Russell Howard is currently on tour in the U.S. and launches his new podcast, Wonderbox, on October 11. Wonderbox will see Howard discussing with special guests their “wonderbox,” which is a place where you keep the little reminders that make life worth living. He is one of the UK’s most successful comedians and the writer and star of The Russell Howard Hour (Sky) and the first comedian to release a special (Lubricant) accompanied by a documentary (Until the Wheels Come Off) on Netflix. Since the global lockdown Russell has been at the forefront of the live comedy scene, with a world tour, Respite, that took him to 79 cities across 24 countries in 5 continents. Russell has over 7 million followers on social media, and recently crossed 1 billion views across his YouTube channel, TikTok, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.
Three Great Things is Talkhouse’s series in which artists tell us about three things they absolutely love. To mark the October 11 launch of Russell Howard’s new podcast, Wonderbox, and his current U.S. tour, which runs until October 22, the hugely popular British stand-up comedian shared the things the loves most in life. — N.D.
My Dog, Archie
In terms of things I love in the world, the first would be my dog. I have a Jack Russell called Archie who is 15, which is 105 in human years. I love him so deeply and he’s been such a big part of my life. I always write with him next to me, as he sits by the corner on a little blanket. He’s heard the first versions of so many jokes that have then ended up on tour, on TV shows or on Netflix specials. Philip Pullman wrote about people having a daemon, the external manifestation of their inner self, and Archie is my Pantalaimon. He’s just there with me. He recently got an illness called Rubber Jaw Syndrome, which is like having rickets in the mouth. He’s the only Jack Russell in the world that has it; it’s normally an illness that happens to greyhounds when they’re their babies, so he’s a medical marvel! Because of his Rubber Jaw Syndrome, he looks like an 80-year-old Hollywood diva who’s a drunk lush. His jaw is all sloppy and he looks like he should stink of gin and be sat at a bar saying, “Did I ever tell you about the first time I met Shylvester Shtallone?”
Archie’s now entering the winter of his existence, so my wife and I are really trying to deal with his impending death. He’s just such a big part of my life; he’s been everything for us. We’ve had him for 15 years and he’s been a real shit kicker – he once ran in between the legs of a horse when he was a puppy, because he thought it was a big dog. That has always been his energy, and he’s the only dog in my part of London that doesn’t wear clothes. You just can’t put them on him. At the park near me, there are Chihuahuas wearing trench coats and a Greyhound with ballet shoes, and there’s something beautiful about the fact that my old dog is shivering, but refuses to wear a cagoule. Even though he’s a dying old dog, he still looks down on these poor shits with little bow ties on.
My wife is a doctor, so she’s at peace with death and has a beautifully logical brain, but unfortunately I’m artistic – I’m a feeler, not a thinker. She’s definitely dealing with Archie’s decline better than me. I have a real mania, so I will spend a lot of time in my own mind imagining the worst thing that could happen to Archie. And then what I would do if that unimaginable thing happened. So if I see a husky, in my head that husky is going to attack him and I plan all the ways that I would kill it. And then the husky just walks past Archie … and I’ve spent a whole minute in my own head with some very dark thoughts. My wife will ask me, “What are you thinking about?” and I have to look at her and say, “Ah, you know, the weather …”
There’s a photo of me when I’m three years old with my granddad and I’m kicking a football and the joy on my face is so evident. All I’m doing is running and kicking a ball with this little old man I adore, but that joy has never really gone away. I was talking to John Oliver about it the other day, reminiscing about when we used to play five-a-side football every Tuesday in Crystal Palace.
When I’m playing football, I don’t think about anything else. I’m so in the moment. The only times I’ve truly been in the present are while playing football and having a colonoscopy. If I were to play football and a doctor popped his finger up my ass, I think that’s the most present I could possibly be. All I’m thinking about is how I’ve got to get around someone, or I’ve got to pass to my friend, or there’s a defender who’s trying to get me or I’ve got to kick the ball in the goal. It’s so present and so tangible, particularly if you’re playing with your mates.
Playing football is a time when I’m taken out of myself and I briefly get to be a Premier League footballer in my own head. I’ve been lucky to play in Soccer Aid in the UK, which is a big game for Unicef where I’ve played against legends like Zinedine Zidane, Cafu, Roberto Carlos, Joe Cole, Teddy Sheringham, Clarence Seedorf and Gerard Pique. It’s the greatest, because it’s four days where you hang out with professional footballers … and you realize just how bad you are in comparison. And then you get to play a match in front of 50,000 people and it’s on TV.
My relationship with football has been a lifelong love affair, and yet I also recognize it’s absurd because all I’m doing is running around, kicking a bit of leather into a space where there’s a bit of a gap and trying to get it past the goalkeeper. It’s so silly. And yet when I score or a friend scores, it gives me a happiness that’s difficult to explain. It’s almost religious. There is such a brilliant truth in a goal or a pass or a victory. I think that’s why I love it.
There are four loves of my life: my wife, my dog, football and stand-up comedy. I remember getting into stand-up comedy when I was 16 years old: I watched a VHS tape of Lee Evans with my friend Craig, and it completely changed my life. I started writing jokes, knowing one day I had to try it out. The first time I did stand-up, when I was 18, it was a bit like the moment in Interview with the Vampire where Brad Pitt gets bitten and becomes a vampire. I looked at the world in a different way and realized every great thing or sad thing or peculiar thing that happened in my life, and every thought I had, could go through this sausage-maker that is stand-up comedy. It’s such a pure art form, because there’s no creativity through committee. If I have a thought and I’m doing a show that night, I can go on stage and I can share that thought. I don’t have to check it with a co-writer or a director or a producer, and there’s not a lawyer that says, “Well, I’m not sure we can do this …” The audience is the jury and their laughter is a way of telling you you’re not mad.
Being a stand-up is such a brilliant way of living life, and I still love watching stand-up and doing it. The feeling I get when I have a new joke that works in a little club in London with 100 people in the audience is as good as doing a gig at the O2 arena in front of 15,000 people. There’s such alchemy to it. I’m constantly creating and unearthing things that hopefully people have always known; the greatest jokes are the ones where it hits deep and there’s a sense of recognition as well as laughter.
During Covid, I realized just how important stand-up was to me, because as soon as people were allowed to congregate outside, I was performing in laybys, car parks and woods, gigs I would never have considered a year previously. I felt such a need to be with people and tell them stories and jokes. If I have a thought, I’ll first share it with my friends, and in the back of my head, I’m thinking, “OK, that might become a joke I’ll use. Or it might not.” Stand-up is a companion for my brain. If I think a weird thing, my brain stores it and then it comes out at the just right time.