Culture

Russell Howard is using comedy to deliver a serious message

The most popular British comedian on Facebook avoids 'safe hate' comedy in favour of skits that pack a punch

“How many milkshakes could Little Mix drink in a minute?” muses Russell Howard, imagining the sort of skit that might be expected from someone fronting one of Sky’s most popular shows. “I’m not interested,” he decides, “but I would love to have Little Mix on and talk to them about things they genuinely care about. There’s a weird thing with celebrity at the moment, ‘No, no, no, I don’t want to talk about that, I want to stay on my brand’. Luckily I gave up on that years ago.”

While film stars perform party pieces on Graham Norton, Michael McIntyre sends prank texts and The Generation Game is resurrected so people can make innuendo jokes over potter’s wheels in prime time, irreverence reigns. Most comedians and light entertainment shows on TV deal with the big issues of the day by not dealing with them, leaving a gap that Howard is making the most of.

Russell Howard’s Good News ran for six years on the BBC, a topical digest serving as an antidote to all the doom and gloom out there. It became one of the network’s top-rated programmes before Howard, frustrated by what he couldn’t say on the BBC, moved over to Sky last year for The Russell Howard Hour.

As before, there is a mix of stand-up, celebrity guests like Ed Sheeran, but critically another element. Each episode sees Howard deliver a righteous rant against some social ill. Clips with names such as ‘Apparently I look like Ellen DeGeneres’ and ‘My most embarrassing sexual encounter’ get thousands of views – others get millions. Titles include ‘It’s so sad that selfies are causing girls to self-harm’, ‘One in three elderly people suffer from loneliness’, ‘Being a teacher is one of the hardest jobs in this country’ and ‘Why is it so hard to buy a house?’, which has had over nine million views. They’re hardly laugh-a-minute subjects but are striking a chord.

“I found out that one in four 16 to 25-year-old girls self-harm, which really upset me,” Howard says. “I started talking about it at gigs and tried to understand why it was happening. A lot of it is to do with the pressure of being young, the fact that house prices are skyrocketing, education costs thousands, and social media pressure.

I don’t get wound up by small things, I get pissed off by big things and get angry

“Increasingly that’s what fascinates me, talking about big things but still making them belly-laugh funny instead of that awful Radio 4 ‘hmhmhm’ theatre laugh,” Howard continues. “The gigs I do are 15,000-seaters so if you want to talk about young girls cutting themselves you have to make it funny – and you can. You have to work quite hard, but when you get it right it resonates with people.”

The popularity of these segments has made Howard the most popular British comedian on Facebook. Instead of just wallowing in a problem, he explains it with wit, passion, and finds a positive conclusion. When reacting to the news that one in 200 people in the UK is homeless, Howard featured the story of Adan Abobaker, a homeless man who jumped into the Thames to save a woman, then became a barista with The Big Issue-backed Change Please coffee carts to illustrate that there is hope in the bleakest situations. And as fun as watching Little Mix chug milkshakes would be, it does seem a little derivative in contrast.

“Whether you be right or left, a lot of people delight in the rage rather than trying to fix things,” Howard says. “I find that ridiculous, like the idea that millennials are uncomfortable with some episodes of Friends when there are young women in this country who are so poor that they can’t afford tampons.

“I’m not really into ‘safe hate’, the easiest kind of comedy: ‘I tell you what really annoys me, Wagamama’ or ‘Why do they make peanut M&M’s the way they do?!’ Everyone can really enjoy watching a man or a woman get really flustered about something they don’t really give a shit about. But I don’t get wound up by small things, I get pissed off by big things and get angry. And I think anger and rage are a great thing to use.”

Howard is informing a new audience about the big issues of the day, and he believes comedy is an effective method of delivering difficult messages.

“Most people wouldn’t sit down to watch 45 minutes of news, but they can watch an eight-minute section on a big topic. I don’t buy the idea that comedy doesn’t change anything; I learned about the First World War through Blackadder, I learned about Rodney King through Bill Hicks, I know about OJ Simpson through Chris Rock. Comedy can be used as a force for good.”

Russell Howard & Mum: USA Road Trip is on Comedy Central, and he is also appearing on the sixth series of Taskmaster on Dave

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