Andy Zaltzman is best known in the States as half of the excellent satirical podcast The Bugle, which he co-hosts with long-time collaborator John Oliver. A lover of all things satire, he's hosted his "Political Animal" show for years, and his new show, "Satirist for Hire", adds a twist to the format. For each show, audience members request topics for him to satirize with his sharp, pun-loving wit; topics range from war and government policy to sports and fashion trends. I caught up with him at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival to talk about audience suggestions and why The Bugle will last forever.
You’ve been coming up to the Fringe for 15 years. What’s the appeal of Edinburgh for you?
I guess the appeal is that it's a great forum for doing comedy, and for sort of learning the craft when you're starting out. Most comedians from Britain and a lot of comedians from around the world have come here and done their first proper runs here, their first hours, and gradually built up from there. It's very stimulating being in a place with a lot of your peers and watching a lot of comedy and just exchanging ideas, like any festival of arts. It's a really just exciting place to do standup. But quite why I'm still coming after 15 years, I'm not entirely sure.
It is exhausting.
Yes, and I did 10 years out of 11, and then had the last few off, but it was always the sort of highlight of the standup year for me, to come and develop a new hour of standup and learn new things and try out a lot of stuff that you couldn't necessarily do on the club circuit. So gradually build up your repertoire that way.
How did the show you’re doing now develop, with the audience recommendations?
I just had the idea of trying to make a show more interactive and get an audience involved, but also sort of force myself to write new stuff for shows and get a broad range of issues being demanded. It's been really good fun to do. I did a run of it in London at the end of last year, and hopefully I'll come and do it in America at some point.
That would be great. How much do you have prepared when you go in?
There's a few pre-recorded bits, and then [for] each of the emails I've prepared a few bits of material. Quite a lot of its brand new each day, there's some existing routines that sort of fit it into a question. There's bits that I've done on my podcast that I haven't really done in standup before, but if it's the same issue, I might go back and see if there's something I can develop from that. But there's a lot of new stuff every day, and the show is obviously different from day-to-day depending on what people have sent in, which makes it very exciting to do, but also quite knackering. Usually as a comedian, you can get up when it's at least afternoon, but sometimes evening, but I'm having to get up in the morning as if I have a real job and start working, which is not why we get into this business.
That sounds awful. I can’t even imagine.
It's terrible! I don't know how people do it.
In this run, have there been topics that have come up the most?
The Scottish Independence Referendum, up here in Scotland, is in the forefront of everyone's minds. It's probably the biggest political event in Britain for at least a generation, and it's a very fertile area for comedy. As an English comedian I guess I have a slightly outsiders perspective on it, in that it is fundamentally not my business, but at the same time it will have a massive effect on England or the UK, whatever's left afterwards. And people are just sort of interested by it. So a lot of that, some stuff about the various disasters happening around the world in Iraq and Syria, which is quite hard to find the funny angle in. But then, also, just very mundane and personal stuff. So people saying, “Oh it's my friend's birthday, can you take the piss out of him, please?” So it's quite a nice range of serious politics and absolute nonsense.
What do you think drew you to political comedy?
I guess it was always what I enjoyed watching the most, and what I was most interested in. And it took me a couple of years in standup to have the courage to try and talk about things, and then, I think you have to have a certain degree of age to really start working and to look like you sort of know what you're talking about. I think you can look too young as a satirist. And also when I started out, I did a lot of gigs with John Oliver and we sort of encouraged each other to try and be a bit more ambitious with what we were doing and be a bit more political, and then we started working together on stuff as well. So it sort of helped that we were trying to raise each other’s comedic sights a bit, I think.
Most people in the US will know you from The Bugle. How has doing that affected your standup and your approach to satire?
Well it's been great having a regular deadline. You know, every week we write stuff and, even when we were under The Times [of London] newspaper banner, they gave us complete freedom. They never interfered, so we could do whatever stories we wanted. So it was much freer than, say, doing a radio show or a TV show, and so we could address quite serious issues, and I think the sort of informality of the podcast gave us a great deal of creative and satirical license. Also, I mean, it's given me standup audience I didn't have before, because I haven't done much telly over here, so it sort of built up gradually quite an audience big enough that when I do gigs now, there's usually a healthy splattering of Bugle listeners, which is great, because it makes it easier to do in a lot of ways. People come expecting the kind of stuff that I do and expecting to like it, so it's always quite rewarding.
It’s a shame there aren’t more political podcasts — it seems like such a good format for it.
Every week there's some news. [Laughs] Every minute there's news, so there's always new things to talk about. Obviously, you get some stories recurring but there is usually a different approach to it or different angles on it as things good and bad unfold, and also because the podcast is a very liberating medium, we could do anything. So we can balance a story about a war or economic devastation with something very light-hearted. I think it's a very good format for topical and political comedy, because you can present it in any way that you want, and also, the audience tends to listen to it in quite an active way. Whereas radio could be on in the background, but podcast listeners download it, make the choice to listen to it, and so get really into it. So you can be a bit more ambitious in the content that you have, and trust that people will go with it.
And The Bugle is one of the few podcasts I always make sure to listen to right away, because it’s obviously time sensitive.
Well it is the one and only repository of verifiable news left in the world's media, I would say.
Absolutely. Have you found that doing The Bulge has encouraged you to focus more on American news for your comedy?
It definitely has. On The Bugle, when we sort of started it off, one of it's selling points was that it was a transatlantic thing, because John had been on The Daily Show for just over a year at that point, and I was on the correct side of the Atlantic, so we had that perspective of doing a bit of both. I think in the early days, we tried to do one thing from America, one thing from Britain, and then something from around the world. So yeah, it made me follow American politics much more closely, which I'm not sure is an entirely healthy thing to do. I'm not sure it's healthy for Americans, I'm not sure it's healthy for outsiders either.
Not at all. I can only apologize.
But yeah, it's fascinating, the politics there. I think it's why there's more of a political comedy scene there is because the politics is at that much higher a pitch and I guess it's sort of more emotive and engages and divides people more strongly than politics here.
You’re also doing a show here with Daniel Kitson and Alun Cochrane [“Fuckstorm 3000”]. How did that come about?
We first did it in 2006, the show called “Honourable Men of Art”, which was gonna be him with John and me and Alun, and a couple others — Demetri Martin did it then, and David O'Doherty. And then John got the Daily Show job, so he would be on a screen via the Internet a couple of times, when he was able to do it. I guess the idea was just to have a show where it was unprepared and spontaneous and just see what happened.
It's just three guys messing around, really. Kitson is certainly the greatest comedian of my generation here, and so me and Alun just sort of chip in every now and again, but he's a phenomenon, so it's fun just to ride in his wake. And the nature of any show like that, it's a bit up and down but it's been good fun to do and people have mostly seemed to have enjoyed it. Although I did get a comment on Twitter saying that was the worst comedy show I have ever seen. But people see things in very different ways, that's one of the joys of the art form.
And I have to ask — The Bugle comes back in September?
The Bugle comes back mid-September. Probably around about the 18th of September, and we should then run for the rest of the millenium, hopefully. We'll pass it down to our children and our children’s children. Strict hereditary system we have, because we're British, so that's the way we work. [Laughs]
Andy Zaltzman will be touring the UK with his “Satirist for Hire” show starting September 14. He tweets at @hellobuglers.
Elise Czajkowski is a freelance comedy journalist who tweets occasionally at @EliseCz.