How Richard Herring found podcasts before the rest of the famous people in the world did.
One of the highlights of the evergreen and brilliantly offensive comic Viz is the spoof advertisements dotted around its pages. In a recent issue, and I’m paraphrasing, there was a promo for a delightful device, designed to stop your other half setting up their own podcast. Given the number of podcasts you can find on Apple’s iTunes service along has quadrupled in a little of two years (with even more individual episodes), it’s remarkably on point. A year of on-and-off lockdown has added significantly to the podcast boom, it was hardly on the quiet side before Covid struck.
Yet against the backdrop of people famous and less famous scrambling to sit in front of a microphone and laptop (some more successfully than others), it’s worth saluting a person who got there before virtually all of his peers.
Richard Herring first got into podcasting in 2008, testing the waters with broadcaster Andrew Collins. Herring has been open about at this time, his career was in flux. His fruitful partnership with Stewart Lee – for which he was best known – was at an end, and he was a few years away from a new stand-up show. It was at the 2011 Edinburgh Fringe Festival though that he’d stumble upon a path that would prove far more prescient than anyone could really have seen.
Fancy a chat?
His formula was simple. He’d interview one of the performers at the festival, they’d do a bit of stand-up, it’d be released as a podcast, hopefully some people would listen.
The run of performers all the way back in 2011 included names such as Barry Cryer, Al Murray, Katherine Ryan and Catie Wilkins. He would go on to marry one of those four people. Then, he transferred that formula to London, launching Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre Podcast in May of 2012. Again, the guests were impressive, but podcasting was in its infancy. Herring turned regularly to crowdfunding to keep RHLSTP (as they call it) going, and the podcast felt like a well kept secret.
But the growing band of regular listeners began to realise there was something special here. Herring’s interviewing style remains irreverent, warm and relaxed – even on the odd occasion when he’s less keen on the guest – and the freer style gives space for genuine conversation. Less so when someone like Brian Blessed is the headliner (a particularly joyous episode that one, in which Herring delivers a quiet comedy masterclass as he nabs the best line), but there’s a sense that the chat can go off in any number of directions.
And sometimes it does. RHLSTP got arguably its first high profile spike when Stephen Fry guested on its third series in 2013 and spoke movingly and candidly about his attempt to take his own life. Yet across the near-350 episodes to date, there are lower profile but no less compelling, stark interviews too. A recent conversation with Jessie Cave for instance was both very funny and then astonishingly arresting and moving. Take too Bethany Black in 2019 combining her excellent comedy with the story of being in Doctor Who’s most hated episode and the abuse she received. Because the format allows conversations to organically flow – punctuated by the occasional emergency question (occasionally involved talcum powder) – it fits podcasting perfectly. As pretty much every other famous person appears to have discovered over the last year or two.
Herring obviously had to adapt his show during the lockdown months. RHLSTP is traditionally recorded in front of a live audience, but for many weeks, audience-less Zoom-conducted shows took their place. These too were interesting though. I never appreciated how the presence of an audience subtlety affected the dynamic of a conversation. Listening to a Jeremy Paxman episode recorded over Zoom, I got to the point where I wanted to send Herring a virtual coffee as he clearly found himself up against someone giving across the impression that they neither knew how computers work nor liked being interviewed. Yet against that, rich chats with people such as Dominik Diamond, John Oliver and Mary Lynn Rajskub became possible. Nothing for Herring clearly matched his rightly-cherished Michael Palin episode, but some seem to be running it close.
In recent years, Herring’s career has been sparking off in many directions again. His work answering questions about International Women’s Day earned him fans across the globe (resulting in a book too), he’s back acting, he’s writing a sitcom, he’s clearing stones from a field, and he was a particularly successful contestant on the TV show Taskmaster. He has also had a testicle taken away.
Yet the cornerstone of his work remains RHLSTP, a podcast that continues to endure even though everyone else on planet Earth seems to have decided to have a go too. Herring’s, though, is special. Oftentimes very, very funny, it captures what the best chat shows should: two people just having a chat, that we’re allowed to listen in to. It’s not a radical formula, sure, but as higher profile names struggle to get the mix right, Herring is as assured as it gets.
Sure, there have been bumps along the way – the mystery of the Richard E Grant podcast that was never released is one that seems to perplex him as much as us – but they’re in plain sight. There’s no gloss. There’s a human being, trying stuff. Turns out he’s really rather good at all of this too. Furthermore, with due respect, nobody was going to give him a chat show on telly or radio. He just went and built one, and has put together an essential listen.
Oftentimes, it’s the pathfinders in life, the ones who take the creative risks, who never seem to get the rewards. That others watch, learn from mistakes made, and trample all over the people who put themselves on the line first. What’s impressive, and reaffirming, is that RHLSTP seems to be thriving, and hasn’t been brushed out of the way. You might not see it too often in that fancy bar on the front of the iTunes store. But the tens of thousands of regular listeners have long since heard about it, and continue to lend it their ears. Even Viz might admit that…