Last month comedian and presenter Steve Punt visited campus to host BBC Radio 4’s staff vs student quiz show The 3rd Degree. Entertainment writer Adam Snook caught up with Steve to find out more about him and his career and here’s what he had to say:
Q: What is your favourite aspect of presenting The 3rd Degree?
A: I like the fact that it’s a spontaneous show, there’s a script, links, comments and remarks that are ready to tie the show together, but when you’ve got six people on two teams, you don’t know what the answers are going to be, what they’re going to say, what kind of discussions they’re going to have. I particularly like this element of the show as most the other stuff I do is scripted, with the sole exception of the audience question part on the Now Show. It’s nice to do something where you can converse with people. There’s a little bit of adrenaline and improvisation.
The 3rd Degree is quite a difficult quiz, but we like to keep it entertaining and light, so that it’s fun as well as informative as opposed to being just about ‘do you know this, can you remember this’. I also like that there are questions that you can work out, and it’s the working out audibly of the answer that’s fun, as opposed to asking a question, there being a short pause and there either being an answer or not being an answer.
You’re sometimes hauling scraps of knowledge out of areas of people’s brains that they might have forgotten about and I rather like that, particularly with the general knowledge. You just don’t realise how much lumber you have hidden away in the attic of your mind. You can see contestants rummaging through the content in their brain for a fact they know is there somewhere, and it’s very satisfying as we all know what that’s like when you suddenly think ‘oh I’m sure I know that’ then it comes to you.
Q: Your other show on BBC Radio 4, The Now Show, satirises the news – has this become easier or harder over time?
A: It goes in waves, the last three years it’s become increasingly difficult as there was really only one thing in the news and the programme is most fun to do when you don’t know week by week what you’re going to be writing about. That’s the fun of topical humour, on the Tuesday morning we come in and look at the papers and we say oh look the main story this week is there’s not enough snow ploughs, then the following week the main story is about French railways being on strike, then the week after its completely different, some minister has been caught with a showgirl in their wardrobe, and it’s always changing – but in the last 3 years that hasn’t happened.
Every Tuesday morning it’s been right so its Brexit then, it was Brexit last week wasn’t it, and I have a feeling next week will be Brexit too, it’s been endless variations on a theme and I think it has been quite hard to try and keep that fresh because it meant that the basic subject was the same. It meant you had to delve into all sorts of little details, and if I think back carefully over that series, one week it was about Brexit in terms of the Northern Ireland border, then in terms of if the Tory party would split over this or that, but always it was about Brexit, so it has normally been more fun.
The next series is post-Brexit so there will be a sudden widening of the range of things to talk about, but that’s the only aspect I’ve really found difficult with it. The great thing about a show like that, is that usually peoples first question is – where do you get your ideas? What do you write about? And on a show like that you never have to ask that question because what you’re going to write about is always there – it’s like doing an exam, walking in at 9 o’clock, that week’s papers are there and the question is ‘write a half hour show about the subject matter covered in these newspapers’ or whatever you’re getting your news from. Increasingly we try and avoid taking directly from newspapers as it seems soooo old fashioned but it’s useful because it’s a measure of what has made the wider consciousness.
One of the hardest things more recently with that kind of humour is finding news that everyone knows, because news is very diverse according to what source you get it from, people create echo chambers and know lots and lots about one thing, but don’t know anything about something else. The newspapers are a good way of judging what’s got some currency across the board, so we still use papers as a measure of that but I think it’s been more and more noticeable, that if you watch American topical comedy, they barely ever refer to newspapers, it’s all taken from TV and social media coverage. This is where most of the audience, certainly under 30 are getting their news from, but the audience over 50 are still very much getting it from newspapers so in this country we still have an amazingly newspaper driven culture.
Both main TV news channels spend an hour every night discussing what’s in the papers. The general election discussion about the role of the media and if its swaying people or not, and the amount of time and effort that’s put into relations with the press, that in itself becomes quite interesting from a comedy point of view, quite often you find not just with the Now Show but all topical comedy, you find the jokes are about the press coverage of the news rather than the news itself.
Q: Is there significant differences in how you write comedy for TV, radio or stand-up, or is it the same kind of process?
Yes there is, with television you can rely on visuals doing a lot of the work for you and that is quite different, but against that, visuals cost money and the thing about television is that you are constantly having to think about budget, which you never have to do with radio, because radio has no budget! You’re just using sound effects and voices, so it’s completely controllable and much freer creatively as you can write what you want.
I worked on several topical TV shows, and the difference there is that you have to know in advance what you need. If you write a sketch and say we need a bulldozer for this sketch and two people in high vis jackets, they go wait a minute, are we going to film that on location? We can do that green screen, but we need a day to do the set. The script, although its topical, actually has to be ready the day before. It has to be pre-filmed, shot and edited in, which can’t be done on the night. There are practical considerations of budget and filming time, of cast, on radio you can write a sketch that goes ‘we hear the sound of five thousand slaves dragging a stone block up a pyramid, slave number 1: this is hard work’ whereas you hand that in for TV and they say ‘you’re joking, obviously we can’t do this, we’d need a Hollywood budget.’ You either end up with a rubbish production with four slaves and it’s all done in close up in a studio and you have to imagine everything anyway, then spend an absolute fortune on special effects.
You have to learn a middle way, what we do here is just have a monologue and it’s the slave who calls out the orders and you have to imagine everything else going on. You have to think much harder about the practicalities, the staging and the way the joke is done. On radio it goes straight from writers brain to page to microphone with far less in between, I used to think the problem with TV is there’s too many stages involved, and with every stage something can go wrong because you find people want to add their own jokes in. You write an ancient Egyptian sketch, you just want some people in robes, but the costume designers think they should have funny hats because its comedy, but the hats don’t work, they wouldn’t have had them, it’s too much and doesn’t look right. Or the set designers have painted a comedy camel in the background but its distracting. The writer has no control over that. The prop buyer could by the wrong items, ‘no that’s a cowboy thing, it looks completely wrong!’ and what is a simple joke about slaves building a pyramid, suddenly has 14 things wrong with it just because there’s too many people involved with making it happen.
It gets out of control because everyone wants to put their ideas in, with the best of intentions but it becomes too much, too many cooks. I’ve noticed that quite often a lot of writers crossover into directing precisely because they realise that you have to try and keep control, and none of that really happens in radio because it’s between writer, producer and performer. It’s a very small circle of people with a more direct process of getting a joke done.
Q: Is radio a purer form of comedy?
A: I think audio is, as radio comedy had an incredible revival recently where it effectively mutated into audio comedy via downloads and podcasts. This has been amazing for comedy because it’s become really accessible for people to make, without huge resources. You can’t really make comedy on film without a lot of resources even if that resource is time just for editing, it takes much longer and more effort. You have to find a cast of people who are happy to spend time learning the words, whereas on radio they can be rehearsed and done in a couple of hours as you’ve always got the script.
There was a point where radio comedy felt very old fashioned and people were almost actively avoiding it as it felt very much like yesterday’s medium for comedy, but the internet has completely changed that in terms of making it something that you could just download a 20/30 minute show. I see people listening to the show on the way to work, and that’s Radio 4, that’s proper stuff, but there’s endless amounts of stuff that you can get that are not necessarily professionally produced but are still really good, but it’s a vastly more accessible place to start out. It’s in a really healthy state, radio comedy.
The combination of podcasts and YouTube has raised the standard of comedy as its very competitive, sharpening everything else. As to whether or not its purer, it depends what kind of joke you’re doing, you could argue that if solo stand-up comedy is the purest type of comedy then to be honest, on audio you’re really only getting two thirds of it. If you can’t see reactions, all you can do is hear pauses, so I think for a certain type of person, for writers, people who like words and language, which I do, radio has always been great.
Q: What qualities do other comedians have that you admire? What is it important for comedians to have?
A: Confidence is the main one, I started out as a writer, I still think of myself fundamentally as a writer. I watched a lot of stand-up when I was younger, was one half of a double act and did lots of gigs, saw a lot of acts and I realised that the truth for writers is that a really good confident performer is going to get more laughs with mediocre material than a hesitant, diffident performer is going to get with great material. It’s not about the material, it’s very easy to muck up good material but a really good performer will get laughs even with mediocre material. They call it selling a joke, in the trade, you hear people talking about ‘oh, he really sold that joke’.
I used to write for a comedian called Jasper Carrot, who said ‘it’s a great joke, but I can’t sell it,’ to writers when he didn’t use their material. It wasn’t necessarily because it wasn’t funny, he just meant that it didn’t suit his style. I see it now from the other side of the coin, on the Now Show, a joke will come in and I’ll think, that’s a really good joke, it’s just not in the style of the show. That particular show is quite fast moving.
Some comedians work in long, anecdotal stories that rely on atmosphere and build-up and we don’t have time to do that, so if someone writes a long joke, it doesn’t matter how good it is you think ‘there’s no way we can do that, it’s 5 minutes!’ I would add awareness of context to confidence as being important.