Richard Herring is a critically acclaimed, award-winning Stand Up comedian. He is also an accomplished writer; haven written Time Gentlemen Please (starring a then relatively unknown Al Murray) as well as work with comedy giants such as Chris Morris, Armando Iannucci and many others. Perhaps most famous for his work with Stewart Lee (Fist Of Fun, This Morning With Richard Not Judy etc), he has now made a name for himself as a solo performer with shows such as Talking Cock, Someone Likes Yoghurt & Christ on a Bike and ventures such as As It Occurs To Me (AIOTM!). Here we talk about his writing process, the fall of Lee & Herring as a double act & his autobiography: How Not To Grow Up.
Humourdor: How did you get in to comedy initially?
Richard Herring: I was always into comedy as a kid- I didn’t really like music like the other kids and only had comedy albums. We put on sketch shows at school and when I went to University I was keen to be involved with the Revue and Edinburgh. I met Stewart Lee and we wrote together and things went well at college so when we left in 1989 we came to London with intention of doing stand-up circuit and writing for radio. And it all grew from there.
H: It seems as though some people think that, with titles like Talking Cock and Christ On a Bike, your stand up is going to appeal to the lowest possible denominator, when in fact it’s quite the opposite. How important is the title of a show for someone who already has an established fan-base?
RH: A good title can make a show, but it’s good if people come with preconceptions that you then subvert. So yes people expected something different from Talking Cock than they got, but comedy and theatre is about surprising people. I usually just think of a title I like and don’t think too much about it, but it amuses me that people prejudge something in that way, especially with my Jesus show when it’s Christians doing the judging and becoming offended by the show that they are imagining.
H: When writing How Not To Grow Up, were you ever trying to consciously write in a certain way or appeal to a particular demographic? I really like how honest the book comes across, in that you don’t shy away from things that might put you in a less favourable light, whereas, in contrast, a lot of stand-up autobiographies are more concerned with ham-fisting their material into the pages and showing what a wonderful, funny person they have always been.
RH: I just tried to write honestly and amusingly about that time in my life. I think people react better to an honest account than a self-aggrandising one, even if you admit some bad things. Because we all fuck up and make mistakes. Plus it’s funnier. I hate when writers (and people generally) refuse to acknowledge things that are their fault or seek to blame others. And as a writer and comedian it’s important to be able to see your own flaws if you’re going to criticize others. I just wanted to get the story down and didn’t think about demographics ( I never do and don’t think it would be useful even if it was possible to write in that way). If anything I excluded some of the stuff where things had gone better for me. Success is not as entertaining as failure. My editor removed a couple of bits because he thought they were too sleazy. Given what made it in, imagine what those bits must have been like!
H: Is it weird knowing that complete strangers who have read your book know so much about your life, or is that something you’ve come accustomed to through years of stand up?
RH: In a way the candour sets me free. It’s liberating to admit the stupid things you’ve done and can be worse to bottle them up. It’s odd to think my mum has read it. But it’s part of the way I have chosen to do my job. A minority are offended or disappointed in me- though I think their disdain says more about them generally ( the book is about how dumb I was, some seem cross that I didn’t have their responsibilities, almost like they resent them. To me the book is about how empty my life was, so you’d think they would be happy to have their lifestyle choice confirmed as right).
I have found in writing and stand up that the stuff I am most afraid of saying or revealing is the stuff that becomes the best work. Because all of us are bottling up stuff and it’s cathartic to hear someone admit they are not perfect.
H: In other interviews you have spoken about your disappointment in the untimely end of Lee & Herring as a double act. Why do you think it didn’t work out, in terms of success with a greater audience?
RH: We were unlucky, or maybe lucky that it didn’t catch fire. I don’t really understand why though. I think that the executives at the BBC didn’t know what to do with us and maybe because we were young some people dismissed us without giving us a chance. But we did 4 series so had a fair crack of the whip. And we never pandered to the lowest common denominator so don’t think we were ever going to be huge. And its cult status was what made the people who liked it, like it. And they have stayed loyal.
I think maybe we didn’t want it enough. Stew was always keener on his solo work. I think if we had stuck with it we would have had bigger success, but it made sense to go our separate ways and I think it was good for both of us that we did.
I actually feel fortunate that it didn’t take off because it means we are still producing interesting work without having to worry about our public image. It gave us both an audience without compromising what we are doing.
H: Kevin Eldon recently said in an interview that “internet comedy is the antithesis to what television is, which is comedy being overseen by committees”, and that he hopes for a “punk explosion on the net”. As someone who has actively used the internet to put out their material (daily blog, podcasts, etc.), do you think the internet can reach the levels of other mediums, or does traditional broadcasting still have too much of a hold on too many people
RH: Who knows where it will go? But for the moment I love the freedom that the internet gives me as a writer and performer. Only stand up is as immediate and unregulated and yes, it has that punk ethos of being able to do it yourself, regardless of whether you know how to use the equipment. I think it will expand and possibly replace or incorporate TV, which already feels like a dying medium. Who knows what the future will bring?
H: What advice would you give to someone who wanted to become a writer/comedian?
RH: Just get on with it. They are jobs that you learn by doing and there is nothing to stop you getting on with it. You can write anywhere and there are loads of comedy clubs where you can do open spots- or set up your own! People make excuses through fear or nerves, but if you want to do these jobs then you have to get on with them. But listen to reaction and ask people to read your stuff and take on board criticism. You really need to want to do it. It’s not easy and you’re not going to make much money to begin with. It’s a long slog and you should be wanting it to be as immediate success would mean you won’t learn the things you need to learn.
H: What are your views on torrent sites, with regards to your material? Surely it’s a double-edged sword in that more people will be able to watch the shows that aren’t available on DVD, such as Fist Of Fun, but at the same time, you lose money for the material that is out there?
RH: I don’t mind them watching stuff that isn’t available on DVD, so it’s good that the BBC stuff is up there. It’s a shame if people rip off the go faster stripe stuff as that is a cottage industry that is only interested in making good shows and needs every penny to do that. I give a lot of stuff away for free so think it’s cheeky if people steal my non-free stuff. That’s what keeps the free stuff going. Bt if it brings people to my work then it’s not a disaster. I am more into producing good work than making money, so part of me is happy as long as people are enjoying the work. I do need to eat though.
H: What are your favourite shows on TV? Are there any that have made you re-think your approach to comedy?
RH: The Larry Sanders Show, curb your enthusiasm, arrested development, 30 Rock, American Office
I like the American approach to the sitcom and unlike most UK writers think that if you have good enough characters then a show can run and run. I like Peep Show and the Thick of It and the IT crowd so there are good UK things out there, but all my favourite shows are smart US ones.
Inevitably good comedy is an influence and makes you see new ways of doing things, but originality is the key to all these shows and so if they have any influence it should be to keep one thinking and innovating.
Follow on Twitter: @Herring1967