The Highline Ballroom in New York City on a Friday night. The audience cheered at the arrival of Bristol comedian Russell Howard (age 33) on stage. Less than five minutes into Russell’s observations about New York (“Today in Greenwich Village, I passed a place that offers organic wi-fi”), the microphone went dead. We cheered at that. He picked up another microphone on stage. We cheered at that, too. He admitted he was afraid of the dark. He got a “whoo!”
“I love doing gigs in America,” Howard said. “You cheer at everything.”
I was expecting a very tightly scripted show, but Russell Howard did an enormous amount of crowd work (one person knew Iggy Pop), location-based jokes (the city that never sleeps would be less angry if it took a nap), and topical stories (Donald Sterling: If you’re racist and in charge of a basketball team, you’re in the wrong profession).
After recounting the scenario this week where he awoke to the sound of the woman downstairs yelling breakfast foods to her son (“I don’t know if this is funny, but it did happen”), Howard moved onto a rude discussion of morning glories and what vaginas’ voices sound like. (Sidenote: If you ask Beverly Lincoln from Episodes, it’s the voice of Yoda.) He described the sound of a queef as “a thousand hippos in yogurt.” Trying to sort out the American slang for twat vs. twot degraded into the audience screaming other words that mean vagina at him.
Then we move onto a bit of travel humor–Other places are different, aren’t they? He did a gig in Norway once. (“In English?” asked his adorable mother.) Turns out that an audience member had been to Norway, so Russell asked what the weirdest thing he ate there was. “Yack meat!” This trumped Russell’s reindeer meat, but it turned out that the yack “might have been reindeer,” which upset Russell. “Would you ever have imagined you’d be in a situation where you and I got into an argument, and that argument would be about meat you didn’t eat?” It was here, Russell Howard really stretched his legs and we got to see just how good of an improviser he is. The way in which he mocks members of the audience by adopting different accents reminds me a bit of Lee Mack.
Russell pulled the audience’s attention back and talked about his mum. He likes playing jokes on her. He once changed the names in her cell phone to celebrity names (Russell was Barack Obama) so that when people called, she thought celebrities were calling. He also added things to the grocery list, resulting in his mother asking a grocer if they had any crystal meth because she couldn’t remember whether Russell had put it on the list or whether she had. Once, when someone at a hotel thought that Russell and his mum were a couple, she milked it and told the waiter that he was a male prostitute she got cheap because his eyes are lazy.
After explaining how police officers mistook him for a blind man because he was waving a stick at night along the motorway (he was protecting himself from bad guys), he asked the audience, “Does your brain ever tell you to do things you would never actually do?”
“All the time!” someone yelled.
Intrigued, Russell engaged in a thought-off with him: “What’s the strangest thing your brain has ever told you to do?”
“Drive through Wal-Mart!” the man yelled.
“You can do that?”
Out of nowhere, a woman yelled, “Bestiality!” Perplexed, Howard asked her why she said that. “Because you’re from Bristol!” she shouted. This prompted some more adlibbing from Russell before a man shouted, “Knowle West!”
Russell then had to facilitate a conversation between the man and the audience: “Explain to the rest of them what the American equivalent of Knowle West is.” He couldn’t.
“See?” Russell told him. “They’re not going to get it. You know this is New York?” He took a seat at this point and you could see in his face the surrealism of the night dawning on him. “It seems people from my hometown have followed me to New York to bait me about bestiality and make obscure references about Bristol. It’s one of my worst fears, but not one I’d ever think would happen.” A hilarious derailment that Howard was able to stay on top of every step of the way.
Eventually, the audience helped remind him where he was in the set and he went on to talk about how Brits don’t believe in God but they believe magpies are bad luck. During a scene about the lion on the ark complaining to Noah that the magpies were too noisy (which is why they are considered bad luck), he started talking to himself. “You’ve added jokes. You didn’t do jokes in this bit last night when Washington booed at the choice in accent.” The lion had an African accent. He’s from Africa. What accent was he supposed to have?
The show ended sweetly on the story of a 14-year-old with terminal cancer who had on his bucket list to get drunk with Russell Howard. He invited Russell to his funeral, which was going to be in fancy dress. He designed all the costumes, including his father, who would be dressed as the Grim Reaper and point his scythe at anyone who coughed. He insisted Howard go in his Mr. Dildo costume, but Howard, wary that this may be a prank where he’d show up dressed as a dildo while everyone else was dressed in black, made him write a letter outlining his request. Luckily, the boy got better and Howard’s show ended with a photo of him with the boy dressed in Howard’s Mr. Dildo costume.
Personally, I’d heard that Wonderbox has been getting some bad reviews, so I wasn’t sure what to expect tonight. Okay, so Russell Howard isn’t the most innovative and brilliant comic out there, but he was darn funny in this show. Some of the humor was too low brow for my taste–a lot of talking vaginas, dangling willies, and poop jokes–but it never got uncomfortable, and it didn’t stop being funny.