Making jokes for a living might not sound like a physically taxing job, but, for Russell Howard, performing ten nights in a row during a mammoth world tour was bad news for his voice. This particular string of dates took place at London’s Royal Albert Hall, where the British comedian beat Frank Sinatra’s long-standing record for consecutive nights at the historic venue. That was just the start of an 80-plus show world tour for Russell Howard Round the World, which will include stops in Hong Kong and mainland China.
Howard made his name on the British comedy shows Mock The Week and Russell Howard’s Good News, before going on to make other series, like Russell Howard & Mum: USA Road Trip. He was sounding rather hoarse when he spoke to Young Post over the phone from Britain...
Looking forward to performing in Hong Kong again?
Yeah! I played some shows last year at Udderbelly [a fringe festival show]. It was a very weird gig in a tiny room. This lady in the front row brought a [two-metre tall] toy bear with her, so I picked it up and did this sort of double act with it. It became a big part of the show! The next day, people came back and asked if I was “doing the thing with the bear again”. And I was like, no?! They were genuinely crestfallen, they said that was the best bit. But it was all made up! I hope people turn up again this time asking if the bear is on. I love doing small gigs like that, where anything can happen. You can veer off from prepared material and ask about anything you want.
Once this interview goes live, everyone will turn up with bears!
That would be hilarious! That would be so great; all these people walking up asking when I’m gonna do the bear stuff. It would be funny to see the [reactions from] people who don’t know this story.
How do you adapt your material for international audiences?
It’s interesting gigging abroad, because you’re a spokesman for your nation. Your country becomes funnier the further away you go from it. I remember explaining the concept of a lollipop man when I was in the US. I’d never thought it was weird before until I explained it to a crowd in Washington. It was like, “What we do in England when we need to get kids across the road is we give an old man a giant lollipop.” And a voice just went: “Why?” So I said: “I don’t know, no one knows!” There’s something about being a stranger in a new and interesting land. Your eyes are more open to observe more because everything is different, yet also the same.
You’ve recently discovered you’ve got a pretty big following in China. How did you find out?
There’s a young guy who translates Good News [into Putonghua], and it became a hit. I owe that man!Because of this one guy translating it, loads of people in China have watched it. They’re the reason I’m doing these gigs. It’s literally some dude who watched it and went: “Yeah, I quite like this, I’ll translate it for my friends.” He must be knackered – he’s done, like, 96 episodes!
You’ve had to send clips to the central government in Beijing. Have they given you a list of jokes you can’t tell?
We sent them a video from the Royal Albert Hall, so I think it’ll be fine. I feel sorry for the poor guy in the government having to go through all my jokes, like “Oy, guys! What’s a lollipop man?” “Does anyone know what Quavers are?”
Are you cooking up any China jokes?
I hadn’t thought about that, I’ll just go with the gig and see what happens. I don’t have an agenda apart from trying to make the people in the room laugh their arses off. And try and find the guy who translated my shows so I can shake his hand.
The advert for your tour describes you as “darker and angrier”. Is that how you’ve become in real life?
Not really. The world is changing on an almost hourly basis and we’re all tuned into it. So it’s a great time to be a comedian. We’re all angry and dumbfounded at political leaders. America has a buffoon that nobody really likes leading it into the unknown. It’s just a consequence of reality TV.
The news is clickbait to keep people angry. Yes, there’s lots to be angry about, but there’s also loads to be joyful about. Charlie Chaplin’s speech in The Great Dictator – which Hong Kong students should absolutely watch – I tried to do a comedy version of that, like a call to arms to talk about things I cared about and thought were wonderful. It all worked, I was really proud of it.
Apparently more Americans get their news from watching late night political satire shows than from actual news broadcasts. What do you say to that?
For years, people have said to me: “I don’t watch the news, I watch you”, which is actually pretty depressing. But you can also understand it: everything [on the news] comes with such a loaded agenda. So that’s why I’m darker; these are strange times. I’m 37 and this is the weirdest the world’s ever felt. There’s a right-wing, nationalistic anger sweeping through Europe and America.
Does doing these huge international tours reassure you about the goodness of people?
Absolutely. It’d be pretty easy to recalibrate society. In England, we have all these reality TV shows [featuring] all the kind of despicable people that used to bully us at school, that society is now making heroes of. They do nothing. They can’t be heroes to kids!
Tell us about your new Sky 1 show!
I’ll be chatting about things I care about, [mocking] things I find annoying, having a look at the weird, the awful, and the wonderful things about life.
Are you and your mum going to make another Road Trip series? You should totally do one around China!
Weirdly, we were talking about doing that. The next series will be in Europe, then we’ll do Asia, and the plan was to do China. There are a lot of permits involved, but it’d be amazing.
Quick fire round!
Best celebrity impersonation you can do?
Funniest family member?
The one thing that winds you up more than anything else?
When people have an itch in the middle of their head, and they try to make their throat move so the middle of their head vibrates. My dad does it a lot, it does my head in!
Who would you swap bodies with?
Philippe Coutinho (Liverpool football player)
Russell Howard will perform his Russell Howard Round the World Live in Hong Kong show at the Baptist University Academic Community Hall on May 27.