IF THERE are a fair number of clichés revolving around stand-up comedians, they’re often true. Take the one about them not being especially valiant when it comes to handling criticism, whether in the form of a bad review or a punter approaching them in the supermarket to tell them how unfunny they are.
“It’s just brutal, just destroys you,” says Russell Howard. “You’re living your life and just getting on with things but that’s enough to break you. All you’re trying to do is be funny, trying to help in someway, and it hurts because you’re convinced that this person must be the fount of all comedic knowledge. That kind of internal paranoia is not good.”
Such bad-vibery seems wholly irrational coming from a man who has risen to national comedic prominence. The confidence the Bristol-born comic exudes on BBC2’s satirical shooting gallery Mock the Week, or on BBC 6 Music with his northern comic mate Jon Richardson, is a force of nature, something he has in common with his fellow famous Russells, Brand and Kane. The current surplus of famous Russells seems to be part of the problem, however. “It’s weird isn’t it?” he says. “I’ve gone through my life never having met any Russells. I played football when I was younger and it’s just not a name you can cry out; it’s a very feminine thing. And then all of a sudden there’s a massive global superstar, me and a brilliant young comedian. And because I have Russell Brand’s name, people say, ‘So, putting it about?’ ‘Well, no’. I end up feeling really inadequate.’
Inadequacy? Paranoia? Overly-thin skin? There’s another clich about those in the comedy business being propelled into what they do to hide some sadness or insecurity. With Howard, a teenage tragedy did indeed spur him on. “I’d been writing jokes since I was 16, not very good ones though, but I was always trying to make my mates laugh. And eventually I saw it as this thing I had to do; just do it once and then that’s it, I’ve done it. But I kept putting it off. Then a really talented bloke at our school died in a car crash when he was 18 and just about to go to uni.”
This made Howard realise that you only really get one chance in this tough old life, so he booked some club slots – which he duly cancelled, before eventually plucking up the courage to chuck himself into the fire for a night compered by circuit comic James Dowdeswell. “That first gig was all a bit of a blur,” he recalls. “I threw up before I went on and threw up after I’d been on. It was quite a high-tempo show. Most comics’ first gig is either brilliant or horrific. I still get nervous before the bigger ones, but I do more pacing nowadays than throwing up.”
Howard’s career in comedy didn’t really hang about, even though he was still studying economics at Bristol University when he began (“I got away from numbers as soon as I could”). Those first gigs led, much to his own amazement, to a place in the 1999 So You Think You’re Funny final in Edinburgh. “I totally fluked my way in with absolutely no material,” he says. “The semi-final was like an out-of-body experience. I just went for it and bantered with the audience, which I’d never done before, and got to the final. Suddenly there’s loads of people there, and all the other comics appeared to have jokes.” In that final, he competed against Andy Zaltzman and Josie Long, all of them losing out to David O’Doherty.
After completing his studies, Howard dived headlong into comedy, appearing at the Edinburgh Fringe alongside Matt Blaize in a split set in 2002 entitled Ebony And Irony, being one-quarter of The Comedy Zone one year later before making his solo debut in 2004. “Since I started doing comedy there seem to be more PR-driven comics, whereas when I was in open spots, there were just these funny f***ers. Now it’s demographically driven and everyone seems to have a mantra.”
Soon, a dedicated following among audiences and critics alike gathered around him, but after four increasingly successful solo shows (he gained an if.comedy nomination in 2006), Howard insists that his five-night Assembly Rooms stint this August was effectively a Festival farewell. “I was asked to do 30 nights in a big room but I couldn’t live with myself: that’s just stealing from your mates. If five years ago, some Bobby Tellypants had rocked up and people were all going to see him, I know that would have killed me.
“I think it’s just wrong, so that’s me and the Fringe done. I just wanted to do five nights as a good kind of send-off almost. That’s my fifth show and that’ll do. I think there should be a cap on audiences of maybe 200. A lot of my really good mates were playing to audiences of about eight and that’s not a reflection of their talents, there’s just not enough people to go round.”
Being well ensconced in his own Bobby Tellypants role, the chances of him getting recognised by a Regular Joe are increased tenfold. Other than being slagged off to pieces, there are other drawbacks. “My girlfriend lives in Leamington and I got the train there the other day,” he says. “It was packed and when I sat down it felt as though someone was glaring at me a bit; that can make you feel a bit trapped and you can’t then watch people, which is where a lot of my comedy comes from. It’s difficult if you’re looking at them and they’re watching you thinking, ‘Oi, that dickhead off the telly’s looking at me’, because it changes the feel to it.”
This weekend, Howard will be doing one Edinburgh night in a big room in the King’s Theatre, a venue more accustomed to the measured wit of Oscar Wilde and Alan Ayckbourn than a freewheeling comedy show. “The Edinburgh Fringe is a tough beast and you do whatever you can to get through it,” he says. “But it’s really the worst place to see comedians; everyone is so tense and nervous because it feels like Ofsted inspectors are out there. Touring gigs are more fun because it has an impromptu, ‘Waaay, it’s happening tonight!’ feel. Edinburgh is just a buffet of brilliance. Some of these theatres are so beautiful, it’s a privilege to wander around when there’s no-one in and look at the architecture of the place, especially these old music-halls.”
Keeping up the habit for single-monikered show titles such as Skylarking, Wandering and Adventures, the current show, Dingledodies, takes its name from “the mad ones … who never yawn or say a commonplace thing” in Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. “I just couldn’t do a comedy show about The History Of Dinosaurs; I’d get bored too easily,” says Howard. “But the way comedy works, the show keeps changing; you put stuff in that you have jokes about or want to do jokes on and with the US election coming up I’ve got a lot on that now. So it’s everything and anything that I’m doing, mixed up with improv. But essentially it’s a nod towards life-affirming madness.”
The continual search for the Next Big Thing is another hoary showbusiness clich. Russell Howard is not that. He’s one step beyond.
• Russell Howard: Dingledodies is at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, Sunday, 5 October at 7:30pm. For more information, call 0131 529 6000 or log on to www.eft.co.uk/kings_theatre