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Taking a Punt on Steve

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Steve Punt spares no energy in discussing every topic that is thrown his way. His friendly enthusiasm belies a somewhat exhausted exterior, an impressive feat following a lengthy train journey with the prospect of an extensive radio show rehearsal ahead. Punt’s work on shows such as Mock the Week, Would I Lie To You? and Spitting Image make up a long line of credits that stretch across television and radio. Since meeting his renowned comedy partner Hugh Dennis in the 1980s, the duo worked endlessly writing material for comedians until landing their own programme, The Imaginatively Titled Punt & Dennis Show. These days, he is best known for presenting topical radio comedy The Now Show, triumphantly still on air after 38 series.

Photo by clive.flint on Flickr

Punt’s abilities extend far beyond cutting edge satire. His current visit to Exeter is in support of The 3rd Degree, a radio panel-quiz project, where he relates how “you get a much nicer show the more friendly it is.” With a format that pitches student against lecturer, Punt opts to avoid stern Paxman-esque clichés, citing a dislike of “sneery quizzes.” Rather than an intellectual bloodbath, listeners can expect instead “a very high powered pub quiz.”

Punt’s panel show experience goes far beyond radio, and it is with invaluable insider knowledge from decades at the BBC that he gives a weary insight into the explosion of the format onto TV screens: “There’s more panel shows because they are cheap. Compared to a sketch show, a panel show is very cheap to make and it’s a great way of using stand-ups.”

True to his genuine nature, Punt eagerly explains the dark side of this formula. When asked if Mock the Week’s Frankie Boyle ever tipped this comedic balance too far, he swiftly responds: “Well, I think he did. There’s a point where the others knew he did. It was actually getting very difficult to edit the show because Frankie would just take over and he also did a very clever thing; he used additional writers and the others were thinking ‘Frankie’s got three times more jokes than everyone else’…that’s because he’s got two writers with him.”

Punt talks of the ensuing “arms-race,” saying how “there was a point where all the regular panellists were all secretly working with writers and none of them were telling the others, but it just meant that there were more jokes in the show, it also meant that it became a matter of doing one liners.” By contrast QI is “the only panel show that is genuinely spontaneous…it has a completely different feel because they really are riffing off each other.” This seems a world away from Mock the Week where “they’ve got to get the punch lines out. There’s a tacit understanding of how that has to work … some people enjoy it and some people really don’t enjoy it. Women find it very hard.”

It’s well known that comedy has a dark side, one that has led many to call for tighter controls in recent years, whilst leading comedians such as Rowan Atkinson to controversially speak out against such censorship. Punt points to audience appropriate material, rather than risqué comedy itself: “The people watching Channel Four at half past ten, that’s what they expect, that’s what they want. Punt discusses how “a lot of the time the problem is that everybody can see everything. Even in Radio, you can access iPlayer now so you can always access your outrage whenever you want.” Proving that he is no stranger to the issue, he remembers “we did a joke about that on the last series [of The Now Show]: iPlayer: making the indefensible unmissable.”

You’d be forgiven in thinking that Punt is willing to talk about the negative side of comedy at such length due to some arrogance from being in the business for so long. Yet it is with friendly eagerness that he responds to questions, even adding his own advice for budding writers: “Don’t confuse cynicism with humour. A lot of people think that comedy is very cynical about everything but actually most comedy writers are really interested in everything,” he goes on to say how “the cynicism is a façade, [comedians] will pick something up, read it, watch weird documentaries…they’re very good on pub quiz teams.”

Overall, it seems that Steve Punt is a man nurturing a never-ending thirst for knowledge in an ever-growing number of areas. Fortunately for him, and his listeners, it just so happens that he’s a very funny man as well.

The edition of The 3rd Degree recorded at Exeter University is due to air on Radio 4 in March.

By Ben Murphie, Deputy Editor and Thomas Ling, Lifestyle Editor

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