Classic Interview: Russell Howard

russell howard

Comedy Crisis? What Comedy Crisis? Russell Howard has just announced a World Tour for 2014 taking in four nights at the Royal Albert Hall, which is certainly classier than the O2 Arena. Here is an interview with Howard from 2009 in which he talks about his family, his career and comedy onscreen as well as onstage.

Details of Russell Howard's tour here,


It is a lovely hot day in June but Russell Howard has an issue. The boyishly cheeky star of Mock the Week is filming his live DVD, Dingledodies, at the Brighton Dome and one thing is on his mind: why does he have to put on foundation? “I always find it funny that you have to wear make-up otherwise you shine on screen. I can’t imagine anyone writing a letter of complaint: ‘My enjoyment was really ruined because Russell had a shiny face’.”

Actually he is also thinking about Christmas. Five months later and his show has just been released, jostling for position in the most competitive of markets. Almost every comedian on television — and a few who are not — has product for sale. According to the Official Charts Company and Worldpanel Entertainment, 77 per cent of comedy titles are sold between October and December.

The reason for this flood of funnies is simple. Comedy DVDs — particularly live stand-up shows — are enjoying a phenomenal boom. The Official Charts Company confirms that sales of live titles are rocketing. In 2006 the bestselling comedy title, Little Britain Live, sold more than 330,000 copies. In 2008 Lee Evans Live at the O2 topped a million.

Millions of DVDs are selling and, to put it crudely, there are millions to be made. I spoke to a number of comedians who were all reluctant to confirm what percentage they receive, but one source suggested a royalty is usually around 7 per cent. If a DVD retails for £20 and sells a million copies that’s £1.4 million pounds. Production costs and an advance night might have to be covered, but the star of a top-selling DVD could trouser a seven-figure sum. Not bad for a day’s work in Brighton.

But Howard is up against a tough field. There is a new live DVD from the stand-up du jour Michael McIntyre, whose first disc last year became the fastest-selling comedy debut. And then there are other, more established, acts jostling for position. Billy Connolly, who has two DVDs in the all-time Top Ten (Peter Kay hogs the top two placings), has his umpteenth DVD out, as does the American icon Chris Rock.

Al Murray’s Pub Landlord also has his Beautiful British Tour Live at the O2 on the starting blocks, capturing the bigoted bar steward in barnstormingly vulgar form. In person though, Murray takes a rather more dignified approach: “I don’t know about advances and royalties, I’m a bit airy-fairy. They round things off nicely is the best way of putting it.”

Murray is more forthcoming in explaining this spike: “My sales shot up significantly last year. More people are going to shows and they want to buy the show they’ve seen.” DVDs — and before that chunky VHS versions — have always been important to comedy, though. Richard Pryor’s live shows were passed around from fan to fan when I was younger and Russell Howard says it was seeing a Lee Evans VHS that got him into writing comedy in the first place: “To me, aged 14, there was nothing more wonderful than salivating over the telly because I’d never been to live gigs.” Comedy has now gone mainstream so the numbers are bigger.

Like numerous performers, Murray puts increased business down to the increased coverage of comedy on television. Not just panel games such as Mock the Week, but more particularly Michael McIntyre’s Roadshow and before that Live at the Apollo, which successfully put unadulterated stand-up onscreen.

“Stand-up is being seen as more than a three-minute filler in a show now,” Murray continues. “I always thought comedy was badly served by being reduced to a three-minute spot. I could name 20 comics who, if you watched them for 40 minutes you’d realise stand-up is a far stronger art form than just telling jokes, which is what it is often boiled down to.”

Some might say that all that Jimmy Carr does is tell jokes (“The Great Wall of China. Largest wall in the world. Not one cashpoint.”) but judging by his DVD sales there are plenty of fans who are hoping to get his slick, non-PC schtick in their stocking. “My sales have always been consistently high,” Carr says. He is not worried about increased competition: “It is a huge market now, but the pie is bigger, so there is more for everyone.”

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