Comedy From Across the Pond
Andy Zaltzman loves a good pun. Actually, the 42-year-old British Jewish comedian can rarely stop at just one. It is not unusual for fans of his podcast to be treated to a multi-pun monologue, the more obscure the references the better. (One “pun run” included 25 puns on the rivers of North Korea, another featured 31 dog puns—“she mastiff had to pinch-‘er self!”) But the Oxford Classics graduate has made a name for himself with more than wordplay, finding success in timely comedy about British and international politics—first with his live show “Political Animal” and later with the “The Bugle (The Audio Newspaper for a Visual World),” a cult comedy podcast he hosted from 2007 to 2015 with a pre-“Last Week Tonight” John Oliver. Zaltzman recently re-launched “The Bugle” sans Oliver, adding a revolving lineup of cohosts such as comedians Hari Kondabolu and Wyatt Cenac. Moment Deputy Editor Sarah Breger met Zaltzman a day before a performance of his latest show “Satirist for Hire” in Washington DC.
Why did you choose to focus your comedy on politics?
It was the comedy I’d always liked most, before I started doing comedy. Also, I don’t have very good observations about life, so if I’d tried to be an observational comedian, I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere. My home life was stable. My parents love me. I’ve got really nothing to talk about. The worst kind of parents from a comedian’s point of view.
Do you think satire plays a role in or influences politics?
To an extent, yes—much more so in the United States than in Britain. Maybe because the U.S. TV news media is more commercial, less objective than in Britain, and the medium has filled a significant journalistic role, I guess. The political comedy shows have a strong journalistic element, and that can affect the political dialogue. We’ve seen Jon Stewart and John Oliver and others, who can get issues into the public discourse that weren’t necessarily getting much airtime before. To present something serious in a comedic way is quite a powerful tool. If you can make people laugh and think in a different way about a topic, then it’s quite a strong way of conveying ideas.
There’s this idea of a comedian as something like a moral arbiter, like Jon Stewart was, or John Oliver has become. What do you think of that as a comedian’s role?
When you have an audience such as they do, then there’s an element of that. And this has been the case since Ancient Greek times—Aristophanes, the Ancient Greek comic playwright wrote about how the voice of the comedian can be more powerful than other creative people or even politicians because it has an objectivity. It has a detachment; it doesn’t have a vested interest. So he was saying that he, as a comic playwright, could say things that tragic playwrights or politicians couldn’t say. And that is as true now as it was two-and-a-half-thousand years ago. And obviously you have to have a degree of reach to achieve that. With the Internet now, comedy develops a life beyond its broadcast. I think when you have a comedy show with a significantly large audience, then you have an opportunity to influence the dialogue and help facilitate change.
Do you think a comedian has an obligation to do that?
An obligation? I don’t know if it’s an obligation. It would seem that if you have that size of an audience, it would be a bit pointless not to at least aim quite high. But at the same time, the first obligation of the comedian is to make people laugh. There’s no use having one without the other.
Why are all the famous comedians liberal? Are conservatives just not funny?
People ask this a lot, and I never know, really, if there’s a right answer to it or not. I do a political gig sometimes in Britain, and I’ve had people, not from the extreme right, but people who vote conservative doing sets and being really funny. But generally comedy attacks power and privilege, which I guess is hard to do from a right-wing perspective unless you’re tackling Joseph Stalin or whatever. Political comedy attacks the strong. So it’s more likely to come from a left-wing perspective than right-wing. But at the same time, there’s a lot about left-wing politics that you can attack without necessarily coming at it from a right-wing perspective.
What do you think about the political process in the Unites States?
It’s utterly insane, as evidenced by the fact that Donald Trump is very close to becoming President (editor’s note: this interview took place before the election). This is supposed to be the greatest democracy in the world. What happened? I mean, the sheer scale and money of it. I was reading that the presidential election was going to end up costing over $6 billion. That said, I also read America spends $10 billion a year on Halloween, so it depends on your perspective. It does seem that the whole of the political process is designed to create frustration and prevent progress, which is a bizarre way of doing it. Obama must be very frustrated after eight years of banging his head against the wall. I imagine he’ll be delighted to be done with it.
How does England fare in comparison?
In England we’ve got a very odd system—one that seems odder to me the older I get. The most popular political figure in Britain is the Queen, who’s unelected and can’t do anything, so is completely neutral in everything she can do. And by virtue of that, she has become popular, having done absolutely nothing for 65 years. And yeah, we still have an unelected second chamber that’s done by appointment, so there’s a lot of political cronyism. The House of Commons is our first-past-the-post voting system by constituencies, which leads to Labour and the Conservatives getting far more seats proportionally than other parties get. Very little representation, which was, I think, a factor in Brexit. People felt that they were not being represented. It’s a very odd system, and one that I don’t think functions anymore in the 21st century. It’s an 18th-century system that we are clinging to for dear life.
What do you think about Brexit?
It’s a bit early to tell. I’m not sure we’ll know the answer for about 100 years. I was in favor of staying in the European Union. But it certainly made it more interesting from a comedic point of view that we’ve left. So, “every cloud.” But it’s almost like we just shut our eyes as a nation and stuck our fingers in a socket and just waited to see what happened. I think it was almost a vote out of boredom and annoyance. And we’ll just have to see how it pans out. I think there were good reasons for voting to leave, and also very bad reasons for voting to leave. And probably the same on the “remain” side as well. Britain generally doesn’t vote for massive upheaval. So to have basically taken upon something that hadn’t even really been sketched out in the vaguest detail is slightly uncharacteristic of us as democratic nation.
Tell me about the Labour Party and what seems to be their anti-Semitism problem.
I think it’s probably overstated, but at the same time, it’s something that is clearly significant and should have been addressed. And it should be quite an easy thing to address because you think civilized nations should have grown out of that, particularly parties on the left—whose, you know, raison d’etre is to confront and end prejudice and division. It’s bizarre that it’s become an issue. I don’t think it’s particularly deep-seated, and I think it’s maybe been blown slightly out of proportion.
Is anti-Semitism in England as a whole something that you’re aware of or that you see?
No, not really. I’m sure there are pockets of it, but it’s not a major problem. I don’t live in a Jewish area and I’m not particularly Jewish, if that makes any sense. So I’ve not experienced much of it.
I know you say that you’re not very Jewish, but do you think that being Jewish influences your comedy at all?
No, I wouldn’t have thought so. I grew up in Tunbridge Wells, which is about 30 miles south of London, so the nearest synagogue was about 30 miles away. I don’t know whether it was just the slight feeling of being an outsider that sometimes helps feed comedy. It’s not a conscious thing. My father was already lapsed. My mother converted to Judaism purely to please my father’s parents. We had sort of an outline of a Jewish upbringing. So second-generation lapsed. My father’s parents were full-on Zionists, but they lived in South Africa so we didn’t see them that much. My grandmother used to come over for one month a year after my grandfather died. And so for that month, we’d be kosher. I sort of feel Jewish, but it doesn’t inform my life or comedy particularly.
Is there anything off-limits for you in terms of your comedy?
No, I think you can talk about anything. There are certainly ways to treat issues that are difficult or sensitive. And some comedians will intentionally go out to offend people, and that’s a fair enough tactic if you’re prepared to accept people getting angry about it. But I don’t tend to do that myself. I don’t think anything is off-limits, but obviously the more delicate the issue, the more you have to think about how you present it and why you’re doing it.
Finally, why puns?
I mean, why not? You’ve got to give the public what they want—or what they don’t want, in this case. I don’t know. My dad always used to do puns when we were kids, but I never used to do them in comedy. So we got into “The Bugle,” and I guess having that ocean of space every week to fill, it awoke the dormant punning impulse that I tended not to do in stand up. But whether I’ll continue doing them in the future without John [Oliver] on the other end getting annoyed by them, I don’t know. But I think if you’re going to do them, then you’ve got to go in hard. You’ve got to do lots quickly, and the more contrived the better.