Russell Howard is one of the UK’s best-loved comedians, and he’ll be performing in Dubai before you know it.
Ahead of his three-night stint at the Dubai College Auditorium from Thursday April 20 to Saturday 21, Time Out Dubai caught up with the Good News star to chat about his world tour, handling unruly crowds, improv, and surprisingly muscular dolphins.
For a man known for his vivacious and energetic live performances, Howard comes across as a very calm and contemplative personality. That mellow nature is perhaps even more surprising given that he’s currently in the midst of a nationwide tour across the UK, and is bracing himself for 2017’s Round The World international tour.
After gigs in London, Liverpool, Manchester, Bournemouth and goodness knows where else, Howard flies to Dubai for his aforementioned residency. A few days in the Middle East is the relative calm before the storm, with 25 dates of the US on the horizon before a pan-European tour and a three-week stay in Australia.
Howard says that as much as he prepares for the show, his routine will evolve noticeably as the tour reaches its grand finale, largely thanks to the experiences picked up along the way.
“Getting to see so much of America is going to be really fascinating,” he says. “In the UK we have a very strong preconception of the US at the moment, so it will be great learning about it from the people who live there, and having the chance to see the place for myself.
“The gigs in the States are a lot smaller, sort of 400-seaters. It’s great because you can chat with people, then anecdotalise your experiences and it makes everything so much more interesting and powerful.
“I’m recording a show with Netflix at the end of the tour, so it’s just all part of collating ideas and the show will evolve as it goes on.”
In the early days of his comedy career, Howard experimented heavily with improvised comedy – with minimal preparation before heading on stage at local clubs to just see what he could get away with. For many, that is the stuff of nightmares; but for comedians, improv is bread and butter.
However, the level of improv in a show massively varies depending on the occasion. The Dubai audience can expect to see some improvisation and audience participation chucked in for good measure, but Howard insists it is different strokes for different folks – and purely improvised sets are a fundamental part of creating his big shows.
“When I was writing this show I was at these little clubs in Chiswick and Bethnal Green. They were all improvised and I was sort of just strutting around,” he says. “You’re doing these two-hour sets, which can feel very long for the crowd sometimes! You’re sort of moving around just trying things out and seeing what works, and then you start getting a show together, which you can start relaxing into.”
Big gigs don’t really lend themselves quite so much to extensive freestyling though, Howard says. “It can be really fun to play around with improv, in the right setting, but for the bigger gigs it has to be this big, powerful monologue,” he says. “Sure, if someone decides they want to interject then you can have some fun with them, but you can’t go looking through the crowd for it. That’s called the content crawl, and occasionally you might lean on it a little bit. But with the smaller gigs, and the nature of them, you can really relax into the ebb and flow of it all.”
“No comedian has ever got up on stage and gone ‘here’s a completely finished routine, boom! Here you go!’ because it just doesn’t happen. An audience will never know what the comedian is thinking or what they wanted to go out and try – you have to go with the flow, feel the audience.
“There are times when you just feel so powerfully connected to the audience, and those are the best nights. Then there are other nights where you don’t feel so good, or that connection isn’t there, and at that point you have just got to be professional, go out there and say ‘here is everything I’ve got’.”
Sometimes that connection with the audience can be broken through no fault of the comedian. Last month one of Howard’s shows in Glasgow was interrupted when a couple of audience members broke out into a full-on fist fight, halfway through the show. Howard, being naturally adverse to conflict, says the whole experience was a bit surreal, and moved to put right some of the rumours that circulated in the national press.
“What was really strange about it was the coverage in the papers,” he explains. “I can’t say I clocked the incident straight away, but there was a bit of a crash and this guy shouted out ‘I’m having a fight!’ like he’s commentating on his own fight!
“The crowd looks at me, questioning what’s going on, and I swear only in Glasgow could a fight be going on in the middle of a comedy gig and you just have loads of people going ‘nah it’s alright, Russ, crack on mate’. It’s like sitting in the office and seeing your colleague head-butt the guy next to you, then tell you to get on with your work! [Laughs] It was all very strange. I had people asking me if I’m alright after hearing that I stopped the fight myself!”
Howard is coming back to Dubai having stayed in the city with his family a few years ago. So what does the comedian make of the city? He explains he spent a day up at Atlantis The Palm swimming with dolphins, something that features on pretty much everyone’s bucket list, but remarked it wasn’t quite the serene and pleasant experience he was expecting.
“They’re surprisingly strong animals. You think it’s going to be this gentle ride where you float along with them all gently and everything; but they’re so muscly they pretty much hammer you, smash you around and just drag you along. You think it’s going to be this nice bit of family-friendly Flipper fun, and they’re thinking ‘alright mate, have some of this!’”
Having successfully fought off the stunningly stout dolphins, Howard will be going three rounds at Dubai College later this month.
From Dhs295. Apr 20-22. Dubai College Auditorium, Knowledge Village, www.800tickets.com.