British comics Russell Howard and Milton Jones look forward to Hong Kong shows
Howard, a spinner of tales who regularly plays to audiences of 10,000, expects his more intimate show at Udderbelly Festival will be fun. Jones, king of the deadpan one-liner, says touring helps hone his act
Comedians don’t come much more different than Russell Howard and Milton Jones.
Howard is avuncular, chatty, a spinner of tales and an explorer of subjects with an act drawn from observations of everyday life. Jones specialises in a stream of head-spinning one-liners, surreal deconstructions of language and flights of wordplay fancy, exacerbated by a trademark deadpan delivery and startled, slightly otherworldly, mad-uncle appearance, with eye-straining Hawaiian shirts and anti-gravitational hair.
But both, unusually among stand-ups, tend to steer clear of strong language and material that could cause offence. And that’s why both are performing at the Udderbelly Festival, which until February 14 is serving up a family-friendly mixture of circus performers, comedians, music and dance at Central Harbourfront.
Howard, who performs January 21 to 23, is one of the biggest live-comedy draw cards in his native UK, regularly packing out 10,000-plus-capacity arenas. Having that many people laughing along with you “feels pretty incredible”, he says, but he’s also looking forward to the more intimate Hong Kong shows. “When you’re playing to 300 or so, you can make the show really interactive and fun.”
Howard last performed in Hong Kong in 2004. “My mum was really excited and genuinely asked me if I was doing the gig in English,” he says. “I pointed out that I’d known her for 23 years and I did not have a mastery of the Chinese language.
“The beauty of travelling and doing stand-up is that you never know what will work. That’s what makes it so much fun. I tend to improvise a lot more when I’m doing foreign gigs and make it a wild chat around a camp fire; that’s one of the reasons I’m looking forward to Hong Kong. I’m going to spend a few days soaking up the madness and then I’ll have a bunch of people to natter to.”
WATCH Milton Jones in action
Don’t expect too much nattering from Jones, who performs from January 8 to 10. He’s also visited Hong Kong once before, in the early 2000s as part of the Punchline Comedy Club, but this time he’s performing a show with a story, “Milton Jones and the Temple of Daft”, based on him having the same family name as Indiana.
However, it’s a fairly threadbare story that’s mainly an excuse to crack out hundreds of one-liners. The template for the show, he says, is the radio shows he’s been writing and performing for Radio 4, the BBC’s spoken-word radio station, since 1998.
“It’s interesting doing tours. People want similar stuff to what they’ve seen before, but not the same stuff. I’ve done the radio show for a long time, and this is like one of those stories – it has a beginning, a middle and a sort of end.”
“The Temple of Daft” tour started in February last year and has run intermittently ever since; inevitably, over so many performances, the show has evolved somewhat.
“You wouldn’t notice the difference between show two and show three, but you’d notice the difference between show two and show 72,” says Jones. “I hope I’ve got better over time at working at what works and what doesn’t. With one-liners, it can often just be about changing one word, or slightly changing the order of a sentence.”
With a method based on crazily inventive warpings of words, he admits that he finds it difficult to hear an everyday expression without deconstructing it and looking for the joke. “I almost do it subconsciously – I reverse-engineer everything all the time. The danger is that I end up writing old jokes with new words.”
WATCH Russell Howard
The other problem with one-liners, of course, is that they’re particularly labour-intensive; fortunately Jones is one of the world’s most slow-burning overnight successes, hitting the big time in 2009 after a decade and a half on the stand-up circuit. “I was lucky that when I did finally get to do TV, I had a nice big back catalogue of stuff to raid,” he says. “TV burns gags, and it’s hard to keep up the standard. One-liners take 10 seconds to say but a long time to write.”
He estimates that about 60 per cent of the reason for his breakthrough was his appearances, often alongside Howard, on topical British TV panel show Mock the Week. Both men are rare examples of non-confrontational comedian who flourish on the notoriously aggressive bear pit of a programme.
Howard has followed that up with 10 series so far of his own youth-oriented topical comedy programme, Russell Howard’s Good News. He’s also had his own radio show, on BBC 6 Music, and recently made his acting debut recently in one-off BBC comedy drama A Gert Lush Christmas, about a dysfunctional family’s Christmas celebrations, which he also co-wrote. Howard admits, though, that he finds performing without an audience tough.
“I prefer the immediacy of stand-up: if you have an idea you can just chat about it on stage and the audience help you mould it, whereas acting is all about ignoring the camera so you never know whether you’re any good. An audience will tell you if you’re crap by either not laughing or shouting at you. I much prefer that.”
For Jones, acting is second nature these days. His deranged on-stage persona started off as an exaggerated version of himself and gradually became an entirely separate character, but it still regularly gets mistaken for his actual personality. “I’ve usually got about 30 seconds, talking to people, before they start to look at me with a glazed expression, like: ‘You’re quite boring.’ I don’t know how they think I could be like I am onstage without needing psychiatric help.”
His deadpan delivery makes it particularly important that he doesn’t laugh at his own jokes, he adds. “I’m usually fine, but I do sometimes laugh at what the audience says to me. The other day I woman yelled out, ‘Those are just words’. What do you say to that?”
However, that’s relatively mild compared to the reactions Howard sometimes gets from the public. “I had a dildo thrown at me at a gig a couple of years ago, which isn’t the most civil thing I’ve witnessed,” he says. “I got a wang-shaped bruise, which was nice.
“People just want a photo most of the time, which is lovely, although the other day a man said his wife really fancied me and did I fancy a threesome? I politely declined and left the supermarket. Pretty crazy, though: who tries to set up an orgy in Tesco?”
For more information about Udderbelly Festival shows, visit udderbelly.asia