Review: Andy Zaltzman -Satirist for Hire
The Stand, Newcastle, 28 February 2022
Another liberal (in all senses) dose of Andy Zaltzman, now firmly installed in the mainstream¹ as the host of The News Quiz, and very much non-bearded Wonder of Test Match Special. Last time I was in The Stand we were in what now are increasingly coming to be known as The Before Times² to see Zaltzman and Alice Fraser doing a live Bugle (in honour of which I was wearing my bright orange Bugle T-shirt tonight). Zaltman as a solo performer I’ve seen a couple of times before, the latest being around this time five years ago.
Let’s just say, especially if you have listened to The News Quiz, or The Bugle recently, that Zaltzman is very, very good indeed at topical humour, but boy, oh boy does he have some material to work with right now, and even he admits that is a very mixed blessing indeed.
We start with the usual drill: Andy comes on to “collect issues” to satirise, soliciting a bunch of suggestions, in addition to any he may have been emailed pre-show. It’s early in the tour, and not many of us got the memo about sending emails³ so he has a smallish pool of around half a dozen to work with. For no other reason, I think he’s keen to get some stuff from us. Suggestions include: what’s going on with Liz Truss’s Instagram account; has Johnson got away with Partygate because “a wasp flew up Vladimir Putin’s arse”? will Broad & Anderson ever play for England again, as well as the great sandwich debate — rectangle or triangle? Oh yes, and an interlude on urinal etiquette from a somewhat exuberant interlocutor, which even gets a brief callback later. These are the kinds of heckles you get with Zaltzman⁴. At points, he consults both laptop and a newspaper to share today’s headlines with us. But he shows the newspaper. He has pasted over the real headlines, with new ones to give us “better news”.
Obviously the first half is mostly about Ukraine and related issues. Unsurprisingly enough he’s not a Putin fan, and there are musings about exactly how far you can push satire, and whether it even works in situations such as this. As a heckler reminded us, “it certainly stopped Hitler!”. However, he seems to come to the conclusion that it is at least a way for us to laugh and agree that everything really has truly gone to shit, especially for him career-wise in the wake of the inexorable rise of his erstwhile fellow Bugler, John Oliver, aka “Johnny Showbiz”⁵.
This turns out to be only his fourth stand up gig since The Before Times. There were two in Australia before Christmas during the ashes debacle (where he was doing the stats job for Test Match Special, remember, so the poor lad was probably traumatised), and a warm-up gig in Leamington. If you were of that frame of mind you’d draw odd parallels between getting slaughtered in Australia and Death in Leamington⁶, but I’m not, so we’ll move on. Because he admits to being a bit ring rusty, he apologises for being “even more ramshackle than usual”, and also tells us that his laptop decided to play up on the train journey to Newcastle, which isn’t helping things. None of this matters, because Zaltzman’s while technique is, well … a bit peripatetic, and that is one of its joys, really. You never quite know what you’re going to get on any given night.
There is a group at the front who sent a bunch of questions in, but this is a good thing because it turns out that one of them is from Norfolk visiting his friend and [his friend’s] fiancée, and has made a 500+ mile round trip for the gig. He’s also going to be the best man for his friend, so he’s looking for advice on organising a stag night. This leads us to a meander into the standard of school sex education, and Andy bemoaning the fact that his own private education led to him being being utterly unable to talk to girls, though if he had been able to, he’d have been able to do it in grammatically perfect Latin⁷. We then manage to get some advice on the merits of haruspicy, before serious consideration of why Neighbours is responsible for the world’s ills.
And, because it’s Newcastle we couldn’t have a show without someone wanting to mention Newcastle United. It says something for how bad Mike Ashley was thought of, that seeing his share in the club being bought by the journo-murdering, woman-hating, autocractic absolutist theocracy that is Saudi Arabia was seen as a step up by Newcastle fans.
And of course there were cricket questions. The Broad & Anderson question he can't answer, but he hopes so. But then someone asks him about Ian Bell, and the fact that Andy is repsonsible for him getting the nickname, The Sledgehammer of Eternal Justice⁸. He tells us that this is both a source of minor embarrassment, because he’s shared a commentary box with Bell, and faint satisfaction, because that was the point where his test stats improved markedly, so he likes to think he may have played a minor role in it. Well, he is a cricket statistician, after all. Prompted by the news story that “Boris Johnson has just announced that he’s calling a snap Olympics”, there’s a brief memory of those golden days in 2012 where the people of London had a warm glow, and even, for a few shining moments, actually mananged to speak to each other. What the fuck has happened in the last decade, he wonders. How on earth did we get here? But the ending isn’t that downbeat, really. Again he apologises for being a bit ring-rusty, but is entirely genuine in his thanks for us turning out, and in his affection for the venue and the chance to do it.
There’s something about Andy Zaltzman’s comedy I really like that makes me keep coming back. It maybe the deployment of the pun as a weapon that may contravene arms limitation treaties, it may be the cut and shut of entirely weird and disjoint ideas in the same sentence (admit it, you had to look up haruspicy, didn’t you?), but in the end it’s just the fact that he makes me laugh. A lot. He made me laugh last night, and that’s enough to be going on with.
¹ Oh alright, as mainstream as you can call a Radio 4 quiz show host.
² 8 October 2019, the night after I saw Ben Elton. and got my car broken into. Grrr.
³ I really should have remembered the sending him emails bit, as I’ve done that myself before; I sent him a longish thing about Iain Duncan Smith’s treatment of benefit claimants when I saw him back in 2014. I had this idea about alien bodysnatchers replacing all the politicians with fictional characters, like the Prime Minister has been replaced by a Worzel Gummidge sexdoll, and the Foreign Secretary replaced by Philomena Funk. Dominic Raab was supposed to be Tom Thumb, but they read the memo wrong and replaced him with an actual six-foot thumb in a suit. Perhaps it was for the best I didn’t.
⁴ In a spirit of full disclosure this does include me, though not tonight. When I saw him in Stockton, I did interject with a cry of “Bring Back the Danelaw!”, which made sense at the time as it was not long after the Scottish independence referendum. Looking back, I really wish we had; it would have saved us a lot of bother.
⁵ For anyone unfamiliar with the history here, the outrage is entirely imaginary, and is a running joke about his long-standing friendship with Oliver, with whom he has worked extensively, including The Bugle, before Oliver’s move to the US .
⁶ If we’re being picky, the cause of death in Betjeman’s poem probably wasn’t Mitchell Starc chin music.
⁷ Zaltzman has an Oxford classics degree, but I suspect he’d make a rather better stab at ministerial office than the other famous Oxford classic graduate in our midst right now.
⁸ It’s true. He really was