Interview with the Skinny

Celebrating his Silver Jubilee, King of Edinburgh Richard Herring returns and gives us his thoughts on offensive jokes and combatting censorship.


This year sees the return of your sell-out 2002 show – what’s it all about?

ItÂ’s all about the porridge gun, the spam javelin, the tummy bananaÂ…. ItÂ’s a look at man and his manhood, but in a way that might surprise you, homing in on menÂ’s secret insecurities and sensitivity and lack of identity. ItÂ’s a show for men and women, it should reassure the former and inform the latter, and at times gets quite serious and thoughtful but not surprisingly given the subject matter thereÂ’s lots to laugh about.

How much has it changed in the last decade?

I have repeated the internet questionnaire that I first did in 2002 and the statistics havenÂ’t changed much at all. It seems the subjects I touched upon then are still as relevant and necessary today. So the show hasnÂ’t had to change too much, though there is some new material and I think that I am a much better stand up than I was back then, so hopefully itÂ’s a new and improved version of the show. In 2002 the title wasnÂ’t censored by the Fringe Guide, which suggests there is more work to do on getting people to talk openly about this subject. A lot of issues that are making peopleÂ’s lives unhappy could be sorted out if we were a bit less screwed up about our genitals.

YouÂ’re also doing a daily podcast at the Stand. What can we expect from that?

ItÂ’s hard to be certain as the whole thing is ad-libbed and depends very much on my tiredness levels and mood. ItÂ’s a different show each day with different comedian guests and that means the mood can alter a lot from day to day. I seem to get people talking quite openly and it can be a little racey, but sometimes itÂ’s funny and sometimes it can get quite serious, but youÂ’ll learn more about some of the biggest stars at the Fringe and get to see sets from future stars. You can come and see them live, or download them for free from iTunes and the British Comedy Guide, so it serves as a nice window to the Fringe for anyone who canÂ’t get here.

You recently inadvertently became the centre of some controversy on Twitter over a joke youÂ’ve been doing for eight years. Do you think that people are more easily offended than they used to be or are they just more outraged because Twitter tells them to be?

There was a very minor spike of indignant fury from a handful of people, most of whom hadn’t seen the context of the joke and misinterpreted it completely. People have always been offended by comedy and you’d be surprised how many jokes that can encompass – often ones that you’d never even consider to be risky. Some people think some subjects can’t be joked about at all – I disagree, I think all subjects can be joked about and that humour can help us deal with unpleasant and difficult issues. That doesn’t mean all jokes are fine though or that people shouldn’t complain about them.

I had done this joke hundreds of times to my left-leaning audience and never had complaints, so knew it worked in context. Twitter makes it easy to create a storm of indignance of judgement and I don’t like it when that happens even on the many occasions that I think a joke is in poor taste or (worse for me) not actually a very good joke. I think very hard about my jokes and what their point is and whether it is worth offending people to make a point – for me it’s about the victim of the joke and what you’re laughing at. Twitter can lead to knee-jerk reactions and instant responses. A lot of people who criticised me on the spur of the moment were a bit calmer when they had had time to think and viewed the proper context.

But itÂ’s good to be challenged and good to be made to think about how your material is interpreted. That doesnÂ’t mean youÂ’re responsible for someone wilfully or erratically interpreting a comment in a way that it clearly wasnÂ’t intended. But context is important and it was probably foolish of me to print the joke in a newspaper, as it works in a comedy club when tone and intent are perhaps easier to understand.

If Talking Cock takes off in the same way as the Vagina Monologues, which guest stars would perform it alongside you onstage in the glittering West End?

I like doing this show as a solo performance for the moment, but think it would be possible to make it a three-hander, which pretty much anyone could perform. I would want there to be at least one female performer in the show if it did go down that route, as my show is about inclusion and men and women and genitals working together rather than competing. If I could have any cast I wanted then IÂ’d love to see people like Tina Fey, Stephen Merchant and Danny Pudi from Community doing the show, but once youÂ’ve handed a project over you lose control of that kind of thing, so itÂ’ll probably be someone off the X-Factor, Tony Blackburn and some Olympic athlete who has been stripped of their medal for taking drugs.

Talking Cock was one of the show titles that was censored in this yearÂ’s Fringe programme. If you wanted to cause mischief with your show next year, how would you out-do it?

How about a show called “Every time I see an asterisk I just think it represents an anus” Thus if they asterisk anus, it will only make it doubly rude. I wanted to make stickers for people to put on posters of an asterisk with “Censored by an anus” written around it. But I haven’t got round to it yet. Though I am tempted to add some asterisks to the street signs in Cockburn Street.

Which other shows are you hoping to catch at the Fringe this year?

I loved Nina Conti’s recent TV documentary and so am really looking forward to seeing if her stage show is as deep, affecting and hilarious. I think this will be the year of the female stand up – there’s some great shows with a feminist theme coming up – so really looking forward to Sarah Kendall, Lucy Porter, Lou Sanders, Helen Keen, Grainne Maguire, Bridget Christie, Susan Calman, Felicity Ward, Josie Long and my wife Catie Wilkins. Hopefully this will be the year when people who say that women just aren’t funny will kindly shut the fuck up.