He is one of the country’s most popular comedians, now Russell Howard talks to Phil Penfold ahead of his latest tour.
Just before a week-long series of sell-out dates at the Royal Albert Hall in London probably wasn’t the best time for Russell Howard to lose his voice.
“It was all my own fault,” explains the comedian. “I’d been doing shows every night, and then a lot of big interviews during the day. And it went. All I could do was whisper.”
Not that it mattered much. Even operating at less than 100 per cent, Howard can still carry an audience and today the voice is very much back to normal as he chats away as vivaciously as her ever did.
Still, he has a lot to be excited about. In little over a decade, the 37-year-old has propelled himself into a position where he is one of the country’s leading stand-ups and social commentators, a favourite on the small screen, and with 1.3m followers on Twitter, he’s also a man who can fill major venues almost as soon as his tour dates are announced.
While comedy is a notoriously fickle business, Howard says he knew from an early age that making people laugh was where his heart lay, but it was only after going to university to read economics that he announced to his parents in Bristol that he wanted to give it a go professionally.
“I saw that my dad was stuck in an office doing something that he clearly didn’t enjoy very much, and I knew that my mum wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about being a dinner lady. I went to dad, and I said ‘Will you let me try being a full-time comic for a year, and see what happens?’ I half expected him to say ‘Get a grip. Get a proper job’, but he didn’t.”
In fact Dave Howard told his oldest son to go for it and so Howard had to put his money where his mouth was.
“Even now I can’t tell you how grateful I am to them both. Can you believe that they allowed me to live at home, rent-free, while I went looking for gigs? How generous and supportive is that?”
While he had his fair share of uncomfortable nights where laughs were in short supply, but the end of that year he had begun to make a name for himself on the circuit. So much so he moved to London in the hope of stepping up to the next level and never looked back, quickly becoming a regular on the likes of Mock the Week.
“At school I could make the teachers laugh. Maybe too much, because my German teacher pulled me to one side one day, and said ‘You’ve got to stop doing it – interrupting me in class all the time. It may be funny, but you’re not learning anything at all’. It was only when I started doing panel shows, like Mock the Week, where you have to be quick with immediate responses, that I realised how much like school it all was.”
Some comedians don’t enjoy the competitive – and often combative nature – of panel shows, but it’s an atmosphere in which Howard has thrived.
One of his happiest moments, he says, came at last year’s Leeds Festival.
“Honestly, it was one of the most exhilarating gigs I’ve ever done. I was into the set, and I singled out someone in the audience, and I gave him the name Alan.
“So I said ‘Alan’ to him, and the entire audience roared back ‘Steve!’ They all did it, and then they all fell about laughing. It was surreal. I hadn’t got a clue what it was all about. And they did it again when I next mentioned the name Alan, another roar of ‘Steve’. Still not a clue.
“It was only when I came off the stage that I was told that there was a hugely popular clip on YouTube which had two squirrels talking to each other, their voices dubbed on, and, of course, they were calling each other Alan and Steve.”
He’s back in Leeds shortly, along with another gig in Sheffield, just two dates in a major world tour, which takes him across Britain and Ireland, all over northern Europe, across the USA and down to Australia and New Zealand. It’s punishing, by any standards.
“I’m definitely going to take more care of my voice,” he says. “I’d be daft not to. If you told me 10 years ago that I’d be doing vocal warm-ups every night, I’d have thought that you’d be taking the mickey. But I do it now.
“Generally in the shower in the dressing room backstage, with the water running, and sometimes with me repeatedly flushing the loo so that no-one else can hear me”
While his popularity shows no sign of waning he has decided not to do another series of Russell Howard’s Good News. He says the show felt like it it had run its course and he instinctively knew it was time to move on.
“It was the same with the radio shows I used to do. They were a lot of fun, and gave me a good audience but firstly, they were punishing. There were times when I was doing a Saturday night live gig in Cardiff, and I had to get back to London that night to be up bright and early for the radio show. It started to take its toll.
“Also I realised that I love performing to an audience that I can see. Radio is, essentially, just talking to yourself. You don’t know if you are pulling it off – or not. So I decided to quit while I was ahead.”
While he hasn’t yet embraced the sitcom format, a couple of years ago he did write a two-hour comedy drama A Gert Lush Christmas, which starred his sister Kerry. He would like to write more parts for her and as anyone who has seen his act will know, he is very much a ‘family man’
“They do get an awful lot of name checks, but I don’t think they mind. In fact I think they take it in their stride.
“I don’t think that I could have had more fun than when my mum and I did that road trip TV series across the USA. It was really amazing to get the vibe of the place before their recent election.
“Mum loved it. In fact, she enjoyed it so much that we are doing a couple more series together – across Europe and the Far East. She’s a game old thing.”
A tireless worker for and supporter of charities (particularly those supporting epilepsy research, because his brother Daniel suffers from the condition) he’s run marathons, done gruelling bike rides and appeared at major events, all to raise funds. So when and where does he feel most fulfilled?
“While watching Liverpool play a good match. When they’re not doing very well I say to my girlfriend Cerys, ‘That’s it, I’m going for a bath. Which is what my dad always used to do. I realise that I am, slowly, turning into my father’.”
Russell Howard plays Sheffield Arena on Friday, April 7. 0114 256 5656, sheffiledarena.co.uk and the Leeds First Direct Arena on Sunday, April 9. 0844 248 1585, firstdirectarena.com