My friend Ben Gunstone once asked me if I would help him out. He had secured himself a record deal and was about to release his debut album (Merchant Venturer) and was going to mark the occasion with a big gig in Bath. I told him I’d be happy to help out but didn’t know how I could. “Well” said Ben “I want you to do some stand up comedy before my set.” I laughed really hard. Then I laughed a little bit more. When I eventually composed myself I asked Ben what he really wanted from me. He repeated his original request then he said “You’re a really funny bloke. You always have me in stitches.” I pointed out to Ben that making your friends laugh wasn’t the same thing as being a stand-up comedian. Your friends want you to be funny, you have a shared set of experiences and reference points that you can draw on. That’s very different to standing up in front of a room full of strangers and trying to make them laugh. Ben was adamant. So was I. Then he played his trump card…he had already had the posters and tickets printed; all emblazoned with the following information “Support from SCOTLANDS NUMBER ONE STAND-UP COMEDIAN” and then my name. There wasn’t anything I could do. I had three weeks to put together a short set. I went to every night of live comedy in Edinburgh armed with a dictaphone so that I could steal jokes from other new comedians. On the day of the gig I had about 7 minutes worth of “material”…none of it my own.
Before my stand-up debut I was introduced to some of Ben’s friends, including a really lovely American girl called Katie. Soon enough I was introduced to the stage. The place was really busy…maybe three hundred people. As I stepped towards the microphone I remembered that lots of comedians have a bit of interaction with the audience to get things going.
“Hullo. How are well all?”
The audience cheered.
OK, I thought, this could work.
“So, I’m from Scotland.”
The audience booed.
Good, I thought, banter.
“Is anyone else here from out of town?”
The lovely American girl whooped.
“Oh really. Where are you from?”
“America” she grinned.
“Why don’t you go back there then?”
I don’t know.
Don’t ask me.
I don’t know where that came from.
I’m not a racist.
Which is exactly what Bernard Manning used to say.
I was nervous.
I’m so sorry.
I’m so sorry.
I’m so sorry.
Amazingly actual racists and xenophobes in the audience cheered. I think this must be how Jerry Sadowitz feels when morons don’t get what he is doing.
I’m NOT Jerry Sadowitz though.
I’m a very frightened and wildly under-prepared boy from Scotland who has now got nowhere to go.
I forget everything I’ve planned to say.
The American girl looks a bit hurt.
I feel like I’m going to throw up.
“Goodnight” I say and walk off the stage.
That was a LONG time ago but occasionally I think about it and it still fills me with a strong sense of self-loathing and a near overwhelming nausea. It did teach me a valuable lesson though, that I was right…being funny with your friends and family is NOT stand-up comedy and it doesn’t mean that you will be able to make strangers laugh. That is a talent…a gift really and one that requires great skill, huge intelligence and enormous bravery. I have no skill, am quite stupid and am a coward…a comic I could never be. A real comic is able to use irony, intellect and craft to play with controversial themes like race, sex, politics and others.
Which leads us to Richard Herring. A real comedian. Fiercely intelligent, wildly creative, combative when he needs to be, fearless, challenging and constantly looking to do something new. At one point in time he was part of a successful comedy duo with…another comedian whose name escapes me. That success included critical praise, television shows and work as a writer for television and radio. The 1990’s was a good decade to be Richard Herring.
Since then he has continued to work as a stand-up with shows about sporting a Hitler moustache, the penis and religion all showing his willingness to push things a little and to avoid being just another stand-up. He has also been responsible for the best comedy podcast in the world (I don’t care if you think that’s hyperbole or sycophancy…it’s true) with RHLSTP (Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre Podcast) where he interviews, chats with and confuses other comedians, writers, directors and thinkers. It’s funny, thought provoking and fascinating.
Where does a career like this start? What are the acts and shows that inspire someone to pursue a life as a comedian?
“I loved comedy from a very early age. Tiswas was probably the first programme that really got to me. I cried when I found out they didn’t have it on in the South West when we moved house. (I will resist the urge to do the “28 years old I was” joke here). I loved “Morecambe and Wise” and was a fan of “Cannon and Ball” too for that matter.
I missed Python on TV, but became obsessed with it via the LPs and films and that led me to “Derek and Clive” (at much too young an age). “Not the Nine o Clock News” was important, but Rik Mayall as Kevin Turvey and then in the Young Ones was huge for me. I got into Viz in my first year of college and Gary Larson cartoons whilst I was on my year off in America. I discovered one of Larson’s books in a trunk in the summer camp where I was working, knowing nothing about it. It was like finding a hidden treasure.
And though I didn’t initially see myself as a stand up to begin with, an early gig by Paul Merton on Channel 4, showed him ad-libbing a brilliant bit based on a heckle and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. In my first year at the Fringe I saw Jerry Sadowitz who showed (like Derek and Clive) that being horribly offensive could be brilliantly funny if the characterisation was right.”
What’s interesting about that to someone like me is how familiar that list of inspirations feels. Like Herring I was fascinated with “Tiswas”…it was just so unlike anything else that had been presented to kids. Wild. Anarchic. Silly. “Cannon and Ball” were the first comedy duo I was aware of, certainly I saw them before the likes of “Morecombe and Wise” and they made me laugh…a lot. I also went to America in the 80’s and discovered “The Far Side”, I came home with four or five books.
But how do you go from loving comics and funny people to wanting to do it yourself? In a recent interview on RHLSTP the guest, Scroobius Pip, quoted someone who suggested that having something to fall back on just means you will fall. So when did Richard realise he wanted to be a comedian?
“I think it was pretty much always what I wanted, but I didn’t think it was possible, given I grew up in Somerset in a non showbiz family and my careers’ officer told me being a writer or performer was not on his cards, so I couldn’t do it. I loved writing stories as soon as I could write. I suppose when I got to University I wanted to try out for the Oxford Revue, but didn’t think I’d have a chance of making it. So when we started going down well with the other students and did the Revue in 1988 I started thinking it was something I might be able to have a go at. I don’t think there was just one moment. For a long time while I was doing it I thought it would all end at any second. Now I think I probably have to keep doing this until I die and should be able to (assuming I die relatively soon).”
The comedian that Herring forged his early success was, of course, Stewart Lee. The two were a big deal. Lots of people can become trapped in the public consciousness by the earliest version of themselves, many people still see Morrissey as a gladioli wielding fop for example. Does he ever feel that he hasn’t been able to break away from his early career?
“Not really. I think it was harder for me to shake off as I was playing a character that was more different to myself than Stew was (who was at least basically his stand up persona -with a few more gags). In truth most people don’t remember Lee and Herring or any of those shows (luckily the ones who do, remember then fondly). Had we been more successful it might have been more of a millstone, but if anything I had to almost start again from scratch once it was over and learn to do stuff on my own. I think the subsequent stand up and podcasts probably define me more. I’ve done so many different things and they are all quite different. I think maybe people assume they know what my stand up will be like from the podcasts, but they are usually surprised. Perhaps it would have been better to have a more clearly defined single persona, but I like to mix things up (even from year to year with the stand up shows). So I have been lucky to be not so successful that I am defined by one thing!”
You recently appeared on the BBC political discussion show “This Week” with Michael Portillo (a man I’ve always thought to be in possession of a face that looks like the haunted remains of a fire damaged Toby jug) and it seems like that wasn’t a particularly positive experience…then you interviewed Ed Milliband on RHLSTP which seemed to be a much more positive experience. Why do you think they were so different?
“Mainly because on This Week they basically changed what they had told me we were going to talk about and then when I tried to be professional and help them out by pretending to think what they had wrongly just said I thought, they attacked me for being inconsistent (which I wasn’t really being anyway). So I was on the back foot and a bit ambushed (but also really tired and hungry, and had been hanging around for ages in a room with Nigel Farage. I was only annoyed in that I didn’t get in any good comebacks (and I thought of loads later). In RHLSTP I was in control of the situation and everyone knew the parameters. We still messed around and tested the water and Miliband gave as good as he got. But home turf, home crowd and it didn’t suddenly turn into something totally different than planned (well not in the same way)”
In the world of music people often take pot shots at Coldplay…they’re the band that everyone has agreed its OK to be a bit sniffy about. In comedy I think there is a similar attitude towards someone like Michael McIntyre. Are people right about acts like those…are they just bland and safe…or are people just jealous of their success?
“As I get older I have respect for pretty much all successful comedians to some degree. MM is terrific at what he does and was impossible to follow back on the circuit – you don’t always get the real comedian on TV. But there’s a degree of jealousy, as well as with some successful comics them not necessarily being brilliant team players and looking after their own interests. The comedians who annoy me are the ones with talent who have success and then phone it in, or create work they must know is lazy and of no worth (when you’d hope that success might push you on to being the best that you can be in your chosen field). Adam Sandler fascinates me for that reason. I also believe in trying to do your own thing so successful acts who rip off other comedians are much worse than people who do stuff with mainstream appeal. But it’s possible to be mainstream and really good, as Morecambe and Wise showed. Making people laugh is hard and terrifying and you are only as good as your last gig, which is probably why many successful comedians turn into nightmares to be around. But I like all kinds of comedy and someone who can do observational comedy well (and originally) has my respect. Even if it’s not exactly what I’d do myself. It’s dumb to think that you can only laugh at one kind of comedian though.”
There is footage on YouTube of Herring being heckled by someone who takes great umbrage to a joke he makes in response to his heckling. The heckler suggests, as he is removed from the venue, that there are things you shouldn’t joke about. Is that true?
“You can joke about anything – it doesn’t matter if only one person in the audience thinks you shouldn’t. If only one thinks you should then you’re probably in trouble.”
What about the debate on University campuses about freedom of speech?
“There are limits to free speech already and comedy more than anything is informed by group opinion. You can make jokes about any subject, but you can also make bad jokes about any subject and sometimes comedy actually is just offensive and not actually comedy (for example if it involves bullying to the point of physical violence). But it’s not as easy as just saying you can’t joke about this or that. Comedians are generally very thoughtful about this and many complaints come from people who don’t have the ability to see the nuance in things and want a world of right and wrong. And sometimes being offended or offensive for the sake of it is a good thing. We should be able to challenge accepted beliefs and certainly people should be able to say whatever they like. But that doesn’t mean there’s no right of reply and if the audience doesn’t approve they will let you know by not laughing or heckling or walking out. These issues are complex. But comedians are smart people and most of them think about the effect of what they are saying and do it for a reason.
On the other hand, all these people saying that you’re not allowed to say stuff any more, still seem to say the stuff they’re not allowed to say. I don’t feel censored (occasionally I don’t tweet something cos it’s not worth the aggro) but I do self-censor or change my mind about what is a funny thing to talk about and so do audiences over time.”
When you interviewed Armando Iannucci about “The Death of Stalin” you discussed Peter Hitchens’ response to it, where he suggested you shouldn’t make jokes about murderous dictators and that you (anyone to the left of him) wouldn’t do a similar film about Hitler. What do you say to that?
“I’ve done stuff about Hitler of course and like Stalin where there is horror there is also comedy. Sometimes jokes are all we have in the face of brutality, but as that film shows, power also amplifies the petty things about human existence. And dictators (and democratically elected presidents) don’t like jokes about them because they reveal these weaknesses. Nothing’s funnier than someone pompously taking themselves too seriously.”
I did say that Richard Herring was intelligent, creative and fearless.
You can listen to RHLSTP through at all good podcasting spots and then you could head to his Drip page to support his efforts to make more gloriously entertaining bits and pieces.