The Den of Geek interview: Russell Howard
Kicking off our stand-up comedy week, we chat with one of Britain’s most popular comedy talents, Mock The Week’s Mr Russell Howard…
Russell Howard, whose first-ever stand-up comedy DVD has just been released, is most known for his work on the astoundingly funny panel game show Mock The Week. As he launches his DVD, he spared some time with us for a chat…
Just reading your background, your fifth ever gig got you to the final of Channel 4’s So You Think You’re Funny. What were gigs one to four like?
Well, gig one was really great. Ridiculously great. Two was pretty good. Three was horrific, four was great because that was the semi-final, and then five was the final! It was years ago, it was bizarre as well, because I was 19 and I’d only just started doing stand-up while I was at University. Jimmy Carr was in the final, and Dave O’Docherty who won the Perrier this year.
Did you come up against the perception that 19 year olds aren’t supposed to be that funny?
The gig went well, I just wasn’t ready. What do you know when you’re 19? I was just stomping around doing gigs.
What happened with gig six?
Just got straight back on it, just doing gigs in Bristol, open mic nights and stuff like that. Just a conveyor belt of gigs!
For someone like yourself, you’ve come into the national eye through panel games. Do you think that’s the best way for a comedian to break through now?
No, not really. I think that it’s a way, but someone like David O’Doherty hasn’t done any panel shows, yet he’s building an audience. You look at someone like Daniel Kitson. It just sort of has helped me. I quite like it because they’re just fun, they keep you on your toes. It’s all on the cuff really. You’ve got a vague idea of what the stories are going to be about, but it’s kind of responding. It’s a real natural test of being funny in the moment. For me it’s great, but for others it’s not. But that doesn’t mean that they’re not great comedians simply because they don’t go through that kind of particularly way of doing things.
How did you come to be involved with Mock The Week, then?
I was doing a show at the Edinburgh Festival, and the producer – Dan Pattinson – saw me doing my show and asked me to come along and do an audition. And then do an audition in their office with other comics. And that went quite well, and they asked me to do it, and that went quite well! It kind of snowballed from there, really!
Success seems to have come a lot quicker to you than many. Is there a secret to that?
Not really. I’ve been doing stand-up for nearly ten years, so it’s kind of that thing that I’ve been gigging for five nights a week at every toilet in the country. Gigs in little pubs. The thing is you always try and turn over material. There’s a lot of brilliant comics who are amazing, but you can see them doing the same 20 minutes that they were doing five years ago, verbatim. I think that doesn’t lend itself to progressing.
You don’t really have a career plan, though. It’s quite an immediate process, stand-up, so it’s kind of that thing of you find the idea, and you’ve always got the canvas to do a gig and explore it. Everything is a work in progress. Then weirdly you find yourself, as you say, in the public eye, and it ceases to be that much of a work in progress. You have to delve into your back catalogue a bit.
I wouldn’t say it’s an overnight success. What’s weird about it is I didn’t really have any ambition to do TV or such, I was perfectly happy banging around doing gigs. And then this came along.
I’ve read some of the reviews that your DVD has been getting on Amazon in advance of its release. One person writes about you ending a gig in Edinburgh with the support act being licked clean of Rolo yogurt “by a ginger from the audience”. But you’ve talked in the past about how on Mock The Week it’s the researched material that tends to work better. Yet so much of your act seems to thrive on spontaneity. How do you mix it, and which do you actually prefer?
That’s a really good question. At the moment I’m really enjoying bantering, and arsing around with the audience, I really like that. But then you go through stages of having certain bits of material that you really enjoy doing. I think the most important thing is to write and create it, and have solid bits of stand-up that are back-to-the-wall funny when people aren’t on your side. You can dish them out and they’re funny. But it’s nice to be in the privileged position where people say, “Wheeeeeeeeeey!” when you wonder on stage, and you can have a bit of fun.
In Edinburgh, Steve, the man who supported me on the tour said at the beginning of his gig that he really fancied ginger girls, so someone through a Rolo yogurt on stage, which is a reference to a joke I’ve done on telly. And then I suggested we got Steve on, put Rolo yoghurt on him, and got a ginger girl to lick it off. That’s what happened. It’s not something that we could recreate, and interestingly were that to be on the DVD, it would probably be a bit shit. It’s a bit too self-indulgent and would like in the future to marmalade and Nutella and stuff like that, you know? I really don’t want to get into that, when people are bringing you trinkets and stuff like that, saying ‘make the show about me’. It then makes everyone else feel really alienated, you know?
Conversely, if you did it on the telly, you’d be sent a year’s supply of Rolo yogurts!
Going back to Mock The Week, it strikes me that it’s very competitive, none more so than that bit at the end. It just looks like you’re punching each other out of the way by the end?
Yeah, it’s pretty savage! What’s interesting about it as well is that you only see on TV about, what, four minutes of that? But on the night, that goes on for half an hour. We just pummel the audience and each other. I really like that bit, weirdly; it’s a nice spot. Someone said something piss funny, okay, I’ll try and match it. I’ve failed! Okay! It’s the ultimate dressing room, isn’t it? Somebody funny says here’s what I’ve got to say that’s funny, somebody else goes look what I’ve got.
But people love it. Sometimes it can be really quite tricky, but I find it all quite funny. I’m one of the people who actually laughs at everyone else’s jokes!
Turning to your DVD, you’re touring a brand new show this year, to the one that’s just about to be released. That’s quite a turnaround of material?
It’s just a new hour, really. It’s that thing of coming up with a new hour every year. I’ve been doing that at the Edinburgh Festival, and it’s good training, really. Every year, you have a new hour.
I’ll tell you what’s weird about it. I’m coming round with an hour that you have to get through lawyers and stuff like that, because it’s a different kind… there were jokes that we couldn’t put on the DVD.
There was Disney’s copyright of The Lion King! Basically I had this story about going to the doctors and getting a testicular cancer examination, and I described my penis disappearing into my stomach. And I said that my balls looked like they were dopey backing singers, and the front man had fled. I did a little dance where I had the nuts going “wimba-whey, a-wimba-whey”. We weren’t allowed to keep that in! The company that put the DVD out had to write a letter to Disney saying can we use your song, and they asked in what context. Well, in the context of Russell Howard’s balls. And they sent back a very firm no!
It’s really interesting. We did some stuff about the Bishop of Carlisle, that was libellous, so we couldn’t keep that in either.
I’ve just finished reading Frank Skinner’s new book, and he has a really scientific way of putting a show together, where he needs a set number of ticks to make a show. What’s your system? I can’t imagine too many people follow Frank Skinner’s scientific tack.
It’s just that thing that you have different ways. You’re just aware of it when you’re putting a new hour together. You get a feel for it, you know the bits that really solid laughs, and you know that bits that are fair weather bits. Gradually you have to change and adapt those bits. So I’ll put greater emphasis on twisting words, but I do a lot of it on stage.
It was really interesting reading his book, just seeing how as you say he’s scientific about it. But I find that fascinating. I think he’s an extraordinarily good stand-up. I saw him at the Secret Policeman’s Ball and he was unbelievable. Someone who can make a 7,000 seater room literally feel like he was having a natter with them. I think he’s a really underrated comic, he’s one of those people who’s not nearly as trendy as a lot of his peers, but the man is funny as fuck. Simple as that. Funny, funny fucker.
And a very clever one.
Absolutely, yeah. And he wears his intelligence so lightly that he’s always accused of being laddish. But he’s not actually at all. If you actually engage with it, you’ll see that it’s really clever.
I was in the audience of 5,500 when he played Birmingham’s NIA last year, but one thing about it was that it was filmed for the DVD. In his book, he talks about the added pressure of the camera being there, and that this was the version of the show that was going to be immortalised. This is now your first stand-up DVD – did you feel the same pressure?
Yeah. It’s a horrible feeling. It can never be right, that’s the problem. Unless you have the money, which certain comics do, to go around and film ten shows, and then get them all right, then it’ll be fine. But it’s a really difficult process, because you’re thinking that got a bigger laugh three nights ago in Grimsby, and then that lady said that thing which made it a bit funnier. You just have to do it to the best of your ability, and walk away.
Comedy’s not really meant to be watched on DVD is it? You’re meant to be there. It’s an interesting process, but to be honest with you, that made me feel like a very young man in the world in which I find myself. I find myself very inexperienced in terms of making DVDs, that’s the weirdest thing. To go from pissing around in comedy clubs and arsing about, to suddenly “this is shit! This is going to be in shops!”. Thinking about it, you get more serious about it, which knocks the everyday fun out of it.
I assume you get quite involved with the DVD, but I’m curious what the post-production length is? I gather Michael McIntyre’s new disc is being turned around in three weeks, which seems quite short. But yours has been coming for a while.
I recorded mine in October last year, so it’s been in the can for ages, really. To be honest, it all depends on the amount you have, or whoever is producing it for you has. Three weeks doesn’t sound like a lot, but that would be three weeks of people in there, five days a week, 20 hours a day. You can rattle it out, and he’s fantastic, so it’ll be great.
What stand up gigs would you buy a ticket for yourself?
I went to see Chris Rock at the Birmingham NIA, actually, and that was unbelievable. And I’d pay money to watch probably Tommy Tiernan.
I landed on your MySpace page, and inevitably it lists your favourite movies on there. One shone out like a beacon – Teen Wolf.
Can you encapsulate what you love about Teen Wolf, and presumably what you hate about the sequel?
Yeah! You know you’ve got certain films that just remind you of your childhood? It’s one of those films. I’ve not seen it for years. But certain scenes in it just remind me so much of me and my brother watching it. I don’t know why, but you know when you hear a song, it takes you back to ’97, being at Alton College, rolling down the hill. It does that for me.
Plus that scene when he’s changing into a wolf. And he pulls the door, and his dad’s a wolf! It’s just so, so funny and corny. I just dig it!
Did you watch the sequel? It’s shit.
It was shit wasn’t it? What’s going on there? Never go back to a lit firework!
Also on your MySpace page are many messages, mainly from female fans who, ummm, seem to want to get quite close to you. But there’s one that says “Russell Howard Help Me. Ninjas Killed My Family. Need £££s for Karate Lessons”.
Really? Oh wow!
That’s the entirety of the message. How do you respond to it?! Does it tie into a gig?
I’ve no idea! I don’t check my MySpace any more, Avalon do it. But I was told the other day that apparently there’s a group of New York UK-based porn stars, ladies, who have got in touch to see if they can get tickets for the gigs in Hammersmith. Which is really funny, because after a heavy day working on a porn set, they sit down for a bit of satire! I was telling Frankie [Boyle] about it, and I think he’s planning to get them at his gig as well!
Would you shape your gig though, dependent of someone you knew was going to be in the audience?
To be honest, if it was porn stars, I’d probably have a bit of fun with that.
It must be like an open goal…!
It’s ridiculous isn’t it? Humorous whimsy and cock seems an odd combination!
But no, not specifically. A lot of my contemporaries do quite a lot of corporate gigs, and I just couldn’t bring myself to do that. You’ve really got to gear it to them. “Hey! Who’s the mad one in the office?!” on a bigger scale. I’ve done a couple of them and I just feel dirty – I’d rather just do gigs for normal people. It’s that thing though that lots of comics do corporates because you get paid shitloads. It just feels like dirty money, you know, boring gigs.
Perhaps you could take the porn stars along?
Yeah! [laughs] I could put it on my rider! You know, my friend did that once.
He’ll, er, remain unnamed! But he was doing a gig in Edinburgh, one of the new act competitions as well, and he put five prostitutes down on his rider! That’s about as far as that story should really go!
So what next? I know you’ve extended your tour into next year?
Yeah, well what I’m going to do the tour finished on December 5th this year, and then I’m not going to do anything for three months. I’m just going to hang out with my girlfriend, do a bit of travelling, just get my love back. It’s just been a two year slog, and I kind of feel like I need to be re-stimulated by life. I’ve become a bit kind of like trains, hotels, cars, backstage, gig, see you later, trains, hotels. And you don’t see enough of the world. You just see the same things about the world. I don’t want to be one of those comics who says, “Hey, what’s wrong with air travel?” and stuff like that. I need to get out there, really. And just do different things.
And then I’m doing ten dates in June to get ready for the following series of Mock The Week, and possibly for a second DVD depending on how this one does.
Russell Howard, thank you very much!
Russell Howard Live is out now on DVD.