Russell Howard: “I get nervous that it’s going to be terrible”
There’s a skill to writing great comedy – and Russell Howard has it down to a tee, thanks to a certain Hollywood director.
“Woody Allen does this really cool thing,” the 36-year-old starts excitedly. “So when he’s not working and he has a thought, he writes a note down and puts it away in a drawer. He then has another thought, and so on…
“When it comes to work, he just empties the drawer and goes, ‘Ah that’s cool’ – and that’s what I did this year.”
Well, with the addition of modern technology; Howard takes his phone from his pocket and giggles as he scrolls through his notes, by way of demonstration.
“There were two women who were squeezing each other’s boobs in a lift and one of them said that I look like Ellen [DeGeneres],” explains the Bristolian. “That prompted a cryptic, ‘Washington, ladies, boobs, Ellen’, memo.
“I know what it means!” he adds, before reading out another: “Reincarnation, mum, dog…”
The notes were all taken during his recent tour of America. But the material wasn’t for use across the pond; it was in preparation for the second series of Russell Howard’s Stand Up Central, which kicked off this May on Comedy Central.
Returning to the popular stand-up show a year on – the first run achieved viewing figures 159% above the slot average for the channel – Howard has already impressed with his energetic gags, weird and wonderful audience questions and roster of well-known acts, including Jimmy Carr, Josie Long and Tommy Tiernan.
“I have a list of people who I would like to do it, and they all did this year,” he says happily of the notable line-up. “Tommy is the one I wanted to get on; he’s one of my favourite comics in the world.”
But while he’s quick to champion his counterparts’ careers, Howard is reserved – almost dizzied, in fact – at the mere mention of his own roaring success.
“Like most stand-ups, you have constant feelings of inadequacy and, ‘Oh that was rubbish’,” he confides, adding that while it’s lovely, being approached in the street by fans “freaks me out a bit”.
Despite his self-criticism, he is, by all accounts, one of the successful ones, a household name, known for his boy-next-door charm, family-led anecdotes and regular appearances on panel shows such as Mock The Week.
Also on his CV is the hit BBC Two show Russell Howard’s Good News (often the most-viewed programme on iPlayer), a YouTube channel that’s watched in over 180 countries, and a world tour due next year, which will see him visit 30 UK and 29 international cities, and headline the Royal Albert Hall for 10 consecutive nights (“The last time I did that gig, my sister [Kerry] had her kid on the final night, so I’ve got fond memories of it”).
It comes as a bit of a surprise, then, that the comedian – one of the popular ones on the scene, with more than five million followers on Facebook and Twitter combined – still suffers from pre-stage nerves.
“I get really nervous that it’s going to be terrible. Then as soon as I do it, it’s fine, but the actual beforehand is awful,” he explains.
Does he have any rituals to calm himself down?
“I’ve got loads – but I can’t tell, because if I reveal my secrets…” he teases. “It’s nothing creepy! I don’t kill a goat; I just sit around and there are a few things I do.”
Dressed in his uniform T-shirt and jeans – and sporting a far more toned physique than 10 year earlier – Howard is far more reserved than I’d imagined, almost verging on shy.
His answers are thoughtful and pensive, but he opens up at the mention of his beloved family.
Close to his mother Ninette, father Dave and younger siblings – twins Kerry, a successful actress known for her role in Him & Her, and Daniel, who works in IT – Howard reveals that he hosts a bit of a family briefing before unleashing any new material.
He smiles as he recalls how his mother – a former dinner lady – recently instructed him to take one bit out of a new routine. “I think they love it in general,” he adds. “It’s the first time that’s ever happened!”
There might be more to come though: Howard and his mum are gearing up for a new Comedy Central show, which will see the pair travel to the USA to explore some, let’s say, lesser known pursuits, including a summer camp for adults, a pensioner beauty pageant and cowboy college.
He admits his comedy doesn’t always work with overseas audiences, “but oddly, talking about your family kind of does”.
“People might have a similar uncle or nan, or their mum might be like this… But they love my mum in America, so it will be good when she goes back,” he adds.
Despite his success across the pond, Howard is happy with life in Blighty – he currently lives in London’s Camden with his long-term girlfriend. And although he doesn’t do much looking back (“No one does, do they? It’s always, ‘What’s next?’), he does seem proud of his work, reflecting on the last series of Good News, which hit the headlines for tackling topics including the junior doctors’ strike and tampon tax.
But don’t expect humble Howard to take the credit any time soon – or be checking up on his viral hits.
“I just do it and then leave it,” he says, before trailing off.
“Like most stand-ups, I have a crippling, low self-esteem, so if there was seven million who liked it, I’d imagine that on the comments, there would be quite a few people who don’t, and you’re always drawn towards those,” Howard admits.
He does, however, finish on a slightly more positive note: “Look, it’s really cool. I get to have an idea, do it, and then release it. But then it has to live on its own.”