Andy Zaltzman

Andy Zaltzman

An Oxford classics graduate, Andy Zaltzman emerged on to the stand-up scene in 1999, when he was a finalist in the So You Think You're Funny? talent contest.

The following year he was chosen to take part in the well-regarded Comedy Zone showcase at Edinburgh, and also made the finals of the Daily Telegraph Open Mic award. His solo Edinburgh debut, Andy Zaltzman versus The Dog Of Doom, was nominated for the Perrier Best Newcomer award in 2001.

Zaltzman has worked extensively with John Oliver. In 2004, they launched a satire night in London and Edinburgh, called Political Animal, which transferred to Radio 4, and since 2007 have hosted The Bugle, a topical podcast for Times Online. They also wrote and starred in three series of The Department, again for Radio 4.

He performed at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival for the first time in April 2007, where he won the coveted Piece of Wood Award for the comedians' comedian.

Zaltzman has also written for several series of Bremner, Bird and Fortune, and in November 2008 his first book, entitled Does Anything Eat Bankers? And 53 Other Indispensable Questions For The Credit Crunched, was published.

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The Great Debate 2017

Note: This review is from 2017

Report from Lorelei Mathias at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival

The Great Debate is arguably the intellectual highlight of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. The 28th annual ‘massive barny’ – as moderator Stephen K Amos calls it – is no exception. A packed-out town hall watches on as two teams of quick-witted comics battle it out. This is QI meets Have I Got News for You meets the student debate team on crack. 

This year’s topic is You've Gotta Fake News To Make News. In the affirmative corner is team captain Tom Ballard, Canadian/American Deanne Smith and the satirical wonder that is Andy Zaltzman.

Fighting the negative corner is captain Sammy J, New Yorker Janelle James and the ‘impeccable sartorialist with a smart mouth’, Rhys Nicholson.

Amos bounds onto the stage, resplendent in a long red velvet robe. Despite grappling with the twin evils of boiling hot stage lights and the pressures of TV, he does a fine job of introducing proceedings. From philosophical meditations on the very nature of truth, to amusing anecdotes about growing up in a house of infinite siblings, and how this made him the accomplished arguer he is today.

Team Affirmative’s job is to convince us that fake news is great, really great. 

First up is Ballard, who lands the first successful Trump joke of the night with a quip about how there must be ‘two, maybe three million people in the audience’. He also unveils the first of his team’s secret weapons – ABC’s Tracey Spicer fronting a series of pre-recorded fake news reports, reminiscent of The Day Today. 

The strongest part of Ballard’s case is about how Facebook is now the world’s biggest news platform, and we are all ‘in the bubble’. We should stay in the safety of our echo chambers, comforted as we are by smashed avo, bi-curious hipsters, using our MacBooks to write about privilege while nestling in the warm glow of cosy Guardian headlines. 

This point is underlined brilliantly when he asks if there are any right-wing people in the audience, and precisely no one puts their hand up. This debate, clearly, is going on in the bubble. All in all, a great start for Team Fake, cheapened only by the low level dig that Sammy J looks like Tom Ballard with a with a terminal illness.

In response, Sammy J stays low by lobbing a similarly personal insult, about Ballard blustering his way to an unsatisfying sweaty climax. Then he picks up the pace with some compelling arguments in defence of the sanctity of truth. He brings great imagery – from the dog of fiction humping the leg of truth – to fake news being like the drunk guy at the bar who’s had too many. 

Finally he delivers winning rhetoric about how truth beats fiction because ultimately, it stays with us far longer. We all remember where we were when Princess Diana died. Nobody remembers where they were when the Pope endorsed Trump for president. He ends with a blinder of a comparison: where real news sings you a lullaby and kisses you good night, fake news is nothing but a cheap one-night-stand – sexy yet unfulfilling.

Next up, Deanne Smith pulls a blinder for Team Affirmative, un-boxing a series of clever tricks and winning insights, starting with the first bit of fake news – ‘I’m Hannah Gadsby from further away.’ 

Next, an excellent section of riddling wordplay – rhyming breaking, faking, making, by the end of which we are celebrating just how fun fake news can be. Rhys Nicholson, she posits, isn’t Rhys Nicholson, but an elderly Greek woman named Sandra who spent hours in make-up. And pesos aren’t pesos, they are actually frogs  if this next Tracey Spicer report is anything to go by. 

Folly aside, Smith then hits home with an argument about how we are all of us curators of fake news – in the way that people post fake news every day of themselves looking happy or going to parties with friends, when they are actually going through a breakdown, or staying home watching Friends.

Finally she blows us all away with a dramatic, farcical twist, turning into Hannah Gadsby, who comes onto stage dressed identically (‘it’s me, just a bit closer’). Then Gadsby finishes things off with a triumphant piece about Christians being the original fake Jews, and the importance of fact-checking orgasms, before taking her seat as the unofficial fourth member of Team Affirmative.

Janelle James begins by skilfully insulting the members of the other panel, before unleashing a torrent of perfectly paced observations. Fake news has always existed – there’s the Bible, for instance. The trouble is, fake news is now just a bit more dangerous, and limited to 140 characters. The worst point about fake news is its ability to turn the wrong people into heroes – like trolls. 

What ensues is a hilarious segment about how James has learned to become a troll-whisperer, and how trolls spread fake news because deep down they are just unhappy. All of James’s ten minutes is cutting and hilarious, but the best laugh comes from this intellectually watertight point: what’s the most enduring fake news of all time? The rumour that black men have bigger willies. From here it’s but a seamless sashay to, ‘which brings me to the biggest dick of them all. Donald Trump.’ And with that, James has won the gong for Best Segue Of The Great Debate 2017. 

Next up is Andy Zaltzman who has been wearing a cricket uniform and helmet all this time. He knocks it out the park with a persuasive mix of theatrical devices, compelling arguments and borderline insanity.

First, a mock survey for Planet Earth, all about how shit the real news is. Syria. The Great Barrier reef. Nuclear threats. When faced with acerbic logic of this kind, it becomes hard to disagree. After that there’s a section of dizzying stats, and a diatribe all about how sport is better than reality. The next in the series of Iannucci-esque fake video hammers home, too, in a news report about ‘culling the poor’. 

All in all, Zaltzman’s combination of rhetoric and theatrics have us by the crook of the neck. By the time he wheels out the 3D printed replica of Donald Trump’s brain, and has a searing dialogue with its automated robot voice, it’s clear he has put forward one of the best, most entertaining cases of the night. 

Perhaps the ensuing Trump quiz and the sport banter go on too long, but by the end of his time, it’s hard to see how his opponent is possibly going to beat that.

Rhys Nicholson goes for the jugular by summing up Team Liar’s efforts as having, ‘huge sentences. The best sentences.’ But then he goes high, by painting a beautiful, radiant picture of how great things are in fantasy land, but we all know the truth is more important in the end. Nicholson has to admit that, like fake news itself, team A’s is more entertaining and shiny. But truth is still more important, even if it is ugly. 

Nicholson’s only weak spot is when he pauses to drop a pun that adds little to the strength of his rhetoric: ‘Let me be Frank. Now I’m Rhys again.’ His crowning moment is an excellent quip about how Easter is one of the oldest examples of Fake news – ‘Jesus has just gone to sleep, he’ll be back’. But before he can reap the glory of this, Zaltzman interjects with a rebuttal about how if he could, he’d nail him to the cross. Nicholson hits back with a ‘Nailing? Really?’. The verbal hockey game ends there though, as we are suddenly watching shiny gold ticker-tape raining from the ceiling, while Nicholson shouts, ‘You want to make the news better just by making it loud, shiny and dumb?’ An excellent dismount, and a solid end to Team Truth’s performance.

All that’s left now are the final thoughts from both team captains. Ballard expertly dismantles the other entrants, the best bit being the quip ‘that’s rich coming from a ventriloquist’s dummy’. And the final Spicer video is the funniest one yet.

Sammy J hits back first with some cheap shots – a personal attack on Ballard being the ‘face of fake news’ himself, who only got a job on radio because of its diversity quota. Then he argues that Team Truth have more integrity because they don’t need to resort to gimmicks. Cue the music – a brilliant musical comedy number, ‘You don’t have to fake the news to make the news,’ because the world is a wonderful place just the way it is. The song is exuberant, funny and poignant. 

And with that, there is suddenly doubt over who was the best team. Enter the highly scientific voting system. The loudest cheers and whoops are overwhelmingly in favour Team Truth, who are crowned the winners.

After the rapturous applause has died down, there’s a question left hanging in the air: was this applause truly genuine, or were the audience faking it in some way? In many ways, it seemed like Team Fake actually brought not just superior intellectual reasoning, but also a more surprising mix of clever theatrical antics. 

So did the room vote for Team Truth because they thought they should, because fake news is bad? Or did they genuinely think that the other team did a better job? Perhaps we’ll never really know the truth. Fun evening, though.

• The 2017 Great Debate will be broadcast on ABC TV  at 8.30pm tonight. Lorelei Mathias is on Twitter here

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Published: 17 Apr 2017



Past Shows

Edinburgh Fringe 2003

Edinburgh and Beyond

Edinburgh Fringe 2016

Andy Zaltzman: Plan Z


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