Editors’ Note: With full acknowledgment of the big-picture implications of a pandemic that already has claimed thousands of lives, cratered global economies and closed international borders, Deadline’s Coping With COVID-19 Crisis series is a forum for those in the entertainment space grappling with myriad consequences of seeing a great industry screech to a halt. The hope is for an exchange of ideas and experiences, and suggestions on how businesses and individuals can best ride out a crisis that doesn’t look like it will abate any time soon. If you have a story, email email@example.com.
Brit comedian Russell Howard has always been one to look on the bright side of things. The lockdown has been a challenge for the comic, who has had to find creative outlets for his infectious energy and desire to make people laugh, while isolated in his house. His efforts have not gone unnoticed, with UK broadcaster Sky approaching Howard last week to make a quick-turnaround TV show – Russell Howard’s Home Time – that he hopes will deliver some relief for people in this trying period. The half-hour broadcast, which is produced by Breeders outfit Avalon, debuts tonight in the UK and will be available globally via Howard’s Youtube channel the next day.
We sat down on a Zoom call with the comedian (welcome to the coronavirus world) to chat through how he is channeling his energy to keep his fans entertained online, if comedy gigs can return before there’s a cure for the virus, why he thinks Dame Judi Dench should cover Jay Z, and how watching Gwyneth Paltrow market vibrators is helping him cope with the lockdown.
To top it off, Howard is married to a UK National Health Service doctor who specializes in geriatric care and is on the frontline of the battle against the virus. The pair prefer to keep their personal lives out of the media limelight, but the comedian did give us some insight into how intense this battle is for the couple.
DEADLINE: What’s been your personal experience of this situation?
RUSSELL HOWARD: My wife, who is a doctor, had taken a six-month sabbatical to come on tour with me in Europe, America, Australia, Dubai and India [the tour is on hiatus for obvious reasons]. She’s been a doctor for ten years and she was having a career break. When coronavirus happened, I started writing about it, that’s my coping mechanism as a comedian, while my wife volunteered to go back to work. I felt like the mother of a young man, just before the Second World War, her having to go out to battle and me admiring her and being terrified.
DEADLINE: That must be pretty intense for you both.
HOWARD: I keep my life separate [from the public eye]. The other day the Daily Mail went through her tweets and printed a photo of her – we’re meant to be applauding them [the NHS], not making their jobs harder. My job is to not draw attention to her. But I will say I’m incredibly proud of her, and it’s terrifying, but she is highly skilled at working in elderly care and there is nowhere else that she should be. The bravery is insane, that goes for all doctors and nurses, these guys just roll up their sleeves and they go again.
DEADLINE: How have you been channeling your own energies during the lockdown? You’re a pretty energetic comedian, have you been climbing the walls?
HOWARD: I was considering volunteering as a delivery driver, but I have so many points on my license, I’m such a terrible driver, it’s probably safer if I sit inside doing jokes. If you learn anything from this, it’s what your purpose is. Making people laugh is something that is really valuable.
I miss people immensely, and audiences. Comedy is created with, not for. On my last tour I used to go to a little club in London called Top Secret Comedy and do 10, 20 minute sets all the time. You create your show with the crowd, they push you towards the jokes. Here I’m writing literally in isolation and putting it on Instagram, it’s a very different process.
I’m not really into putting clips of me dancing on Instagram. I can’t imagine the fury if my wife found out, after she’s spent a day looking after people, that I’ve spent my day learning all the lyrics to a Cardi B song.
DEADLINE: I was going to ask if you were planning to cover “Imagine”…
HOWARD: There’s a certain kind of celebrity who, whenever there’s a crisis, they turn into Mary Poppins. Just for once, I’d like to see Dame Judi Dench crack out some Jay Z, change it up.
Did you see the Gwyneth Paltrow story? She was recommending the best vibrators to use during lockdown. I am instantly imagining 50 years time from now, people looking at the documentary of this time and there’s a lady flogging vibrators, I find that so funny. That’s what’s getting me through.
DEADLINE: So when did you get approached to do the new Sky show?
HOWARD: Sky approached me on Friday, and the first episode is out today. I was up for doing it but I think I was the first person ever to negotiate a contract with Sky where I was like, “I’ll only do it if I don’t get paid.” The money is going to the Trussell Trust [which works to stop hunger and poverty in the UK] and the NHS Charities Together, that became the point. I’ll raise a bit of dosh every week.
The aim of the show is to make a funny, warm bit of respite for people, giving them something to watch. We’ll talk to famous people but also unsung heroes. I interviewed a postman who’s a ‘key worker’ and is self-isolating and not allowed to see his wife and 10-month-old daughter because they’re at risk. He was very down about this, so his way of coping was to dress up as Stone Cold Steve Austin, a dinosaur, Where’s Wally, wearing different costumes every day in an attempt to make other people happy. I just love that. It’s so refreshing to do a chat show where people aren’t flogging stuff.
DEADLINE: Is the show giving you some respite from the crisis?
HOWARD:The great thing is that I can speak to people I really admire, both professionally and as people. We’ve got [comedian] Greg Davies who is a really funny bloke on the first show – he’s ‘at risk’, he has a lung disease and isn’t allowed to leave the house. He was talking about his fitness regime, it’s hilarious. Then we have James Bay singing Hold Back The River [the interviews are via video link]. It’s a lovely, silly, funny, filthy half an hour. On the next show we have Stephen Merchant.
DEADLINE: How do you approach doing jokes about coronavirus? How do you avoid being “too soon”?
HOWARD: By looking at Paltrow selling vibrators, or Demi Rose pulling down her bikini top and telling coronavirus to f*ck off, or OJ Simpson saying that he reckons Carole Baskin [of Tiger King fame] definitely murdered her husband, or people tearing down 5G masts because Amanda Holden told them to, or Trump going on about how his ratings have never been higher. It’s about observing these reactions. Your can talk about anything, you just have to approach it with sensitivity. My dad used to say, ‘if you can tell the joke to people without your face going red, you’re fine’. That’s always been my thing.
DEADLINE: How do you think this virus will impact the comedy industry long-term?
HOWARD: I was in the middle of touring a stand-up show, and I was supposed to be recording a Netflix special at some stage in the next six months. Everything was going to build up to making that. It’s interesting looking at that material now, I wonder if this will be relevant in six months time? All of a sudden I’m not sure people are that interested in anything about Brexit, I’ll have to re-write stuff, but I do that anyway. What will the comedic landscape be? Will we see gigs this year? Will gigs not be a thing until there’s a cure? The idea of going to an arena now would be madness, even in September, unless there’s a cure I can’t imagine people going. It’s heartbreaking.
I’m very lucky because I’m doing alright, I can afford to do a TV show and not get paid, but I have friends who are really great comics on the circuit, those guys are really struggling. It’s a tricky time for folks.
DEADLINE: People are assuming that in a few weeks the lockdown lifts and everyone goes back to the pubs and parks. I have no idea if that’s right but it feels unlikely. I think people are starting to consider the long-term impact of this all…
HOWARD: Comedy thrives when people are stuffed into rooms. Music gigs thrive when you are like penguins and you can feel the sweat. Nobody is going to want to do that until there’s a cure. Right now, as a comedian it’s about trying to create for people now, and making sure that when we get out of this you have something to give people, because I think they will want it like they’ve never wanted it before. When they come back, I think gigs will be crazy and euphoric, so I’ll have to have something to say.