Lots of people want to hug Russell Howard, and not just smitten young women in thrall to the comedian’s wonky, boyish charms, including that endearing squint. No, boys and men feel comfortable in boldly asking for manly cuddles. “It’s an odd thing,” says Howard. “I get 18-year-old guys going, ‘Can I have a hug?’ and, though I’m not a particularly tactile person, I’ll say, ‘Well, yes, if you like.’ ”
Then there are the older, posh ladies, probably the most unlikely audience for one of BBC3’s biggest shows, Russell Howard’s Good News, his freewheeling, funny, frequently filthy topical stand-up show that returns this week. “I had a sweet thing said to me by a lady in Bath [he puts on a genteel voice]: ‘I enjoy your shows, you’ve got that lovely just-got-out-of-bed look.’ I had to admit to her that I had just got out of bed.”
Mock the Week
Howard, 32 (though he looks 15), is quite the pan-generational sex symbol and rumpled comedy god these days; a huge TV star after three years as a panellist on Mock the Week and three years at the helm of Good News, BBC3’s most successful entertainment series with ratings topping one million. And it’s iPlayer’s second-most downloaded show after Doctor Who.
Then there are the sell-out stadium tours and his three DVDs, which have sold more than 500,000 copies. In person Howard is attentive, charming, unobtrusive. He walks into our photo shoot alone and almost unnoticed, without a retinue, and introduces himself with a handshake and a “Hello, I’m Russell” to every single person in the room. He’s not doing that showbiz-modest thing, either; he’s just nice.
We’ve met before, when I took a couple of young family members to a recording of Good News last November. When he came to talk to us after the show at the packed post-taping drinks, he was lovely, taking time to chat to the “kids” and made them feel so special that they still haven’t stopped talking about it. Actually, neither have I.
Good News came about just as he was becoming restless at Mock the Week, the acerbic panel show full of (usually male) comedians jostling to get in their funny bits. Howard wanted to do something on his own. “I was on a steep learning curve with Mock the Week. You’re suddenly with people like Dara O’Briain, Frankie Boyle, Hugh Dennis and Andy Parsons, classic topical comedians who are so economical with language. As a waffly stand-up I had to learn quickly.
“I liked doing the show, but when I saw it on telly I’d say, ‘Oh no, they’ve cut that bit.’ When you put so much effort into the show, and when you don’t see the version of it you want to see, that’s when I jumped at the chance to do Good News.”
He was offered his own series by Danny Cohen, then BBC3 controller, now in charge at BBC1. “He told us, ‘You can do whatever you want.’ That was the beauty of it, BBC3 let us do anything.” What emerged was Good News, a skittish version of Have I Got News for You, without the latter’s bumptiousness. Howard delivers quick-fire gags about the news illustrated by clips from TV shows. He has fun with headline-grabbing stuff, but the diamonds in the rough are items from regional news programmes.
Ten researchers comb everything from the BBC’s Look East (fertile ground, says Howard, “There are wonderful stories from Norwich”) to the po-faced cable news channel Russia Today. The raw material is then, in the week leading up to the live-audience recording, knocked into shape as a script by Howard and his co-writers, Karl Minns and Steve Williams.
Though Howard is risqué, Good News is surprisingly soft-hearted. It even ends with a proper good news story, invariably something moving about brave sick children or good deeds. “There’s no malice to Good News, or if there is, it’s directed at people who deserve it.”
Which brings us back to that pan-generational appeal. “I want it to be a funny daft show about the news. What’s really nice is I have a broad range of people coming up to me, anything from 14-year-olds to sweet old men and sweet old ladies.” Even his Jack Russell Archie is a star: “He’s posed for God knows how many pictures. One of the weirdest by-products of my fame is that he has his own Facebook page run by some girl in Sheffield.”
Bristol-born economics graduate Howard lives in Leamington Spa with his girlfriend Cerys, a doctor. He has strong ties with the West Country, home to his large family. “I’m the shyest in my family, so I’ve always sat and watched these people. Family Christmasses are like being in a Pogues song. When I started stand-up, it came naturally to speak about them. They don’t mind, in fact they love it, to the point where I think they go out of their way to do and say things so they can end up in my stand-up.”
His mum Ninette, who lives in Bath with Howard’s dad Dave, is a key part of his act, even though she doesn’t appear on stage. She provides a rich fund of anecdotes, made even funnier by Howard’s mimicking of her West Country accent. “It’s such a beautiful accent because it’s warm and panicky, and everything’s quite conspiratorial as in ’ave you ’eard what’s ’appened?’’
He does a great version of his mum fretting about getting her new house ready in time for daughter Kerry’s wedding (Kerry, an actress, plays Laura in BBC3’s Him & Her); “I gotta get the house done. We can’t have dust in the dress.”
At the end of the interview, Howard laughs at my Jurassic period tape recorder (“Is that a big tape? Wow.”) and asks about my shorthand note (“So how does all this work?”) before giving me a peck on the cheek and heading for the photo shoot. Yes, he really does have a lovely just-got-out-of-bed look. What a nice young man.
This is an edited version of an article in the issue of Radio Times magazine published 3 April 2012
Russell Howard’s Good News is on Thursdays at 9:00pm on BBC3