The Positive Pensive

An anxious pessimist tries to find the positive
A microphone on stage

Russell Howard: Anxieties, self-harm, and social media

Now there’s a title I didn’t think I’d be writing. Last night I had the good fortune to see Russell Howard – a comedian known for focusing on the positives – tackle some rather taboo subjects.

Death, an increasingly extreme political climate, and self-harming women were just some of the topics that came to light. I don’t know about you, but at least two of those subjects seem pretty tricky to navigate when it comes to making people laugh.

In spite of confronting such huge topics, Russell still managed to send the audience away smiling, along with some food for thought.

Russell Howard stage setup

Russell Howard has a thing, too

Known for his ability to sift through the shit and find the ‘good news’ in the world, Russell kept the audience entertained with joyful anecdotes of quirky strangers and his ever-entertaining family.

And then, a rare moment of quiet and vulnerability as he confessed his biggest fear: death. Explaining how he recently lost his grandparents, he revealed to an enamoured audience how he often wrestles with his ‘purpose’ in life.

I think this is something a lot of people can relate to – especially when life takes a more stressful turn. It’s easy to ask ‘What is the point, really?’ and give up trying. Still, a typically inspired conversation with his dad – involving an awkward detour of how he could have never made it from sperm to son – seemed to ease his anxiety.

And so back to the good. We might feel these things, but it’s up to us to not let them get in the way of bloody well living our lives.

Sorry, got a bit excited there. I’ll settle down now.

Social media is definitely terrible for us

“I’ve been hanging around schools – I was INVITED!” Russell protests as the audience laughs.

He shared how his talks with young people in schools have equally fascinated and horrified him – and the pressure they’re facing is intense.

Russell is one of those comedians who attracts an incredibly diverse audience – and last night’s crowd easily ranged from 12 to 60. With plenty of older generations preaching how millennials have it so easy, he drew attention to the ‘norms’ that social media perpetuates. It made for an eye-opening few minutes.

“Nowadays, kids have to build a brand – on Facebook, on Twitter, on Snapchat.”

From documenting losing virginity, to capturing the perfect selfie, to watching porn on trains – Russell rattled through the ways the online world has created a stifling environment where comparison is the name of the game.

And if you’ve ever scrolled through your Facebook and seen a friend take their fifth holiday of the year, or enjoy a seemingly endless number of promotions – you’ll know that that’s a bit shit. And we really ought to stop doing it.

Awareness is only the beginning

It was a breath of fresh air to see a comedian so deftly handle topics that usually bring about tremendous discomfort – and he did not stop at death.

“One in four women between 16 and 24 have self-harmed.”

Whoa, you okay there Russell? We’re into serious business now. Anxiety and depression are becoming increasingly accepted topics of discussion, but this is some entirely new territory for a comedy gig. You sure about this?

He elaborated with an anecdote from his time in Africa, where he saw people happy in the face of poverty and described their will to survive. A pretty stark contrast to hearing that in Western society, an enormous percentage of people are self-inflicting pain.

And here was where it got a bit complicated for me. As Russell confessed to having a case of megalomania in wanting to stop this pain, the audience broke into applause. The show continued.

Oh, so we’re done here? That’s it? If someone with influence says “Yeah, self-harm is a fucking problem”, I wouldn’t expect 4,000 fans to disagree.

Still, I appreciate that there’s a time and a place for detail, and he took time out of a sold out comedy show to address a serious issue that bothered him. Knowledge is power and ultimately, I respect Russell for having the balls to bring it up – and I’d bet there were plenty of people that learned something.


Who knew a gig would make me rethink my preconceptions about comedy in relation to mental health? It’s clear that these issues are close to Russell’s heart – here’s hoping others enjoyed the balance as much as I did.

2 Comment

  1. Hello there! I stumbled across your blog after googling “Russell Howard Anxiety?” As I wanted to know if he is an anxious character due to what he spoke about in his tour.

    So, thank you for writing about these incredibly important aspects of Russell’s show, which he has only I believe slightly touched on before, but seems to be really making an effort to bring these issues to light now. I really enjoy his feel-good attitude and ‘positive news’ style, and the crudity of his jokes; from the Queen ‘muffling’ Donald Trump to a Bristolian boy negotiating with ISIS and a kit-kat! So, the issues of insomnia, intrusive thoughts and the self-harming epidemic were dropped in and belonged to the theme of ‘global moral and social armageddon’ but still it surprised me! I am so impressed that Russell genuinely wants people to know that life for young people is increasingly difficult and suicide, eating disorders and addiction goes hand-in-hand with the judgmental ‘distraction-economy’ fueled society we are creating. I just hope the audience heard what he was trying to say, and went away thinking “Okay, so I’m not the only one who feels this way” or “Wow, we need to change what is going on in the world.” In true comedy “it’s funny because it’s true”, but the truth hurts to hear. Totes to Russ for saying it like it is! He has said before he has ‘crippling self-esteem’ and from his anxious self-deprecating state it is easy to see why he is concerned about a world of canned laughter and not real feel-good ‘deep in your belly’ laughter. Kids need to be happy, politics needs to be reformed and as, Russell says the world is so fucked up right now, we need more hoola-hoops and less bad news!
    Take care and thank you again for your writing, it is a joy to read.

    1. Tamara, thanks leaving this amazing comment!
      I went along to his tour just expecting a live version of his ‘Good News’ show and was very pleasantly surprised. With all the millenial-bashing that seems to be going on in the media, it was a breath of fresh air to have someone stand up and say ‘Er, actually…’.
      The fact that he managed to blend such difficult subject matter with comedy was really impressive – long may he continue! 🙂

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