11 Mar 2015

Mocking the news with Andy Zaltzman

9:41 am on 11 March 2015

“Sport is so much better than reality,” says Andy Zaltzman, satirist of all that’s newsworthy and terrible in the world, “It doesn’t let you down in the same way.”

Zaltzman, co-host of the hit satirical podcast The Bugle with HBO host John Oliver, is in New Zealand this week, for the second time in the past month to perform (and, of course, to watch cricket).

We’re talking about the grisly experience of mocking the news of the past year, from ISIS to Ebola. And while I did speak to Andy just before the English cricketers capitulated embarrassingly to Bangladesh, even his team’s poor fortunes couldn’t dampen his enthusiasm for sport as a true world-changer.

I get the sense that if Andy Zaltzman could get away with spending most of his time in the shed watching cricket on TV, he would. For one of the sharpist satirists on the comedy circuit, he’s remarkably devoid – at least openly – of political hobbyhorses or big claims about the nobility or social power of the satirical arts.

“There’s a balance to be struck in satirical comedy,” he says, “Between banging a drum - which can also mean banging it over people’s heads, which is not necessarily what the audience wants – and maintaining a degree of objectivity.

“It depends on your stage persona as well, and I don’t think me browbeating an audience would be particularly effective. Whereas, I guess, the slightly more tangential way of doing things, with a lot of contrived sporting analogies to make a satirical point, seems to generally work for me.”

Perhaps he would never even have made it to satire, or comedy, at all had his childhood dream of a career in sports journalism not been scuppered before it had even really begun. The problem was that when he wrote match reports for the university magazine, he just couldn’t stop himself from making silly things up.

I had a portfolio of absolute and utter bullshit, for want of a better word. Complete nonsense.

“[Sports journalism] was what I wanted to do growing up, and I applied for lots of jobs when I left university, and unfortunately, as a result of what you’ve just described, I had a portfolio of absolute and utter bullshit, for want of a better word. Complete nonsense. So I didn’t get a job in sports journalism, ended up doing something boring for a year, and then started doing the open mic comedy circuit in London.”

Comedy gradually became what he did for a living. When he was put on a tour of student union shows with an equally new-to-comedy John Oliver, the pair clicked and has worked together ever since. Andy says he and John gradually encouraged each other to do more comedically and politically ambitious material.

Now, the pair, sniggering and giggling appreciatively at each other’s jokes, trade “bits” back and forth across an ISDN connection, from opposite sides of the Atlantic, to record The Bugle’s weekly podcast installments.

The Bugle’s latest episode; probably not one Vladimir Putin would enjoy.

While they do have a producer (the infamous Chris), the pair only records for about 40 minutes an episode and puts out almost 30 minutes of the material recorded; a formidable feat, as anyone who’s ever tried recording a radio show will know. While John and Andy decide topics in advance, they haven’t heard each other’s final work before they record it (the giggling, in other words, is real).

The Bugle, subtitled “an audio newspaper for a visual world,” has been running since 2007, accumulated an impressive almost-300 episodes, and only took a hiatus last year when Oliver’s HBO show, Last Week Tonight, was particularly busy.

The pair’s output is prolific – almost half an hour of fresh stand-up comedy a week. But according to Andy, it has both forced him out of his comfort zone, and is probably only way he’d ever get anything done.

“It’s been great for having that sort of weekly deadline to have to make some stuff up, whether it’s satirical stuff or just absolute nonsense, and occasional bursts of puns,” he says.

“And that’s the great thing with a podcast; it’s slightly less restrictive than a radio show, and you can go off on massive tangents, and not feel that everything has to be word perfect, I guess. And that’s part of the charm of the format.”

Zaltzman goes on one of his notorious “pun runs”, much to the dismay of co-host John Oliver.

Andy Zaltzman and John Oliver were “accidental” early podcast adopters: they’d had BBC radio shows cancelled, and The Bugle was originally commissioned by TimesOnline, before getting dropped and going independent in 2012 – reportedly in an unrelated move to The Bugle’s mockery of the Times’ owner, Rupert Murdoch. It’s had a vociferous fanbase from day one, which has relished the engagement the podcast provides with its hosts.

“Quite a lot of people just send in emails of giant snowmen shaped like genitalia,” Andy says, “But we do also get fascinating stories about when people have been listening to the podcast - running ultra-marathons, or whilst doing high-level scientific research, or, quite often, whilst having a vasectomy.

“We’ve had at least five or six different emails in from people who were listening to The Bugle whilst having a vasectomy. So I can heartily recommend that.”

A weekly topical satire podcast doesn’t only provide the challenge of finding fresh takes on ever-evolving stories, or of what to do during slow news weeks (on The Bugle, this is dealt with by covering the Ukraine conflict one week and polar bear penises the next, with equal vigour). It also poses the question: what on earth is funny about war, or Ebola? Or, God forbid, UKIP?

“I’ve always thought with satirical comedy that something has to be funny [first], and then you can try and make a point. If you make a point without a joke, it’s futile – you might as well be a journalist. As a comedian, your prime function is to make people laugh. And if you can do that, and also at the same time convey whatever satirical point you want to make, then that’s, I think, where the best satirical comedy comes from.”

“Comedy has the independence to talk about whatever it wants, and it some ways it’s the best way to make awkward statements.” - Andy Zaltzman

“Comedy has the independence to talk about whatever it wants, and it some ways it’s the best way to make awkward statements.” - Andy Zaltzman Photo: Supplied

The internet has acted as a battleground in recent years for whether some things can ever be made funny, but Andy believes the line’s fairly easy to spot, even in the worst of news stories.

“The thing with ISIS is that there’s a fairly clear line on it,” he says.

“So you can attack them, and you can attack the general reaction to the situation, if you sort of disagree with what’s being done. So I think you can make satire on a fairly horrific subject such as that, as long as you’re dealing with the right aspects of it, and obviously not trivialising the awful suffering of the victims of it.

“But ISIS and the general, kind of, global political situation around it, I think people are generally prepared to accept as subjects for comedy. The challenge then is to try and make it funny, which is...” He trail off, and giggles at the absurdity of it all, “Not always easy”.

But when it works it has, he says, an independence that a corporately owned TV news station doesn’t have.

“Comedy has the independence to talk about whatever it wants, and it some ways it’s the best way to make awkward statements.”

We talk about the way, particularly in America, this has led to many people relying on satire such as Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show as a primary source of news. I confess that a large part of my (fragile) grasp on what’s actually happening in the Ukraine comes courtesy of The Bugle.

“Oh, right,” he says. “I’m not sure that’s good news for you”.

Considering a recent episode of The Bugle about the Ukraine conflict explained – in detail –  that the thing about a ceasefire is that you’ve got to, you know, cease firing, I suspect his satire has more educational power than he thinks.

Perhaps Vladimir Putin should start listening. He might learn something. Or laugh.

Andy Zaltzman is a guest on Seven Days this Friday 13 March, and is performing his show, Satirist for Hire, in Wellington for two shows on Sunday 15 March, at VK’s Comedy and Blues Bar. Tickets are available from LiveNation. Audience members are encouraged to submit suggested topics for Andy to satirise. You can hear more in On The Dial.