Nuremberg Trial and Error
Posted by Barry O'Toole, Mon 03 Aug 2009
Richard Herring's evolutional approach to comedy writing is proving a little uncomfortable in light of this year's Nazi-inspired theme, finds Miles Johnson
Richard Herring is facing the closest thing to the nightmare of being naked in the middle of an exam that a professional comedian can have. There's fifteen minutes to go until the first showing of what will develop into his Edinburgh show and he is preparing to unleash material which, as yet, has been only really been performed in his own head.
But Herring, casually sipping on his drink, has had worse things to present to the public of late. âI walked around London with a Hitler moustache as research for the show. It only took a week before I decided I had to shave it offâ.
Most would find the prospect of sauntering onto a stage nerve racking, let alone rollicking around London sporting a tuft of facial hair likely to incite physical violence. Herring is not only a grizzled veteran of the British comedy circuit, he has also developed into one of the most dexterous stand-ups operating in the UK. He also deals with hecklers like Idi Amin presumably dealt with trick or treaters, but we will come to that later.
However, anyone worried that Herring has suddenly been transformed into some sort of basement-dwelling fascist loon can relax. Hitler Moustache, the name of his embryonic Edinburgh show, promises to deal with the stupidity of biological racism and the ripe comic fruit of white-van man reactionary politics.
Speaking the day after the British National Party won its first seats in the European parliament, and after Herring had jousted in several poling day Twitter debates, it is a subject in which he sees clear comic potential.
âThe thing about actually wearing a Hitler moustache is that you canât tell if people think you are mad, or just a bit of a dick. I tried for a week and then realised that people were starting to stare at me on the tube. In London though it's not as if people are going to come up to you and say something if you have a Hitler moustache so it is really just the looks you get. They might be thinking you are a racist monster, or they might be thinking you are just a bit of a twat.â
Herring first rang the nationâs comedy bell alongside Stewart Lee in a set of mid-90âs BBC sketch vehicles where he assumed the naÃ¯ve yet often charmingly perverse foil to Leeâs cool scepticism, before the pair eventually split to persue solo careers.
A parade of Edinburgh outings in the early 2000âs were at first met with a lukewarm critical reception, but over time he has demonstrated his ability to mix the puerile with often touching autobiographical narratives, and last year's The Headmasterâs Son widely praised as one of the best comedy shows to appear at the Fringe that year.
While his erstwhile partner Lee went on to co-pen Jerry Springer: The Opera, that Herringâs success was a slower-burning affair was frustrating at first.
âThere was a point a couple of years ago when I was actually a bit angry about the way I was being received,â he says when asked about the tricky transition from double act to solo comic grafter. âI think it might have coincided with when I turned forty, but felt that after the shows I had done on my own I still wasnât getting the level of recognition I deserved.
âI soon thought about it again and realised that I was actually doing pretty well. Most comics come up to Edinburgh, comics who are well known on the circuit, and they struggle to sell enough tickets to break evenâ.
His second round of recognition has made Herring an increasingly busy man. After the success of The Headmasters Son, for which some critics had predicted he would take the If.comedy Award, he has been busy writing a book, maintaining his cult blog and recording his podcasts.
But his approach to tonightâs show, far from stemming from a lack of preparation, is actually a part of his well-worn compositional process.
âIts always like this,â he says. âAt this stage I have been reading a lot and researching to build up ideas but there is nothing you could call a show right now. I will try out material over the run up and through a process of trial and error a show will come aboutâ.
And if a foolish audience member attempts to derail his train of joke-discovering thought in the run up to the fringe, a quick search for Herring on YouTube would likely see them reconsider.
Though he plays it downââI donât usually get heckled and that guy had just had too much to drinkââHerring displays a frightening yet brutally funny skill for dismantling pissed-up punters in the video.
Aside from the subject of heckler-assassination, Herring seems calmly confident that he will be able to continue to steadily build on the progress he has made at the 2009 Fringe.
âI am now at a stage where I am known at the festival and can pull in an audience every year, and I donât have to worry so much about losing money. Itâs not like I get recognised everywhere I go but I have toured across the country and have built up pockets of audiences and that is why I feel things are getting betterâ.