Interview: Richard Herring
Richard Herring began life as a comedian over twenty years ago as part of the iconic double-act Lee and Herring. Since then, he has written and performed a new Edinburgh show almost every year, and in 2011 will tour his latest critically acclaimed offering Christ On A Bike: The Second Coming across the country. Andrew Dipper recently had the opportunity to speak with Richard Herring about the ups and downs of his career thus far, the motivation behind his Hitler Moustache and Christ On A Bike shows, and his time working with fellow comedian Stewart Lee. It’s a long read, but worth every word.
AD: You’ve been in comedy for over twenty years now – how do you think you’ve changed in that time?
RH: Good question! Well, I’m a lot older. I think the nice thing about having a career that long is that you can keep developing and I think I’ve been lucky enough to stay interested in creating new stuff. Hopefully I’m a lot better than I was. I think I’m a lot more confident as a person – I feel like I know what I’m doing a bit more. I think when I was starting out I was always worried that A) I would run out of ideas and B) someone would go, ‘You’re not funny.’ I think getting older makes you a lot more confident about what you’re doing and I feel kind of fortunate I’m still interested in comedy. You go through ups and downs in this job and sometimes you get frustrated and annoyed with it, but at the moment I’m really enjoying creating stuff and the ideas still seem to be coming to me. Hopefully I’m funnier, but not everyone would agree with that.
AD: Your shows deal with quite sensitive subject matter so I suppose you’ve got to be confident in your delivery.
RH: I think a lot of stand-up is about confidence – feeling comfortable and commanding with the stage. When I came back to stand-up six years ago I was really nervous about doing it and I was terrified; and while I think I did okay it’s just about feeling like you own the stage and making the audience feel comfortable. No matter how comfortable you are or how long you’ve been doing stand-up you always have days where things go wrong, but you get a bit better at sensing when things are going wrong or you’re losing an audience a bit. I think as long as I’m confident in what I’m saying and I have a reason for doing it then that doesn’t bother me. You’ve got to know exactly what you’re doing and be in control – it’s about confidence and control and that’s a lot of what being a stand-up is. Every gig is a learning experience and you hopefully learn and get better – but if you don’t gig all the time you will lose that ability as well.
AD: Where do you find the inspiration for your shows then?
RH: I think some things just come to you – you’ll just be thinking and something will suddenly pop into your head. But it has to be something that interests, like the Jesus show [Christ On A Bike: The Second Coming] I’m doing at the minute. I’ve always been fascinated by Jesus, but when I first wrote it in 2001 I started questioning why, as an atheist, I was so obsessed with Jesus.
With the Hitler Moustache show it was just a conversation about what the worst moustache to have would be and then wondering why we aren’t allowed to have it anymore, and what would happen if you did have it. If an idea starts coming to you and it’s interesting enough other stuff will come out of it and it will spiral and there will be big ideas. You know, the best jokes always seem to happen by accident; they just collide in your head or you’re on stage and something occurs to you. Even when I look back on some of my earlier stuff I can’t quite work things out and I think, ‘Oh, how did I come up with that? Where was the thought process in that?’
A lot of it is just thinking. If I think of six one-liners a year that were really good and useable in my act I would be massively delighted by that. My hit rate is probably less than that, but I write a blog every day and I only have to write one good blog a month and that’s a stand-up show if I come up with one idea out of it. It takes a lot of work and you work an idea out over ten or twenty gigs – change it and make it work. It’s quite a dull process. You can sit down and write stuff if your mind gets in the right place, but I think a lot of it is sub-conscious. I don’t know – I wish I could do it more easily! I’m very focussed on my job and I don’t turn off very often so whenever you’re reading or watching something you might find a bit of inspiration for your material.
AD: You mentioned earlier your Hitler Moustache show from 2009. I was actually watching it last night and in your show you mention the natural negative reaction to the moustache – but was anyone supportive of it?
RH: Well the worst thing was a guy who was supportive of it in the way I didn’t want. Hardly anyone said anything about it at all, but this guy in a white van said to me, ‘Fair play, you’re a man after my own heart.’ He obviously thought I was an anti-Semite and that Hitler was brilliant. I think people were just confused by it so they didn’t really say anything – even my friends didn’t mention it. My girlfriend was pretty supportive and she had to put up with it for the best part of a year. It was kind of an odd thing to happen and I look back and can’t quite believe that thing was on my face for so long. From my point of view you kept forgetting it was there because you can’t see it, obviously, but people would just laugh at it, really. But no-one was really supportive of it apart from this one guy.
Obviously once people had seen the show they were a bit more supportive and felt it was a brave and committed thing to do. I think the main joke in Hitler Moustache is that I’ve come up with a stupid idea that I’m the victim of. That I’m trying to reclaim a moustache that is probably irreclaimable and I think a lot of the joke is the realisation that this idiot on stage, as a result of a whimsical idea, has ended up having to walk around looking like that for a good portion of his life!
AD: A lot of comedians base their comedy on life but you seem to base your life on comedy.
RH: Sometimes, yeah. I think that’s what that show is partially about, you know. It’s partially thinking about at what point a comedy stunt is more important than my life – there’s several things I explore in that show and that is one of them. Often I’m quite lazy and the only time I end up doing stuff is for a comedy show – you know I am quite committed and it is a massive part of my life. Maybe that is a bad thing to an extent, but I’m also very lucky to do a job I love and have a partner that understands that.
I think a big theme in my past few shows is the amount of time I commit to comedy and whether that has paid off. Certainly three or four years ago it felt like I’d devoted my life to comedy and I wasn’t as successful as other comedians who hadn’t worked as hard. I think it’s interesting working out at what point my life is more important than my job and vice versa; but I also feel very lucky to do my job. I’ve always loved comedy from a young age and to be able to make a comfortable living from it now is great.
It doesn’t feel like work most of the time, though. It’s not as if I’ve got an eye on the clock wishing I could go home. Most of the time it’s like, ‘This is brilliant’, you go out and meet people and you’re making people laugh, hopefully, so it’s a lovely little job to have. But I haven’t got family and I haven’t got kids and that’s partially because of the amount I’ve devoted to my job over the years – I haven’t settled down with anyone ‘til now.
AD: You start your Christ On A Bike: The Second Coming London residency on the 19th December – how do you think that work has changed since its 2001 show and your 2010 Edinburgh rework?
RH: I have a bit more time usually when I’m on tour, and I’ve got an hour and twenty which gives me an extra twenty minutes of material to use – but it also means I can just slow down, relax and enjoy the show. With Edinburgh you’re stuck to this one hour time slot and you can’t go off too much on a flight of fancy because the next show after you will start too late if you do that. It’s nice to have that freedom and I’m looking to make the show longer and possibly take it up to an hour and a half and I’ll add new ideas whilst also having a solid framework of a show that works.
It is kind of nerve-wracking because the whole project depends on people coming to see it and I’m doing five weeks at the Leicester Square Theatre which is a lot longer than I’ve done before – I kind of worry that people won’t come along or I won’t get paid! I think there’s already two or three new routines in there from Edinburgh, there’s probably twenty or thirty minutes of stuff that wasn’t in the original version in 2001 so it’s really nice to have an opportunity to develop it over a 90 date tour. You get a real opportunity to perfect it and, you know, I get to play around with words and tone and volume and stuff like that – for me it’s about making the show as perfect as I can before hopefully committing it to DVD at some point.
AD: I’m coming to see your show on April 3rd at Hilarity Bites Comedy Club, so I’m looking forward to see how it progresses. A lot of people use your time with Stewart Lee as a reference point rather than your solo work – does that ever frustrate you?
RH: Not really, no. I’m very proud of the work I did with Stewart and I feel it didn’t really impact on the mass majority of people – it made an impact on the tiny minority who loved it and that’s quite a nice thing. It was never massively successful and it never got the point where it was a millstone around my neck or anything. I loved doing that work and it’s nice that people still appreciate it ten, fifteen or even twenty years after it happened in the case of our radio stuff. It’s nice to think that it still has a life. I think we’ve both gone on to show we’ve got our own stuff to talk about as well.
There was a time when I had just started doing stand-up and Stew’s stand-up took off ridiculously – it was kind of a hard thing to cope with because people were comparing him with me as a fledging new stand-up. They was saying ‘Oh, look what Stewart Lee’s doing’, but he had been working twenty years in comedy – it’s quite difficult being compared to the best stand-up comedian! I think I’ve worked hard as a stand-up and I’ve got to the point where I think I’m recognised in my own right as a comedian and I’m only competing with myself. If people want to compare and contrast I would still say Stewart is the superior stand-up comedian but there are other areas of comedy where I am superior to him, you know.
I think people think we’ve fallen out with each other or there’s a competitiveness – I think there’s a competitiveness that brothers or friends might have, in that they don’t want to be left behind by the other one, but that can only be a good thing as well. You know, if I’ve got to aim to be as funny as the guy who is the funniest comedian in the country then that’s a good competitiveness to have to spur me on. I’m really delighted that he’s as successful as he is. I’d like to be in the position where I get my own TV show as well but if it’s a question of one of us having it or neither of us I’m delighted for him.
Me and Stew always end up coming up with the same stuff anyway, though, because we worked together for thirteen years so our basic comedy vocabulary is the same. We both influence each other to an enormous degree. When people were saying, ‘Oh your stand-up’s a lot like Stewart Lee’s stand-up’ it kind of annoyed me a little bit because A) there was obviously a good reason for that, and B) nobody ever suggested that maybe I had influenced Stewart. I think it was just kind of lazy journalism that had annoyed me, but I’m very happy to have built up the audience I’ve got without having a TV show and just through hard work, doing my podcasts and relentlessly touring.
I think there’s a danger that you can get very successful on TV then thousands of people come to see you and they don’t want to see the live stuff you’re doing, and they’ll get frustrated. My audience come to me through my live work, appreciate what I’m doing and like that I do a different show every year as well. I feel in a very privileged position to be able to tour, make a decent living and to have a pretty strong audience in every town now. There are people who loved Lee And Herring who come and see my show, and it’s great that people have that kind of loyalty towards me.
AD: Finally, what are your personal tips for aspiring comedians?
RH: I think it’s just about getting out there and doing it. People sit there thinking, ‘How do I do it? How do I do it?’ but the only way of learning is to get out there and do it. You know, try and write five minutes of jokes, learn them and perform them as many times as you can. And don’t be too keen to get discovered too soon. Learn how to do it – it takes years. Comedians just want to get on Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow and earn millions of pounds but you won’t become a good comedian that way.
I think you really do learn a lot by working your way up, and you appreciate it more. We had a kind of rapid rise as Lee and Herring, really, and it sort of fell into our laps a bit; but having gone back and started again I really appreciate the success all the more for knowing what it’s like to play to 20 people. My advice is don’t be impatient but don’t be overcautious – get on stage and try it and don’t be put off if you don’t do well to begin with. Be put off maybe if you’ve done five years and you’re not doing well. The way you learn is to do it. You can give hundreds of pieces of advice, but just do it!