British comedian Russell Howard on a ‘very weird’ Hong Kong gig and his upcoming show in China
Howard takes time out from his world tour to talk about how much he is looking forward to playing Hong Kong again, his upcoming debut in China, and how the world situation provides endless material for comedians
Russell Howard’s last gig in Hong Kong was one he fondly remembers as being “very weird”. While working one of the smaller venues at last year’s Udderbelly festival, the British comedian was surprised to see a female fan on the front row had brought a giant stuffed teddy bear along. The mute, hirsute audience member was immediately incorporated into the routine – and ended up becoming the star of the show.
It’s these unplanned moments of fun that Howard looks forward to most. “People came back the next day asking if the bear was on again!” the 37-year-old laughs. “I love doing those small gigs where you can veer off from prepared material and chat about anything you want.”
Speaking over the phone from Bournemouth, southern England, towards the end of the British leg of his Round The World live tour, his longest yet at more than 80 dates, Howard was a little hoarse. March saw the comic play London’s Royal Albert Hall 10 nights in a row, enough to steal Frank Sinatra’s record title for the longest consecutive run of dates at the historic venue. But applying his trademark energy to a solid string of dates took its toll on his vocal cords, requiring a laryngoscopy and as much rest as possible – not easy during a tightly packed schedule. With several more months of touring to get through, he quietly marked his achievement with a cup of tea and a walk with his Jack Russell terrier, Archie.
As well as a stop-off in Hong Kong, Howard’s tour will also take him to Shanghai on a remarkable first foray into China. The visit stems from a single Chinese fan who took it upon himself to translate the comic’s topical news show Russell Howard’s Good News into Putonghua, turning the performer, born in Bristol in the west of England, into an unlikely star as the views stacked up. “I owe that man a beer,” says Howard.
The road to Chinese stages isn’t well-worn by Western comedians, who face censorship and tightly regulated performances, but Howard can’t see how the night will differ from any other on his tour.
“It’ll be the same as any gig. I’ll just go with it and see what happens,” he says. “I don’t have an agenda apart from trying to make the people in the room laugh their arses off. And trying to find the guy who translated my shows so I can shake his hand.”
A lot of Howard’s material is inspired by mundane, silly, or weird aspects of British culture, and he particularly relishes the challenge of interpreting his homeland’s quirks for international crowds.
“Your country becomes funnier the further you are from it. I remember seeing Boris Johnson on the news when I was in Hong Kong, and he looked so much more ridiculous. The idea that he’s foreign secretary is pretty laughable in England, but for people in other countries watching us, it’s like, ‘What is that thing?!’”
He continues, “I’d never thought the concept of a lollipop man (British road-crossing warden who carries a round ‘stop’ sign on a stick) was weird until I was in the US, telling people: ‘What we do in England when we need to get kids across the road is we give an old man a giant lollipop. No one knows why!’”
The Ministry of Culture required Howard to submit his routine for approval, so his team sent clips from the Royal Albert Hall shows. The comedian chuckles, “I feel sorry for the poor guy in the government having to go through all my jokes, like ‘Oi guys! What’s a lollipop man?’, or, ‘Does anyone know what Quavers (cheese-flavoured snack) are?’”
Mischievous and optimistic, with a childlike sense of humour, Howard made his name filling the little brother role next to older, more grizzled comedians on the British panel show Mock The Week. However, his current touring show bills his new material as “darker and angrier” in tone, something Howard attributes to an eroded faith in the media gained from years of scouring newspapers for joke inspiration.
“These are strange times,” he states. “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.” Amid reports that young Americans increasingly trust late-night political satire shows over traditional news broadcasts, he recalls fans telling him they watch his programmes instead of the news. “It’s actually pretty depressing,” he says. “The news is click-based to keep people angry.”
He chalks up the rise of Trump (“a buffoon nobody really likes”) in the US and growing nationalist sentiment across Europe to “anti-intellectualism” partly propagated by reality television. “I’m amazed at how thick we’ve become in England … We have all these reality shows [featuring] 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.”
“It’s a great time to be a comedian,” he concludes. “We’re all angry and dumbfounded at the political leaders in the world. There’s a lot to be angry about, but there’s also loads to be joyful about.”
Howard looks forward to devoting more time to TV projects after his tour wraps at the Sydney Opera House in July. He has plans for future editions of his Russell Howard & Mum road-trip show with his mother, Ninette, as well as a new series for British satellite broadcaster Sky 1, which will revive his Good News format of stand-up comedy interspersed with guest interviews. He says of the show, which will premiere this autumn: “I’ll be chatting about things I care about, taking the p**s out of things I find annoying, having a look at the weird, the awful, and the wonderful things about life.”
Though his new series promises big-name guests, Howard has happy memories of filming Good News, which each week would feature a member of the public who had made headlines for an unusual reason, and often involved the guest demonstrating their abilities, teaching Howard something new, or taking him on in mock fight scenes.
“The number of old ladies who’ve beaten me up on TV is absolutely ridiculous,” he says. “I had ninjas, wrestlers, the oldest postman in the UK. When I’m out and about and see an old lady, my fists come up to my face to protect myself.”
Russell Howard May 27, 8pm, Academic Community Hall, Hong Kong Baptist University, 224 Waterloo Rd, Kowloon Tong. HK$488-HK$888 hkticketing.com