When Russell Howard is brought into the enormous theater that is home to Recalibrate, his new Netflix special, he is given an introduction and a reception befitting a pro wrestler, not a comedian. You’d think the onus would be on him to match the audience and the theater, but as anyone familiar with Howard will know, it is on them to match him. He is a bottomless well of energy, moving from accent to accent to bug-eyed reaction like a Muppet on speed. And while both his jockish image and level of attack can recall, say, Dane Cook at times, his gospel is only ever one of kindness and compassion. He is immensely preoccupied, especially during this divisive time for Britain, with what the everyman on the street actually cares about—“she’s alright, what’s for tea, I’d like to be a Jedi!”—rather than the Tory fear-mongering he’s so sick of.
But he knows better than to really position himself as a man of the people, and some of the best segments in Recalibrate revolve around how his bafflement and embarrassment at being famous can bite him in the ass—i.e. when he thinks people are taking photos of him in public when they’re just playing Pokémon Go. He also liberally flexes an increasingly unique skill: Howard can pick up funny tidbits from family, friends and strangers but contextualize them for us so we don’t feel the way we should feel—left out of jokes we weren’t there to experience. He’s also a master of a certain kind of caricature that endears you to his creations more often than not, as with the guy watching porn on the train for the stories (“Aw, I knew they was gonna get together!”).
This approach has its drawbacks. “The blowjob: what a thing!” kind of summarizes how Howard gets into a topic, and the special’s only truly cringeworthy moments come during iffy bits about his trip to Africa for Comic Relief (the charity not the device) and ISIS (whom he has a kid call “goat fuckers”) that contain some impressions we could definitely do without. In general Howard leans a little heavy on the modesty, a little heavy on the righteousness and a little heavy on that lethally effective drama school delivery (he studied economics at UWE Bristol but you get what I mean). Still, that’s kind of the charm of Russell Howard: he packs about a hundred laugh lines into every minute of the hour-plus Recalibrate. Sometimes you wish the special would slow down and take a second, but at the same time you can’t help but grin at the absurd degree to which this audience is getting their money’s worth.
Graham Techler is a New York-based writer and actor. Follow him at @grahamtechler.