Bookmark and Share

Monday 27th July 2009

A week or so ago I did a phone interview with Guardian journalist Brian Logan, someone who has been mainly supportive in his reviews of my recent shows, albeit with an air of smug superiority. He wanted to talk about offensive comedy and the supposed fact that lots of comedians are suddenly joking about rape and race issues and paedophilia (whether ironically or not) when twenty years ago such topics were off the political agenda. I was happy to discuss this with him. I have a lot of views on all of this. I certainly stray into the areas that the article was discussing, but like to think I do so with a degree of intelligence and responsibility, always trying at least to make some valid point and not trying to offend for offence's sake. Though it's a cloudy issue, as I acknowledged in the interview that took the best part of an hour, because sometimes in the podcast, I trust that the listener understands that I don't mean what I am saying and sometimes the joke is that I will say the most offensive thing possible. But I hope that to any sensible person, this idiocy always rebounds ten-fold on to myself. There is a subtle relationship between Andrew and me and part of the fun is that I am a stupid, frustrated child, vying for attention, sometimes saying something so unpleasant or ridiculous that that itself is the joke.
But I really think about these issues. More than most comedians bother to. I understand that ultimately I am responsible for my jokes and have to be able to defend them and much of my material revolves around this very issue. In the current show I have an argument with myself about my use of a certain racial epithet, as well as my possible hypocrisy in criticising Carol Thatcher. In the unscripted podcast I don't have time to consider what I am saying. Sometimes I stray into offensive and unfunny stuff that doesn't work due to the ad-libbed nature. On rare occasions we cut this stuff out, but usually leave it in and apologise for it. That's just the nature of that show. My failure is in many senses its own punishment. It's embarrassing when a joke comes out wrong, but inevitable occasionally when there is no script and you're trying to be mischievous. It's clear to me that pretty much everyone who listens to this podcast gets what we are up to and understands all this.
Anyway, I did sense during the interview that Logan seemed uninterested or bored by a lot of what I was saying. I felt like he wasn't listening to much of it, but hoped this was just the affected smugness and superiority that I have sensed in his reviews. He works for the Guardian and I felt I could talk in quite a lot of detail about what I do without fear that he would become sensationalist and take things out of context. I didn't tape the conversation and I have done several long interviews recently and so can't remember everything that I said, but I know that I was careful to explain myself and the context of some of my more contentious ideas. I was largely critical of offensive comedy, arguing that it takes a very experienced and thoughtful comedian to get away with it and that there must always be a point behind it. I briefly described the "maybe racists have a point" routine from the new show, but (as far as I remember) expressed concern that most of my show was, if anything, a bit of a throw back to the 1980s political and polemical comedy and was a bit right on. I propounded the idea that has been covered a lot elsewhere that the internet was giving comedians an opportunity to explore more contentious subjects that TV was shying away from and that audiences were keen to susbscribe to this. I argued that you have to do your best to make sure that your argument and point is solid, but that there will always be people who misunderstand that and that there's not much you can do about that.
I had a slight nagging sense of unease about it all. Just the distance and detachment that I had sensed, perhaps, though I thought he might pick up on me saying that after a certain point a comedian is not responsible for the stupidity of the audience - I had said that Al Murray was not necessarily at fault if his audience took him literally, but Al has said something similar himself.
The article came out today and I was, I have to say, pretty astounded by how it misrepresented what I had said and my material. Here it is.
I don't quite know where to begin in describing why it is wrong or how it made me feel. But I think it's fair to say that either deliberately or through journalistic incompetence it totally misrepresents both the interview and my material. To have those contentious lines quoted our of context, with absolutely no explanation of what else takes place can have no other effect than to make the casual (and even the quite careful) reader assume that I am a racist. It now seems clear that Logan had come into the interview with an agenda, was only listening out for things that confirmed his idea that comedians were just being offensive for no real reason and then ignored everything else. Hence his detachment and disinterest I guess.
He writes, "This year, veteran comic Richard Herring is sporting a Hitler moustache for his show, Hitler Moustache, in which he argues "that racists have a point"". It is true that I do utter those words, but it is followed by a smart and interesting routine about our attitudes to race and ethnicity and then about 40 minutes of me railing against the BNP and encouraging people to stand up to fascism because human beings are all the same and shouldn't be judged by their race, gender or sexuality. But by not mentioning any of that then it inevitably makes it look like I am seriously examining whether there's something to racism, rather than taking a belief that is opposite to my own and then examining it in order to demonstrate its invalidity. Logan hasn't seen the show, but I told him enough about it for him to know this. To ignore that is a misrepresentation of some magnitude.
Later he says of the podcast: "One recent episode aired Herring's purported hatred of Pakistanis, a routine that he expands on in his new standup set." Again this makes the new show sound like it's an hour of me being racist, whether for fun or for real. To quote that line from the podcast without explaining the conversation it came in (in which, from memory, we arbitrarily decided to settle all world disputes by just siding with one country and in which I was being childishly silly and provocative) and to heavily imply that the show will be an examination of my hatred of people from Pakistan (which it really isn't, obviously) is again either vindictive or incompetent. I am, at the moment, walking around with a toothbrush moustache - admittedly this is my own choice - but I have Asian neighbours who may have been confused by this and who may now read in the Guardian that I am purporting to hate them. I don't know what the repercussions of such a thing will be, but it seems very unfair and/or lazy to misrepresent me in that way. Especially given the show is about the opposite of that. Maybe I have made my own bed with the poster image and show I have chosen to do, but the article isn't about that and I don't think it's on to lift a contentious statement from a routine to support a point that it seems you had already decided on before writing the article.
He adds, "In another routine, he claims to support the BNP's policy to deport all black people from the UK. Into the awkward laughter that greets this joke, he says: "Don't go thinking I'm the new Bernard Manning. I'm being postmodern and ironic. I understand that what I'm saying is unacceptable." Then he pauses. "But does that make me better than Manning, or much, much worse?" This is "playing around with things", he tells me: "it's the intent behind it that's the important thing.""
I am tempted to write the whole routine out, but this is one that Logan has actually seen and so he should have done a better job. It's from menage a un and comes from an escalation of the crowd pleasing call for all people who vote for the BNP to lose their right to vote (Fight Fascism with Fascism). But following that idea through logically it concludes that if you behave in that way then you become as bad as the fascists themselves and in order to get rid of the stupid BNP voting black and Asian people, I end up being forced to vote for the BNP.... and thus lose my right to vote. I then acknowledge that if people weren't listening properly they might conclude that a liberal comic has just called for all black and Asian people to be deported. But that, of course isn't what I was saying and you'd have to have not been listening to think that I was. And thus it's pretty unrepresentative to only talk about the part where I talk about deporting black people.
I could go on - I am sure that I didn't say everything was fine with race relations in this country now (because I know it isn't), just said that hopefully things were getting better (though clearly in my show I examine the ways in which they are also getting worse). He makes me sound glib, racist and needlessly controversial. And that just seems a double kick in the teeth given how the new show not only goes to some lengths to discuss issues of offence in comedy (better than Logan does I think - in fact this hastily written and unedited blog post is more intelligent and considered and less sensationalist than what he's put).
To begin with I was just a bit put out, but over the day I got angrier and more depressed about it. I knew that people who knew me and had seen my act would know it wasn't accurate, but anyone who hadn't seen me before would surely be put off. And this is a show that Guardian readers (I am one) would really appreciate (and to which incidentally I am getting an audience with a reasonable proportion of black and Asian punters, who tend to hang around afterwards to tell me how much they enjoyed it). I certainly wouldn't want to see this show based on its description.
And yet the kind of person who might think that it sounds interesting and funny from that description will also be very disappointed by the PC and liberal content.
I was worried that people would judge me and my show from the article and sure enough someone emailed me about this internet opinion piece within minutes and someone has posted on the guestbook with the inevitable "I haven't seen the show, but...." piece. Such things can escalate out of nothing and as much as I can try and chase these down and try to explain the truth it probably won't make any difference.
I have had numerous messages of support and outrage from people who HAVE seen the show and maybe all good publicity is good publicity - in better news the Collings and Herrin podcast was starred as highly recommended in the Guardian's top 10 run down and we leapt to 14th in the podcast chart (due to which article though - are there going to be a whole new army of Pakistani hating subscribers?)
I wrote to complain to the Guardian but the letter has not yet been published and Brendan Burns was similarly angry and less reasoned and also fired off a furious missive about the way he had had his remarks cherry-picked and taken out of context. I am unlikely to hit Brian Logan (though would like an explanation of why he has rewarded all the time and information I gave him with such a damaging piece) I think Burns might be more inclined to resort to violence.
I hope the Guardian will give me right to reply and am even looking into my legal options as I think this gives such a warped impression of the interview and my actual opinions that it comes close to defamation. I hope that if Brian Logan comes and sees the show (and I am not sure I want to let him in now, even if that means no Guardian review) then he might feel embarrassed about the way his article has made me look. I think it's more than possible that it's just shoddy writing and thoughtlessness that has led the piece to come out as it has, but he has certainly not done a good job in representing me. I certainly won't be giving him my opinions or time again and suspect that ultimately this shoddy and poorly thought out article will just reflect badly upon him and his reputation.
By the end of the day I felt properly miserable about it. Hopefully the harm can be undone and hopefully no aggrieved person on the street is going to see me with my toothbrush moustache, realise I am the Pakistani hating man from the newspaper, and clobber me.
In better news when I arrived in Brighton for tonight's gig there was a man at the station collecting money for sacked windturbine workers who was wearing a Virgilio Anderson T shirt. I had to give him a donation didn't I? In fact this might turn out to be quite an effective way of "fans" fleecing me. You can all quickly make your £15 back. It was good to see a friendly face though and had a lovely gig in the tiniest possible room and I don't think anyone had come along expecting proper racism.

Bookmark and Share



My new stand up show, The Best is touring from September 2016 to May 2017 All details here.
Buy tickets to Richard Herring's Leicester Square Theatre Podcast from the LST website
You can download the audio for free from the British Comedy Guide or iTunes or watch the video on YouTube