Image: Coventry Telegraph
Midway through Russell Howard’s show, something weird happens. While delivering the punchline to a joke condemning the EDL, a heckle comes from the first few rows. Howard, stopped in his tracks, tries reassuring the audience that he is anti-racist, anti-EDL and anti-UKIP. The heckle comes again. The woman stands up. She heckles again. Mystery hangs in the air: was she a white supremacist? Had she spotted racism that the rest of us hadn’t? Had she just misinterpreted the joke? Whatever the reason, the crowd unites in booing her appeals and, after a time, she’s escorted out of the venue. Howard is thrown, visibly so.
But let’s start at the start. Wonderbox, the Bristolian comedian’s first tour in three years, is a sell-out across the UK, and it fills the First Direct Arena with ease. There’s no support act but the audience is warmed up by a hype man in a onesie. The lights go out and a white sheet engulfs the stage. Howard stands behind it, his shadow projected upwards while he psyches himself up. He jumps and stretches and a song that sounds like a bargain bin Baba O’Riley builds the suspense. The curtain falls, he rushes out, speeding into a routine about man boobs. Leeds, he shouts, is the moob capital of the UK.
There’s something odd about this, something incongruous. Putting the demands of arena shows aside, there’s the suspicion that Howard is taking himself too seriously. And this just doesn’t sit well when, for the most part, his material centres around penises (“there’s nothing glorious about morning glory!”), shit, and an understanding of “Britishness” that could have been lifted straight from the Very British Problems twitter feed. For all their faults, some of these jokes do work, eliciting rounds of laughter from an audience ready to enjoy their Sunday night out. Howard is a confident performer and he’s at his funniest when his jokes are sincere yet silly: his closing routine, a long bit about his relationship with a boy suffering from terminal cancer, is one of the best of the night.
Not everything can be as good as this, though. For a comedian whose work is reliant on observational material it was strange just how dated the observations were, with the first half seeing jokes about David Blaine, Tesco self-service machines and Grindr (his brother supposedly pranked him by setting up a fake account under the name Russell How-Hard). After the interval the material thins out, with Howard teetering perilously on the edge of Peter Kay territory; childhood nostalgia abounds, and it feels like he’s just a few sentences away from asking the audience whether we remember VHS players.
Although suffused with irony, there are a couple of shitty jokes at the expense of people with mental health problems. A short routine about black toilet attendants also has bad politics written all over it. Sure, Howard is toying with his privilege, evidently aware of his status as a famous white guy, but this is never properly reconciled. Howard’s other political material is tentative, middle of the road, but largely good. He’s angry at the Daily Mail for their scaremongering news stories, drawing attention to last year’s campaign of hate against Ralph Miliband. He’s sick of UKIP and the EDL, getting a welcome round of applause when he says we should focus our efforts on stopping people throwing bricks through Mosque windows. At one point, he even says David Cameron has a shiny face. With jokes as safe as this, it’s puzzling that the heckler would take such umbrage.
If there’s one big problem with Wonderbox it’s that there is no narrative arc. The show’s title is never explained (what the fuck is a wonderbox?), and while the jokes are rapid there’s no running theme that can sustain it over two hours. Except for the final routine, the second half is considerably weaker than the first; barrel scraping should not be expected at a show that costs this much. Although Howard’s reputation is enough to fill an arena, his comedy itself is not. It’s a shame, because if you look beyond the layers of hype and bicep muscle there seems to be a more humble standup comedian underneath. The problem is, those layers are pretty thick.