Josh Howie interview

He was raised as a Buddhist in the household that inspired Ab Fab, then trained as a Rabbi before being caught with a naked girl and expelled. You couldn’t make it up, so you may as well laugh about it, Josh Howie tells Jonathan Trew

IT IS said that behind every great man there is a great woman. Looking at the life story of Josh Howie, comedian and son of uber-PR Lynne Franks, it might also be said that behind some great women there are confused offspring. Growing up in the household which inspired Absolutely Fabulous, Howie’s upbringing was perhaps unlikely ever to be straightforward. A Buddhist by the age of seven, reluctant convert to New Age beliefs at 13 and born-again Jew by 17, Howie had enough baggage for a lifetime’s worth of stand-up materialbefore he was even old enough to vote.

Chosen is the name of the autobiographical show which Howie has brought to Edinburgh. A frank but irreverent examination of the factors which shaped the way he defines himself, it is a show in which Howie asks himself some big questions such as “Why am I here?”, “What do I believe in?” and “Had I watched Braveheart rather than Exodus (the Paul Newman film about the founding of Israel), would I have embraced my father’s Scottish identity rather than my maternal grandmother’s Judaism?”

“At that point in my life I was looking for anything to cling on to. By coincidence, I saw Exodus first,” explains Howie, who works under his father’s name. “If I had seen Braveheart first then I might have got into my Celtic stuff. There would have been one less Jew, which would make Mel very happy, I imagine.”

Speaking of his unorthodox childhood, Howie points out that at the age of seven, children don’t really have much influence over the way in which their parents make them act. Chanting for two hours a day would not be the first choice of leisure activity for most small boys, but as the years passed, he grew into it, albeit for reasons that Buddha might not fully endorse.

“When I was about 11, I really got into it and was doing the whole thing. There is a little red book you have to learn. It is all in Japanese and takes about 45 minutes to read. My sister and I had a competition to see who would learn it the fastest and thereby gain our parents’ love.”

At his north London boarding school Howie stuck out a bit, although he did relish the idea that he acted as a sort of playground peacekeeping force who would step in to deliver nuggets of wisdom any time there was strife.

“In my own mind I was the A Team, but without the DIY skills,” he recalls.

His peers did not always share Howie’s views, a situation which was not improved greatly by his mother’s decision to relocate to a Native American reserve.

“My mum got more into this New Age stuff and dragged my sister and me to America to live with Native Americans. It was very strange trying to explain to friends that I had an animal guide and that I was going on vision quests.”

At the vulnerable age of 16, his parents’ break-up completely threw him. “Almost overnight, when I was about 16, they stopped chanting. It was strange for me because it was all I had known at the time. I was a little bit lost and searching for something else to replace it with. I was looking for some sort of stability, something to belong to, and that is where Judaism reared its head. It had a certain level of security. It wasn’t going to go anywhere.”

According to Howie, it wasn’t really the religious aspects of Judaism that attracted him but the chance to belong to something bigger than himself. His mother was Jewish but he had rejected Judaism. In an attempt to fill in the blanks, Howie read books, watched films and studied Jewish history. As he puts it: “I taught myself from scratch. It was a very consciously constructed identity.”

None the less, books and films could only go so far. Realising that he didn’t actually know any Jewish people, apart from on the television, Howie decided that a sojourn on a kibbutz would help.

“I had these fantasies of going out there and working the land. I ended up selling ice-creams to tourists from a kiosk. It wasn’t what I imagined. I thought I would meet lots of Jews but there were only about 50 people there and half of them were German. I was the only Jewish person. The Germans were very nice but the others, who were from all over the world, were incredibly anti-Semitic. It was funny to go to Israel and have to deal with the worst anti-Semitism of my life on a kibbutz. It’s a strange holiday destination for a bigot.”

Bizarrely, Howie ended up in a rabbinical training school in Jerusalem, but his nascent vocation came to a quick end when he was caught with a naked Gentile girl in his dorm. “I was tempted and found wanting,” he explains, almost managing to sound sheepish.

It is this internal conflict between wanting to fit in with Judaism while living in a secular world that forms the backdrop to Chosen.

“First and foremost what I do is tell jokes. Being Jewish plays a part in my act. The Jewish element is maybe a quarter of it. It is an important quarter but everybody can relate to overpowering parents that make them do things that perhaps they don’t want to do or that embarrassed them.

“Everyone has felt that they want to belong. Everyone has made conscious decisions about how they present themselves. The underlying themes are universal; it just happens that the particulars are a bit bonkers.”

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