As a valued member of the Chocolate Milk Gang, little Russell Howard is part of a new generation of stand-up. Jay Richardson hooks up with him on the motorway to ask how he avoids looking like a timid young foal on TV
A regular panellist on BBC2’s Mock the Week, with a Sunday morning radio show and an if.comeddie nomination to his name, Russell Howard recently played the biggest gig of his life, and at 27, his comedy future seems assured. ‘We just almost crashed on the motorway,’ he blurt-greets me. ‘Terrifying. I was having the phone passed to me and we nearly ploughed into the back of a truck. I shouted out a very odd word, one I can’t repeat.’ Ah, go on. ‘“Rape!” I just cried “raaape!”’
Scarcely a fitting epitaph for a comic who’s built a reputation for thinking on his feet. But it’s always intriguing when an interview threatens to become an obituary and instead takes a disturbing turn into psychiatry. Especially when the subject routinely admits to roomfuls of strangers that he’s intimidated by the size of his kid brother’s ‘wang’. ‘He’s fine about that,’ the Bristol-born comic maintains. ‘He’s not allowed into any gigs because he laughs too loudly.’ Howard then emits what can only be described as a West Country bellow.
The night before we chat, Howard was playing to 3000 people in London for the BBC stand-up showcase, Live at the Apollo. The size of the crowd eclipsed his previous best, an ensemble Oxfam fundraiser in Melbourne, where he persuaded Steve Hall from We Are Klang! to join the encore with his penis tucked between his legs. ‘A drunk, naked man bogling as the Oxfam number scrolled beneath us and we sang “We Are The World,”’ he recalls proudly.
As anyone who’s heard Howard’s BBC6 show with if.comeddie best newcomer nominee Jon Richardson will appreciate, there’s a schoolboy snigger to his keen observational comedy. Part of a new breed of stand-up dubbed the Chocolate Milk Gang for rejecting a hard-living ethos, they include the likes of Daniel Kitson, Demetri Martin, John Oliver, David O’Doherty, Josie Long and Alun Cochrane, and can be characterised by their romantic sensibility, intelligence, geekiness, love of indie music and passive-aggressive, alpha male competitiveness. Boyishly good-looking, with a sizeable female stalkerbase, Howard has been identified by Kitson as the man whose role it is to ‘bring the pussy’ to the bearded Yorkshireman’s court.
‘That’s just him talking jive,’ Howard sighs. ‘He’s listed all his friends’ roles: Cochrane makes sandwiches, John has a philosophical lilt and my chief role is to write “big old titties” into his Google whenever he leaves the room. You write it, pretend you haven’t seen it, he returns from making a cup of tea, and you say “what’s this, Dan? You obsessed with big old titties?” That’s never not funny.’
He enjoys a rather more intellectual relationship with Wil Hodgson. The mohicaned, former communist and he were smoking cigars in a hot tub after gigging in Bournemouth a few years ago, when Hodgson suddenly asked (reproduced here in Howard’s best approximation of his Chippenham burr): ‘“alroight Howard, what do you make of war poetry then?” I told him: “I’m not really a fan of Rupert Brooke, because essentially he was tricking young people into going off to die.” He just went mental. “That’s traitorous! You can’t say that about him, he was a genius!” Have you ever had your mate try to bollock you while wearing trunks? I said I preferred Wilfred Owen. He replied Owen was “an arsehole”. Then we just sat in the water for a bit. It was tense but very funny.”
Rather less amusing was his unbroadcast episode of ITV’s Tough Gig, a quickly shelved series in which the likes of Frank Skinner, Dara O’Briain and Patrick Kielty hung out with disparate groups of people for a week before performing comedy to them. ‘Hopefully, it’ll never appear,’ Howard mutters. ‘I spent a week with these extreme surfers in Ireland and though it was a lot of fun, I was quite naïve about how they would edit it. They left out all the fun to give the gig a sense of jeopardy. Luckily, loads of great stories came out of it that ITV couldn’t show. One of these surfers’ initiation ceremonies is to go to a post office and try to buy pornography, which led to me being bollocked by a very angry old lady.’
After a bad experience reporting backstage from the Brit Awards for ITV2 (‘I just felt so out of my depth’), Howard has resolved to solely appear in programmes that make him a better stand-up, like Mock the Week (pictured below). ‘Initially, you desperately want to get your lines in because you don’t want to look an idiot, like a timid young foal on telly,’ he explains. ‘And it takes a little bit of getting used to, because there are certain jokes that in a comedy club wouldn’t work, like President Bush being thick or whatever, which are just bland. But in this context, it’s satire. And the more you get into it, the more fun it becomes. I’ve learnt so much from Frankie [Boyle] and Dara [O’Briain] because you realise you need more strings to your bow and have to be better informed. My stand-up’s more anecdotal, but it certainly benefits from having an opinionated take on the world.’
He also plans to write for television with Richardson, but in the meantime the pair are considering a live collaboration for the Edinburgh Fringe: ‘a low-key thing in a small venue, quite improvised and not a proper show, more of an afternoon fuckabout. ‘Our friendship is that rare thing where you meet someone and straight away you hit it off. We lived together for the best part of a year and our radio show is basically born out of the sexual tension between us. It’s been described as Brokeback Mountain with less horses and more Xbox and that pretty much sums it up.’
The Stand, Mon 29 Oct; BBC6, Sun, 10am; Live at the Apollo, BBC1, Mon 12 Nov.
Laughter in the Dark
As the clocks prepare to change and herald in the bleak midwinter, Brian Donaldson picks out the big names helping to defuse the seasonal sadness and peers ahead to find those with a spring in their stand-up steps
• Bill Bailey
He’s been Part Troll, lost in Bewilderness and got puffed up in Steampunk. Now, everyone’s favourite hippy materialist sidles up to his adoring public with Tinselworm, a no doubt phantasmagorical musical voyage. SECC, Glasgow, 7–9 Nov.
• Alan Carr
Fresh from his hectic and hilarious Friday Night Project efforts, the first Carr of the season leaps around with a mirthful abandon on the penultimate date of his national tour. Playhouse, Edinburgh, 10 Nov.
• Frank Skinner
Rank routines about granny porn anyone? David Baddiel’s former couch buddy has material about this and other-age-related doings, what with him having just entered his sixth decade. Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, 10 Nov; SECC, Glasgow, 22 Nov.
• Milton Jones
Big in the 90s with a Perrier Newcomer victory upon his CV, this man with the daft jumpers and dafter hair offers a distinctive surrealism with his logic-bending one-liners and off-kilter characters. The Stand, Glasgow, 19 Nov; the Stand, Edinburgh, 20 Nov.
• French & Saunders
The grand dames of BBC comedy return for some character-heavy gubbins at almost Gervaisian prices. Dawn’s memoir is out soon after, handily. Playhouse, Edinburgh, 14 Mar; SECC, Glasgow, 18 Mar.
• Frankie Boyle
The sharpest one-line merchant in comedy’s knife drawer (bar, perhaps, Mr Carr) brings us more politically-tinged hilarity. If there’s still a joke to be told about the Glasgow Airport attacks, you can hear it here. The Academy, Glasgow, 15 Mar.
• Jimmy Carr
The sharpest one-line merchant in comedy’s knife drawer (asides from, maybe, Mr Boyle) brings us more offensively-tinged hilarity. If there’s still a joke to be told about travelling folks and domestic violence, you can hear it here. Clyde Auditorium, Glasgow, 22 Mar.