|22 Apr 2021|
|Arts & Culture|
The following article was published by Dominic Maxwell in The Times on Friday 16th April 2021:
'I am not sure there's another time in history when I could have done this combination of jobs," says Andy Zaltzman, the comedian and professional cricket statistician. He is talking on Zoom from his garden shed in Streatham, south London, which is where most of his work happens these days. It's where he has been hosting The News Quiz, Radio 4's Friday night topical comedy panel show. It's where he records his weekly satirical podcast, The Bugle. And it's where he has been working on Test Match Special as the man to whom Jonathan Agnew and the other commentators turn when they need an arcane cricket fact at a moment's notice.
A stand-up comedian for more than 20 years, a cricket fanatic for most of his 46 years, Zaltzman always dreamt of being part of the TMS team for an overseas tour. Last winter, as England visited Sri Lanka and India, he got his wish. "Except I was in my shed while it was snowing outside. It's a dream come true, but it wasn't quite how I envisaged it," he says. Shedbound or not, he is having a purple patch in his twin careers. He has long been one of our sharpest political comedians, but while his former double act partner John Oliver moved to the US to become one of its foremost satirists, Zaltzman who has an equally good comic brain but a more tangential and absurdist way of expressing himself remained a cult attraction.
However, after rotating the job of hosting The News Quiz with Angela Barnes and Nish Kumar in 2019, in the autumn he became its sole presenter. What's more, he has done it on his own terms. He has added an angular yet accessible sense of irony and playfulness to a format that, at moments in its 41-year history, has risked being just another vehicle for comedians and journalists to sound off about how rubbish all these politicians are. A new series starts tonight. If you haven't listened for a while, you may be pleasantly surprised.
"It came at a slightly unexpected time of my career," he says, "when I had settled into doing my podcast and stand-up. But I've really enjoyed it and have been given a sort of free rein to do the show how I want to."
The start of his reign coincided with the arrival of the BBC's new director-general, Tim Davie, and his call for a more politically balanced approach to comedy. How does Zaltzman see himself achieving that? His answer is statesmanlike. "What it means to me is trying to address each issue with a good amount of research, trying to understand different sides of arguments whether or not you agree with them, to not come at things comedically from the point of view of your pre-existing views or prejudices.
"We can achieve balance in terms of having a range of voices but, as is always the case, there will be more attacks on the government than on opposition parties because that's the nature of political satirical comedy, to attack the people who are doing things rather than the people who are saying what they would hypothetically do. It's hard to achieve complete balance, but I think you want to address each issue rigorously but creatively."
He tries to have fun with various points of view. "I grew up in Tunbridge Wells in Kent, from a privileged background I guess, so I sort of think I can't lecture people on how to live.
Yes, sometimes all of us want to scream, 'What the hell is going on?' and bang our heads against a computer screen. But I try to address political issues as objectively as I can; my opinion is largely irrelevant."
Growing up he was "a weird child", with his head always in a cricket stats book, but a happy one. He and his brother and sister knew their parents loved them. He enjoyed going to his nearby public school, Tonbridge. "So I don't have a particularly interesting backstory to mine in my comedy."
That said, his father, Zack, left his career as a management consultant to become a sculptor. "So I guess it was unconventional in the fact that my father didn't have what you would call a proper job," Zaltzman says. "Neither me nor my sister decided to get a proper job, so he could never really turn round and tell us off for that. He was a role model for me not doing a conventional career."
Before becoming genially subversive for a living, though, Zaltzman studied classics at Oxford. His degree, he says, was "massively outdated" and "quite relevant in terms of studying all the flaws and triumphs of civilisation. You're looking at ancient civilisations that have risen, thrived, failed and fallen, so, yeah, there's lessons that echo across the centuries."
After Oxford he tried his luck on the London comedy circuit, where he met fellow newbies Russell Howard, Jimmy Carr and Oliver. He and Oliver became friends, performing together as well as separately. After a couple of years Zaltzman was able to leave his "remorselessly tedious" job as a journalist in business publishing. Steadily he prospered on the circuit and at the Edinburgh Fringe, where he and Oliver put on joint shows in 2004 and 2005. They launched a satirical night, Political Animal, that became a Radio 4 show, and with Chris Addison he co-wrote and starred in a Radio 4 sitcom, The Department. "It all became a viable way to make a living, before I had children to worry about."
Then came 2006, his bumpiest year.
Within three weeks Radio 4 cancelled The Department and Political Animal. He and his wife found out that she was pregnant with their first child. And, weeks before he and Oliver were due to perform their third Edinburgh show, Oliver got a job on The Daily Show in America, which led to his series Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.
"I really missed working with John and still do to a large extent," Zaltzman says. "At the time I felt I was better working with him than working solo, but it was such an amazing opportunity for him, there was no suggestion that he had let me down in any way. There was no choice to be made but it was a difficult time. I didn't have a lot going on in my career."
Slowly he rebuilt that career.
In 2008 he and Oliver started a transatlantic relationship on The Bugle podcast that survived until Oliver pulled out, through weight of TV work, in 2015. Zaltzman has carried on without him, although Oliver returned for a one-off in December. "That was really good fun," Zaltzman says.
"Every now and then he'll come back."
Around the time he launched The Bugle, Zaltzman, who had been sports editor of The Oxford Student, started writing and broadcasting about cricket. In 2016 he made his first appearance on TMS, going on to become its first-choice statistician for one-day matches. "I love everything about it. Apart from when it rains."
He has had meetings with publishers about doing a cricket book, but for the moment he has too much on, not to mention bringing up a 14-year-old and a 12-year-old with his wife, a former barrister. Oh, and maybe, sometime, a return to stand-up. He hasn't been on stage since February 2020. "I'm very lucky that I haven't been dependent on it for my income. I think everyone in stand-up is concerned for how it will be able to rebuild again, when audiences are going to want to be in crowded rooms again, when that confidence will come back."
There have been some plus points to lockdown, though. Recording The News Quiz remotely has meant that panellists who couldn't otherwise make it to London have been able to appear. "That is something I am very keen to keep doing in the future." In the autumn he may even be able to do some episodes not just away from his shed, but away from London too.
Let's not dream too much too soon, though. For the moment the laughs, like the stats, all come via south London's most influential shed.
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