Si Hawkins Circuit Training

Circuit Training 149: Shed to Shed, with Andy Zaltzman

Andy Zaltzman

Almost 150 episodes in and it's a Circuit Training first - live shed-on-shed action.

Now probably best known as host of Radio 4's The News Quiz, Andy Zaltzman has also established a sort of international broadcast hub in his own garden, hosting numerous international contributors on his long-running podcast The Bugle ('the ultimate pan-global audio home of international satire'). Meanwhile, during lockdowns, that outside-office became a base for his other career: as the stats man on BBC cricket institution Test Match Special.

It seemed appropriate, then, for CT to retire to our own shed for a rustic zoom session, as Zaltzman is now shedding his shed and touring the UK. That show is Satirist for Hire, in which the audience suggest the topics to joke about. And mixing it up makes a lot of sense: nowadays keeping a political set together seems about as easy as keeping a political cabinet together, and the latter really messes with the former. Won't someone think of the satirists?

Ironically, the last time we spoke, way back in CT 11, Zaltzman was bemoaning how boring politics had become. Be careful what you wish for.

I thought it was about five years since I last interviewed you Andy: turns out it was 2009.

That's quite a long time ago, isn't it... isn't time a bastard?

I suppose The Bugle hadn't been going for long then?

No, The Bugle began in October 2007, we built up an audience pretty quickly, so it was quite well established. Obviously, the podcast market was a lot less saturated than it is now, so it was a bit easier to carve a niche. We were with Times Online at that point, so a bit of backing, they paid us so we could sort of treat it like a radio show and devote some writing time that I think helped to make it good.

John [Oliver] obviously had a following in America already from The Daily Show. So it was probably quite a good time to get into podcasting. The very early days.

Image shows from L to R: John Oliver, Andy Zaltzman

Was he already in the States when you started it?

He went in 2006, got the Daily Show job just before we were supposed to go to the Edinburgh Festival and do a two-handed show. So I had to rewrite that...

Good practice though - I imagine frantic rewriting is the norm these days.

Ha, yes! Slightly less so then, but now my whole life seems to be hastily writing stuff.

For The News Quiz, we generally record Thursday evening, and now - pretty much every week - you know that some massive story's going to have broken between the recording and the broadcast. So I just wish news would slow down and think of the satirical comedy shows that are recorded the day before broadcasts.

I looked at that piece for 2009, and you were complaining about how boring British politics had become. Different times...

2009 was still a year to go with the Labour government, but it's strange to think back to even 2015, the Conservatives winning and pledging strong and stable government, when there's been four prime ministers possibly soon to be five, seven Chancellor of the Exchequers, eight education secretaries, and general mayhem [this interview happened during Liz Truss's brief stint in the hot seat].

Let's move on to happier topics: sheds. Or shed-like things. When did you get yours?

I think it was about 10 years ago - it's sort of a garden office, more than a regular shed. That was at the time where our kids were getting a bit noisier than they had been in the early days; working at home a lot, writing stuff, it helped to have somewhere I could escape. We have written a lot of absolute nonsense in this shed.

Do you ever let the family use your garden office? Can the kids use it for parties?

Well, it's basically mine, there are times when other people have used it, but at the moment it is so inundated with assorted garbage that really only one person can fit in. I need to tidy my room, essentially, at the age of 48.

Image shows left to right: Andy Zaltzman, Si Hawkins

We did worry about that, whether all of the house clutter would end up in here - what have you got?

Lots of stuff, like my big collection of cricket books from my cricket obsessed teenage years, bits and bobs of weird stuff I've bought as props, I've got a giant wooden duck I bought as a prop for a show that I ended up not doing because of Covid. Some day maybe the giant wooden duck will make its emotional stage debut. But at the moment, it's just cluttering up the back of my shed. I've got a green screen up, to cover the mayhem.

So Satirist for Hire, what do the audience usually get you to talk about?

There's a sort of built-in variety, because some people will ask stuff relating to the big news stories, politics and economics and whatever, there'll be a smattering of sport, particularly cricket. And then there's just random, assorted nonsense as well. So it's sort of got an inbuilt balance of the serious and the less serious. It's a really fun show to do, and people generally seem to enjoy it.

Do you pick them in advance? Otherwise I'd imagine you might end up with a whole hour of people are asking very specific, cricket-stats based questions...

You say that as if there's a problem with that - they have to be educated, in the glories of cricket stats!

No, depending on what people have asked for, and obviously, there's certain things that will generally come up at most shows, I retain a bit of editorial control. But yeah, I can sort of balance it and write different amounts on different things, so the show doesn't have too much of any one thing.

The tour, The Bugle, The News Quiz - all topical. How do you balance up what joke goes where?

I guess the joke I've just thought of goes in the next thing, generally, that's sort of how I organise it. Obviously The News Quiz and The Bugle are topical shows, and the live show reacts to what people have asked for; I guess I've got quite used over the years to writing to a tight schedule, to a sort of specific brief.

With your various high-profile jobs, what do you actually call yourself when people ask what you do?

Well, I guess I call myself a comedian and cricket statistician. But it depends what day they ask me and whether we're in a cricket ground, or a comedy venue. I mean, it's a slightly odd combination of jobs. But it's a lot of fun. I think I'm sort of half and half, I guess, at the moment.

Andy Zaltzman

It's been nice seeing you get these big jobs. I remember that 2009 chat, John was doing well on The Daily Show, which did loom over it a bit...

I think at times in my career since John went to America, it was a bit awkward and slightly frustrating at times for me, but really, once we started The Bugle, that became.. I'd really missed working with him for the first year that he'd been in America, that close working relationship; it's quite rare to find someone that you have a strong comedic link with to work with.

And so I really missed that. And we got to do it for eight years on The Bugle. Then when he started Last Week Tonight, he no longer had time for that. And I guess by that point I'd carved enough of my own furrow, then the cricket work expanded after that as well. And so yeah, it's worked out in a strange way. I've ended up with a career doing two things I absolutely love.

We were chatting about balance back then too - is it more difficult now, with so much chaos in government?

It's different doing BBC work, I think you try and be more balanced than when you're doing stand-up, or when I'm doing my podcast. But I think it's not so much 'balance' as trying to make sure the satire is justified and researched.

I suppose governments will get more coverage anyway, and sometimes from people in their own party...

Balance is quite a hard thing to define let alone achieve. Obviously the government, whoever's in power is going to be criticised more than the opposition because they're doing things, rather than merely saying things. So it's much easier and probably more important - in terms of what you think the function of satire is - to address government rather than the opposition.

Whenever the government changes, it'll be interesting to see how satirical comedy deals with that. So, yeah, I think rather than trying to achieve balance in terms of saying an equal number of things about each party, it's more just making sure that whatever I do, that I've thought about it properly and done a bit of background research and that it's anchored in fact rather than just my opinion-stroke-rant.

The News Quiz. Andy Zaltzman

You'd just started a new series of The News Quiz when the Queen passed away - how did that go?

Yeah, our first episode of the series was cancelled, we were about to record when the news broke, so we lost that episode. We were back the following week. I mean, it's possible by the time we come back in January we will basically be on one Prime Minister per series, at that point...

How was that next episode back then?

It was tricky. It was still during the official period of mourning. I think it was one of the first, certainly topical comedy shows back on TV or radio, so it was a slightly strange show. And obviously, you had to take a different tone.

I think about the first half was talking about the Queen and I guess what had happened to the country in that week. Then the second half was looking at other news, the government, and what was happening. It was certainly a different type of show, I think we managed to get a tone that was about right. But it was a show that was never going to please everyone.

Was there a big chat beforehand, about how you approached it?

It was talked about, with the producers and BBC. But I hope we got it about right.

Published: Tuesday 15th November 2022

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