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It isn’t easy to bring something fresh to a show in its 103rd series, but Andy Zaltzman seems to have managed it. Last Friday, the 45-year-old took over as host of The News Quiz. If you tuned in to that Radio 4 comedy warhorse, at some point you will have realised things were a touch more surreal than usual.
Perhaps it was when one guest was interrupted by a robotic “cyber-satirist”. Or maybe it was when another had a point deducted for “using facts” – leaving them trailing behind the audience, who were also asking the questions.
Zaltzman hopes “to bring a bit of inventiveness” to the show, he tells me on the phone from south London, where he lives with his barrister wife and two children, 11 and 13. If some listeners felt the quiz template had become a bit tired after 47 years on the airwaves, Zaltzman wants to make sure the new series is “not just questions and answers – to try to make the format slightly more dynamic than it has been at times in the past”.
There’s a reason “facts” are penalised: Zaltzman’s approach to the news usually involves a torrent of fake names and plausible-sounding lies. (“Strambert Hoggis, the minister for speculative policy announcements, explained...”) It dates back to his days as sports editor of Oxford’s student newspaper, when he would sneak in reports of entirely fictional matches.
It’s a kind of mischievous satire that will be familiar to fans of The Bugle, the cult comedy podcast he started in 2007 with John Oliver. Since Oliver quit in 2016 to focus on his TV career, Zaltzman has skewered the news with a rotating line-up of guests – including his sister Helen, herself a famous podcaster – all united by their groaning disdain for his elaborate puns.
He takes over the News Quiz chair at a time when BBC comedy is under the spotlight. Last week the BBC’s new director-general, Tim Davie, used his introductory speech to stress the importance of impartiality – prompting articles asking whether the corporation’s comedy was impartial enough. Zaltzman’s response is characteristically thoughtful and level-headed. “Impartiality is a difficult thing in comedy, because I don’t know how you define it. In a sense, what is being sought is a balance of partialities. You can’t have all the comedy being neutral – you need to balance the opposing views.” That balance is “clearly needed”, he says – and he’s working hard to make sure The News Quiz has “a balance of pundits – politically, geographically” (though he can’t yet confirm who will appear in future episodes).
The recent hand-wringing about balance is nothing new. “Back in 2003, I worked on a fairly low profile and rapidly cancelled show on BBC Three. It happened to coincide with the Iraq War, and we were asked if we were going to make jokes critical of George W Bush that there should also be some critical of Saddam Hussein – which seems fairly ludicrous, in the sense that no one was suggesting that Saddam Hussein was right. But it highlighted that even then there was a concern for balance, not always directed in the right way.”
The Coronavirus pandemic has made this a difficult year for satire, and the landscape has darkened yet further with this week’s reports of a coming second wave. Does he ever wake up and find the news too dark to joke about? “Yes. Definitely. Particularly in the early weeks and months of the crisis... You don’t want to be making comedy out of tragedy.” His solution is to zero-in on quirky, overlooked details. “That is one of the challenges of doing topical political or satirical comedy. You have to find the nub of an issue, beyond the headlines and the initial sense of, in this case, a broader bleakness.”
Zaltzman’s Wikipedia page mentions that in 2014 he “performed at the Lord’s Taverners charity Christmas lunch without incident.” Some wag has clearly added “without incident” as a joke directed at former News Quiz host and frequent Bugle guest Nish Kumar, who memorably had a bread roll thrown at him by an aggrieved audience-member during his own performance at that annual cricket-lovers’ do last year. If Zaltzman was more to the cricketers’ taste, that shouldn’t be a surprise. For starters, he is “obsessed with cricket”, and puts his encyclopaedic knowledge of batting averages to use in his other radio job, as Test Match Special’s scorer and statistician.
But his gentler comedy style might also have been a factor. Kumar’s passionate, high-energy comedy is often driven by anger. By contrast, Zaltzman usually approaches the headlines with a sense of bemused or exhausted resignation – a mood captured in his News Quiz riff on the recent Proms palaver: “The BBC has announced that it will broadcast in full the first ever ‘silent Prom’, live from the Albert Hall. The Corporation’s Director of Conspicuous Evenhandedness explained that the ‘silent Prom’ would allow everyone to imagine the music and lyrics they personally want to hear being played. ‘Will that do?’ he said. ‘Now, please, everyone, leave me be.’”
The News Quiz airs on Radio 4 on Friday at 6.30pm