Interview with Brazen Blog
Interview: Richard Herring
In his comedy partnership with Christian Voice nemesis Stewart Lee, Richard Herring produced some of the best and most era-defining radio and TV shows of the 1990s. But the ill-judged decision by the BBC at the end of that decade to axe Lee and Herring from the schedules effectively forced an end to the successful duo. While Herring's solo career may not have attracted as much public attention as Lee's, his return to conventional stand-up - after a gap of around fifteen years - has proven him to be every bit as funny, dark and inventive as his erstwhile partner. As he brings his latest show 'Oh Fuck! I'm 40' to the Black Box in April, Graeme Watson talks to him about the trials of growing up and going solo.
When did you start doing stand-up?
I’ve always been interested in comedy – I started doing sketches and stuff with friends at school when I was about 13 or 14, and then I went to university with half an eye on doing sketch comedy while I was there. I was more interested in Monty Python, the Young Ones and stuff like that at first; I wasn’t really into stand up until I went to university. At university I met Stew and we started writing together and did quite well, and by 1989 I was working professionally. I’d performed at Edinburgh twice by then, and was writing for the radio as well as doing stand up, although I didn’t really enjoy stand-up the first time round.
I was very young and I wasn’t really schooled in stand-up because I had come through sketches and that was what I’d always been interested in. But at that point sketches, especially university sketches, were very unfashionable, and although I think we did some interesting shows in Edinburgh, I don’t think we really knew how unfashionable it was until we got there. We went on to Late’n’Live and had all the comedians shout us down. It was at that point where the Oxford Revue had gone way past its former glory, and it was something the stand-up comedians at the time were defining themselves against, so they kind of laid the boot in. In hindsight you can look back and say, fair enough, it was kind of a joke, but as a 19 year old going up and wanting to be a comedian and having all the comedians just shouting at you, and slagging you off for no good reason, really, it was kind of ridiculous. So I’d sort of resisted doing stand up I think partly because of bad experiences in Edinburgh, because the other stand-ups were horrible to us.
To both you and Stewart Lee?
Well, Stewart had written that show with me for that year, but he wasn’t in it, so he wasn’t up in Edinburgh that year and missed out on this quite unpleasant experience. I think that was quite lucky for him, because when he came back and did stand-up the next year he was sort of ready to go with a stand-up act, whereas I didn’t really have anything. I was trying to find out what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it, and I kept trying characters, but never settled on anything. Half the time it was terrible, and half the time it was alright. Sometimes it went really well, but I think I was a bit unlucky about which gigs the promoters saw and stuff like that. I was caught between half-wanting to do what the promoters wanted me to do, and half-wanting what I wanted to do, and achieving neither as a result, whereas coming back to it as an adult, a proper adult, you just do what you want to do, and I have more of an idea of who I am and what interests me. So I think I was just young, and it was really really hard thing to start off in.
What kind of material did you do at the beginning?
It was just very loosely connected gags, really, that I can’t remember why I did. And I never really liked writing gags, one-liners and stuff. I can’t really remember much of what I did. I tried to act sketches out on my own, like one about Jesus being unmasked by the Scooby-Doo Gang. I wasn’t really writing stuff specifically for stand-up, and I think it showed, really. I mean it wasn’t a total disaster, because I played the Comedy Store and got bookings in various places. But I was living and writing with Stew at the time, and Stew took off really really fast, and it was difficult to compete with that, and made me feel like I wasn’t doing very well because he was doing so phenomenonally well and had worked out his persona quite early on.
Did you go back to stand-up immediately after after the double act finished?
No, not really. I did three one man shows between 2001 and 2005 that were just me talking for the first time, but they weren’t really stand-up shows. It’s only in the last three or four years that I’ve started doing what I would say is stand-up, going into clubs and doing stand-up, and doing an act that works in a stand-up club. It was a massive thing for me to be going back to performing on my own, because I’d really convinced myself that I could only work with other people. But it’s been a really good thing to come back to, and I’m slightly regretting not having done it earlier, really.
I notice a lot of your shows deal with themes of crisis in growing up and masculinity. Why’s that?
Well, they just deal with being me and I’m a very confused and ultimately unhappy man like most people. I mean, the best comedy has to come out of who you are and what you’re thinking about, it doesn’t necessarily have to be incredibly personal but I don’t think it matters if it is or it isn’t. So you know if I’m doing a themed show it’ll be about something that’s concerning me at the time, so the Christ on a Bike thing came out of my obsession with religion plus being 33, the same age as Jesus, and Menage a Un came out of me being interested by the idea of being on my own in a lot of different ways, and not necessarily in a bad way either. And this show is about turning 40. For me, turning 40 is probably a bigger deal than for a lot of people, because my career has sort of been based on being childish, so to suddenly have to pretend I’m not a child any more is kind of an interesting place to get to. I’m happier knocking myself than other people, really, but I think, too, that if you knock yourself you’re able to do stuff about other people as well because that’s the funniness, the arrogance and the pain and the ultimate vulnerability of the Richard Herring character onstage. It’s essentially me, but it’s exaggerated. The me onstage is much more confident than the me offstage and the me onstage is much more fucked up than I am, but I’m still pretty fucked up; I still think of those things. I mean it’s an odd job. Being a comedian is a really odd job, you’re slightly out of reality.
For a previous show, you attempted to overcome a mid-life crisis by performing twelve Herculean tasks, from slaying the Loch Ness monster to stealing Germaine Greer’s bra. Which of the tasks did you find most challenging?
Jumping out of an aeroplane was a bit incredible for me, because I’m not that kind of a person. Running the London marathon was also pretty tough. But going on fifty dates on fifty days was probably the most difficult. It was fifty days of pretty much going out and getting drunk every night, usually with a stranger. It was incredibly confusing. I met loads of girls I liked, and then met girls who liked me, but by the end of it I was just physically and emotionally wrecked. It was very confusing meeting girls you liked and then obviously a month later they’d met someone else. I hadn’t really anticipated anything serious coming from it, but I ended up going out with one of the girls for about a year or so after that.
What would you have done if you hadn’t succeeded in comedy?
Well all my family are teachers, so I think I would have been a teacher. Every now and again I think about doing something else, but I don’t know what that would be. Going to help poor orphans in Africa or something useful like that.
What do your parents think of your career?
I think they’re fairly happy, they’ve been very supportive. They come to the shows, although it’s a little bit weird having to talk about fucking the stigmata of Christ in front of your parents.
Richard Herring's 'Oh Fuck, I'm 40' is at the Black Box, Belfast on Thursday 24 April. Recordings of previous stand up shows are available from GoFasterStripe.