Russell Howard: seriously silly

Perhaps best known for his Mock The Week performances, Russell Howard has since proven himself to be an altogether more serious comedian, but he'll be taking a break from stand-up after his new tour

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“Safe hate is one of my real bugbears,” says Russell Howard, switching suddenly from affable bonhomie to deadly serious. “It’s very easy as a comic to go: ‘I tell you what pisses me off: Wagamama.’ It’s very safe to rail against. But if you talk about how attacks on firefighters are up 25 per cent and you lose your shit about it, I think that’s more interesting.”

Seconds later Howard’s mood has reverted back to his normal cheery self, but there’s no doubting his sincerity or passion when it comes to talking about real-life issues that fire him up. Recalibrate, the 39-year-old comic’s most recent Netflix comedy special, featured a lengthy section based on how one in four 16 to 25-year-old women in the UK self-harm.

“Biscuit-based comedy doesn’t tend to travel to San Francisco and you write with that in mind.”

His Sky TV show The Russell Howard Hour, soon to begin its third series, tackles a variety of political and social ills, including loneliness, freedom of speech and the lack of affordable housing. Guests have included author Naomi Klein, politician Diane Abbott and Islamic State expert Rukmini Callimachi. Refreshingly, these interviews are not predominantly played for laughs, but instead offer an informed discussion of the subject’s area of expertise or life.

“Very often you’ll hear it said that people don’t learn anything from comedy, but I know about Rodney King from Bill Hicks,” says Howard, who started performing stand-up as a teenager, was nominated for the Perrier Award at the age of 26 and became famous through his appearances on BBC panel show Mock The Week.

His first solo TV show, Russell Howard’s Good News, ran for six years on BBC Three, became one of the network’s top-rated programmes and made him a standalone star. It also enabled the Bristol-born, Hampshire-raised comic to fine-tune the mix of satirical stand-up and news and current affairs that has become a key component of his comedy, honed over successive sell-out tours and TV specials.

“It took me quite a while to be confident enough to talk about things rather than just my life,” says Howard. “I’ve also always looked about 14, so it was quite hard when I was starting out at 18 and had just read Naomi Klein to talk about it. No one wants to hear that from a teenager, so instead I made jokes about my life and family. Inadvertently I’ve now brought these two strands together, but I’ve always been a serious soul offstage.”

One of the most powerful and widely shared moments from last year’s second series of The Russell Howard Hour was when American comedian Rob Delaney appeared on the show to talk movingly about the death of his young son. As the host recalls, there wasn’t a single gag in the entire interview.

“And what’s interesting about that is I’d been joking for 15 minutes beforehand and then suddenly we had this conversation where Rob expressed so eloquently what it feels like to lose a child. And then afterwards me and Jon Richardson did cuddle therapy. So it’s proof that you can make people laugh and make people feel.” The key, he adds, is “being genuine about the things you care about and having authenticity”.

The same mix of juvenile silliness, the personal and the profound sits at the heart of the comic’s latest stand-up show, which he decided to call Respite after getting inspiration people-watching at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe Frestival.

“It just struck me that’s what people want. Laughter is a real respite from life because you’re momentarily lost. It’s a socially acceptable orgasm. And I think it’s really important at the moment to connect through giggling rather than applause. It’s pretty easy to make a room full of people applaud because you just tell them what they already think. But laughter is involuntary and important and much-maligned. It’s so much harder to make people laugh and laughter is vital at the minute because it’s so cohesive. It connects us all.”

The accompanying world tour will be Howard’s biggest yet, spanning five continents, 24 countries and 51 cities, including Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester and Liverpool, as well as more far-flung places like Los Angeles, Helsinki and Auckland. The knock-on consequences of taking the show across the world have meant that he’s had to write hours of extra material that will resonate with different audiences around the world. By way of example he recites a routine he performed in Mumbai about how it’s become a modern-day tradition there for young couples to drive to the side of the motorway to get some privacy from their parents.

“They are essentially losing their virginity on the side of the M6 and that was so funny to me. It’s tricky enough trying to lose your virginity, never mind on the side of a motorway where the traffic moves slow. And audiences in Mumbai were just howling because it was a funny observation to them. But that wouldn’t necessarily be funny in England. Nor would I chat about roundabouts in Swindon if I was performing in Mumbai. So it’s all about having a basis of material and trusting yourself to blend that with what you see each day and talking about that.

Howard’s interview with Rob Delaney who spoke about the death of his child

“If I was doing jokes about Digestives versus Hobnobs it would just be madness as it would only be funny in the UK. Biscuit-based comedy doesn’t tend to travel to San Francisco and you write with that in mind. You try and make it as funny as possible but on themes that we can all identify with.”

The topical nature of Howard’s comedy additionally dictates that the show’s contents evolve each night. “There’s a lovely [Bob] Dylan quote where he says you have to be in a permanent state of becoming and I’ve always thought of that with stand-up,” says the comic, identifying the farcical state of contemporary politics as one constantly changing topic that’s ripe for laughs.

“What’s interesting is that the far right and the far left are both exactly the same. Neither can conceive that someone would have a different opinion to them. That in itself is funny. Boris Johnson being in charge is deeply depressing, but it’s also quite funny. We have a man who says he’s going to deliver Brexit and you wouldn’t trust him to run a barbeque. You’d turn around for one second and all the meat would be burnt and he’d be drunk in a canoe full of strawberries. But I’m also trying to talk about things that don’t make the news that would be a better place to direct our anger, as well as celebrating how wonderful humanity can be. It sounds incredibly wanky, but those are my lofty aims.”

In June Howard got married to his long-time partner, Cerys Morgan, who he proudly says has “a proper job” as a doctor. He says the change in family circumstances, as well as his fast-approaching 40th birthday, have led to a reassessment of where his future priorities lie.

“After this tour I’m going to have a break because I’ve been working pretty solidly now every day for 20 years and I think the time has come to hopefully, touch wood, have some kids and just have a new phase and hopefully come back in a couple of years’ time and just be in a slightly different space. I want to have a family and I don’t really want to be a dad saying: ‘Sorry, you’re going to have to tuck yourself in tonight because dad’s in Mumbai trying to get strangers to love him.’ I think I would be happy just reading stories to my kids, but fuck me, I’d put some effort in.”

Not that he can envisage giving up stand-up for long. “I find it so interesting to see what kind of live show you are going to prepare for people,” he enthuses. “I put a lot of effort in because I’m a comedy fan and if I see someone like Dave Chappelle or Michelle Wolf or Dylan Moran perform, I love it because you can see the effort that’s gone in. I try to be like them, really.” Asked what continues to drive him, Howard states “imposter syndrome, inferiority complex, fear and love” in quick succession. “I never think I’m good enough, so I have to try much harder than anyone else to make something, but I also love doing it,” he says before turning his thoughts to the subject that inspires so much of his comedy: his family.

“My dad is mad and very plain spoken,” he says with a chuckle. “I remember when I was 14, I’d been playing football and we’d lost for the first time ever. I walked past my dad’s shed and he said: ‘How did you get on?’ ‘Oh, we lost 4-2, but it’s the taking part that counts, isn’t it?’ And my dad looked up from sawing a piece of wood and said: ‘That’s what wankers say.’ That’s oddly become a sort of mantra for my life. It isn’t the taking part that counts. It’s the winning.”

Russell Howard’s brings his Respite tour to: Leeds First Direct Arena, 27 Sept; Sheffield FlyDSA Arena, 28 Sept; Manchester Arena, 2 Oct; and Liverpool M&S Bank Arena, 5 Oct. 

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