Russell Howard: Lubricant and Until The Wheels Come Off | New Netflix special and documentary reviewed
review star review star review star review half star review blank star

Russell Howard: Lubricant and Until The Wheels Come Off

New Netflix special and documentary reviewed

They are the actions of an addict, going to extreme lengths to get their next fix.

With Covid having denied him the chance to do proper gigs for the best part of a year, Russell Howard leapt on the opportunity to perform in New Zealand. But strict Covid quarantine laws meant he had to confine himself to a hotel bedroom for two weeks just to play three shows.

Is that a sign of just how desperate and miserable the pandemic has made comedians? Or a testament to the unquenchable strength of the show-must-go-on spirit? That’s the question raised by Until The Wheels Come Off, a candid documentary charting how Howard dealt with 18 tumultuous months – and just released on Netflix at the same time as his latest special, Lubricant.

Confined within the same four walls for 23 hours a day – with an hour to walk laps of the car park for exercise – the comic turns to the camera to company: ‘There’s such a base level of sadness in the world,’ he muses into it. ‘It’s your job as a comedian to a) not succumb to that and sink into the sadness and b) rise above it and lift people out of the sadness. It’s lofty, it’s wanky, it’s pretentious - but at its best, that’s what stand-up does.’

When lockdown torpedoed every comic’s career, Howard isolated in his parents’ home in Bath, sleeping in his teenage bed while his wife Cerys – an NHS doctor – battled on the front line. That means he’s aware how, in the entire scheme of things, he’s relatively lucky – though that cannot entirely stave off the melancholy and introspection.

Until The Wheels Come Off starts as a  straightforward biography, introducing Howard’s family and charting his meteoric career rise, from early clips of Edinburgh festival performance to arena-filling success. And it all serves to show how much he had to lose when it all came crashing down. Like so many others, Howard did what he could when restrictions eased, from a sparsely attended gig in a tent to a socially distanced residency at the Clapham Grand in London.

The lengths he would go to just to get back on stage say a lot about the mindset of a comedian – or indeed anyone with a passion for their job. In one of the many honest and self-analytical pieces to camera, Howard concludes that putting all his energies into planning and writing for some future return to performance was what kept him sane during the most difficult 18 months of his life. 

And, as you might expect if you know anything about Howard’s stand-up, the documentary ends on an upbeat, optimistic note celebrating the joys of live comedy and becoming excited by how it will return more potent than ever. Build back better, you could say.

Lubricant is the stand-up show that emerged from this concentrated period of writing, which only heightened his already evangelical appreciation of all that is amazing about the world. Like so much of his work, Lubricant exhorts people to find and celebrate instants of joy and not dwell on the negative.

You won’t find such moments on social media, he asserts without much fear of contradiction. (Though he does boast more than 5million followers on the main platforms). From the real world, he tells some giddy stories of silly family jinks, all the more gleeful when they challenge a joy-vacuum of an aunt. ‘Whenever you have the opportunity to throw silly into the world, do it,’ he appeals.

Such first-hand material is always the strongest – and there’s another fine chunk about an embarrassing personal problem – but the themes dovetail into his broader point of view. For example, he takes a fairly gentle punch back at the ‘professionally upset’ who get vexed about jokes, exasperated at how police were called to investigate the quip Jo Brand made about Nigel Farage.

You might wonder if he’d be quite so quick to defend, say, Dave Chappelle, seeing as how Howard’s own material on trans folk is entirely positive and good-natured. The Bristolian does take on some idiots with verve and passion – most notably anti-vaxxers, those angered by Black Lives Matter and parents protesting that their children are taught that gay relationships exist. He’s pushing at easy targets of intolerance, but there’s a wit and conviction to his rants.

Elsewhere, the topics of his more observational segments include raising a metaphorical eyebrow at the lyrics to WAP or the idea that sex toys could be hacked by the Russians. Superficial maybe but there are some strong lines and, as ever, he animates many scenarios with  heightened act-outs that have the Hammersmith Apollo audience roaring. In fact, the wild reactions some straightforward comments elicit are off-puttingly over-the-top… but clearly Howard isn’t the only person to be delighted to finally be allowed to leave the house.

Review date: 15 Dec 2021
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

What do you think?

Live comedy picks

We see you are using AdBlocker software. Chortle relies on advertisers to fund this website so it’s free for you, so we would ask that you disable it for this site. Our ads are non-intrusive and relevant. Help keep Chortle viable.