'My grandad died the day Donald Trump was elected ... I'm trying to find something good in an awful world'
Ahead of his sold-out Belfast gig later this month, stand-up star Russell Howard is taking on serious themes, from Islamic State to Trump. He tells Bruce Dessau the best response to the absurdity of the world is to laugh
Russell Howard does not resemble a record-breaker. Sitting in a pub near his home in Primrose Hill, he could be any casually dressed young Londoner. But Howard has just started a run of 10 consecutive nights at the Royal Albert Hall. Which is four more than Frank Sinatra did. "Old blue eyes beaten by young wonky eyes. It's ridiculous," he says. I'd have rather have had a couple of nights off, to be honest."
This is a typically modest remark for the stand-up superstar, who has reached the top of comedy's premier league thanks to the success of his BBC series Russell Howard's Good News and his upbeat take on current affairs.
Clips from the series, such as his passionate defence of the NHS, have gone viral, making him a global sensation too.
The NHS riff revealed Howard's political side: "It costs you 20p to have a s*** in a train station... the NHS's is free." Until then, he was better known for anecdotes about his Bristolian family.
His eccentric mother Ninette featured heavily. "She does the soundchecks for me. Last time she did Lady Gaga," he says. His sister is Kerry Howard, who played bridezilla Laura in the series Him & Her. His father and brother love comedy, but have never wanted to perform. "I'm the only one in the family who would lower themselves to do something as silly as this," he says.
Howard and his mother appeared together in the recent Comedy Central series Russell Howard & Mum: USA Road Trip.
In the next series, mother and son try cannabis oil together. "I was in a real state, she was hilarious. Then again, she already is."
His mother likes stardom: "She gets recognised at the garden centre. And, funnily enough, she keeps needing more plants."
He is less keen on the limelight and moved to London from Leamington Spa because it was hard to relax there. "People were always taking pictures. Here, you can blend in."
He is able to pop out with his Jack Russell, Archie, whenever he feels like it. "The other day I had to quickly scoop him up when he saw a rabbit being taken for a walk on a lead by a man in head-to-toe leather. When there are people like that around, nobody is going to notice me."
I've interviewed Howard before and there is a difference to him now. The cheerful 36-year-old seems more thoughtful. This is reflected in the new show.
"I've made a real effort to do stuff about things that I care about. So there's politics, Islamic State, self-harm," he says.
"My grandad died on the day Trump was elected, so a big part is how Trump arrived as a kind man left. I'm trying to find something good in an awful world."
Howard puts this new-found gravitas down to various factors. As well as deaths in his family, he saw suffering close-up recently when he went to Liberia for Comic Relief. "We went to a village hit hard by ebola. People had lost brothers, sisters, mums and dads. I saw a doctor save a little girl's life in front of us. She was malnourished and had pneumonia - and then later we saw her dad singing to her."
His girlfriend, Cerys, is a hospital doctor and he feels that what she does is much more important than his "silly" career.
She helped him out with fact-checking when he worked on his NHS routine. "Now when I go to a hospital I'm revered for doing this one thing," he says.
So if he gets a splinter in his finger, he'll never have to queue in A&E? "Yes, whereas she works so hard and nobody knows who she is."
Of all the current arena stand-ups, Howard's fans are probably the youngest. His gigs are the nearest live comedy gets to pop hysteria. "A part of the show is about how hard it must be to be young these days. In the Nineties I spent a lot of time sitting on a wall just thinking. These days you don't just have to have a personality, you have to have a brand," he says.
The selfie obsession disturbs him. "Back in my teenage the only time I ever saw what I looked like was when I got my hair cut."
He clearly cares about his appearance and in recent years has gone from weedy to buff. He started to work out and it has become an addiction.
He might not be your typical tortured artist, but he does suffer from anxiety. "I guess I think that I can kill death like this. I won't, but I do feel great after a session. It's a far better vice than booze and heroin."
His enlarged triceps have not harmed his popularity. "I found out this week that I'm number 23 in the Heat weird crush list. Hodor from Game of Thrones is 24 and Piers Morgan is 25. Does that mean I'm weirder than Hodor and Piers Morgan?"
The Albert Hall run is just the start of a mammoth world tour. On May 25, he will become one of the few English-speaking comics to play China when he appears at the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai. Before the concert was confirmed, officials vetted a video of a performance in Swindon.
"I don't know what they made of me talking about roundabouts in Wiltshire," he chuckles.
His next project will be a new series on Sky. Early reports suggesting this might be a chat show are incorrect: "It'll be a souped-up Good News. The idea of having Little Mix doing their new single is not what I want to do.
"I want to focus on the things in the last series of Good News, when I did things about the NHS and the 'tampon tax'. These were the things that people cared about, so I think it would be wrong to do a fluffy show."
Even Howard's dog has become political: "Archie has been on two NHS marches."
But if Howard cares that much, why not stand for Parliament?
He feels his talents are more suited to arenas, than Westminster.
"I think back to the Olympics in 2012 and we were all so positive. What happened? In that sense, all we can do is laugh at the absurdity of the world."
- Russell Howard will be at Belfast's SSE Arena on Tuesday, March 28, at 6.30pm, as part of his Round The World UK tour. He is appearing at London's Royal Albert Hall until March 10