Russell Howard: Laughing all the way to the bank

If you’re young, chances are you’ll love Russell Howard, with his topical BBC show garnering a million hits on iPlayer. Ian Burrell meets the small-town boy about to embark on a money-spinning tour

If Nick Clegg is serious about repairing his tattered reputation with young people he should speak with Russell Howard. The Bristol comedian has a stronger connection with the under-30s than almost anyone on television.

His topical show Russell Howard's Good News is tucked away on the digital channel BBC3, but on the online watch-again feature iPlayer, he consistently outperforms the corporation's most celebrated shows, such as EastEnders, Top Gear, and Mad Men. His audience for a recent episode was 1.3m, a record for BBC3, which is aimed at 16-34 year-olds.

During filming of the show at the Riverside Studios in London's Hammersmith, the crowd laps up his easygoing mix of news-based gags, clips and sketches. He jokes about Snoop Dogg wanting to be on Coronation Street ("Coronizzle Strizzle"), dons a hard hat to interview an award-winning whistling builder and even ends, like News at Ten, on a heart-warming story (about a woman who survived the Holocaust and became a concert pianist). Young women in the front rows offer him sweets.

The problem for the Liberal Democrat leader, aside from being a hate figure for much of the student population, is that he is already known to Howard's audience by the somewhat derogatory title "Cleggy-Weggy". So powerfully did that nickname resonate with young viewers earlier this year – it actually trended as one of the most popular themes on Twitter – that it may have undermined the LibDem vote.

"Cleggy-Weggy" is symbolic of Russell Howard's humour. It stems from the first series of his show when Obamania was still in full swing and Howard's team unearthed a YouTube clip of a firebrand African-American preacher called Pastor Manning who regards the President with the greatest mistrust, branding him at the top of his voice as "The long-legged mack daddy". It became a catchphrase on the show, popping up whenever Obama was mentioned.

By the time of Howard's second series, last spring, Britain's election campaign was underway. "No one in the general public really knew who Nick Clegg was and nobody was really interested," recalls Howard in a central London hotel restaurant. "We had a gag. We'd do stuff about Cameron and Brown and then I'd go 'Well, because I'm on the BBC I have to mention all three political parties, and with that in mind here's Nick Clegg', and we had a clip of him 'Hi, I'm Nick Clegg' and that was it.

"But then there was the first televised debate where he was really great and I had to swallow my words. Because the papers were calling him the new Obama, I dressed as Pastor Manning saying "Mr long-legged Cleggy-Weggy". It made sense within the language of the show because he was the new Obama. Everyone got it." Twitter was electrified. When Clegg attended a public engagement soon afterwards, he was called "Cleggy-Weggy" by a passing student and the encounter was posted on YouTube.

Howard, 30, whose television potential was spotted by Danny Cohen, the former BBC3 boss and the new controller of BBC1, has been commissioned for two further series. In February he will undertake an arena comedy tour, including two nights at London's O2. He finds the scale of his success "slightly embarrassing, overwhelming".

He lives away from the showbiz circuit, in the sleepy Warwickshire town of Leamington Spa with his girlfriend, a 25-year-old university medical student. "My life is quite normal and for me it helps with my comedy. If you jump headlong into celebrity life it affects who you are and what you talk about. There's more comedy in Tesco than there is in [London celebrity hangout] Mahiki. Actually, I've never been to Mahiki – it might be hilarious," he says. "But it's just not my world. You just have to stay normal." His girlfriend, it appears, is similarly grounded. "She was in the library and had a picture of me on her laptop, and she realised someone would think that she was a mad stalker rather than my girlfriend, so she got rid of that. Now she has a photo of the dog."

Given his appeal to a young audience, one might assume that Howard is the sort of wired early-adopter who knows every digital shortcut to maximising his fan base. But he doesn't try to give that impression. When I ask him how it feels to be the most popular British comic on Facebook, with more than 1.2m fans, he only says "Ridiculous isn't it?" When referring to his Twitter success he observes vaguely "it was trending, apparently". And of his success on iPlayer he responds: "You can't worry about ratings – it's just out of my hands. I just write the show." Why does he appeal to young people? "I've no idea."

Howard's success is not down to technology but rather built on old-fashioned values of hard work. He does a punishing week of 11-hour days in the offices of his production company, Avalon, poring over newspapers and studying news footage. "You look at the way stories are presented and find jump-out points, write jokes and try to think conceptually," he says, citing a story about a Polish horse that had learned to paint. Good News reported the story with a sketch of an equine novelist, hooves "smashing into a typewriter". Note that Howard says typewriter not keyboard.

He has toured hard and says his time on the comedy circuit taught him "how many unknown geniuses there are walking around". Just because he is doing a television show under his own name "doesn't mean I'm any better than anyone who isn't".

His core writing team of Karl Minns, Dan Atkinson and Steve Williams are all old friends from the stand-up scene which has been his world since he was 18. Though he studied economics at university, he says he has never wanted to be anything other than a comedian and is not particularly motivated by money.

His father, David – "he's really driven and runs his own business designing call centres" – was supportive in the early days when Howard was establishing himself on the Bristol comedy scene. "He said: 'If you are going to do it, just go for it and don't arse around and get a part-time job'."

The family will be at the O2, including younger brother Daniel, who finds himself banned from some shows because of his booming laugh. At the Riverside Studios recording that I attend, Daniel, 28, is confined to a sofa in the green room where his mirth is something to behold. "It's an experience isn't it? We can't have him in the room because he laughs like a walrus," says the comedian, who points out that his sibling's amusement is not always a sign of fraternal loyalty. "Because he's my little brother he likes nothing better than seeing me dying on stage. That's his favourite."

Howard, whose comedy heroes include Bill Hicks and Chris Rock, would like to try his hand in America, partly because his old stand-up friend John Oliver has a job on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Not that that satirical programme, which recently featured President Obama as a guest, is an influence on his own current-affairs-based humour. "I've never really watched it," he says. Howard did deliver a "passionate" on-air criticism of the student fees that Mr Clegg is taking so much criticism over ("Nine grand is too much"), but he generally avoids politics. "It's pretty easy point-scoring to just go 'Bloody Tories, maa-aan!'"

Neither does he concern himself unduly with the debate on boundaries in television comedy. He praises the "laser-guided joke writing" of Frankie Boyle, who was censured for supposedly over-stepping the mark on Mock the Week, the topical BBC2 show which has been pivotal in raising Howard's profile. "I don't think I'd be doing any of what I'm doing now if I hadn't done that," he says.

Howard – who has been championed by Karl Warner, the BBC's Executive Editor for Entertainment and likely new head of BBC3 – acknowledges that other comedians see Mock the Week as a bear pit but says he has no real secret for thriving in such an environment. "You just grab an oar and row as hard as you can," he says. "You've just got to be yourself really."

Each episode of Russell Howard's Good News ends with a note of optimism. It was the host's own idea, inspired by how he felt when watching the "really poignant" final scene of Blackadder, where Rowan Atkinson's character leaves his First World War trench to go over the top. "You make people laugh, laugh, laugh and then right at the end you show them something magnificent to melt their heart. It's not really important but I like to do it."

His audience appears to appreciate it, because at the end of the show he is invariably given sweets. "At a gig in Liverpool I had this lady give me 21 cup cakes she had made herself," he says. "It's not really rock'n'roll is it? Tom Jones gets pants thrown at him and I get given fairy cakes."

'Russell Howard's Good News', Thursday, 10.30pm, BBC3; DVD of the best of series one is available now. Howard's tour 'Right Here, Right Now' starts in February 2011, for details visit www.russell-howard.co.uk

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