by The Times Online and now supported by social music site Soundcloud. Their abrupt departure from the News International family was first thought to have come as a result of their less than deferential examination of the phone hacking scandal. The New York Times published an article on 15th August 2011 which called their handling of the affair “blistering” and stated that they had “gone straight for the jugular”. In the following episode, Oliver started by saying “Welcome to any first-time Buglers who are here because they might have read The New York Times’ story on us earlier this week… but now that the story’s in a newspaper that I’m guessing [Murdoch] reads cover to cover every day, I’m thinking there’s an even smaller chance of us managing to not get fired now. So thanks very much, New York Times.” It took until 14th December of the same year for it to be announced that The Bugle and The Times were to part ways.
“I don’t think it was much of an influence” says Zaltzman, with regard to the jokes made at the expense of their parent company. “They didn’t get rid of us until several months after we had been getting stuck into them for phone hacking. The thing is with phone hacking, it’s not like you can present the other side and say it was entirely fine to hack into the voice mails of war heroes and murder victims. There’s no light and shade with that.”
His assessment of the situation is pragmatic and totally untainted by bitterness: “I guess we were hosted by Times Online so they hadn’t really done [phone hacking] themselves. It was a slightly awkward situation but at the end I think it was a purely financial thing. They had been paying money for this podcast whilst sacking journalists, so it had to go. They kept us going for four years to be fair”.
This explanation perhaps does not do justice to the strength of the line that he and Oliver took regarding phone hacking. Whilst it seems that the decision was motivated, at least in part, by the financial side of things, their stinging attacks certainly made the choice a little easier.
In terms of success there was no question that The Bugle was viable; its’ weekly downloaders number in the hundreds of thousands and they have flocked to stay with the show in its’ new incarnation. They have even made it possible for Zaltzman, a man whose material means he is not quite the fit for panel show populism, to play sold out shows in New York.
“Some stories are just too funny, with George Bush, you can’t really add anything comedically”
“It was great”, he says of the experience, “I went out to record a couple of slots on John [Oliver’s] New York stand up show but then I did a few live gigs, both sets in clubs and a couple of solo shows, which were just packed with Bugle fans. It was quite easy and quite pleasant as comedy goes. I’ve had enough gigs where I’ve had to fight a crowd, so I’d love to go back.”
It seems then that he has come a long way from the early days of sparse, inhospitable audiences that befall even the most talented of comics. Touring though is still a somewhat monastic existence: “I tend not to do that much live stand up particularly since having children and doing The Bugle; I spend more time writing than touring and telling jokes. It’s also fairly solitary – I drove up this evening and I’ll be staying in a B & B and then heading home – it’s not the most glamorous kind of touring.”
“What I do is not everyone’s cup of tea”, he continues, “And I’ve had gigs where it has been no one’s cup of tea. I guess that is the nature of political comedy, not everyone wants to hear it. It doesn’t happen too often now, thankfully enough.”
Zaltzman is extremely likeable in person: self-effacing and funny, whilst being scarily sharp. It’s something that comes across both on stage and when he is recording, a silliness that it’s impossible not to be charmed by. His relationship both professionally and personally is a close one with Oliver; the two have performed together for many years, honing and then plying their trade in numerous comedy clubs and together at the Edinburgh Fringe.
Oliver emigrated to America many years ago and is now an award-winning writer for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, a programme which changed the game in the context of mainstream political comedy. In general does Zaltzman feel it’s an area which is experiencing a rise in popularity?
“Maybe a little. It’s not really a boom in political comedy, certainly not here. Obviously The Daily Show in America increased in popularity significantly during the Bush years and has sustained that since. There hasn’t been a similar thing here, in fact there is probably less proper political comedy on British television than there ever has been.”
There are though some plus sides for a man whose art is rooted in the actions of the powerful: “At the same time, you know, people are politically aware of kind of fairly broad global issues. It was true during the war on terror; there were global movements, in the shape of the Fair Trade movement and the Make Poverty History movement. There are issues that people are interested in, the environment is another, where you can do political issues and you don’t have to provide much background, which is good as you don’t have to waste valuable joke time establishing the facts”.
Something which is far more accessible is the continued, unfathomable idiocy that colours much public life. Bashar al- Assad, for instance, was recently shown, through the leaking of his private emails, to have downloaded ‘Party Rock Anthem’ by LMFAO at the height of civil unrest in Syria. Recently a number of highly trained American secret service agents took the monumentally stupid move of procuring Columbian prostitutes when they arrived at a summit to prepare security for Barack Obama. I wonder if for Zaltzman are there ever any issues which are simply too ludicrous to touch on?
“As a comedian there are some stories that are almost a bit too funny”, he grins, “The nature of a weekly podcast is that you can cover them anyway, even if there isn’t really a lot of added value in it. More interesting comedy is the stuff you have to make funny yourself.”
“The problem when George Bush was President of America was that there were a lot of things that he said that you couldn’t really add anything to comedically. The more interesting comedy was about what he represented and the issues underlying it; but you could still get easier laughs out of idiotic things that he had said. It’s a slight trap comedically.”
Comedy can also be as infuriating as it is giving a stand up set. It was a lesson that Zaltzman learned the hard way when writing his Edinburgh show Armchair Revolutionary. The main crux of the show, directed by fellow comedian Daniel Kitson, was that we in this country were lazy and apathetic; we would never get off our sofas to mount a campaign in the streets. Then, the London riots happened.
“I had to kind of re-write the first chunk of the show about three times in Edinburgh. I suppose comedy should be a medium that reflects what’s going on in the moment.” he says, but is quick to point out that the riots were not instances of the kind of revolutionary zeal which he thought was absent from his personality and British culture. “The interesting thing is that there were all these revolutions all over the world and here people were looting for our fundamental right not to have to pay for electrical goods. There was this kind of bizarre juxtaposition with the noble pursuit of freedom.”
In the end he reshaped his show and, seeing it recently, if he hadn’t spoken publically of the difficulties of it’s inception you would never know the difference. It is a beautifully structured hour of comedy ranging from discussions of Aung San Suu Kyi to Graham Gooch, strings of increasingly desperate dog puns to withering examinations of the coalition government. It avoids the portentous quality often found in self acknowledged “satire” and is witty and bracing enough to sustain its hour and a bit running time.
It seems a shame that a comic like Andy Zaltzman can’t find a niche in the world of mainstream TV comedy in this country. It’s a rare alchemy to perform in a way that is intelligent without being arrogant, and his persona is one that would be perfectly suited to engaging and entertaining viewers. We are beginning to take strides in this country to address serious issues in a funny way; the weak Ten O’Clock Live was laudable in its intentions but hampered by the fact that it was always going to appear cringeworthy against the brilliance of the shows from which it took its inspiration, such as The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.
Maybe we can find a happy medium between the high budget super group feel of Ten O’Clock Live and the DIY, lightning fast format of The Bugle podcast. For now though it is not something that overly concerns Zaltzman: “I just do what I like doing, other comedians do what they like doing, people watch what they like watching. There are so many different types of comedy and obviously some are more popular than others. Maybe Graham Gooch is the last great taboo and TV is just not ready to take it on.”