I’ve been to some pretty intimate gigs over the years. At the Edinburgh Fringe, it’s not unheard of that a single person will make up 50 per cent of the audience. Previews of Edinburgh shows can also be notoriously underpopulated.
I went to one back in the early noughties in a small London theatre above a pub. I was there with my mate, the comedian Steve Williams, to support a couple of his pals who were tentatively prepping for their début Edinburghs. Despite both being great stand-ups on the scene, the audience just about hit double figures and were largely made up of family and friends.
One was Al Pitcher, the Kiwi comic now living in Sweden, the other some up-and-coming act called Russell Howard. But then you’ve probably already guessed that.
It’s a shame that more punters don’t take a gamble early on in a comedian’s career, especially with Howard as, even back then, there was obviously something special about him. His routines always displayed a creative inventiveness as well as being damn funny.
Of course, he continued to develop that work, eventually landing his own TV show Good News, with a little help from some of his talented writer mates including Williams and Howard’s support act here, Steve Hall. But more of him in a minute.
The exposure of that successful TV show leads, in part, to Howard performing here in front of an audience of 14,000 people atop a tiny stage in the very centre of Manchester Arena – providing him with the fullest capacity the venue can give, and all in the round too. It’s an impressive sight.
I’m here with my teenage niece and some of her friends. It’s her first large scale comedy gig and the demographic is an impressive one. There are some over-50s, plenty of us who are closer to the 37-year-old Howard in age, and of course, there’s the youngsters. Attracting such a wide-ranging crowd is testament to the quality and universality of the stand-up.
The job of warm-up man goes to Hall. A brilliant comedian in his own right (not least with the wonderfully off-beat trio We Are Klang) but unfamiliar to many here, this must be addressed straightaway with some classic Hall self-deprecation. Hall positively relishes the wordplay in routines, such as the one featuring his gentile penis, and conjures mental images of when Skype sexing his wife that are unlikely to leave you any time soon.
Howard, meanwhile, is particularly fired up. In a world that is currently looking bleak and heartless, and for a comic who has always been engaged and connected it’s a particularly challenging scene, Howard is determined to find the good in people. Howard’s response comes from the worldly wisdom he’s gained so far, from life experience and the pages of terrific books. His is an impassioned call to come together, to be kind, to find the joy. It’s common sense for anyone currently in a state of horror at the world, but frankly is a much-needed reminder with so many seemingly happy to rant with ignorance about sections of society they don’t like the look of.
While the topics are big as Howard rails against prejudice, ignorance and banality, the perspective taken is a gloriously silly one; cutting through the earnest message with an almost childlike approach to the world. His family are clearly a huge inspiration for his gleefully daft view of life – Mum’s hula hoop method for distraction against the bad news, and dad’s lack of concern about his wandering ball sack. His brother meanwhile is the king of the hilarious, but inappropriate, aside – don’t take him to a baby shower or a christening.
The imagery is rich and the performance is animate, be it a wonderfully awkward moment on his Comic Relief trip to Liberia, defeating ISIS with confectionery, or railing against the damaging fakery of porn.
But his joy is undercut with a sadness, not just at the state of the world but on a personal level with the death of his grandparents. Howard’s ongoing anxiety provides him with a preoccupation with death. But like anyone who battles such demons they are to be pushed away (albeit with difficulty) to grasp that optimistic world view, a beacon of hope.
The teens I’m with have got their heads screwed on, they whoop (as do many) at moments such as the dispelling of Trump’s bigotry. It’s their future, they’re intelligent, thoughtful, they’ll be OK.
But it can’t harm them to have an injection of common sense from someone older who’s worked out life (just a bit) and is more than happy to share it.
By Marissa Burgess, Comedy Editor
Russell Howard is currently touring the country with his live show, Around the World. For more information, click here.