First published in The Times, Monday September 23 2019
By any standards Russell Howard is a megastar. The atmosphere in the 13,000-seat arena at this early show in the stand-up’s year-long international tour was more akin to a rock concert than a comedy gig. Those little-known turns Cher and Björk, who will play the venue in the coming weeks, will be lucky to attract the same deafening levels of excitement.
Yet the Bristol-born comedian remains remarkably self-effacing. “It’s all a bit much, isn’t it?” he said of the raucous fanfare that accompanied his ascent to the stage. He repeatedly referred to the huge venue as a “comedy club”, gamely acknowledging hecklers, even the ones squeaking ineffectually from the gods.
As you would expect from Howard, who became a household name thanks to his topical TV news shows, a hefty chunk of his 90-minute set was devoted to Britain’s current political breakdown. He pointed to the irony of his being overseas, touring the USA and the Far East with his mother Ninette for their documentary series Russell Howard & Mum, while all the juiciest news events were breaking back home.
Naturally, Boris Johnson got it in the neck. “His brain is like Cards Against Humanity,” said Howard, imagining a diplomatic meeting between the PM and Kim Jong-un in which Boris compares the North Korean leader to “the fat kid from Up.” Elsewhere, he balanced lengthy riffs on serious subjects such as knife crime, gun control and the value of the NHS with generous references to bodily functions and anal sex.
While there is still something of the hyperactive child about Howard’s ceaseless kinetic energy, there was a poignant strand to this show, too, in which the comedian called for greater empathy, particularly in the online sphere, and paid heartfelt tribute to his wife and a beloved, recently deceased uncle. He pulled this off, with a less abrasive style of humour and without descending into sentimentality.
Russell Howard’s Respite tour runs to September 23 2020. Russell-howard.co.uk