STEVE PRATT talks to the human half of the best - the only - computer-animated cartoon boy and human man double act in the country.

ANY parent will tell you that having a child changed their life. Howard Read agrees with that sentiment, even if his son is a figment of his imagination.

Since the stand-up comedian gave birth digitally to Little Howard, the two have become inseparable as well as being nominated for the prestigious Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Festival last year.

They appear in York tomorrow as part of SightSonic 2004, the city's international digital arts festival.

Howard Read and Little Howard have been together for three years although, miraculously, the youngster is now six years old. Trouble is looming at his sixth birthday party as he realises that he's never going to get any older. The arrival of a social worker threatening to put him in care adds to his woes.

Little Howard was born when Read was doing his first solo show at Edinburgh. "I was thinking of using animation but wasn't sure how. I just drew a little version of myself to email around to people to tell them to go to my production," he says. "He was very quickly drawn, then I decided to see if I could make him talk to the audience."

He succeeded, earning the Perrier nomination the following year. The technology to animate Little Howard was "barely there" when he was born. "It was just a basic PC laptop which just crashed completely and utterly, then refused to restart. Fortunately, having done a lot of stand-up and improvisation, I was quite good at filling in when the technology went wrong."

The pair claim to be the best computer-animated cartoon boy and human man double act in the country. Then again, there are few animated stand-ups working the comedy circuits.

Little Howard not only does stand-up but invites questions from the audience. "His replies are based on a database," he explains. "We've toured America and Australia and every time anything new has come along that he can't respond to, I've added to the database. We have lots of different tricks and stuff. He can even appear in different places on the stage."

Although Read still performs as a solo comedian, he's rarely apart from Little Howard. "I refer to him as 'him' and our show. In a part of my brain, he really exists," he says.

"There are times we go off the script and Little Howard talks to the audience. Then a social worker, played by James Holmes, turns up and tries to take him into care.

"This often leads to a lot of improvising. Because everyone believes in Little Howard, they hate James. Howard is an appealing character. If I was too rude to him, they wouldn't laugh at my jokes afterwards. It's a strange psychological thing."

Read admits that Little Howard is based on him. "I'm dyslexic and, when I was a kid, I made a lot of stupid mistakes. Most people look at the world as such a baffling place and the show is Little Howard misunderstanding things," he says. "He's a bit like I was as a kid - my mum gets quite teary."

Read has always liked cartoons, although he's not a trained animator. Because he had dyslexia, his dad sent him to typing lessons as a child so he could use the spellcheck, making him no stranger to the keyboard.

"I'd been doing stand-up for a few years and got bored during the day. I started playing with the computer. I was always doodling and drawing cartoons."

As well as theatre and comedy festival appearances, there's talk of TV work for Little Howard in the future. The signs are that he's taking over Big Howard's life, just like a real child would.

"It was a very innocent idea to start with. I thought it would be nice to complement my stand-up work," he says. "There are people using interactive film stuff in their live shows but no-one using cartoons in the way that I do."

* At Home With The Howards is Temple Hall, York, on Sunday at 8pm. Tickets £10 from 01904 658338.

Published: 16/10/2004