pop matters reviews RHLSTP

Richard Herring Proves That Talk Is Cheap and Incredibly Entertaining

21 July 2016

Richard Herring's Leicester Square Theatre Podcast gives comedians a chance to be honest and the audience a chance to laugh like hell.

Richard Herring‘s Leicester Square Theatre Podcast is basically a comedy lover’s wet dream.

Listening can be a quite private experience (for those of us not able to attend a recording), it’s definitely intimate, and it’s often messy. At the end of each episode, we might feel a little confused or possibly ashamed, but we can’t deny the fact that the experience was both enjoyable and satisfying.

The premise is quite simple: comedian Herring sits down with another comedian and they have a conversation. The final edit comes in about an hour. And that’s all it is.

Except it’s not quite as simple as that.

Herring creates an atmosphere that allows people to talk freely by relying on schtick.

Because Herring is an incredibly complicated character. His early work was in a double act with Stewart Lee and included the television shows Fist of Fun and This Morning With Richard Not Judy. They also wrote together for Chris Morris’s influential BBC Radio 4 show On The Hour (where they may or may not have created Steve Coogan’s most famous character, Alan Partridge).

Since Lee and Herring went their separate ways in 2000 (they’re reunited occasionally), Herring has continued writing and performing comedy. He and Al Murray wrote Time Gentlemen Please (on which he also had a small role), which ran from 2000-2002 and in 2007, he wrote and starred in a one-off comedy-drama called You Can Choose Your Friends. Michael Deacon’s positive review of the show included the line “It may surprise some to learn that the script was written by Herring, better-known as an edgy, flippant stand-up comic” (“Sparring Partners”, The Telegraph, 2 June 2007).

I’m not sure those adjectives were quite right for his stand-up then, but they certainly don’t apply to his stand-up since. His 2009 show, Hitler’s Moustache, opened a big ‘ol can of controversial worms, and while it could be called edgy, nothing about it was flippant. According to Herring, “The original idea of Hitler’s Moustache was to see if I could reclaim the toothbrush moustache for comedy—it was Chaplin’s first, then Hitler ruined it” (“There Isn’t a ‘New Offensiveness’, The Guardian, 31 July 2009). It wasn’t just the presence of Herring’s moustache which rocked the boat; the show raised questions about race and bigotry, ones that challenged both the hateful views of racist groups like the BNP as well as the right-on stance of white liberals (who probably made up most his audience). Brian Logan at The Guardian seemed to have missed the point when he included Herring in a list of comedians who set out to deliberately offend their audiences, which led Herring (and Brendon Burns, another comedian mentioned in the Logan article) to pen responses. Herring wrote:

Fascism is, and always has been, inherently ridiculous, and it can be damaged and even destroyed by laughter. Yet if we fight fascism with fascism and make it forbidden to discuss it, then we become fascists ourselves. And by making such subjects taboo, we play into the hands of those who equate political correctness with humourlessness rather than politeness, which is all it really is. I give my routines a lot of thought—most comedians do—as I believe I have responsibility for their content. Which is why it hurts to feel that they have been misrepresented or sensationalised. (ibid. Herring at The Guardian.)

Herring’s also addressed sexism (in society, in comedy, and in himself). After getting annoyed by the obnoxious “Why isn’t there an International Men’s Day, huh?” complaints on Twitter on the 8th of March (International Women’s Day), he took it upon himself to search for the phrase and respond to each and every tweet, clarifying that there actually is an International Men’s Day and it’s the 19th of November. Unsurprisingly, he noted, “nobody tweets me back to say ‘Oh thanks for the information. I was wondering when it was’”—the whole experience serving as proof to Herring of “exactly why an International Women’s Day is necessary” (“Relax, Guys, It’s International Men’s Day (The Official One)”, The Guardian, 19 November 2015).

Herring’s comedy tackles issues that perhaps he, as a straight, white middle-aged man, is not ideally positioned to tackle. Or perhaps he’s in precisely the perfect position to do so. I can imagine him asking that question, but I can’t imagine him answering it. Because Herring doesn’t have the answers. He is clearly still working things out, while managing to be funny as he takes us through his process.

Which brings us back to Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre Podcast (or, RHLSTP, as Herring reminds us the cool kids are calling it). He began doing them in 2011 during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and the following year, he started holding them at the Leicester Square Theatre (early shows were audio-only, now they’re also filmed). This summer’s batch has taken him to over 100 episodes.

Each show starts with a bit of a banter between Herring and the audience before he introduces the guest (by declaring them as being best known for whatever small or embarrassing roles he could find on their IMDB page). The show is definitely a conversation and not an interview, though Herring holds a notebook with emergency questions “to save people when they’re boring”. Some of the emergency questions are relatively benign (have you ever seen a ghost); some are less so (the men get asked if they’ve ever tried to suck their own cocks). He also poses some utterly ridiculous quandaries, like if guests would rather have an armpit that dispenses sun cream or a hand made out of ham.

Sometimes the answers to emergency questions are short and sweet; sometimes they are just what’s needed to spark a rant or riff from the guest or Herring or both. Another regular feature is Herring’s reading out posts about the guest from the Dirty British Comedy Confessions website (where fans anonymously post their fantasies). It’s quite entertaining to watch the guests’ reactions, which range from disgusted (some fantasies are a bit ... unusual) to flattered to utterly confused by the whole concept. While there are always laughs, they usually come at the expense of the guest or Herring, rather than at those who wrote the posts.

The reason I mention this is not because I myself have in fact posted a fantasy on the website (maybe I have, maybe I haven’t), but because the show isn’t about comedians passing off their routines as small talk or about their taking the piss out of the punters. (Though Herring and the guest often take the piss out of each other; the insults thrown between him and Sarah Millican were phenomenal.) It genuinely feels more like two friends (often the case since Herring’s been on the comedy scene for so long) just having a good chat, rather than any kind of a performance.

This may be due to Herring’s style: after including their embarrassing past in their intros, he often directly asks them about their failures or dodgy jobs (and he frequently comments on his own—there is a running joke about Herring’s bitterness at Stewart Lee’s solo success). I don’t want to use the phrase self-deprecating humour, though, because that implies a deliberate choice for stylistic effect, and that’s not the vibe I get. The stories that are told appear off the cuff and are not about how brilliant or successful the guests or their lives are (even from guests who are obviously brilliant and successful).

This happened in the most famous episode, Herring’s 2013 talk with Stephen Fry. The show ended with Herring asking a simple question written by the 12-year-old son of GoFasterStripe founder Chris Evans: what’s it like to be Stephen Fry? During Fry’s answer, he revealed for the first time in public that he’d actually attempted suicide the year before. Herring let him speak uninterrupted for six solid minutes, and a very funny show wrapped up with a brutally honest look at life with mental illness.

The Ray Peacock show turned intense when, after Peacock asked an audience member to stop talking, she accused him of being offensive about women. He confronted her, asking her to clarify. It was a strange interaction because she just kept at him (even though her accusation was clearly unfair). Herring let it go on quite a while, and then broke the tension and got a huge laugh from all by joking, “I have to say, I think she’s right, Ray” (he later conducted a straw poll asking people to clap if they thought Peacock had been sexist, and the room stayed silent). The disruption led to a frank admission from Peacock that incidents like that genuinely hurt him and that, due to his sensitivity and depressive tendencies, he’d recently considered quitting comedy because he so despairs of a society that encourages people to just shout out knee-jerk reactions without having thought of others or having actually listened. He then recalled his own suicide attempt.

Maybe some of this is just evidence of the widely-held assumption that comedians use laughter to cover their own insecurities and issues, but Herring obviously knows how to build an atmosphere that allows people to talk freely without letting guests get away with avoiding honesty by relying on schtick.

Every once in a while, this leads to some stumbles or awkward moments. When Steve Coogan appeared, Herring immediately brought up the whole who-created-Alan-Partridge controversy. Coogan laughed heartily and explained his take on the character’s origin; Herring just shook his head and offered to accept a quarter of a million pounds on the spot to call it even. He then decided to bring out an emergency question to lighten the mood, asking whether Coogan would rather have sex with a man who was a six foot tall penis with a face or a man who had no penis but instead had a very tiny man where his penis should be. (After a brief discussion of logistics, Coogan, who said he’d actually enjoyed the earlier tension, opted for the latter.)

The Stephen Merchant episode is often cited as one that got too uncomfortable. Herring dwelled perhaps a little too long on his dislike of the second series of Extras. This forced Merchant to explain what he and co-writer Ricky Gervais were going for, but Herring called their choice a big mistake. While talking about award ceremonies, they each confessed they’d been put in the awkward position of having to step in to accept awards earned by their comedy partners. Herring then joked to Merchant, “You must know a bit what it’s like having an actually less funny but much more successful comedy partner”. Merchant didn’t take the bait, instead replying, “In that comment, you’re trying to get me to bad mouth both Stewart Lee and Ricky Gervais ... I’m not buying it, mate.” The episode is not quite as painful as it’s portrayed in RHLSTP folklore, but it proves that the show goes deeper than just mutual ego stroking.

Most of the time, though, the show is not heavy or tension-filled; most of the time it’s just funny. For me to recommend one guest over another would only reveal my own comedic tastes, though be sure to catch the Coogan and Bob Mortimer episodes. Oh, and the one with filmmaker Louis Theroux (one of the few non-comedians to appear). And definitely watch the one with Mark Gatiss. See, that’s the thing—they’re all funny or interesting or funny and interesting. I’ve even enjoyed the shows featuring comedians whose acts I don’t particularly like. The format and flow, thanks to Richard Herring, ensure that it is always entertaining and engaging. And also informative: listening to the podcasts will give you insight into how comedy is created, why time travel is actually quite dangerous, and who is least likely to get cancer (hint: they have tusks, trunks, and excellent memories).

RHLSTP should be a staple in every comedy fan’s podcast library. It’s free to download from iTunes, and videos of the recordings are posted on Herring’s YouTube page. Through the GoFasterStripe website, fans can donate a pound in support (and get a badge for their generosity), and Kickstarter campaigns have also been run to fund it. Despite its rather grassroots production, the podcast has won multiple Chortle Awards and was the first internet-only show to win a Sony Radio Award (it took the bronze position in 2013). The Sony judges said, “Fantastic laughs in every minute ... the listener gets caught up and swept away with the mood of the auditorium and audience. Great observations that will live in the memory for a very long time” (“Isy Suttie Wins Sony Radio Awards Gold”, British Comedy Guide, 13 May 2013).

Listen to it and let the laughs live in your memory. And maybe, just maybe, if you play it as you’re falling asleep, it might even inspire some interesting comedy-based sex dreams, which you can then post on the Dirty Brit Com Confessions website. I, for one, wouldn’t judge you if you did.