It must have been an interesting flat-share, to say the very least. In their student years in Bristol, a quartet of would-be comedians rented rooms together. They were Russell Howard and Jon Richardson, Mark Olver and John Robins.
Howard and Richardson would go on to work together on many occasions – notably co-hosting a BBC Radio 6 Sunday morning show for some years – and they remain good friends. Both men have married since those bachelor days and since Richardson and his wife (the Hull-born comedian Lucy Beaumont) have just moved to Hebden Bridge, in the Calder Valley, it seems more than likely that the couple will be popping over to see Russell when he plays two dates in Leeds and Sheffield on his current UK tour.
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Russell Howard is one of our leading contemporary comedians, and has appeared on TV, on radio, and as a solo stand-up. Still only 39, he has been at the top of his game for more than a decade. He was a stalwart of Mock the Week for many seasons, and then branched out on his own series, initially with the BBC, and now for Sky. He married his wife Cerys in June this year – she is a doctor – and, just before taking this new show out on tour, he was packing in audiences at the Edinburgh Festival. Howard and his wife live in Camden with their Jack Russell dog, Archie. His style is a combination of social commentary blended with the observational.
The good folk of Yorkshire are warned that their foibles, manners and expressions are likely to figure large in Russell’s shows. He laughs: “I don’t stalk people, nothing like that, but I do watch them. Avidly. I do get out and about in the days before a show, and I do pick up on local ways, landmarks and expressions. But sometimes, well, it does backfire – social media does have a habit of coming back and biting you on the backside.”
He prefers doing gigs outside London’s commuter belt. “Down there, all people do is commute in and out to work, so that when they get out at night to a show, they are already pretty well knackered. Not their fault, it’s their lifestyle. They really don’t have any identity, because they are a melting pot from all over. Anywhere else, audiences are far more alert, and tuned-in. Sheffield, Manchester, Leeds… all those sorts of places are more relaxed. They’re good fun, and welcoming,” he says. “And, before you ask, I do that observational thing wherever I go in the world.
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“In Mumbai – here’s a case in point – I noticed that young people, whose activities are fairly restricted by their parents – go out at night on their scooters, and they park up on the sides of busy thoroughfares, motorways, basically, and they have a bit of a smooch. Rather endearing, eh? There are dozens of them, all kissing passionately as the passing traffic honks at them. When I mentioned that, I got one of the biggest laughs of the gig! Everyone knew about it, but it took an outsider to point it out.
“It’s a bit like all the lovelorn teenagers of Leeds and Bradford congregating on the hard shoulder of the M62 to hang out! Does that happen? It would be nice to find out. I always discover things like that – but what happens in Mumbai is very different from what happens in Stockholm or Sheffield, and the humour doesn’t drift through, one to another. You have to be that little bit more specific to your gig, and you can pick up on local issues and attitudes.”
He likes to glean information about local places, though he says you have to be very careful with what you mention. “I can weave a short routine about the idea of a lollipop man at a zebra crossing here in the UK, but not in New York. I once had to explain the whole concept of the lollipop thing to a guy in the US, and he got more and more mystified as I drivelled on about it.”
One thing that unites most people these days are mobile phones. “We’ve all experienced that guy with a loud voice, telling everyone around him all his intimate personal details. He honestly believes that he’s in a one-to-one conversations, whereas he’s told a couple of dozen people! It’s crazy. We’re volunteering more and more stuff about ourselves to people we don’t know. How bizarre is that?”
Russell can find comedy wherever he goes, even an African safari and the Maldives which he and Cerys visited on their honeymoon. “Absolute perfection”, he says, “although I was a bit concerned when we were told at one point on the safari trip that there had been a lot of lion activity in the area recently. And that the way to keep the animals at bay was to wear things that were highly scented. Didn’t seem that logical to me. I was thinking of a well-fed lion sauntering away from my lifeless body, and saying ‘Hmmm, that chap wearing the Tom Ford cologne was absolutely delicious. Nicely piquant.’”
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As a youngster growing up in the South-West, he loved comedy. “I was a great fan of The Fast Show and people like Harry Enfield. Then someone gave me a tape of Lee Evans, and that just blew me away. He just stands there and tells it like it is. That was life-changing for me, and I demanded a new tape of him every Christmas,” he says.
Another big influence was Billy Connolly. “When I saw him when I was 17 he was the master. Back then, he was the nation’s brother, then he became our best uncle, and now our favourite grandad. I took my dad to see him recently and it was an amazing night. As a young man, Connolly had all this electric energy, and now, with his health problems, he has pared it all down to one central, concentrated, almost static performance. But he is still incredible, still brilliant.”
He’s just been watching Frank Skinner doing stand-up in Edinburgh, and is equally effusive. “The man takes my breath away. He’s like an expert fisherman, just pulling in the fish one after the other. His timing is perfection, and he looks so at ease.”
Fans will be pleased to hear that Russell and his mum Ninette will be recording a new series about their travels – this time across Europe – very soon. That’ll be for Sky TV, and he adds enigmatically that there “are one or two other things in the pipeline”.
After having lamented the obsession of some with their mobile phones, he then confesses that his own addiction is to the social media site WhatsApp. “I have a special group on my phone, which is made up of all the people who came to my stag do. If you think that Mock the Week was pushing boundaries, you really should clock what went on that evening. Actually, my younger brother Daniel is also getting married very soon and he’s talking about doing very much the same thing.”
Whatever happens you suspect Russell will be on the lookout for future material for his gigs. He grins: “That’s me. I just can’t help myself”.
Russell Howard plays the Leeds First Direct Arena on September 27 and the Sheffield FlyDSA Arena the following evening.