Why comic Russell Howard wants to see his Tauranga 'celebrity crush' proposal again on NZ 2024 tour

UK comedian Russell Howard loves New Zealand.

In January 2021, he became the first standup comic to perform in Aotearoa after the COVID-19 lockdowns when he was granted an exemption to pass through our borders. 

But as was well reported at the time, Howard had to spend two weeks in MIQ isolation at Auckland's Stamford Hotel, something which led to him uploading videos to social media that documented his seeming descent into madness.

In February 2024, Howard will tour the motu again, but this time without the additional perk of an enforced stay inside.

"I imagine I'll go back to the hotel and have a little wander around the foyer just to get this sort of sense of memory about the madness. But it was like a David Lynch film in there - it'll be fairly strange going back," he told Newshub.

Howard was in an amiable mood when he chatted about the upcoming tour, but admitted he hadn't even considered his tour team may have checked him back in the same place when he performs in Auckland on February 9 and 10 as a joke.

"That poor room took an absolute battering," he laughed. "Yeah, I hope we don't go back. I wouldn't mind going to see it, but, you know, I wouldn't want to stay there again!"

Howard isn't confined to just playing Auckland - as with his previous tour in 2021, he's performing all around the country at places including Hamilton, Dunedin and Tauranga as part of his Respite tour.

But the upcoming Tauranga date on February 7 is one date that hangs in Howard's mind in particular.

Russell Howard is hoping to hear from a certain person in Tauranga.
Russell Howard is hoping to hear from a certain person in Tauranga. Photo credit: Supplied - Craig Sugden

The last time he was there, he was propositioned by a random man on the street.

"I'll never forget it, cause he said 'you're my wife's celebrity crush'. And then there was this kind of long pause. I was holding a coffee, you know, what are you going to do? Then it was just the pause, followed by the 'what do you reckon?' So much went on that was unsaid in that pause," Howard said.

"I'm kind of hopeful that I'd see him again - I'd just f**king love that."

Now aged 43, Howard has been doing standup since 1999, saying he's "a lifer. I am addicted to making people laugh". He has made his name in more recent years through politically-tinged comedy and satire that pokes fun at social issues and inequities.

Russell Howard says he is a "lifer" when it comes to comedy.
Russell Howard says he is a "lifer" when it comes to comedy. Photo credit: Supplied - Craig Sugden

But he's serious about his craft and told Newshub while he enjoys the comedy, it has to serve its audience above all else, something he says the current proliferation of comedians haven't yet quite mastered.

"It feels like there's so much standup at the minute, which is just comedians saying the point and it gets a massive round of applause. That isn't the job," Howard said.

"The job is you make your point with a laugh. And if the laugh is good enough, they applaud. But you have to have the laugh. It can't just be the applause. When do you get a laugh, it's this cosmic way of figuring out that you're not mad. That's genuinely what comedy is to me."

Howard's last visit to Aotearoa ended up being documented in a series Russell Howard Stands Up to the World, where he went around meeting Kiwis and exploring their quirks. It's something he told Newshub that's been forever imprinted on his DNA and in his show.

"I went to the Coffin Club in Rotorua, which was run by retired women and men, and they made cheap coffins. I had such an incredible experience with them that became - and still is - part of the tour.

"It was just so unbelievably kind and funny and peculiar. And they were making coffins, and really funky coffins. There was a lady who was making coffins for babies, and it was incredibly profound and sad and necessary and it was just in this random building in Rotorua. I love it. 

Russell Howard is keen to relive the "gentle lunacy" New Zealand offers.
Russell Howard is keen to relive the "gentle lunacy" New Zealand offers. Photo credit: Supplied - Craig Sugden

"I think there's a real far away gentle lunacy to New Zealand. Maybe this is my rose-tinted eyes, but when we were there, everyone was happy and saying hello; it's like it just has a nice energy to it. It's a great place to do comedy. People don't seem to take themselves seriously. It's got a lovely sort of vibe here."

But Howard isn't necessarily coming back to the same country he left before. Since his departure, there's been a change of government after Labour, led by Chris Hipkins and steeped in the legacy of Jacinda Ardern, was voted out. There's also a cost of living crisis affecting the country and financial insecurity for many.

"I found it really interesting last time I was there that Aunty Cindy was the saviour for so many people and it felt like people had a connection with her. But then the further I got down in the South Island, you'd go, 'Okay, okay, well, she's not universally loved' and then you kind of get there and it would be the grumblings of people. Then you go, 'okay, that's interesting that there's something building underneath'."

Russell Howard is keen to experience Aotearoa's culture once again on tour.
Russell Howard is keen to experience Aotearoa's culture once again on tour. Photo credit: Supplied

It's that general vibe of global political unrest that Howard's actively sought to calm with his new comedy podcast Wonderbox. Described as "an active antidote to the negativity in the world", Howard spends an hour talking to fellow comedians and celebrities about the things they'd put in a box as reminders that life is worth living.

The likes of Jimmy Carr, Taskmaster's Greg Davies and Iliza Schlesinger have all been guests - and Howard told Newshub exclusively he's got his eye on trying to coerce some key New Zealanders to get involved while he's over here.

"We're trying to get Jemaine (Clement) at the minute to do it and Taika (Waititi) I'd love, to be honest. Also Henry Winkler's there (in Australia), so I quite fancy asking the Fonz what his are. 

"I mean, there's loads. And I also definitely want to get my man Sam Neill on, yeah, he'd be top of the tree. I love him. I spent a day with him. And then he came to the show, and he brought his son and his son's wife. It was incredible. He is an unbelievably talented, charming man."

"You can tell that his brain is, like, just delightful and fascinating. He's one of those guys that you want to spend time in his company. Like in certain worlds, there's these kind of village elders that we all gravitate to - he's definitely one of those guys.

"Last time I was here, I spent two weeks in a hotel and then I got to tour and do gigs when no one else was. Then I got shitfaced in a vineyard with a film star like Sam Neill. I mean, what a life, it was incredible. So, yeah, he definitely would be top of the tree and I'm going to try and see if I can hang out again!"

Russell Howard will play Dunedin, Christchurch, Wellington, Palmerston North, Whanganui, Tauranga, Hamilton, Auckland and Hawkes Bay in February 2024.