Mark Thomas vs Russell Howard

We like radical lefties, and we like a mainstream hipsters. But which is better? Only one way to find out...

It takes all sorts to make the stand-up comedy world go round. There are satirists, storytellers, observationalists, one-liner merchants, prop comics, character comics and insult comics.

The variety of acts touring the UK and Ireland is highlighted by the latest Belfast visits from two of comedy’s most disparate figures: left-wing legend, Mark Thomas and arena-straddling superstar, Russell Howard.

Thomas returns to Northern Ireland with a specific remit: to discuss his attempt to walk the Israeli-constructed wall built around the Palestinian West Bank. The Empire Music Hall stage is adorned with a map of the Israel-Palestine border, and the merchandise stall does a roaring trade in Thomas’s People’s Manifesto and political slogan-emblazoned t-shirts. A Jim Davidson gig it ain’t.

Belfast’s Guardianistas are out in force to hear the loquacious Londoner speak with his trademark energy and eloquence about his harebrained trek. The 500-strong audience hang on the funnyman’s every aside, though in many ways this is more spoken word than stand-up. Thomas exposits the complicated situation in the Middle East, taking care not to inflame too many sensibilities. Gaza for Dummies, if you will.

At the other end of the spectrum – and venue size – is Russell Howard. The baby-faced, blond-haired star of TV panel shows has managed to put nearly 9,000 bums on the Odyssey Arena’s blue, plastic seats, following the likes of Michael McIntyre and Peter Kay into this cavernous shed. It would seem comedy is indeed the new rock ‘n’ roll.

Howard delivers ultra-mainstream fare. To be honest, his points of reference (Harry Potter, Monster Munch, ninjas, etc) don’t do much for me, but there’s no denying the 30-year-old is an accomplished performer. He knows his audience – 18 to 24, clothes by Top Shop – and he keeps them chuckling throughout.

Many of Howard’s gags are too crude to be recounted here, dealing as they do in the sexual and the scatological. Much hilarity is had at the expense of the likes of Jordan and Kerry Katona, yet Howard also touches occasionally upon subjects such as religion, notably the absurdity of fundamentalists. ‘Gays aren’t natural?’ he retorts. ‘What, and talking snakes are?’ But he swiftly retreats to his comfort zone.

Thomas’s schtick is more satisfying. He rambles – pun intended – about the geography of the Middle East, the offbeat characters he encountered on his travels and his numerous terrifying run-ins with the authorities.

At 47, the radical raconteur has lost none of his quick-fire wit. He muses on everything from the Palestinian amateur taxidermist who preserves zoo animals that have been killed in Israeli gas attacks to the straightforwardness of orthodox Jews’ dress sense (‘Every day is Blues Brothers day and I envy that’).

Over at the Odyssey, you suspect that Howard’s show is the first experience of live stand-up for many in the crowd. It’s a fine primer, yet it would be a shame if the incensed, insightful likes of Mark Thomas go unheard by the Mock the Week set.