Russell Howard: ‘A new PM to poke fun at? Bring it on’

·7-min read
 (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)
(Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)

Russell Howard never set out to be a political satirist. He’s still not sure if he really is one, despite having carved a niche on stage and screen of going behind the headlines in a way that is funny, relatable and often edgier than he is given credit for. When we meet, he is busy writing jokes for the new series of his hugely popular satirical show, The Russell Howard Hour, which returns to our screens this week. While he admits that Boris Johnson was in some ways comedy gold, Howard is enthused by the prospect of a new prime minister to poke fun at.

“Boris is a digestible satirical meal. You know the ingredients. You know what’s going to happen when he goes to the UN. His shirt is going to be untucked. His hair’s going to be everywhere. He’s going to say something ridiculous. It’s exciting when you get fresh blood. It helps you write different jokes and gives you a new impetus.” He’s currently wrestling with a sketch about Liz Truss, who once called for the abolition of the monarchy, coming face-to-face with the Queen. “I haven’t got my Liz impression down yet,” he confesses “but I think I could do a good one of the Queen meeting Liz. I’ve written some stuff for the first show. It’s a lot of fun.”

Howard is tanned, smiley and bursting with awkward energy. At the age of 42, he looks as ageless as ever — dressed in a T-shirt with his trademark geek chic glasses. He’s talking to me from his north London home, where he’s been holed-up working on new material. His writing space is “really messy”, so he’s perched in his living room. He’s even given the Edinburgh Fringe a miss, despite it being the first one since the pandemic. Ticket sales for this year’s comedy extravaganza were down 20% on pre-Covid levels, with accommodation costs in the city cited as a key factor. Does he worry that the popularity of platforms like Tik Tok and its ability to turn wannabes into viral sensations overnight might finish it off?

“It’s a different type of apprenticeship,” he admits. “Presumably, you don’t do one viral video and that’s you set. I imagine you do loads before you garner an audience. There are probably lots of pretty good TikTokers who now have to transition from ‘TikTok funny,’ to ‘Comedy Club funny’. In the same way that if you are a stand-up and you make something for TV, that is a transition. It’s a different type of funny.”

 (Sky / Andrea Southam)
(Sky / Andrea Southam)

But it’s not just TikTok that’s changing the traditional path to comedy fame. These days, just paying for the petrol to drive to a gig might be prohibitive for what Howard calls the “young guns”. “The traditional route of travelling around doing gigs is closing down and comedy clubs are shutting left, right and centre,” he says. “There are so many comedians on tour that people are more likely to watch someone they’ve seen on the TV than they are to take a punt on a local comedy club, and that is s**t.”

Despite being a social media refusenik himself — his publicists run his accounts, which might be obvious because it’s mainly just clips from his shows — he respects the route taken by today’s viral stars like Bo Burnham and Munya Chawawa. “There’s something quite punk about doing your own podcast or a Tik Tok — that you can just put out a no-filter version of your comedy and find your audience. Those gigs must be so exciting as an audience member because you’ve literally had that person in your pocket and now they’re there in front of you,” he says.

Howard started out gigging at his local comedy club in Bristol at the age of 18. “I was a very young young person. I didn’t have much to say, so I just spoke about my family and whatever”. The first steps to satire came when he got a slot supporting the British-American comedian, John Oliver on tour. Oliver has gone on to win awards and plaudits for being an “agent of comedic change” as Time put it in 2016 when they included him in their 100 Most Influential People List. “John was more political than me but it was a similar blend of stand-up,“ Howard recalls. “He is a committed satirist — who digs deep to find comedic answers. On the show, we’re good at talking about stories and writing big fat jokes about them. We’re not trying to shift ideologies. My aim is always to find the funniest joke.”

We’re not trying to shift ideologies. My aim is always to find the funniest joke

How to “find the funny ‘’ in serious topics like climate change and the Russia-Ukraine War is a question Howard constantly grapples with. He is wary of straying too far into what he calls “clapter” — writing overly worthy material that will go down well with audiences because they agree with the sentiment, rather than finding it actually funny. So how does he tread that line? “Take climate change, it’s obviously a serious thing, but on the hottest day of the year there was a newspaper article telling women not to put ice lollies in their vagina. How can anyone genuinely believe that women need that advice? So the point is, you can be dealing with a lofty subject and then suddenly write jokes about Calippos and fannies — that’s the job of being a comedian. You make your point with the laugh.”

Speaking of climate change, there’s a guest on the new show that Howard is “ridiculously excited” about. When I ask if it is Greta Thunberg, he says coyly “Could be. I’ve had to bone up on my climate change knowledge.” That same guest also features in the show’s Playground Politics slot — where schoolkids aged six to eight grill guests on issues, with often side-splitting results. “The kids lost their minds,” says Howard. “It was unreal. They treated her with a healthy lack of respect. It was so funny, because this person is not used to being chatted at like that.”

 (Sky / Andrea Southam)
(Sky / Andrea Southam)

It’s amusing to see one of the country’s most famous comedians so obviously starstruck. After two decades in comedy, is a move into the role of chat show host something he might contemplate? There’s a vacancy when James Corden steps down from the Late Late Show next year and Howard has been rumoured as a possible replacement. He dismisses the idea, saying he would struggle to interview celebrities who were just plugging their latest film or fashion line. When he has a subject he genuinely finds fascinating like the controversial academic and author, Jordan Peterson, who famously cried on his show, then he enjoys interviewing but comedy is where his heart is.

After this series of Russell Howard’s News Hour is wrapped up, he will return to his first love: live comedy. He has a new show in the works which he says focuses on the healing power of laughter. Howard, who has suffered with anxiety in the past, says he is confronting his deep-seated fear of death. He’s bought countless gadgets to defy mortality including a “magic” necklace which his doctor wife found him wearing in bed. “Mate, it is absolute madness,” he says, his eyes gleaming. “If you press a button it gives your body vibrational energies.” It’s Howard’s ability to poke fun at himself that has always made him so endearing, and kept him grounded. “Whatever you’re into,” he says “it’s about following it and keeping your third eye open so you can realise how ridiculous you are.”

The Russell Howard Hour will return to on Sky Max and streaming service NOW on September 8 at 10.30pm