Richard Herring interview

Interview Barry Donovan 14 Jul 2009 - 05:06

Richard Herring tells us about Virgilio Anderson, Stewart Lee, writing his material, and his new show, Hitler Moustache...

Comedy genius Richard Herring's new show, Hitler Moustache is currently previewing, ahead of its proper debut at Edinburgh next month. And the man himself has spared us some time for a natter about it...

I guess my first question has to be "Who is Virgilio Anderson?"

I wish I knew the answer. He is a man or a made up person, who knows? When Facebook allowed your name as the page address he took richardherring. I'm almost certain that he's genuine and he has no idea who I am but I was trying to find out why he'd taken my name for his page and he wouldn't respond to me so I just started to write about it and it escalated out of control.

I mentioned it on Twitter and it's turned into a little viral meme but it's not for anything which is what I like about it. It's one of the nice things about the internet, something stupid like that can grab people's attention and people were just making up rubbish about who they imagined he was. Stephen Fry tweeted about seeing Virgilio Anderson on a ferry. It's kind of nice when it gets to that level. I was a bit worried it might spiral out of control and then ruin his life. It was a bit too ‘Dave Gorman' to meet him but I was about to email him and say, "have you seen all this stuff?" and try to reassure him that it wasn't mean because he looks like quite a nice guy.

People are coming to previews of my show and asking, "why are you talking about Virgilio Anderson?", which would almost fit into the show but as we've seen it takes quite a while to explain what it is. It's just been a bit of procrastination, really.

Your new show is called Hitler Moustache. How do you begin writing something like that?

I find with Edinburgh now it varies a little bit, but I've been on tour and written a book this year and I had a preview at the end of May so I've had no time to have actually written anything. Ideas have been flying around in the back of my mind and I grew the moustache for a week, so on the first preview I just talked through everything. I had a routine bubbling around in the back of my mind for a few months about racism and I write a blog every day so sometimes you can take something out from that and find a bit that might work as a good bit of stand-up but it's not really sitting down and writing.

An hour now seems impossibly short. Even in the previews I'm getting about half-way through the story and then I have to wrap up. I've chucked in a couple of routines that will not be in the show - safety routines that don't really fit in with the theme.

New routines?

Yeah, yeah... one of them is based on a blog, one of them is based on when I used to write the phonebook twenty years ago, which I think I've mentioned before in passing but I've never done it before in one of my shows. There might be a way of sneaking it into the final show but I think the more confident you get with the stuff, the story is strong enough to hold peoples' attention without having to put in extraneous routines.

I've just watched The Great Dictator, I've read a bit, but you need to sit down and really work at it. It was one of my ambitions as a stand-up is to be able to on stage and talk without any preparation whatsoever and be funny. Which is sort of what we're doing with the podcast - we don't prepare that at all and the first preview felt like that. It's quite an exciting process and I think it's quite interesting, as long as the audience knows that's what's happening.

The Headmaster's Son got some really great reviews, including a 5 star review from Chortle. Do you feel under any pressure that Hitler Moustache has to live up to that?

You can't really get to that point where you start worrying if people are going to like it; you've just got to try to do the best job you can. I've been doing stand-up now for six or seven years and I'm getting better as a performer every year so even if one idea was a better show I'm probably already a better performer than I was last year so I'm kind of hopeful that it will go down well . The pressure is kind of off because I do these shows to do these shows; it's not like I'm trying to get on TV on impress anyone; just to entertain people. The reaction has been great so far and I'm only about 25 percent of the way there so I feel quite confident that it's going to be a good show.

My favourite show is Christ on a Bike. That didn't get any 5 star reviews, but people remember it quite fondly so there's no point worrying too much about the critical acclaim. I think I know more about comedy than most comedy critics now, so they might not get what I'm doing which sometimes happens. Someone Likes Yoghurt got Worst Comedy Experience of 2005 from the Daily Telegraph but it wasn't; it was a good show, an interesting show but I think a comedy critic, even if they didn't like it, they'd have to go "Well that was an interesting hour of my time."

Someone Likes Yoghurt was quite unique in that it had a lot of improvised material. By taking the Collings And Herrin Podcast to the Edinburgh Show is that going to be your outlet for improvisation this year?

Yes, it sort of is in a way. We improvise it so they're going to be quite different shows. Even if we talk about something before in the kitchen and then we'll go up to record it and realise we've ruined it because we've talked about it. Part of what's great about it is surprising each other about what we're going to say and me being astonished by Collings' ridiculous opinions and him having to cope with me taking things way too far.

Because I get bored so quickly I tend to mess around with the routine and try to find new jokes in any show but, yeah, that will be 100 percent made up. We have things to fall back on, things that people enjoy hearing but it's quite natural and organic that we'll run our subjects into the ground until it's not funny, then it becomes funny again and then we'll stop doing it and do something else. We don't say, "Oh we better not do anything about bumming this week."

I think what makes it brilliant is the stuff on there that isn't very good; it proves the stuff that is good is made up. The hit rate of funny stuff given that we're literally sitting down and talking with each other is astonishingly high, but if we didn't have the other stuff, the bits that don't work, people would suspect we've scripted it all, or worked out in advance what we're going to do. I'll be interested to see whether that works in Edinburgh at lunchtime when I'm going to be quite tired. Maybe we'll see that it's just me being grumpy for five days but who knows? People seem to like those podcasts as well.

You've been doing a new show a year for a few years now. Is that something you'd like to continue with?

The show is a big part of my year and it is financially viable. I'm now actually making money because I've cut corners with costs, I tour it, and then I do a DVD through Go Faster Stripe. If you add all that together it kind of makes the six months it takes to put the show together worthwhile. I'm gaining momentum all the time; more people are coming year on year, but I just like creating a new ‘thing'. And it isn't that difficult; once you've got a ‘thing,' writing an hour seems pretty easy and then it becomes 90 minutes or two hours once you tour it.

I've kind of got a slight backup in that I could do Christ on a Bike and Talking Cock again. I'd quite like to do that because they're not on DVD and it's almost the 10th anniversary of Christ on a Bike. One year I was going to do Christ on a Bike as well as my other show but I couldn't do it every day and I couldn't find somewhere to do it just at weekends, but so much time has passed that I can have a look at those shows and rewrite them a bit. I've also got so many new fans that haven't seen those shows that it'd be quite good if I don't have time to write a show.

It's really great to be pushing myself and to just be working for yourself. I'm not working to any agenda and the audience tends to come with me. If they don't like it one year they still tend to come back the next year because they know that I'm taking chances - I don't want to churn out the same show where people see the same sort of thing. The Headmaster's Son is quite a sweet look at my childhood, Hitler Moustache is a harsh look at racism and politics and a ridiculous stunt so hopefully if they like me they'll like both shows

I think it's good to keep pushing yourself. As I get older it's more difficult, more tiring to do these things. Because I'm a writer, often when I'm doing these gigs at night it wipes me out completely the next day and I have to balance out if it's worth the time I'm taking doing gigs against what I'm losing in terms of being able to write stuff, but it's been working out okay. I think I'll have done eight shows at Edinburgh this decade which is a pretty impressive hit rate but I still get people complaining that I repeat material. I write 365 blogs a year, 52 podcasts a year and I write about 160 minutes of new material every year and you're still complaining about doing a joke that's 20 years old when I'm doing a charity gig, where I don't necessarily want to try out my new stuff? If I write something in a blog and it's good I'll use it on stage or somewhere else; that's part of the reason it exists.

You've been doing comedy in one form or another for about twenty years. Do you still struggle to find your own voice in your work?

Coming out of ‘Lee and Herring' it was hard to find a new voice. For Stewart it was a bit easier because he was much more himself and his stand up persona in ‘Lee and Herring' and was also doing his stand-up all the time anyway. I had to find a new thing to do on my own; my character very much depended on being with someone else. I think certainly the last four or five years I've really got a hold of my own thing I do in stand-up. Occasionally you'll see someone and be a bit influenced by them for a little while, but that's a good thing I think. What's strange on the circuit is I'll see someone who's really good and then pretty much realise that they've obviously been influenced by the stuff me and Stew did 10 or 15 years ago but that can be quite good.

One year I saw people like Terry Saunders and Josie long, I went to their shows and I was doing quite aggressive nasty shows and that made me think maybe i should do a slightly more lyrical and human show and that's why I kind of did The Headmaster's Son. You'll see someone and they'll point you in a direction or influence so that's kind of inevitable.

I like Charlie Brooker and I think reading his book you'll notice the blogs around that time maybe were slightly influenced every now and again. I really like a writer called Jonathan Ames and reading his books made me think I could write really incredibly personal stuff that I was too scared to write about before so you still get influenced by people and I think if you didn't that would be a shame. That's part of what an artistic community is about; you see each others' stuff, you realise when you're getting boring or when you're just treading water a bit.

I'm pretty good at writing for other people and I'm pretty good at taking someone else's voice. I think with Al Murray when I wrote Time Gentlemen Please I found it quite easy to get into his world; writing him and the other characters we both created. Journalists compare me to Stewart Lee but I don't know if they understand that we worked together for a long time; I think we both influenced each other. Sometimes people will say, "That's quite like a Stewart Lee routine," and you go, "well that's because we wrote together for 15 years and we liked the same kind of comedy which is why we worked together."

It's for other people to say if they think I'm like anyone else but I think I'm treading my own path, and quite deliberately so. I'm not thinking about becoming a TV star or anything; just trying to write good stuff and seeing where it leads me.

How do you see the Internet affecting comedy?

I think it already has, really. I'm doing a show in the autumn; a weekly sketch and stand-up show which I'll write and put together in the week and then put out on the internet which will be funded by people paying to see the actual show. If enough people come to see it I'll make almost as much money as I would writing a radio show but I have the control over it to do exactly what I want. Suddenly you get this kind of freedom.

The podcast and the blog and everything, it's a way of getting people interested in your work. I've been Twittering a lot over the past few weeks and you'll notice that people come up to you and say "I follow you on Twitter" or "I love the podcast". This stuff on the internet for free... it's like a calling card or advert. I don't understand why Matt Lucas and David Walliams do anything for the BBC. If you've got enough money make it yourself, have all the money from it and then sell it to the BBC. As successful artists become more successful they can break away from the restrictions that are being imposed on them by television.

I think the whole Ross/Brand thing is in danger of destroying TV as a viable place to do this job because you can't be restricted as a comedian. You can be edited down afterwards but as a comedian you want to go and do your thing not be thinking "Oh, I wonder if this is too offensive to say?" You want to think if it is too offensive to say, the producer will edit it out. That's why the podcast is popular; we can say anything we like and the public aren't stupid and most of them don't give a fuck about swearing or being offensive. They like that, they want that, so that's where they're going to go to get their comedy and that is terribly bad news for something like the BBC.

I want to talk about the reunions you've done with Stewart Lee, Tedstock and the 10th Anniversary TMWRNJ Show. Do you have any plans to revive the double act?

Every now and again it always comes up; Stewart always talks about doing it in 25 years time when we're really old. We did enjoy doing those shows and I think it's quite obvious that on stage we're having a good time and it's great that people love it so much. I think it would be a backward step unless we can think of something amazing to do. I wouldn't rule it out, it does seem like a lot of people who were fans of ours when they were kids are now in a position where they could get something done, but we're both doing well with what we're doing and the danger is if it would be as good as people remember it being?

We're good friends and but if we were to do it again I think we'd actually have to write some new material rather than just using the old stuff in a post-modern way. We should have done an Edinburgh show a couple of years ago when the people who liked us were in their mid-twenties and it would've been fun to do a reunion tour but it's kind of one of those things that it wasn't as successful as anyone could really imagine it being. The media never acknowledge it - it's only comedians and comedy nerds. It's never in I Love the 90s, none of our sketches are in the top 100 sketches. You'll sell 600 tickets pretty quickly and we could probably sell 3-4000 tickets but would that be the case if we did it all the time? Because it's a rare thing just every now and again people want to see it.

How do you feel about unlicensed recordings of your work, such as the infamous Heckle YouTube video and the reunion bootlegs?

Half a million people have seen the heckle video and I get people who'll come to gigs on the strength of that clip, so I'm absolutely happy for that to go up. I think it's not all about making money; a lot of it's about not making a lot of money. The BBC aren't going to release TMWRNJ so put it up on YouTube as far as I'm concerned. It would be great to have a proper release just so we can stick in all the extra stuff that would be there. With Fist of Fun there was at least another two or three shows worth of material that we could put out if it still exists.

Some of Stew's commercially available DVDs are being pirated. No-one's really making much money out of those; it's just for the love of putting the show out, but as long as the BBC don't want to put out a DVD I'm happy for the stuff to go out. And we were never going to commercially exploit the reunion gigs, so why not have it out there for free? It's nice if more people can see it.

Your DVDs tend to be packed full of additional content. Are you a big fan of DVD extras?

It's just nice to give value to something, and that's all we really wanted to do with that.

On the last DVD I had one of the early previews that just got filmed and I put that out in its entirety and that's just for someone who's a big fan of mine and is interested in the process. Most people aren't going to be interested in watching a poor performance of an early version of the show! There was a podcast on there and film stuff I've done and bits and pieces and it's nice to give some background.

As a comedy fan I got annoyed when a book came out that was sparse; nothing in it, someone cashing in on the TV success...

Hence the Fist Of Fun book?

Yeah, that's why we did the book, with that we really wanted to make it worthwhile. It's just about giving value and why not? So that's just the fanboy in both me and Stew.

With the Someone Likes Yoghurt DVD, Chris Evans from Go Faster Stripe came up to Liverpool and we had a day's worth of filming for the extras. It's just fun to give people a bit more and make it worthwhile and not feel you're just giving people an hour of stand-up that's available on another DVD but filmed in a different location where you're just ripping people off.

You've got a few strings to your bow: writer, actor, author, game show panellist. Is there anything you haven't done that'd you'd want to do?

It's just trying to get a balance between all those things, really. Now that I'm getting more of those panel show jobs it's quite good because earning a living doing those frees you up to do the stuff that you don't get paid for. I'd be happy to do one of those a week and then have the rest of the week to do whatever I wanted. If a little acting job comes along that's nice but I'm much more interested in doing the live stuff, the podcast, stand-up and the writing.

I'd like to be able to get my scripts on TV more. I write a lot of sitcoms and comedy dramas that don't get made, so I guess if I could expand a little bit it would be in that direction. I think the scripts are good; I think they should be on TV, most of them, and it's kind of frustrating that it's very difficult to get stuff on.

I'm incredibly lucky to have been working for 20 years. I've constantly worked making a living, I've never had to do anything else and something comes up all the time. It feels like things are definitely moving in the right direction; I feel like I'm getting better at doing what I'm doing, people seem more interested in it, I'm getting more offers of work so it's quite nice to take what comes and see where life takes you.

There might come a point that if I got a bit more successful I'd spend a few years just doing the shows again; as I said, like Christ On A Bike and Talking Cock, but it'd even be nice to do The Headmaster's Son again at some point. It felt like it was getting to a level where it might break through a little bit more. We did the London run and that was great; it felt like if I hadn't had to go on tour we'd have extended the London run and who knows what might've happened? It could've been a much more successful show so it's nice to have those shows there ready to go, but it's also great to force yourself to create something new.

You mentioned your book coming out, is that going to be in the same vein as Bye Bye Balham?

How Not To Grow Up is much more honest and open about various disgraceful ridiculous things I got up to. It's much more of a narrative about the year whereas Bye Bye Balham I spent a bit of time editing and adding information.

I see that book and, if we do any more of those, again as a DVD extra. They're for people who really, really like me and love the blogs and maybe don't want to read it all on a computer screen. How Not To Grow Up is more of a book that people who are not necessarily fans of mine might be interested in. There's a crossover with both Oh Fuck, I'm 40! and the blogs but there's a hell of a lot of extra stuff I was actually up to which I don't really tend to talk about in the blogs.

Frankie Boyle recently said he was going to quit standup in a couple years because he believes few comedians past 40 are funny. Do you believe that's necessarily true?

It's hard work being a stand-up; it's much harder and not as well paid as doing a game show or a chat show on TV so a lot of the good people will veer off into that or they're doing film work. Simon Pegg's doing films, Steve Coogan's doing films... they're not going to come back and do a little room above a pub, but that's how you become a good stand-up.

Ben Elton has been away from stand-up and doesn't know what the fuck any of it is about and when he came back he was doing very obvious and crappy material from what little I saw. But if you're still on the circuit and still interested in doing it and still interested in the job you can kind of get better. Stew's just... every year you're thinking, "Wow, this is getting more and more interesting." You wouldn't want him to give up because he's pushing things in a new direction.

It's circumstance and luck that's left me in this position. I feel fortunate because I'm still in a position to create interesting stuff, I make a good living at what I'm doing and I can see that it's possible to keep that going for the rest of my life. Ten years ago I would've said I wanted to be on TV and that's all I'm really interested in. If we'd become Little Britain as Lee and Herring neither of us would've done these interesting experimental shows which is kind of what's making us who we are at the moment. If Stew hadn't done 90s Comedian he wouldn't be seen as one of the greatest stand-ups of all time.

I think it's a job the older you get the more you should be doing but it's up to Frankie if he doesn't want to be doing it when he's 40. It's hard, tiring hard work but, you know, Billy Connolly is an amazing stand-up and he's in his sixties.

So Frankie's wrong, but I think I'm one of the ones he likes, he comes to see my shows, so I think I got into his small demographic!

Richard Herring, thank you very much!

Richard Herring's blog is at www.richardherring.com. His weekly podcast with Andrew Collins, The Collings And Herrin Podcast, can be found on iTunes or here.

Tickets are available for Hitler Moustache and Collings And Herrin Live at the Edinburgh Fringe.

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