An English Defence League joke found the comedian coping with some chilling threats, but he is staying true to himself, writes Roz Laws.
Russell Howard’s comedy is playful and good-natured rather than sharply satirical.
Sitting opposite acerbic Frankie Boyle on Mock The Week made him appear even nicer.
Frankie causes outrage on a weekly basis, but Russell was surprised to find himself threatened with violence after one particular joke.
His target, on his hit BBC3 show Russell Howard’s Good News, was the English Defence League.
EDL supporters posted threats on the internet and protested outside one of his gigs after he made the jibes about the right-wing group.
He showed footage of an EDL march held in Blackburn, where it was reported that because they could not clash with anti-fascist opponents, they ended up fighting each other.
Russell said: “I imagine they were like ‘Oi Terry, You’ve given me a black eye. Now I hate my own eye’. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of them started a fight with their own shadow.”
A Facebook group sprung up, urging people to demonstrate outside his gig in Chorley, Lancashire, in May.
The EDL reacted by criticising his “three-minute rant on how ‘thick’ we all are’, with one supporter adding: “We’re going to be loud and he’s going to know we’re there. Hopefully next time he’ll think twice before opening his middle class mouth about things he knows nothing about.”
Other supporters used racist terms for Muslims and made threats against him.
Midland-based Russell says: “It was quite hairy. I am an absolute coward, and I admit that for a while I imagined that everyone coming near me was going to beat me up.
“I had a pretty tough month. Every time we filmed the Mystery Guest section of Good News, where we get someone on and I have to guess who they are, I thought it would be an EDL supporter who was going to hit me.
“But I think you have to stand by your jokes. They may have been cruel, but they were about people I believe are idiots.
“Everyone likes a good cruel joke, but you have to stay true to yourself.
“If you are going out of your way to be vicious, it will just have diminishing returns. Light and shade is good, rather than being unremittingly nasty.”
Russell, 31, lives in Leamington Spa with his girlfriend Cerys and Jack Russell dog Archie. On December 14 he returns to Birmingham’s LG Arena at the NEC for another of his shows on his Right Here, Right Now tour. It began back in January and he performed to almost a quarter of a million people across the country. The DVD of the show has just been released. Two NEC gigs sold out, so he added another six dates to the tour for this month.
“To be honest, it’s the same show,” he admits. “I don’t really add topical jokes to my stand-up show, as I do enough of them on my TV series.
“They catch the zeitgeist of the week but the jokes are too disposable and will burn out in a month’s time. If you did jokes about the riots now they would seem old.”
Russell moved to Leamington three years ago when Cerys was a medical student at Warwick University, and now she’s qualified as a doctor and working in the region, he expects to live here for at least another two years.
“I love it,” he says. “When I’m recording my TV show I stay in London, but then it’s so nice to come back home.
“When I’m in Leamington I’m not working. I just walk the dog, play five-a-side with my mates and hang out in the pub.”
Earlier this year, Russell came top in an undergraduate poll of sex symbols, beating his fellow comedy Russell, Brand.
But this week he also came third in Heat magazine’s annual Weird Crush list, the position he also held last year. Others on the shortlist include David Cameron, Chancellor George Osborne and Brummie TV presenter Adrian Chiles.
Russell laughs: “That list has become the bane of my life. My family love taking the mickey out of me. My mum has been asking ‘Are you King of the Mingers again?’
“It’s odd to be ranked alongside George Osborne, though. His face has no features, it’s like fancying blancmange.”
After all his stand-up dates and work on Good News, which is returning next year, the Christmas gift Russell wants most is time off to spend with his family. Though he admits that they will inevitably be providing more material for his next stand-up tour, as he often talks about his parents and his younger twin siblings, Daniel and Kerry.
“I’m such a parasite!” he laughs. “I often think ‘this is going in the act’.
“The main thing on the agenda for this Christmas is finding my brother a girlfriend. It’s Mum’s idea, though we are both massively ill-equipped to go out pulling.
“My favourite Christmas memory is seeing my granddad’s face when my sister gave him the MMMBop song from American teenage brothers Hanson. It was like two worlds colliding, he didn’t even know what a CD was, let alone Hanson.
“He just said ‘That is remarkable’. Then when he listened to the music, he said ‘These girls want shooting’.”
* Russell Howard’s Right Here, Right Now show plays Birmingham’s LG Arena on December 14. For tickets ring 0844 338 8000 or go to www.russell-howard.co.uk.