Acting, says the stand up comedian Josh Howie, is the “easiest job in the world. You just show up and speak someone else’s lines. I loved it.”
So speaks a man who has spent 20 years mining his life forcomedic material and performing a version of himself to unpredictable audiences who can turn violent. Now he’s making his acting debut in Gary Sinyor’s new sit com The Jewish Enquirer, as Simon, the friend of protagonist Paul, a hapless reporter for a Jewish newspaper that is most definitely not based on the JC. Howie’s character acts as a foil for Paul, competing in nebbishness as they stumble through life in suburban north London. Think Friday Night Dinner with more Jewishness and more swearing.
Howie was “thrilled” to be working with Sinyor on the show, as the director’s big hit Leon the Pig Farmer was a seminal film for him back in the 1990s when he was developing his Jewish identity. He admires Sinyor’s “unapologetic” version of Jewishness on screen. “I won’t say it’s confrontational but he just puts it out there.” His own sitcom, Josh Howie is Losing It, which ran for two series on Radio Four, was less overtly Jewish, “about a flawed human who happens to be Jewish,” and very much based on his own life and family.
However far “out there” you go, he says, representation is important. The old-style Anglo-Jewish policy of keeping one’s head down “partly led to the situation with Labour that we had last year.” The run up to the election was tough on many of us, but especially so for Howie, surrounded by supporters of Jeremy Corbyn both in his neighbourhood in Crouch End and on social media where many of his friends come from the comedy circuit.
He describes the madness of being sucked into arguments: “Just that one retweet, one comment, one thing and then you’re sucked in. You start thinking that you’re dealing with reasonable people but it just gets deeper and deeper and you’re spending the whole morning, the whole day just going off on these threads.”
During the election he campaigned for the Liberal Democrats, and had a placard in his front garden. He came home one night after a gig and found his neighbours from two doors down “actually punching my sign! And I’m standing there, screaming at them, ‘Do you know who introduced gay marriage to this country… are you insane?’ At his younger children’s non-Jewish nursery he was involved in heated debates on the pavement; at his older children’s Jewish school he tried to persuade the other parents that there really was a big problem on the Left. The election result was a relief but some friendships have gone forever. “There are some people that I’ll never forgive, the things that they were willing to overlook”.
Howie’s Jewish life was not what his parents — the PR guru Lynne Franks and fashion designer Paul Howie — planned for him. He was “raised as a Buddhist and pretty New Age and it was crazy.” The family’s lifestyle was famously satirised for the sitcom Absolutely Fabulous, which he prefers not to talk about, but it’s clear that he found his childhood quite difficult. He opted to go to boarding school at 13. It was “a pretty traumatic, horrible experience for me, sort of Lord of the Flies,” but it did make him feel Jewish.
“I knew my mum was Jewish but I didn’t have really any understanding of what it meant. And then on my first day of school, we were asked to line up by one of the older boys, a 17-year old. And he says, “Joshua, are you a Jew?” I knew that if my Mum was Jewish then technically I was. I had no understanding but I said, ‘Yeah, yeah’. I was expecting him to hit me but he said ‘Joshua, anything you want, come to me.’ He was a real tough guy. And hilariously, I inherited his desk a few years later and he had carved on it. ‘Germany will pay’. All that, saying I was a Jew and expecting to be hit for it, that was the start.”
School life was “a sort of melting pot of bigotry” and at 16 he was heavily into hip hop culture, calling himself Joshua X. But one Sunday he was at his grandma’s house, watching the film Exodus. “And I thought ‘why am I trying to be black?’ I’m Jewish.” So he had a Magen David shaved into his hair and headed for Israel the day after he finished his exams. There he volunteered on a kibbutz, where he was stunned to find that he was the only Jewish volunteer. “Not only was no one else Jewish but they were all kind of antisemitic because of the way they were treated by the kibbutz.” Full of the Exodus spirit of pioneering Zionism, he gave up a cushy job in the air conditioned ice cream kiosk to pick dates. The shift started at 5am. “You know, you’re just going up in this machine, you’re climbing up into the tree, 20 feet up and your job was to sort of find these dates, but there are snakes all around. It was insane.”
Finally he found a fellow Jew and on a trip to Jerusalem was introduced to the educational outreach group Aish, for whom he was the perfect recruit. “They are so clever,” he muses, “ they pull you in, with nothing religious, it’s all cultural, and you’re meeting amazing important people and they treat you like princes and princesses. And then there’s a little bit of religion but in a scientific way, and then one kid’s wearing a yarmulke, and then everyone is, and then the tzitzit…” He ended up staying on for a year of yeshivah, but was kicked out after being caught with a non-Jewish girl in the dorm. It being Tisha b’Av, he thought they’d have the place to themselves but, alas, a rabbi walked in on them. “And soon after I was politely asked to leave.”
His Orthodoxy faded a bit back home and at university where he studied Anthropology , but Jewish identity was always part of his stand up, which he started in his mid 20s. At around the same time he met Monique, from New Zealand, then working as a nanny, now a child psychotherapist. He knew he wanted to marry her but he also knew that he wanted his children to be Jewish, so that meant she would have to convert. This she did under the auspices of the independent Westminster Synagogue where he found his spiritual home.
Since then, they’ve had five children, aged between ten and two. Mordechai, Art, Woody, Bette and Zero are all named for Jewish writers, musicians and performers, and although Howie claims to have reached ‘saturation point’ with babies, and is ready for the teenage years to commence, it’s clear that he adores life with a big family.
“It’s a funny thing to be happy,” he muses, wondering if his contentment has taken the bite out of his comedy routines.
Or maybe it’s just that wrangling five kids — “it’s insane” — gives you little time to reflect on your own life. Anyway, in the moments he snatches for himself, he’s keen to do more acting, and is working on a screenplay.
He’s clear that what matters in life is not fame or fortune. “Everything you think matters is going to fade to nothing. But if in years to come your great-great grandchildren feel happy and loved, and that’s partly to do with the way you love you children and bring them up, well, that’s real success.”
The Jewish Enquirer is available on Amazon Prime Video