Richard Herring: ‘I’d like to be good at everything’
Published by Kate Copstick
7 Aug 2014
Being dropped by the BBC seemed like a disaster at the time, but Richard Herring is now grateful he was able learn his craft away from the spotlight. And with his award-winning podcasts helping to grow his stand-up audience, the comedian is content, creative and in control, finds Kate Copstick
Once upon a time there were two clever young men. They met at Oxford, joined the Footlights, left the Footlights, formed a double act and, relatively quickly, shot to fame on both TV and radio. But that early success was cut short by the kind of executive decision-making that has led to the BBC’s most recent massive hit being Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie and they parted professionally.
One, Stewart Lee, went on to a high-profile career, achieving something of an iconic status within the profession, often seen and enthusiastically quoted in the media, eventually courted by TV and garlanded with glittering industry awards. The other ploughed his personal comedy furrow through the grassroots of the business we call show, honing his live stand-up, garnering his audience far below the PR Plimsoll Line and outside the velvet media rope. Always mano a metaphorical mano with his comedy peeps.
And this year, Richard Herring (for the lone comedy ploughman, dear reader, was he) in his 23rd year in Edinburgh, brings his 11th consecutive one-hour solo show to George Square.
Herring had a challenging comedy niche-carving experience from the very start. He first came to Edinburgh with the 1987 Oxford Footlights to find himself being viciously heckled by the “alternative comedy lot”.
“Ironically we had all gone to comprehensive schools but they didn’t know that … For me, as a 19-year-old, I was looking out at all of these comedians that I admired and they were heckling me. It was humiliating. One night Keith Allen sabotaged our show, walked out and punched the theatre manager. It took a long while to get over that, really.”
The axing of the television shows were another boulder in the sod of Herring’s comedy furrow.
“We’d worked very hard, Stu and me, at the beginning – I mean, it didn’t just all fall into our laps, but it happened fairly quickly and looked like it was all going to continue and then the rug was just pulled from under our feet and it took a while to regroup.
“I worked on an Al Murray sitcom which gave me financial security for the first time and after about a year I thought, ‘What’s the point, I’ve worked hard for 12 years and no-one has really noticed anything I’ve done and I’m just going to go out and get drunk.’ So I did that for a bit. And then I realised there was a danger that my career would end.” He bounces his eyebrows. “I realised that I was in charge of my destiny,” he says.
“I wanted to get back to solo stuff, I really had a big block about it, I’d tried some stand-up in the early nineties and not enjoyed it and then the double act started working and I gave up on stand-up and convinced myself I couldn’t do solo stuff and even after I did Christ on a Bike I didn’t see myself as a stand- up, I thought it was a theatrical show. It was only when I did the Hercules show that the stand up thing clicked.
“I’ve been really lucky, because ten or 12 years ago I would have wanted to be Jimmy Carr or David Walliams and now I don’t. I really don’t want to be that famous, or if I do get that famous I want to be famous for creating really interesting work and I don’t think the two always go hand in hand.”
And interesting work is exactly what he has brought to Edinburgh each year. Something different every year.
“Edinburgh is great because it gives me a deadline,” he says. “I reach the point where the risk of humiliation overcomes the laziness and I write the show. In March or February I say I’ll do a show, but in March or February I don’t have a show, I don’t have anything really. This year I only had the theme that I wouldn’t have a theme.” But practice makes perfect, as they say.
“Now I’ve got into this thing where I find it quite easy to write a show in a couple of months.” He frowns. “Well, usually I am not writing a play – that has slightly scuppered things.”
The play is I Killed Rasputin and no, despite being half-way there with the hair, Rich is not playing the lead. He is not directing. He is enjoying just writing. And researching. His degree is in history and the play is a fascinating look at the times as well as the life and famous death of one of history’s most charismatic figures.
Thankfully, it hasn’t totally “scuppered” the stand-up show. Because stand-up is the heart of Richard Herring. He does not require prizes or fame as an incentive to keep going, he simply loves what he is doing.
“By not being ‘discovered’, it means that I’ve got really, really good at doing stand-up. I’ve been doing it eight or nine years now which, on top of what I did before, is a massive big batch of time going out every night and performing and it is getting better all the time. Every six months I’ll get an, ‘Oh, now I understand how you do this’ and you take another leap forward and six months later you think, ‘Oh no, now I’ve got it’.” In retrospect, he is genuinely glad that the BBC cut Lee and Herring loose.
“If we had turned into Little Britain at that point in our careers we would have just gone off the rails. Stu would have gone mad and it would just have overwhelmed me and I would have married a supermodel and be driving around in a sports car… it would have been really wrong. Having that punch in the guts as an artistic thing was the best thing that could have happened.
“I have built up an audience who want to come and see me. It has been a very slow grow, even when I was touring Christ on a Bike when I’d just come off TV, in most places 30 or 40 people would come and see me. Now I get two or three hundred people coming wherever I go, sometimes five or six hundred. But I have built those people up by people coming to see me, liking it, bringing a friend or listening to the podcast, liking it and paying me back by coming to see the show and that means that the quality of audience I’m getting is fantastic. I have brilliant gigs because the audience knows me. I’ve not been on Mock the Week and the audience comes along and goes, ‘Oh, hold on, he’s much ruder and much more offensive live’; they know exactly what they’re going to get.”
And they get a great, grown-up, stand-up who is passionate about his art and his craft and who has reached a place where he can do his stuff exactly his way.
The award-winning podcast, which doubled Herring’s live audience within a year, is not just garnering an ever-increasing audience but has become the springboard for other Herring comedy projects and provides a sort of Herring Comedy Kickstarter. As well as the podcasts themselves, he has filmed and broadcast online a serie,s The Meaning of Life, which was entirely funded through the podcast and tickets to see the recordings. The “comedy kickstarter fund” helps him to be ever creative (within budgetary restraints) in a way that no television comedian is allowed. “At the moment about 80 per cent of my work I give away but somehow the money comes back,” he says. “I seem to be making as much as I ever did.”
I leave our meeting absolutely buzzing. Here is the proof that if you genuinely love live comedy and want to make your career there, that if you work and learn and don’t sell out to an industry that will chew you up and spit you out in its search for The Next Big Thing without understanding that it is more frequently the little things that make us laugh out loud, you could end up the winner. Richard Herring is (and it is not a word I frequently use about comics) inspirational.
“I’d like to get to the end of my career and be good at everything,” he says. So he isn’t exactly resting on his considerable laurels, then. I have a feeling he’ll do it.
Richard Herring: Lord of the Dance Settee, Assembly George Square until 24 August, today 10:45pm, more infoI Killed Rasputin, Assembly George Square until 24 August, today 3:35pm, more info