Interview: Russell Howard

Russell Howard tells Mark Wareham what it means to become the first UK comic to play China, to break Frank Sinatra’s and Manilow's record for consecutive nights at the Albert Hall. In his most political show yet, he explains how one comic intends to pull us all back together in the wake of Trump and Brexit.

Where are you?

We just landed in Dublin. The cab driver was hilarious. ‘Are youse musicians? You look like f***ing weirdos.’

It’s a massive tour you’re starting. Often when comedians do a world tour, it’s a couple of dates in Australia and one in Canada. But this is proper.

It’s funny cos some of the dates in Europe, like Rotterdam, are nearly sold out, but in Tromso we’ve sold 14 tickets. It’s going to be amazing to play places and have, say, 27 people in. When I first started touring in America it was just like beginning all over again. So I’ve decided to do that with Europe this time and go to places I’ve never been… it’s a great way to explore the world.

When you’re playing a new town, what kind of pre-gig research do you do?

I like to take in the coffee shops and the bars, talk to taxi drivers and just have a natter. It’s nice to be anonymous again, so you can be a nosey guy. But I’m naturally like that anyway, I’m quite a chatty person. I prefer doing that than staying in my hotel room and writing off the back of Guardian articles.

Do you have a lot of input with the itinerary?

Not really because we’re touring Australia in their winter! Also I really fancied doing some more clubs in America, a real range of places. I do a synagogue in Washington that’s a 700-seater. The only thing is there’s no nudity allowed whatsoever, which is puzzling to me cos a ballbag is never going to improve any joke. And then I’ll do a little comedy club in Nashville that’s a 100-seater…

Where nudity is encouraged?

Yeh, they’re very pro. You’re not allowed to tell a joke unless you’ve got your cock out.

How did the gig in China come about? You must be the first UK comic to play there.

It’s slightly strange cos they’ve asked for my script. But I don’t have one, so we showed them a copy of a show. But it was a show I did in Swindon, so I was just chatting about roundabouts and the Oasis Centre, which is a crap swimming pool, just a little bit of local bollocks. So they’re going to be really confused when I don’t mention the Oasis Centre.

Are they vetting your stuff?

We haven’t heard back. They’re probably still studying it saying, ‘What are Hobnobs? What’s a Lion bar?’

So you’ll be able to keep the political stuff in?

I imagine if I do anti-Trump stuff, it’ll go down well. It’ll be interesting to see how the tour will change. There’s loads of political stuff in it at the minute cos UK audiences are really into it, but whether that’s the case in America will be fascinating to see.

It’s interesting you say you don’t have a script… Is it all just in your head?

Yeh, yeh. I write stuff, little bullet points and arrows and jotted notes. When I’m doing preview gigs, I just go in with a notepad and chat it through. I’ve got quite a good memory. If I try and write stuff down it comes out too floral, and the language is too kind of poetic. So it’s only on stage that it’s there. There’s nothing quite like an audience to make you funny. Obviously I’m only doing that in small rooms. Christ, I’d have to have some balls to rock up to the O2, ‘OK, I’ve written “carrots” here, let’s see where this goes.’ But in front of 150 people, I’m very brave. If somebody joins in, the show will blend around that. Really good comedy nights are created with audiences not for audiences, and if there’s that extra 20 minutes of madness that the crowd bring, it’s so much better to pour that liquid funny through the show. If you just stick to ‘these are the jokes and this is the order I always do’, you’d go mad doing that every night for six months.

You’re crazy for the Albert Hall aren’t you, and now you’ve got the record for the most consecutive nights, beating Frank Sinatra and Barry Manilow who share it with 8 shows in a row.

Yeh, I didn’t even know about that. It’s such an amazing room, so beautiful, the sound is incredible… and it’s near my house. I can run there.

That’s the real reason isn’t it?

Yeh. It’s just nice to be at home for 10 nights and still play a massive gig. And the Albert Hall feels oddly intimate.

What do you put your stratospheric growth in popularity in the last few years down to?

It was probably to do with the direction we took with Good News. We started talking about the NHS and the tampon tax, trying to make it funny but also talking from the heart, and I think it just clicked. I wasn’t sure if people were going to be interested in the more serious stuff but in the last two years we tried to kick it on a notch and give it a bit more edge and they seemed to respond. Certainly this tour is the most Good News-esque show I’ve done. Before, whenever I’d finish Good News, I’d be so sick of consuming the world through the media, I’d talk about anything that wasn’t news-based. But because I haven’t done it for over a year and a half now I’m fascinated, as we all are, by waking up every day, looking at my tablet and seeing ‘Oh he’s done what?’ or ‘Piers Morgan said what?’ It’s a really interesting time to be a stand-up.

How different, typically, is your show by the time you get to the end of the tour?

At the minute it’s a lot more topic-based than anecdote-based. The topics are things like death, love, Trump, unicorns, Isis, anxiety, depression, self-harm and then lots of stuff about my nan and grandad cos they both died. It’s very funny, don’t worry! I’ve made a really conscious effort to try and write about things I care about. A friend of mine has a note in his notebook before he goes on stage which says, ‘What do you actually care about?’ and I thought, that’s really simple but great advice. Things that I’m animated about when I’m with my friends I should talk about. Hopefully by the end of the tour I’ll have stories from Europe, Australia and America which I’d like to bring together for a special.

What kind of approach are you going to take to the Trump/Brexit phenomenon? Hard or soft?

It’s so interesting how everything is dumbed down. Is it hard, soft? My main take on it is the way news is presented to us. I find Trump such an odious twerp but I’m fascinated by him. I can’t stop talking about him. It drives my girlfriend mental. But I’ve figured out that he uses fake news in the same way my sister used to say, ‘I know you are, you said you are, so what am I?’ He’s like a child repeating his little maxims. But what I can’t understand is why all the dissenters are right-wing. Where’s the Ghandi or the Martin Luther King? There are no heroes any more. I find we’re quite sick at the minute as a society. We’re broken and we need to fix ourselves. That’s the aim of the show. To try and pull us together.

Where do you get all your energy from, you’re so upbeat and bouncy.

Cos when I do stand-up it’s the best bit of the day. People always say you’re so happy, but if you were talking to 5,000 people who’d coming along to laugh at you, you’d be giving a shit too. But if you saw me when my girlfriend’s saying, ‘Let’s go shopping, we need some food,’ I’m the biggest prick in the world.

You’ve done other things in your career but essentially you don’t get side-tracked from stand up, do you.

I’ve always done stand-up. Mock The Week was a panel show but it was still about the news. The great thing about stand-up is that if you have an idea you can take it on stage that night and you can knock it into shape. It’s the immediacy I love. When you have a new idea, if you’re not itching to talk about it in a club then you’re done as a comic. All the comics that I love are constantly coming up with new stuff. I saw Billy Connolly last year and he’s still got new bits. He was very much my comedic idol. Now he can’t move because of his Parkinson’s but he’s still funny. That’s always who I wanted to be. Just to keep doing gigs for as long as I can.

Russell Howard is at Brighton Dome on 5 and 6 August.