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Russell Howard: Jokes are the only way I know how to survive

Russell Howard should be packing arenas. Instead, he’s pleasing himself in his bedroom. He explains...

March 23 was my 40th birthday. That night I was supposed to be playing an arena in Amsterdam then I subsequently found out that I was having a surprise party afterwards. None of that took place. Instead I slept in my childhood bed, so it was a real comedown.

I was touring around Europe, America and Australia. My wife, who’s a doctor, had taken a sabbatical from work. She went back to the front line. And I’m now in my bedroom, making a comedy show.

The money that I would be getting is going to the Trussell Trust, and NHS Charities Together. If people are starving and doctors and nurses can’t afford PPE the least I can do is write jokes. It gives you something to do and it stops you watching the news and worrying about your wife.

These times are confusing and heartbreaking and scary and boring. There’s such a blizzard of emotions going through our minds every day. This is the only way I know how to survive. I have to I write jokes. That’s how I figure things out.

If it weren’t for immigration, the NHS would fall apart

There has been an odd piousness about humour in the last five years – some things you’re not meant to joke about. I completely disagree. This crisis proves that this is how human beings cope, whether it’s by being cynical, silly or whatever. Like the fact that there’s a town in Derbyshire where every night at 6.30 they collectively moo or the fact that Gwyneth Paltrow is recommending sex toys or that OJ Simpson is commenting on Tiger King saying that Carol Baskin definitely did it or that people are burning down 5G masts because Amir Khan and Amanda Holden told them to. There are so many interesting stories swirling around. That’s the thing to be funny about, the reaction to this awful situation.

We’re really learning what’s essential and it turns out live comedy isn’t, it’s an indulgence. I don’t think there will be gigs properly until there’s a vaccine. I think people are too scared and they love their relatives too much to risk it. But once it is all clear, it’ll be like a horn’s blown. The gigs are going to be wild, like Freddie Mercury parties in 1984. Chaos. Glastonbury Festival next year, it already makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

It’s time for a real discussion about who adds value to society

Everyone’s been through this incredible pause and recalibration in their life. What’s really fascinating is that just before this, government policy wasn’t going to let migrants in unless they earned over £28,000 a year and unless they had a certain amount of skill – that would be cleaners, people putting food on shelves, nurses – people who are currently keeping this country going.

The thing that baffled me was the whole rhetoric around immigration during Brexit. Have you never been to a hospital? If it weren’t for immigration, the NHS would fall apart. People of all nationalities work all hours for low money looking after your loved ones. My nan and granddad passed away in the last five years and the care they received from supposedly low-skilled workers that we don’t need was incredible. The empathy and intellect and wisdom.

I listen to my wife and her friends. Believe me, when you’re the only non-doctor at a dinner party it’s humbling. The NHS struggles without a pandemic. Every winter it’s at max capacity. So you would hope that we put genuine resources into it. There’ll be another thing like this once we can’t deal with antibiotics. This isn’t going to be the only time this is going to happen.

There are a couple of boys who work in the Co-op down the road from me. They’re in there every day dealing with customers, all the hands coming near them, the coughs – they’re doing it because that’s what they do. And you have to salute that. That’s worth a million celebrities TikToking in their mansions. It’s time for a real discussion about who adds value to society. A moment where you ask, ‘What did you do during the pandemic?’

Russell Howard’s Home Time airs on Sky One and Now TV on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and can be watched on YouTube the following day 

As told to Steven MacKenzie