An interview with Richard Herring
Posted Monday November 23rd 2009
by Nikesh Shukla
Comedian Richard Herring, famed for... how long have you got? (Fist of Fun, This Morning with Richard Not Judy, Talking Cock, Hitler Moustache), is a funny man, referred to by many as the 'comedian's comedian.' Keeper of a hilarious daily diary of funny incidents (Warming Up), curator of the finest free podcasts iTunes has to offer (sketch-based As It Occurs to Me and talk-based Collings and Herrin) and writer of some of the finest stand-up in the country, he has written a new book, out next year called How Not to Grow Up mostly about turning forty and wondering whether it's time to grow up.
Having just announced our top ten funny books and announced the Roald Dahl Funny Prize, we thought it'd be apt to talk to a well-respected comedian such as Richard about writing his new book and the funniest things he's read.
>You have just finished writing a new memoir for next year, How Not to Grow Up. Tell us about it.
Iâ€™ve been writing a blog for 7 years and I was looking to do something with that and about turning forty and about giving up drinking and Ebury suggested doing all these as one book rather than smaller ones. The idea was to turn it into a book about my immaturity and so itâ€™s more about growing old rather than turning forty, although itâ€™s set in the year I turned forty. Part of it came from the show Oh F*** Iâ€™m Forty that I did a few years ago and from my blog. Itâ€™s pretty much all about me, mixing my blog and bits of my stand-up, which has been getting increasingly more personal. I wasnâ€™t sure if it was the book I wanted to do but having written it, that year has the perfect story arc for me: it starts off with me having a fight and getting drunk and sleeping around and being desperate and lonely and ends with me meeting someone and growing up a bit but not growing up entirely.
>How did you go about the writing of it?
It was difficult because I was touring. I got commissioned to do it in November 2008 and I was gigging a lot. Iâ€™d written the first couple of chapters by the beginning of 2009 and made slow progress during my gigs. I work well to deadlines though and I was thinking about it all the time and trying to work on it, and once my tour was over, I spent weeks hammering away at it and working out what it was going to me. Luckily I had the blog, which I write every single day, and there was loads of stuff in there, because I was thinking about getting older alot, I guess. There were loads of stories in the blog, things I would never have remembered; I also keep a diary as well. I had the material already, I just had to meld it all into book form. My editor gave me some great pointers on my first draft. Nearly every chapter now starts with a conversation or incident to make it less linear and bring out the characters of my friends and family more. He wasnâ€™t massively hands-on but the things he said made it about 50% better immediately. There were weeks where Iâ€™d write about 10-15,000 words a day but thatâ€™s because I was lifting things directly from the blog and then reworking them, but it was an intense writing period.
>Was there evera time when you wanted to fictionalise some of your stories to make them funnier?
I wanted to keep it as honest as possible. I did play about with when stuff happened. Obviously youâ€™re trying to be funny with things and I donâ€™t think the conversations I had with people were as necessarily witty as they are in the book but youâ€™re in the process of writing something entertaining. You donâ€™t remember conversations word for word as well so some of the conversations are ways of expressing ideas you may have had when you had or thinking about things, but if you wrote down everything you said the book would be long and boring. Youâ€™ve got to mix and match a little bit- but it is very open and very honest. Two or three years ago, I wouldnâ€™t have told those stories- itâ€™s much more personal than the blog, which is deliberately not about my personal life or things that might upset other people. With the book I wanted to be quite honest about what the state of my personal life was and how much I was drinking and what I was doing as a single man. It doesnâ€™t tell absolutely everything but as a comedian, I concentrate on the funnier stories of failure and success. You realise when you start doing more honest and personal stuff that everyoneâ€™s as screwed up as you are and appreciate you sticking in embarrassing stories of depravity and humiliation.
>Whatâ€™s your favourite Roald Dahl book?
Itâ€™s probably boringly Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I had a big hardback A4 copy of it that I remember fondly; it was nicely illustrated, I remember. Itâ€™s an unbeatable childrenâ€™s story. It has everything: chocolate, nastiness, horrible characters and the main character is called Willy Wonka, which is funny on a few levels.
>Whatâ€™s the funniest book youâ€™ve ever read?
I really like Jonathan Ames (The Alcoholic). My friend Stewart Lee- my double act partner- gave me a couple of his books four or five years ago and I didnâ€™t read them till a couple of years ago. I really like the honesty and disgustingness of it. Heâ€™s more honest and disgusting than me. I thought thereâ€™s something very powerful about being that honest and revealing that personal side of yourself. He writes very beautifully. When you have stories in fiction about men who sleep with transsexuals that theyâ€™re seedy and disgusting, or when you read about alcoholics theyâ€™re disgusting but thereâ€™s a real romantic human to him that I like. There are some beautiful stories about how he had a son that he didnâ€™t meet after sleeping with an older woman and not realising she has a child, who he meets further down the line. Itâ€™s a really poignant story. Thereâ€™s also loads of filthy disgusting stuff in there, like Charles Bukowski, who I also really like. Itâ€™s not meant to be humorous but thereâ€™s some really funny stuff in there. As a comedian, Iâ€™m looking at the grimy side of life; I like to mix the puerile and the intellectual together. Itâ€™s great to see people writing about the same type of thing in a beautiful and clever way. I was going that way anyway, which is probably why Stu gave me those books. Iâ€™d been writing the blog for a few years and he nudged me in the direction of thinking â€˜why not be a bit more open?â€™ In my book, thereâ€™s a lot of stuff I wouldnâ€™t want my mum and dad to read but actually theyâ€™re going to, and you think, â€˜itâ€™s worth overcoming the embarrassment and humiliation of them seeing that stuff to create something interesting and fun.â€™
>Any advice to writers out there wanting to humourise their books more?
Itâ€™s all about honesty. I found writing a blog really useful and I think that would be my main advice. Even if you donâ€™t publish it on the net, just sit down and think about the day before and think about one thing that happened that you found funny. The interesting thing about that is not every day something funny happens, so youâ€™re forced to really look into the minutiae of the day and find something about it that works. Iâ€™ve found it helps me write comedy and as a writer, if you write about the little things, when the big things come along youâ€™ll be able to write about them better and funnier. Itâ€™s about observation and not trying too hard either.