Russell Howard is not a typical comedian. He rarely swears, doesn’t like putting people out and he celebrated the end of his recent tour by bringing on to the stage a teenage boy who’d recovered from seemingly terminal cancer. No wonder his show’s called Good News. This autumn it escapes the slow collapse of BBC3 with an upgrade to BBC2. Given he’s so unusual, we asked the Bath-born funnyman how his influences and heroes made him a star…
My happy family
A lot of my material is about my family – my brother and my mum especially were big influences. We’re a very open family so we all just take the mickey out of each other. Daniel, who is two years younger than me, features a lot in my routines and everyone asks if I exaggerate what he’s like. He is actually a lot grumpier in real life than I portray him – I have to sort of polish him up a bit.
As the years wear on, my mum has become this fascinating character. I’ve just started watching Gavin & Stacey again – which is incredibly well written. I love the warmth of it. I love it because it’s so dirty, it’s so kind, it’s so funny and it’s so small. Gavin’s mum in the series is so like my mum, it’s insane. The other day, genuinely out of nowhere, Mum just said, “I’ll tell you what’s good. Google. It’s brilliant” – genuinely suggesting it to us, like we’d never heard of it!
My amazing teacher
At school there was an amazing teacher, Mrs Whale, who taught English and was always getting pregnant. We were a bunch of reprobates and she was brilliant and really funny. She turned me on to war poetry – it was easy to get if you were 15, it’s not a million miles away from Radiohead lyrics.
My sweaty hero
When I was 14, my friend Craig got a Lee Evans video – I think it was the Live in Norwich one. We watched that a lot. Like, a lot. To the point where I knew his whole routine. Then every Christmas for the next couple of years we’d get his video and that would be family viewing. Everyone would sit around watching it and we all loved him, except for my granddad: ‘He’s too fast, he’s sweating.’ He couldn’t get over that. I’ve met Lee since and my inner teenage fanboy is just in utter thrall to him.
I started writing stuff when I was 15 solely based on that video. Up to that point there was this assumption that all stand-up was alpha male. Lee was clearly not. I’d argue he’s one of the first mainstream, low-status comics of my era. He was interesting to a whole bunch of blokes who weren’t the most popular boys in school. Watching that I thought, ‘I could do that.’ I’d never be the most powerfully funny man or the bloke that slammed everybody around him, but I could take the mickey out of myself.
My lesson from Johnny
I started going to a comedy club in Bath when I was around 18. Every Tuesday we’d see Ross Noble, Ed Byrne, Daniel Kitson – all these brilliant comics. But seeing Johnny Vegas in full swing back then – to an 18-year-old wannabe comic – was mind-blowing. I remember this specific bit of interaction – the best I’ve ever seen.
He’s talking to this girl and asks, “What do you do?” She was really nervous and said it’s too embarrassing to say. “I’ll tell you embarrassing,” Vegas replied and started telling this story: “When I was a boy I wasn’t allowed bath toys, so I’d get a flannel and wrap it around my genitals and he was my friend. Then my dad lost his job,” he went on, crying now, “and we all had to have a bath together, me and my two brothers, and I started playing with the flannel and my brother said, ‘Johnny, you’re a pervert, you’re going to jail.’ That’s embarrassing. What do you do?”
And then she told him her embarrassing secret. The whole point of Johnny’s story was to put her at ease.
My megastar mentor
When I started gigging properly, I became good friends with John Oliver [the US chat show host]. I’d stay over and play Xbox with him when we were appearing together – which was my apprenticeship really, just hanging out with him, performing and watching him perform. He was a pretty amazing teacher. His career is soaring after The Daily Show. I went to see him perform live in America and they loved him. And he loved being loved, which wasn’t always the case. John was always incredible but sometimes just couldn’t take audiences finding him funny. They’d laugh and he’d go, “Yeah, whatever…”
My comedy brains
Starting out, I did a lot more improvisational stuff. It was all bouncing off the audience, whereas now – particularly with Good News – it’s quite a rigid structure. I write with Steve Williams, Steve Hall and Dan Atkinson and they’ve got phenomenal comedic brains. We all sit in a room and make each other laugh then come out and present the show that we’d like to watch. The aim is to pack it full of as many jokes as possible – sketches, animation, songs… so that it stands up to repeat viewing. The idea is that it’s a daft show about the news and it’s good disposable TV. Not reinventing the wheel.
My little sister and Mum (again)
My career is going well but it’s hard to feel like a star since my sister Kerry became an actor – she was in Him & Her and she’s really good. She was nominated for a Bafta. Kerry is more of a showman than me. When she was in a film, we had a red carpet going from Mum’s house to the kerb for people rocking up to see it. I’d never do that.
We all sat around last Christmas watching the Him & Her Christmas Special and again I’d never have the confidence. I’d be looking at everyone, thinking, “Oh my God, they hate it!”
But my family keeps me grounded in other ways. I was on the motorway recently with my mum and there was a horrific crash about 500 yards away from us. There was a huge jam and people started getting out of cars – then they recognised me and wanted to take photos. Which is a new one. It was all pretty weird but you can’t be rude. And then my mum screams out of the window, “He’s kidnapped me!” People were looking at her, worried and I had to start shouting, “She’s my mum! It’s just my mum!” How could I not grow up to be a comedian?
Russell Howard’s Good News is on BBC2 tonight (23 October) at 10.00pm