Words by Helen Knott
Andy Zaltzman is perhaps best known for his political podcast The Bugle, which he originally presented with Brummie comedian John Oliver, before Oliver (as Zaltzman jokes, “the notorious Birmingham traitor”) moved to America to present the satirical talkshow Last Week Tonight on HBO.
Indeed tonight’s show, Satirist for Hire, has the air of an off-the-cuff, topical podcast. There’s no co-presenter, so instead Zaltzman bounces off the audience with the show based on our suggestions of topics that we would like to be satirised. It’s a clever way of creating a relaxed, friendly atmosphere, with the crowd in the packed and stuffy Glee Club studio space – comfortable enough to join Zaltzman in the spotlight, as they make suggestions and talk about their interests.
This does mean that Zaltzman isn’t always the one with the funniest lines, however. The biggest laugh of the night comes when Zaltzman, tongue in cheek of course, asks the audience if there is any way at all that America is better than Britain. Someone shouts out, “America has John Oliver”. Ouch. But Zaltzman is a humble and generous enough performer to not let this faze him – hecklers are gently chided, rather than brutally put down.
It’s also almost inevitable that, when the premise is that the jokes are based on issues suggested by the audience, the resulting show is going to be patchy and disjointed. No matter how good a comedian is, there are always going to be some subjects that they just don’t know enough about. Tonight is a real mixed bag, with suggestions including Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, “standards of driving in Birmingham”, The Ashes, “graduation and despair” (Zaltzman quips, “my favourite Mike Leigh film”) and “the oeuvre of 80s hair metal band Kiss”.
Some of these subjects work better than others. Zaltzman‘s section on Brexit, where he examines some of the reasons people voted the way that they did (“let’s not forget that there were fuckwits on both sides of this”) is really funny. Less successful are attempts to tell jokes about Kiss and Star Wars – two things Zaltzman admits to having little interest in. Jokes about sport, including cricket, football and even snooker, are strong, though sometimes a little niche. After a gag about French nuclear testing gets a lukewarm response, Zaltzman jokes, “this gig’s got everything”.
Zaltzman himself admits that the show is “a bit up and down, not sure I’ve been on the top of my game”. If a comedian is delivering basically the same scripted set for every show, having an off-night isn’t going to have such a big impact as it does in a freer format, like this one. Having said that, not even the pre-prepared sections of the evening completely hit home. Zaltzman ends the set with a twenty-minute section about Trump; the idea is that if he can turn Trump into a cricket fan he will naturally become a better person, as all cricket fans are good people. It’s certainly a novel way of addressing Trump comedically, but it’s much too long and the final punchline just isn’t funny enough.
In essence, this sketch sums up the whole gig. It’s a fun evening, but the show would have benefit from a tighter structure and some sharper gags. Zaltzman’s likeable comedy persona isn’t quite enough to hold things together, resulting in a gig that has its moments, but never reaches the heights of the very best satirical comedy.
Andy Zaltzman – Satirist for Hire
For more on Andy Zaltzman, visit www.andyzaltzman.co.uk
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