Interview with Exposed
Being funny is hard. Trying to do it by creating and touring a new stand-up show every year, while also writing a memoir, writing and performing a live sketch show, a podcast and a BBC radio show every week, on top of blogging every day and Tweeting on Twitter as you go, raises the comedy stakes.
And doing all of this while sporting a particularly provocative square-inch of hair in the centre of his top lip â€“ Richard Herring doesnâ€™t like making things easy for himself.
But save for the odd episode of Never Mind The Buzzcocks or Have I Got News For You, you probably wonâ€™t have seen him on TV. Or not for a while, at least.
Throughout the nineties, Herring became known for his work with Stewart Lee. As Lee & Herring, the duo proved themselves on the live circuit, and were rewarded when BBC2 commissioned them to make Fist Of Fun and This Morning With Richard Not Judy.
Despite enjoying cult success, each show only ran for two series, and at the end of the nineties, Lee and Herring chose to pursue separate paths.
â€œTen years ago I didnâ€™t think I could work on my own,â€ Herring says now. â€œItâ€™s quite hard to find someone you work well enough with. I think thatâ€™s a really rare thing. When you work with people on panel shows you realise how rare that thing is.â€
But the end of the double act was far from the end of Richard Herringâ€™s career. As a solo performer, he has become a regular fixture at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, starting in 2001 with Christ On A Bike. â€œIâ€™ve done a show every year for more or less the last ten years. Iâ€™ve been working pretty hard for a long time.
â€œBut itâ€™s not only to do as a job â€“ itâ€™s a way to do something creative.â€ At 43 then, Herring is at ease with the type of success he has achieved. â€œThere are some people who think that TV is the ultimate but for me itâ€™s about creating something interesting and pushing myself.
â€œThere is a part of me that thinks the thing about being a comedian is going to a mass market and doing great stuff,â€ he says, citing Morecambe and Wise as an example of act who entertained millions while remaining at the cutting edge of comedy.
But Herring is satisfied with the audience he has built up over the last decade. â€œIâ€™m playing to 500 people and selling it out, and if it reaches 1000, then great, and if it gets to 10,000, then Iâ€™ll see whether thatâ€™s something I really want to do.â€
Eighteen months ago, this might have seemed like a silly thing for Herring to worry about. He wrote his Hitler Moustache show reclaim Charlie Chaplinâ€™s toothbrush moustache for comedy â€“ and this meant growing one himself.
â€œI look back now and I canâ€™t quite believe I did it because itâ€™s a horrible thing to do,â€ he reflects. â€œI was walking around, changing my own life with a Hitler moustache on my face, and that was the hardest thing about it.â€
Inevitably, the show attracted criticism. In July 2009, Herring was branded as one of the â€˜new offendersâ€™ of stand-up comedy by an article in the Guardian. â€œTo be honest, the Guardian guy hadnâ€™t been to the show â€“ he just hadnâ€™t seen the show â€“ and I was pretty confident that once people saw the show they would get it,â€ Herring explains.
And of course, anyone who has seen Hitler Moustache will realise that it isnâ€™t just about being offensive â€“ itâ€™s about questioning whether or not equating a style of facial hair with the Holocaust is as nonsensical as making assumptions about a personâ€™s character on the basis of their ethnicity. An exceptionally perceptive routine that explores whether liberals are more racist than racists is balanced by Herringâ€™s own apprehension about how his new face furniture will be received by his Jewish friends. He admits himself, the show is â€œembarrassingly right-on in placesâ€. All of which is framed in the context of a simple visual gag: â€œOne of the funny things about that show is knowing that thereâ€™s a bloke having to go through his life with a Hitler moustache.â€
Challenging orthodoxies has become a set-piece of Herringâ€™s comedy, as the â€˜resurrectedâ€™ version of Christ On A Bike, which the comic took to this yearâ€™s Fringe, goes to show. â€œHitler Moustache was just as much about liberalism and challenging that idea, that liberalism is definitely right, and Christ On A Bike is just as much about challenging atheism,â€ he explains
And much as challenging liberalism did not mean defending racism in Hitler Moustache, Herring is wary of leaning too heavily towards either side of the argument in Christ On A Bike: The Second Coming. â€œIf you are going to start preaching and telling people about things, you have to be aware of your own deficiencies,â€ he says.
When heâ€™s not grappling with existential dilemmas like these, Herring has plenty of other things to keep him busy. Twice a week he plays the funny man to Andrew Collinsâ€™ straight man on their BBC 6 Music show, and on their far less restrained Collings & Herrin [sic] podcast. For the last eight years he has written a daily blog called Warming Up, and this year published a memoir, How Not To Grow Up. He is currently recording a series for BBC Radio 4, Richard Herring Objects, which attempts to explore the concepts that are linked to modern cultural artefacts (including, amongst other things, hoodies and that moustache). And as he prepares for the third series of As It Occurs To Me, the live sketch show that he writes from scratch each week in the 48 hours before it is aired, he still finds time to tweet @Herring1967.
â€œItâ€™s nice to do a variety of things. Itâ€™s really great that I have so many outlets to do different things,â€ he says. â€œIâ€™ve got my finger in a lot of pies, and maybe too much, but Iâ€™m just doing what I find interesting.â€ And itâ€™s a good job too, because it is interesting. And thought-provoking. And just plain funny.