Britain’s most important export of late has been its satire, whether it’s The Office, Veep (nee The Thick of It), or John Oliver. The latest Brit wit to hit our shores is Oliver’s longtime comedy partner, Andy Zaltzman, who last week embarked on his first tour of the United States, including a visit to Chicago’s House of Blues on Tuesday, October 4.
Since 2007, Zaltzman and Oliver have hosted the popular podcast The Bugle, each week riffing on world news and politics, with a keen eye to American affairs. Beyond politics, Zaltzman’s specialties include cricket and punning, the latter to Oliver’s great torment. (The show has been on hiatus, but Zaltzman recently announced that it would relaunch October 21.)
On The Bugle, you and John had such a deep knowledge of American history and politics. Most Americans couldn't even tell you who the British president was. Where does this knowledge come from?
When we started The Bugle, John had already moved over here to do The Daily Show, so he was already deeply immersed in the crazy, incomprehensible world of American politics and American news media.
America is evidently more of a global player than Britain. (For now. We used to be the top dog, and no doubt we will be again. You guys are just taking hold of the pennant for awhile.) So American politics clearly affect the world more. But the entire world takes notice of America. I was watching some of the news coverage this morning, footage of people around the world watching the [U.S. presidential] debate, with looks of terror and horror on their face.
What was your impression of the debate?
Well, it was not a triumph for democracy. I imagine there are a few ancient Greeks spinning in their graves. I imagine George Washington wouldn't be entirely chuffed with how things have turned out. But it was kind of compelling in its own way.
It was very hard to see, on the evidence of the debate, how Trump has gotten as far as he has. You sort of expect the rambling incoherence, but there must be an element of charisma that has gotten him quite this far, and it was completely absent. It's utterly baffling, as indeed most global politics seems to be at the moment.
Do you have any advice for Clinton? Should she try to be funnier?
No, absolutely not. She should try to be even less funny than she already is, which is completely unfunny. There's some politicians who can do it. Obama can deliver a joke, clearly. But it doesn't come naturally to Hillary, and I don't think she should force it. Her selling point is being remorselessly serious, and I think she should stick to it.
With a candidate like Trump, is satire even necessary? He seems to take care of it himself.
It is a challenge. The challenge is to find different angles on it, aspects of his campaign and career that haven't been picked up on. The main thing is to try to avoid the easy jokes and easy targets and address the more interesting and more important underlying issues: what he represents and why people are supporting him. Why is half of America behind it? What does that show? Is there more to him than his opponents say? There are many layers to the Trump phenomenon. But it's still rather baffling.
The way he makes up historical bullshit, he's almost stealing your shtick. Maybe you could sue.
That I do find quite annoying. It does raise my hopes that I could one day run for president myself. It seems to be what people are looking for. There might be a bit of a birther controversy, but I'll find a workaround.
Trump would probably be good for comedians. Is it worth it?
Certainly from a personal point of view, the fall of civilization would give me an unending supply of material, so that's what I've got to think about primarily. There will be other planets in the universe. If this one fails, so be it. It's all about the jokes. That's basically why Britain voted for Brexit. We're famous for our national sense of humor, and that was not so much a display of democracy as a prank.
What should Chicago expect from your show?
The format is people can email in any topic they want, so there's a built-in balance between serious news stories and then just total nonsense sent in by the people. There's been a good lot of emails that have come in already for the Chicago show. “Machu Picchu.” “Previous Illinois governors and America's lack of interest in cricket." “Satirize Chicago hot dog toppings." It'll a pretty broad scope between political issues and the random complaints of people in Chicago.
The address is email@example.com, and I've set it up so you can spell "satirize" either in the correct British or the American way.
Can we look forward to a Chicago-themed pun run?
Probably. In the Washington gig I did last Saturday, four people requested different pun runs. Obviously not everyone likes the puns. It splits the crowd. I've got to be careful with it, time it, and make sure enough people are on [my] side.
How do you defend the pun? Some people say it's the lowest form of comedy.
That's not necessarily a criticism. Low forms of comedy have been quite successful, comedically and commercially, throughout human history. In many ways it's the highest form of human artistic achievement, the pun. It's up there with Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and the works of Shakespeare. People just haven't fully embraced that yet.
How are you doing research for Chicago?
I'm a huge blues fan, and the gig's in the House of Blues, so I'm hoping there will be some blues-based satire. Someone's asked me to satirize “four of the last eight Illinois governors who have not been sent to prison," so I guess I need to do some background on that. The problems in Illinois politics have not been huge news in Britain.
Personally, I'm very excited about the Cubs. I'm a huge cricket fan, and I've osmosed that into following baseball a bit. The first time I came to America was in 2003, and I was watching on telly when the famous [Bartman] catch incident happened, so I associate Chicago with losing at sports, particularly losing at baseball. As a Brit, that's what I grew up with. We've become oddly good at sport now. Not football, but our cricket team, which was always dreadful when I was a kid, is quite good, and we're good at the Olympics now. Chicago needs to cling to that. Everyone knows the Cubs for losing, and if they win the World Series, then they'll be just like any other team.
It would be terrible for tourism.
It would be terrible for humanity.
Is baseball as inscrutable to you as cricket is to us? Have you learned all the rules?
I've watched quite a bit of it. I shared a flat once with an American comedian, and we watched quite a bit of late-night baseball, which was then on terrestrial British television. I got quite into it. If you love cricket you can get to love baseball. Whether the opposite is true, I don't know. I wonder if it's just too much of a step up from baseball to cricket, cricket obviously being the greatest thing ever invented by the human race. America had its chance with cricket. It was quite popular in the early 20th century, and then you blew it. You had your chance and you let it go.
When your town wins a big cricket championship, is it common to burn the place down and riot, as is common in America?
No, generally not. Generally you celebrate by having a cup of tea and a pint of beer. There's not been a lot of cricket hooliganism, certainly in English cricket. Indian fans, when India loses, tend to get quite angry. During a World Cup semifinal they essentially set fire to a stadium in Calcutta. In England we just have a quiet cup of tea and a sandwich.