Dundee Courier and Advertiser interview
'The show's about creating debate' — Richard Herring discusses Christ on a Bike
Having already caused ructions with his show Hitler Moustache, which saw him sport a fuhrer-style nostril tickler, Richard Herring is stirring up more controversy with his current Christ on a Bike tour. The comedian famous for his intelligent, thought-provoking humour tells Jack McKeown why he believes Christians should not judge — lest they be judged.
richard herring COAB
* By Jack McKeown
* Published in the Courier : 09.05.11
It's a source of mild frustration to Richard Herring that the blog he has written every single day since 2002 is only the second-longest running in the world.
"There's a guy in America who started his about a year before me and who also hasn't missed a day. I keep hoping something will happen to him — not that I would wish him dead or anything; just an illness serious enough to prevent him blogging for a few days would be nice."
Richard began the blog to try to get over writer's block. Since then, he has compiled over 3000 consecutive entries.
"It's a good exercise — it acts as a bit of a warmup and then I can get on with my work. I just write about the first thing to come into my head and I don't worry too much if it isn't funny. I allow myself to fail.
"A lot of my stand-up routines would never have happened without the blog though, and looking back over it acts as an aide memoire."
The Courier catches up with Richard after he's enjoyed a bank holiday weekend in the sunshine.
"I've had four or five days off, which is very rare for me. For the past three or four years I've been working pretty hard. I like travelling and walking, and history and architecture. If I have some spare time I'm happy in a museum. When I'm not touring I spend time with my girlfriend to make up for the time I've been away."
He still finds time to keep an eye on his fellow practitioners of the dark art of stand-up.
"People like Tim Key and Josie Long are real talents. And Sarah Millican is doing very well at the moment, she's great. Then there's the like of Tim Minchin and Daniel Kitson, who are just so good they make me feel there's no point in carrying on."
Richard (43) grew up in the Somerset village of Cheddar and went to Oxford University where he performed in a troupe called Seven Raymonds (there were six of them, and none was called Raymond).
While at Oxford he met Stewart Lee. The two would go on to enjoy a successful comedy partnership lasting over a decade. They wrote material for Chris Morris and Armando Iannucci's On The Hour, and helped create the Steve Coogan comedy character Alan Partridge.
The two men split on amicable terms around 10 years ago and both have gone on to enjoy considerable solo success — Lee with his television series, Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle, and as co-writer of Jerry Springer: The Opera.
"I don't see as much of him as I did when we worked together — which is probably a good thing for both of our sanities. We're still good friends, though. He's got a family these days, but I still see him at gigs sometimes and we meet up for drinks at least once a year.
"Looking back it's probably a good thing we didn't have the kind of success Little Britain or Mitchell and Webb have, because then we'd probably never have split up. I think we've both done very well in our respective solo careers and it would have been a shame if that had never happened."
Christ on a Bike was the first solo show Richard performed after splitting from Lee.
"The first topic that came into my mind when I sat down to write a solo show was Jesus."
Ten years on, he outlines why he decided to revive the show.
"I really liked that show but it never got recorded or put on DVD. I wasn't all that big then either but over the last three or four years a lot of new people have come to me. So I thought it would be nice to do it again.
"It's not all the same. I've ditched big chunks of it and there are four or five major sections that are all new."
For the show, Richard memorised chunks of the New Testament.
"I quote the first page of the Gospel of Matthew — the bit that goes 'Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judas' . . . and so on. I do it forwards and backwards. It took a bit of effort and a few memory tricks to get it into my head, but even 10 years on it was still pretty much there. I've always been able to do these things quite easily.
"It's actually a little bit annoying that people are more impressed by me being able to memorise bit of the Bible than by the funny stuff I managed to come up with."
Perhaps predictably, Christ on a Bike provoked some controversy. Richard has no objection to people taking offence at his work, but only if it's informed criticism.
"In Glasgow we had about 30 or so Christians outside protesting. None of them had actually seen the show. A couple had looked at some clips of me on the internet, but even those weren't from that show."
Indeed, without having seen Richard's show, Dundee minister Revered David Robertson last week condemned it as "making a mockery out of Christianity," and said that, "I don't think he has a clue who Jesus is."
"Christians who have seen the show have liked it," Richard counters. "The show is actually quite generous towards Jesus and his Christianity. It's as much about atheism, being stupid and me questioning my atheism as it is about criticising Christianity.
"I conclude that generally Christianity is a pretty good thing and Jesus was probably a pretty great bloke. The show's about creating debate. I think even Christians who don't agree with my views admire the scholarship that's gone into it.
"I've read the Bible and a lot of other texts quite thoroughly and I think they'll appreciate the level of scholarship there. Plus, we allow people the freedom to believe what they want to believe. I'm an atheist. Why should I not be allowed to say what I believe?"
Richard almost stops there, but he can't resist a little dig at Christians who have protested about Christ on a Bike.
"Even if you have seen my show, if you're a Christian you shouldn't judge it. Your religion is all about forgiving. Judge not lest ye be judged."
Some Christians, as readers of The Courier's letters page will be aware, complain of being victimised and say Islam gets an easy ride. Would Richard consider doing a similar show about a different religion?
"People always think comedians are scared of Islam," he responds. "I've had plenty of threats from Christians. You've got bombs being sent to Catholics in Glasgow over football and religion. Christianity is not safe.
"Plenty of comedians have tackled Islam. I wouldn't, because I don't know enough about it. This is a show about a boy being brought up as a Christian who began to question his faith.
"Would someone do a show about something they know little about, about a religion only a tiny minority of people in this country follow, and one that they are already disproportionately targeted for following?"
This isn't the first time a show of Richard's has drawn criticism. In 2009, his sell-out Edinburgh show Hitler Moustache saw the cheerful, peace-loving comic grow a small but symbolic piece of facial hair.
"I thought it would be interesting to see if I'd be judged for wearing a Hitler moustache. It seems to me you shouldn't be judged by the way you look but that isn't necessarily the case with a Hitler moustache.
"It also led onto some interesting debate about racism, democracy and liberalism. I'm a big believer in democracy and a great big woolly liberal. It was interesting to do a show where I question those things a bit. I think they're robust enough to withstand a bit of questioning."
* Richard Herring is at the Lemon Tree in Aberdeen (box office: 01224 641 122) on Monday, May 9, and the Whitehall Theatre (box office: 08717 029 486) on Tuesday, May 10.