To those disturbed by current events, there is a silver lining: political upheaval is a great time for comedy.
Comedians are finding themselves spoiled with the possibilities for topical material. The only problem is, society’s deep divisions have resulted in wildly different opinions of what is taboo. Getting an entire audience to laugh at the same joke is trickier than ever.
Less mainstream comics have, in recent weeks, experienced walkouts over liberal-leaning Brexit ‘banter’. Unfortunately, those that command a wider audience can find themselves hamstrung by their popularity, resorting to balancing their fame and audience expectations against their personal views. And for Russell Howard, crowd-pleasing is most definitely the name of the 2017 game, making his Round The World tour both understandably cautious and unacceptably vapid.
Howard’s comedic style will be well known to fans of Good News. Round The World is, in many ways, a feature-length version the BBC hit show; an hour-plus of exhaustingly-animated family stories, skin-deep political observations and a seemingly unending procession of silly voices. The voices themselves aren’t especially offensive, but their use as a comedic crutch to mask unsatisfying payoffs is.
All of this is topped off by a recurring theme of love and support, very much akin to Good News’ celebrated It Wasn’t All Bad section. A heartfelt plea to raise awareness of teenage self-harm is naturally well-received, but doesn’t really evolve past repeating a troubling statistic.
Using any platform to support social issues is undoubtedly commendable. The trouble is, Howard’s insistence upon mixing unnecessarily crude comedy with these moments of sincerity only make the latter come across as sentimental at best and tacked on at worst. The tone of the show is frustratingly inconsistent, relying completely upon Howard’s ability to be everything at once: family-friendly, R-rated and a social ambassador. He can’t do it all, and it shows. The set is too loose on identity to consistently hit the right notes.
The crudest material is where Howard is at his weakest, shown up by his own support act, Good News co-writer Steve Williams. Objectively, Williams is far more offensive and repulsive than Howard in his short 20-minute barrage of comedy, and yet his jokes never make the skin crawl in quite the same way. His ability to whip along at pace in complete deadpan, moving through material without lingering on the more disgusting bits is what makes them so cringe-inducingly hilarious. Howard simply possesses absolutely none of the subtlety of his counterpart.
In fairness, there are some better jokes scattered throughout. The thing with Howard is, it’s easy to tell when he’s being truthful. The gleeful reminiscing over trying to give his brother epileptic fits as a child is a highlight. But such moments are few and far between, lost amidst a torrent of unlikely stories surrounding this larger-than-life parade of ‘hilarious’ family members. Claims like “this is completely true” are made so regularly that these stories lose impact. It seems that if someone would only stick a camera in the corner of the Howard family living room, we might have a world-class sitcom on our hands.
Round The World is most easily comparable to Michael McIntyre’s Hello Wembley!. Both shows are underpinned by boundless energy, crowd pleasing gags and surreal personal tales. Where the two differ, however, is that McIntyre is orders of magnitude less crude, allowing his observational wit to speak for itself.
Throughout a set of generally same-y material, you’d be forgiven for thinking that there isn’t a lowest point. But no. A belted rendition of the national anthem, with lyrics that take shots at poverty, the Government and Trump was met with the rapturous applause only found on arena tours. And yet it represents absolutely everything that is wrong with the show. Howard slams politics – but nothing in particular, just how rubbish it is as a concept and how useless ‘they’ all are. He slams Trump and May, but in no other way than simply calling them names for the cheapest of cheap applause. He slams poverty, because poverty is shit and it’s the Government’s fault, of course. It was the most basic example of comedy that demands people to clap, for no other reason than that it’s zeitgeist opinion.
Everything about Round The World screams easy win, and for many it will be. But how does something so obvious, lewd, sappy and derivative raise the bar for professional comedy? Short answer: it doesn’t.