Andy Hamilton wants his comedy to shrink 'the serious things that might frighten us down to a manageable size' Steve Ullathorne with permission for Varsity

“I think Satan would be despairing at the moment,” Andy Hamilton tells me. “I think he would look at all the leaders who are in charge all over the world, and I think he would think ’why am I here? What’s my function nowadays?’” He’s referring to Satan of the hit BBC Radio 4 sitcom Old Harry’s Game, which he wrote and starred in. In fact, we both agree that we’d rather have Satan in charge than most politicians nowadays. Admittedly, Hamilton points out, he’s biased.

“Hamilton’s affection for his audiences shines through in his answers”

Wishing for a Satanic appearance in politics might seem a little bleak. But the Satan of Old Harry’s Game is a “slightly perplexed middle management Satan” by Hamilton’s description. He's always accompanied by his loyal dullard of a demon, Scumspawn; the morally repugnant human, Thomas; and the Professor, a genuinely decent man who doesn’t believe he’s in Hell. It’s this strange band of characters which Hamilton credits with the show’s devoted following. (Thankfully, he can’t see the ridiculous amount of nodding happening on my end of the phone call.) “Character is always the way into people falling in love with a comedy show”, he tells me, adding that he hopes some of the show’s listeners will be there on Sunday.

He’s referring to his upcoming show in Cambridge at the West Road Concert Hall, An Evening with Andy Hamilton. When I ask about the show’s format, Hamilton stresses that it’s not a retrospective, nor will he be trying to sum up his entire comedy career in one evening. “I would never try and attempt that onstage in just under two hours”, he says; instead, he “cherry pick[s] things that are funny or interesting.” Each date on the tour is different, too, since the second half of the show is dictated by the audience. “I leave a bucket at the front of the stage,” Hamilton explains, to let the audience lead the discussion into any area they choose, “over all sorts of topics: politics, past and present… and future. Or daft stuff, or stuff about shows I’ve done.” When I ask if this ever feels risky, Hamilton’s answer is firmly in the negative. “The questions are often quite original, and sometimes they take the mickey out of my fashion sense… Sometimes the questions are quite mischievous,” he says, and I swear it sounds like a compliment. Hamilton’s affection for his audiences shines through in his answers. He ascribes his enjoyment of performing to meeting viewers of Outnumbered, or Drop the Dead Donkey, or listeners of Old Harry’s Game. That, and they’re “a really friendly bunch”.

“Hamilton answers: ‘no matter how serious life gets, it is always enriching and helpful to try and laugh at it’”

When I ask him to boil An Evening with Andy Hamilton down into one message or soundbite, Hamilton answers: “no matter how serious life gets, it is always enriching and helpful to try and laugh at it… One of the prime functions of comedy is that it helps us deal with serious things. It shrinks the serious things that might frighten us down to a manageable size, so maybe that would be the main thought.” After a moment of consideration he says doesn’t worry as long as the audience comes away thinking “I had a really good time.”

The view of comedy as a tool to deal with “the serious things” explains why Hamilton is such a successful writer of satire. When I ask whether writing about current affairs is unavoidable when writing comedy, he doesn’t necessarily agree — but he does say of his own writing: “I’ve always wanted to write about the contemporary world… I find it hard to write anything which doesn’t have some element of comic commentary about the state of the world.” We spend a while discussing whether or not comedy has the power to change the political landscape — and Hamilton never quite decides. “A lot of the time,” he tells me, “you’re just keeping the audience company.” And yet, he reminisces about the portrayal of David Steele in Spitting Image: a “tiny minion”, under David Owen’s thumb. Jokes like these gain a “popular currency”, to use Hamilton’s phrase; two puppets actually changed public perception of Steele. Immediately, Hamilton counters his own argument, joking that, of the millions of jokes he wrote about Margaret Thatcher, none brought about her downfall. I point out that we can’t know that for sure.


Mountain View

A high-effort preview of ‘Low Effort Sketches: The First Effort’

No matter comedy’s power, Hamilton seems to view its inevitable role as that of audience companion (and often, commiserator). Conversely, audiences are also a part of the writing process. When I (a little nosily) ask Hamilton about his writing process, he answers simply: “you just have to hope that you’re reasonably normal… that a considerable number of people will find it as funny as you do. But you can’t second guess what the audience will find funny. You have to draw on your own experience and perception, and hope that you’re not an outlier.” I query the word “outlier”, and Hamilton expands, saying that a comedy writer will put themselves in the audience’s shoes, but that they also exist “on the outside, observing it.” We move on, after I’ve apologised for making him think too much about the writing process — which is “a bit like asking a centipede how it walks,” he quite fairly points out. Then again, I shouldn’t be too hard on myself. I’m sure Hamilton’s audiences, on Sunday, and on the rest of his tour, will have more “mischievous” questions in store.

An Evening with Andy Hamilton plays at West Road Concert Hall on Sunday 18th June 2023, at 7:30pm