YCCYF/mau interview in The Times
A fair Herring
Richard Herring is a stand-up success. But can he match his old chum?
One day a couple of years ago, Richard Herring decided to become a stand-up comic. He was already a successful writer and performer, first as half of the brilliant 1990s double act Lee & Herring, latterly with his own high-concept Edinburgh Fringe shows. But his only previous experience of working without props – a nerve-racking series of gigs at the start of the 1990s – had left him doubting he could do the job. He had to start afresh. So he decided to schlep around the country, doing 20-minute slots wherever he could find a comedy club that would have him.
“I suppose it was a step backwards,” says Herring. “Some people would have said: ‘What’s happened to Richard Herring? He’s working in tiny clubs!’ But I was learning the craft.”
Two years ago, he did his first Edinburgh stand-up show, Someone Likes Yoghurt. It was an extended exercise in audience-baiting that deliberately toyed with tedium and antagonism. Opinions varied: The Daily Telegraph declared it the “worst comedy experience of 2005”. Harsh? Certainly. But it was a rather awkward show to sit through. Meanwhile, his old partner Lee, back doing comedy after years away directing and co-writing the celebrated Jerry Springer: The Opera, was being lauded as the greatest stand-up of his generation.
Was Herring trying to be something he wasn’t? His latest stand-up show, Ménage à Un, very much suggests not. Again provocative, but warmer and more agile than its predecessor, it’s a welcome reminder of the vivid mix of self-flagellation and high intelligence that Herring brought to his work with Lee in Fist of Funand then This Morning . . . with Richard not Judy.
Slipping between boastfulness and ruefulness about his status as a middle-aged man vigorously pursuing the single life, he says things that may or may not, at any given time, be what he really thinks. “There’s an element of arrogance with the character,” he admits. The character being him? “The character of me on the stage. Which is funny if you get that he’s an idiot – that I’m an idiot. But if you don’t tune into that, the arrogance can look like . . . arrogance.”
Meanwhile, he’s back on the telly. On Thursday ITV1 broadcasts You Can Choose Your Friends, a 90-minute comedy drama that Herring based on his own family. It’s skilfully written and beautifully played. But the only real connection with Herring’s challenging stage work is his character Ian’s suspicious attitude towards settling down.
“In a way,” he says, “I think it’s quite an achievement to have got to 40 [or nearly – his birthday is July 12] and not had kids. But there’s also a part of me that thinks it’s a selfish life and a lonely life.
“Then half of me thinks it’s great. I have a ridiculous lifestyle, in a similar way to the character Ian. There’s a similarity in that he’s an actor who’s not been on telly for a while but he’s doing all right. So I like the life I’ve got. I’m making money, I’m doing stuff that I enjoy and nobody really knows who I am.”
It’s 20 years since Herring first appeared at the Edinburgh Fringe in a sketch show that also featured Stewart Lee. After leaving Oxford University in 1989, they wrote copiously for radio, landing their own series, The Inexplicable World of Lionel Nimrod, and then Fist of Fun.That show made it to BBC Two in 1995. It didn’t make them rich – “the money from Fist of Funonly really went to paying off our debts” – but it did make them pop-cultural heroes to those of us smitten by their fanciful, postmodern disdain.
But the BBC dumped them in 1999. And whereas the laconic Lee had kept on working as a stand-up throughout their time together, without having to change his act much, Herring’s foolish persona really needed someone to play against.
“Stew really wanted to be a solo act,” he says, “and I put all my eggs into the basket of a double act. So when the act finished it was really difficult for me to work out what I was going to do. Even now, quite a lot of my act is me talking to myself.”
Herring came up with concept-driven shows, parodying religious dogma in Christ on a Bike in 2001, then offering a phallic rejoinder to The Vagina Monologues in Talking Cock, which spawned a book and productions by other performers, in other languages, all over Europe. Herring reckons he made more money from Talking Cock (“with no real splash about it”) than Lee did from the controversial Springer opera.
He also did well working with another friend from Oxford, Al Murray, co-writing the Pub Landlord sitcom Time Gentlemen Please. He bought a house in West London. Then the sitcom ended and rumination began.
“The Al Murray thing came hot on the heels of Lee & Herring,” he says, “and once that was over I had time to think about what was going on. And then I felt bitter about Lee & Herring, how we’d just got somewhere interesting and then it finished. I resented working this hard and nothing I did ever getting recognition.”
Slowly, he abandoned his fear of working without props. “I’ve realised that stand-up is the most unlimited art form there is. It is possible to do anything with it.”
And now the various parts of his career all seem to be clicking. He’s on the radio in Banter and That Was Then, This is Now. You Can Choose Your Friendsis on primetime ITV. He reunited with Lee for a one-off benefit gig in February, although Lee demurred at Herring’s suggestion that they do a twentieth anniversary Edinburgh show. He’s writing a sitcom about double acts: “Stewart’s terrified it’s based on us, but I can’t use anything of him because he’s so boring!”
And after years struggling to get audiences for his live shows outside the Fringe, he’s sold out most of his Ménage à Un tour. On stage, Herring trades in self-deprecation. In person, he is articulate, bracingly forthright, nobody’s second fiddle.
“Occasionally,” he says, “I’ll get journalists who go, ‘Oh it must be terrible for Richard Herring having to watch Stewart Lee doing so well and he’s just disappeared off the radar.’ And you think, well, I’ve been working really hard and I’ve done these things that have actually been quite successful. And it feels, in the last couple of months, that something massive has changed. Suddenly everyone’s remembered who I am.”
You Can Choose Your Friends, Thur, ITV1, 9pm; Ménage à Un is currently on tour (www.richardherring.com)