Russell Howard may not be plastered all over screens in the US, but he’s a regular fixture on UK television. He’s got The Russell Howard Hour, as well as popping up in the usual places you see British comedians: The Jonathan Ross Show, Taskmaster and The Last Leg, to name a few. In short, Howard is extremely successful and easily consumable.
His career spans over two decades and he’s performed for crowds over 10,000 people strong. I asked Howard over Zoom what compels him to keep writing and performing stand-up, considering his already numerous triumphs and ubiquitous status on British TV.
“There’s a Bill Hicks CD called Arizona Bay, and I kind of feel like every comic is trying to get to their version of Arizona Bay, where that, for me, is him at his best. And it’s that pursuit of the perfect hour, you know, that’s what I love,” he explains.
Later, the Bristol native adds: “I started doing stand-up when I was a kid. I’ve kind of grown up in the world of stand-up as it were. So initially you just want to be funny, and you just want to dazzle people and you’re afraid to lose the audience. And then something happens the further you get into it, where there’s certain things you want to say. And I really like to try and to make points with jokes.”
The latter statement surprised me a bit; many comedians say they want to send a message with their comedy, but Howard’s latest hour for Netflix, Lubricant, hardly has any material that would ruffle feathers, save for a bit about Michael Jackson. Most of his takes feel like something you’ve seen on Twitter already, just enhanced by Howard’s enthusiastic accent work and physical comedy.
Perhaps the most controversial thing Howard has done lately is interview Jordan Peterson on his YouTube channel, which he explained away to me with a bit of bothsidesism: “We interview lots of people, and I quite like interviewing people across the spectrum, rather than kind of who you would necessarily think a sort of a left-leaning comedy show would interview.”
Howard may be left-leaning, but he stops short of committing to any particular credo, for risk of losing the observational vantage point of the outsider.
“I’m full Bob Dylan, do you know what I mean? I just kind of write about it,” he says, later continuing, “I love reading and writing and thinking, but I think as soon as you nail your colors to one ideology, then you cease to be funny.”
Funny is undoubtedly at the root of most everything Howard does. His latest special’s thesis statement is an updated version of “laughter is the best medicine”: laughter is the lubricant for all the shitty things in life.
As for what makes Howard laugh throughout our ever-darkening times, that’s simple: his younger brother, Daniel.
“My brother is like a child. He’s never trying to be funny, but always funny. And whenever he tries to be funny, he’s not. But his behavior on some of those Zooms was just exquisite,” Howard says before launching into a story about his brother.
“We’re in the middle of a Zoom, there’s about 10 of us in this group. And I turned to my brother, and I said, ‘Hang on, are you in a bath?’ He just got into the bath in the middle of a Zoom chat, like, bollock-naked in a bath. So I said, ‘Are you in a bath?’ And this is my brother all over, so I feel like I’ve got him. There’s no way he can wriggle out of this. And my brother dead-eyed me and went, ‘Yeah, because you’ve got a wash, you dirty fuck.’ And it’s his ability to get out of any situation like that I find incredible,” Howard concludes.
The best moments of Lubricant’s accompanying documentary, Until the Wheels Come Off, focus on his family: his fitness-obsessed dad (“My dad is crazy and challenges me to press up competitions in the middle of family parties,” Howard shares, adding that his dad always wins), adoring mother, and twin younger siblings, Kerry and Daniel. Howard has even capitalized on this winning dynamic with the Russell Howard & Mum series, where he travels abroad with his mother.
As for the documentary, it was originally conceived as a celebration of Howard’s now over-20-year career, turning 40 and his world tour scheduled for 2020. Obviously, fate had other plans. Howard and his team pushed ahead with the documentary, though, which became more about his love of comedy and how he strived to perform safely during the pandemic until the titular wheels came off. The doc isn’t all that enlightening; out of necessity, it’s made up of mostly talking heads and archival footage, all of which endlessly buoy up Howard’s talent and commitment to the craft.
Despite this, there’s still something enrapturing about the way Howard talks about comedy, both during Until the Wheels Come Off and our Zoom call. He looks back on his early days performing with self-confessed “rose tinted views.”
“There was no hint of fame or anything like that. And I think that’s what was golden about it,” Howard says. Talking about young comedians today, he laments the self-branding fostered by social media: “I think the world is now forcing people to become brands of themselves. And that is the opposite of comedy, because comedy really lurks in the mistakes and the awkwardness and the togetherness. It isn’t about this kind of superficial perfect.”
Howard’s advice for burgeoning stand-ups is simple: “Go for it, because comedy clubs are still magical places.”
If they’re open, that is.
Clare Martin is a cemetery enthusiast, hibernophile and contributing writer for Paste’s music and comedy sections. She also exercises her love for reality TV at HelloGiggles every now and then. Go harass her on Twitter @theclaremartin.