One of the things Russell Howard enjoys about his U.S. comedy tours is people-watching in coffee shops without being mobbed and asked for a photo. Not to give the wrong idea, he loves and appreciates the attention when he’s home in the U.K. But for the moment, the popular British comedian can wander U.S. cities incognito, an impossibility for him at home.
In the U.K., Russell is known for his sold-out stand-up tours and for his six-year run as host of the Daily Show-type show, Russell Howard’s Good News which ran from 2009 to 2015. It was one of the highest rated BBC shows of all time. In 2011 at age 30, he became the youngest comedian to sell out the 15,000 seat O2 Arena in London. He is a popular guest on British radio and television, and is under contract to write a new television series when he gets home.
He’s known for his exuberant on-point observations about daily absurdities and for his unerring improvisational style which allows him to create a different show for each audience and mesmerize hecklers. He is not afraid to address the world’s widening, precarious political divide with the same buoyant and fearless kick-ass honesty.
He has enough positive comedic spirit to go around the world. Literally. His current “Round The World Tour” began in the U.K. and is now making stops in forty-three locales, including Dubai, Hong Kong, China, Singapore, Europe, Iceland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the U.S. The tour stops by Chicago’s House of Blues on Saturday, May 13 at 8:00 p.m.
I heard Russell tell two stories on the British podcast, The Comedian’s Comedian which encapsulate who he is as a comedian and person. First, he told a story about watching a guy run hard to catch a train. He was delighted when the man made it. Some may prefer the comedic potential in everyday failure, but Russell is committed to finding the parts of life worth celebrating. “I Iike it when people make the train.”
He also once turned down a Head & Shoulders commercial which would have netted him half a million pounds. Simply not how he wants comedy fans to know him. (“How could I have gone on stage having done that? … [and] I wouldn’t be able to watch telly again … I would be washing my hair in front of me. And I would fucking cry.”)
I’m not sure if he is selling merch after the Chicago show, but if so, I’m hoping he’s figured out how to bottle his genuine warmth and upbeat energy for fans to take home. I will claw and punch my way to the head of the line to get ahold of it. But for real, watching clips of his comedy you can see how his spirit infuses the audience. You won’t need a bottle to carry it home.
Russell kindly took time out to speak with me by phone about how he creates material and deals with hecklers (it’s a different outlook in the U.K.), what he does off stage, the beauty of dingledodies, and performing in Chicago.
Teme: How do you write material so it works worldwide? Do you adjust your material for different places?
Russell: Yes. I’m currently in Dubai. I’ve been reading the papers and wandering around. On stage, I’ll start talking and see which stuff works and which doesn’t and move it around and blend it in with the crowd. It’s that amazing thing that comedy is created “with” an audience rather than “for.” There’s nothing like the audience to inform you, “That’s funny because we are laughing.” Then you follow that.
That’s what I’ve done for the last two U.S. tours, really. I’ve taken a bunch of stuff from England and things that I’ve noticed when I’ve been in America and mixed it all together and it evolves and comes alive on stage.
I tend to write quite a lot when I’m on stage. That’s why I love doing small gigs. I’ve been doing 15,000 seaters in England, and it’s great. But then it’s also really lovely to come to a 400 seater and get in amongst people and ask them questions about America or Dubai or Europe and figure it out with them.
Teme: I read that a goal of your tour is bringing people together in troubled times. How will you go about doing that?
Russell: Certainly in my part of the world, and I can imagine in your part of the world, voices are becoming radically right wing. I see it as the comic’s role to be the dissenting voice and try to make sense of the idiotic bigotry and the idiotic liberalism pervading society. So, trying to laugh at the absurdity on all sides. There’s a lot of absurdity in the world at the minute. During my tour in England, I was amazed how much the crowd went with it. It’s quite a divided country, England.
It’s an interesting time to be a comic. We’ve all become news junkies. We’re all looking at what’s happening in the world. It’s changing almost on an hourly basis. We’re talking to our friends and trying to figure out what’s going on.
It certainly has massive effects on my stand-up and on a lot of stand-up. We’re all trying to make sense of the world. So that’s a common theme that links you whether you’re Swedish, English, Australian or American. Like, what the fuck’s going on at the minute?!
Teme: So true! When you’re on stage you have such wonderful energy. How do you sustain that energy especially on such an extraordinary schedule?
Russell: Well, I’m incredibly lucky because I have the best job in the world. I absolutely love it. There is something so wonderful about being in the midst of hearing 15,000 people laugh. It’s the most incredible feeling. I love it and feed off it and find myself so at home on the stage that I can’t think of anywhere better in the world to be.
If you saw me in my everyday life, like when I’m grocery shopping, or making a cup of tea, or I’m watching telly, I’m very kind of downbeat. But there’s something about performing in front of people that I just love and it brings out all my energy.
Teme: I love that you called one of your tours, “Dingledodies”.
Russell: I did, yeah!
Teme: That word has so much energy. I have to confess I didn’t know it and had to look it up. But when I read the definition I loved the energy it represents.
They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!” From Jack Kerouac’s On the Road
Russell: Yeah, it’s beautiful. I tend to come to things really late and I read On the Road. And you know that particular sentence about shambling after interesting people, it’s just one of those moments where I went, “Shit, that’s exactly what I do!” And it struck me that those are the people worth celebrating, whether it’s your friends or my granddad … It’s always the interesting, mad, wild ones that I adore.
A lot of people haven’t read On the Road and didn’t know what the word was about. I think a lot of people thought it was a nickname for my testicles and they thought I was just going to be nattering about my bullocks. But exactly like you did, as soon as you see the word, you go, “Oh well, that’s interesting!”
There’s something quite exciting, isn’t there, about when a musician or a comic or an author says a word that’s outside your frame of reference and you scramble to find it. It’s the best, isn’t it, when you find it and think, “Yes, yes, yes!”
Russell: There’s a bizarre opinion that you should talk down to an audience. What if they don’t understand your reference? In England we have a thing called lollipop men and I didn’t realize how absurd they were until I was explaining it to a crowd in New York. Do you know about lollipop men?
Teme: No, but now I very much want to.
Russell: So basically, in England it’s just a thing that whenever kids cross the road at school we give an old man a giant lollipop and he walks into the road and he stops the traffic with this giant lollipop. It’s just a thing I’ve taken for granted. I don’t know how I got into it, but I was explaining it and this guy in the crowd exclaimed, “Why do you do that?” And I went, “I don’t know.”
That’s what I love. It’s only until you’ve explained it that you realize how insane your culture is. When you’re far away from it, or you’re talking to somebody outside of your culture who asks, “Why do you do that?” And you go, “Fucking hell, I really don’t know!” It’s so funny.
That’s the other brilliant thing about traveling and doing stand-up. The further away from your country, you realize how English you are or how silly your country is or how stupid it is or how wonderful it is. There’s something about traveling with your country as your point of reference. It makes you love and despair of your country at the same time.
Teme: When you’re on tour in America, will you be taking questions from the audience? If so, I was wondering how an audience member can increase their chances of being called on?
Russell: Well, to be honest, I don’t really know how I’m going to do it. The gigs I did before were a lot more interactive. I tended to just naturally interact with people and have a chat rather than specifically field any questions. So I just kind of waded in.
The [shows in the U.S.] are much more interactive than the shows I do in England. If you’re doing a gig in front of 15,000 people, you can’t really just have a chat with someone in the front row. That’s why I love gigging in the States. They can be wonderful, but also low key and quite small at times. And if people shout something out, I go with that. The gig changes every night. It doesn’t have to stay rigid. If someone in Nashville says something wonderful, then that will become part of the show.
I did a gig in Hong Kong and somebody brought an eight-foot panda bear with them. It was on the seat next to them and I saw it. I grabbed it and did this weird double act with the panda and it was just really funny for that one night. So I love going with things rather than necessarily asking, “Are there any great questions?” I like keeping it loose.
Teme: Is that a difference between British and American comedy? Here, heckling is often considered rude. I know you’re really good at improvising, as well, so is it just a personal ability?
Russell: I just find people interesting. And it’s a big part of our culture. Heckling doesn’t always mean someone going, “Oh fuck off, you shit.” It’s almost someone joining in. A heckle can sometimes elevate a gig. So I love going with stuff. It’s just the way I was raised. The idea that you’re doing comedy in England without someone joining in … it just happens all the time. And if you tried to slam a heckler the crowd would all be like, “Oooooh, what’s wrong with you?” So, you just have to go with it. Also, I’m used to it. I’ve got a pretty large, mad family so I’ve heard everything.
Teme: Yes, you traveled with your mom in the U.S. last year for a television series!
Russell: Yes, it was absolutely wonderful. I loved it and so did my mum. We did twelve episodes where we met a different slice of America and it was absolutely brilliant.
Teme: What was your favorite stop?
Russell: We judged a pensioner beauty pageant, like an old lady beauty pageant in Nevada and I really enjoyed that because me and my mum were being really silly, really daft. I also enjoyed ghost hunting. We went to Savannah, which is currently one of the most haunted towns in America.
Me and mum got properly spooked and I ended up having to sleep in the same bedroom as my mum, which I haven’t done for many years. But I was so terrified that I literally had to knock on my mum’s door and ask if she wouldn’t mind if I stayed in the bedroom with her.
Teme: I can understand!
Russell: I mostly enjoyed hanging out with my mum and seeing all these interesting, different places. We were here for two and a half months. It was a fascinating road trip through America. That’s what I love about America. There are so many different Americas. A three-hour journey this way or that way completely changes [everything].
There’s something about traveling, as well, that your eyes are opened so much more. Also, I’m kind of famous in England, so it’s kind of lovely to be anonymous again. You can go from being the observed to the observer. There’s something really cool about being able to be in a coffee shop and seeing the lay of the land. Whereas if I was in a coffee shop in England it would be like, “Russell Howard’s in a coffee shop! Can I have your photo?” Which is lovely, but it means that you’re never anonymous and able to observe the world. If you go to the States or you go to Europe, no one knows who I am, except perhaps a few people, and it’s great, so you just get back to ground zero.
Teme: What are you most looking forward to in Chicago?
Russell: The gig. I’m doing it in a different room than we did before. [Before, I was at Zanies], this beautiful, tiny 100-seater venue and it was just so amazing to me. I love stand-up. There were pictures of Chris Rock and Seinfeld and Chappelle and Bill Hicks on the wall and it felt like I was in a museum. The guy that ran it was this really brilliant eccentric American guy. It was just wonderful.
The gigs for me are the highlights. Last time I was in Chicago, I was walking around the park and there was some kind of environmental event. It was a beautiful day. And this is a classic case of going with the gig rather than having pre-prepared material. There were posters on the trees that said, “Trees are good for you.” It was a weird reminder and [at the show] I talked about that. Could your local government treat you less like children? It was in the moment just chatting about signs you see around. It was really funnily specific and [came from] getting there early and having a wander around and thinking, “Oh, that’s quite funny. I’ll talk about that.”
That’s always the best thing about traveling and doing stand-up, whether you’re in Chicago or anywhere else, is getting there early, having a wander around, having a chat with some locals and then getting to the gig and letting it all fall out.
Teme: What has surprised you most about your life in comedy?
Russell: How quickly it has gone by. I’ve been doing stand-up for longer than I went to school, college and university and that just freaks me out. Next year I’ll have been doing stand-up for twenty years, which is just bananas because it feels like yesterday. It’s the fact that I’m still doing it and I still love it as much as when I started when I was 18.
It’s freaky. The very fact that I get to travel the world doing something I love is still ridiculous and you could pinch yourself. I’m in Dubai and I’ve managed to bring two of my friends along who are comics as well. We spent the day today wandering around. We went to a water park and hung out, and tomorrow we’re doing some shows. There are so many parts of stand-up that come and surprise you. Wonderful.
Teme: Anything else you would like your Chicago audience to know?
Russell: I would love them to come along for the show. That would cheer me up if they fancy it.
Russell Howard is at House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn St., Chicago, on Saturday, May 13, 2017 at 8:00 p.m. Tickets are $ 29.50. Tickets and more details here.
More information about Russell Howard’s Round the World tour on his website: www.russell-howard.co.uk/
The Comedian’s Comedian interview with Russell Howard by Stuart Goldsmith can be found here.
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