The definitive
Liverpool Listings Guide

      Tuesday 30, November 1999

      MR LOVERMAN

      COMEDIAN RICHARD HERRING DISSECTS LOVE AND LAUGHTER


      As 90s cult comedy duo Lee and Herring, Richard Herring and partner Stewart Lee cultivated a subversive, left-wing comedy style characterised in BBC shows Fist of Fun and This Morning With Richard Not Judy. Despite both shows’ promising popularity neither were commissioned for a third series. The BBC now states their loss to television should cause heads to be hung in shame in certain quarters of the corporation. By the end of the 90s the pair had begun to pursue individual careers and Richard Herring kicked off the millennium writing 22 episodes for Al Murray’s, Time Gentleman Please. In the decade that followed Herring established himself as one of the UK’s foremost comedy writers, released a book, How Not To Grow Up and various critically acclaimed DVDs, wrote and presented radio shows and podcasts, gained a cult following for his blog, Warming Up which has not missed a daily entry since it began in 2002, published his first volume of selected blogs, Bye Bye Balham and resurrected his solo stand-up career performing sell-out runs at Edinburgh Fringe (the last of which was his 32nd appearance at the Festival to date). This month, as Herring brings number 32, What is Love, Anyway to Eric’s, we found out a little more about the workshy comedian...


      WHAT WAS THE IMPETUS FOR THE THEME OF THIS TOUR AND WHAT INFLUENCES YOUR THEMES GENERALLY?

      I try to pick a theme or subject that interests me. Usually the subject and title come first and then I work up some ideas, but occasionally I’ll have an inkling of which way I want to go. Two years ago I did a show about Hitler, last year it was Jesus (I realised I was following the career path of Pope Benedict) and so I wanted to do a big subject. I’d been thinking about love a lot, partly because I’ve been in a relationship for four years and it’s time to think about what happens next, but also partly because at the end of Christ on a Bike, when I’d suggested love might be as delusional, faith based and unprovable as religion the audience would often be a little unsettled. They’d spent 90 minutes laughing at religion, but now I was having a go at a magical thing that they believed in. We all think we know what love is and accept it unquestioningly, yet if you think about it for a second you realise how mysterious and unknowable and ephemeral it is. Challenging the status quo and closed systems of thought is what comedy is all about.


      HOW DO YOU WRITE MATERIAL FOR YOUR SHOWS?

      I’ve written a daily blog for over nine years and sometimes something presents itself there which I think might be a good routine, or I can discuss issues and start to feel my way with them, but these days I don’t really ‘write’ shows. I think about the subject, read about it, make notes about stuff that I think might work and then I just go on stage and chat about it. I do this pretty much every night for two months and by then it coalesces into a show. A lot of it starts as something that is ad-libbed or I find the best way to say something by trial and error. At its best, with a receptive audience it’s possible to ad lib entire ideas or find the comedy or a joke that will make a routine work. I don’t tend to tape or review what I’ve done, just get back up on stage the next night and usually manage to remember the good bits, but sometimes things get lost or are not funny the next time or you miss a crucial nuance. Once the show is together I’m still changing stuff on tour, able to concentrate on nuances of getting exactly the right word or gesture or inflection. It’s never finished, merely abandoned.


      TO BE A ‘NO GO AREA’?

      I don’t think there are. There’s comedy in every subject; it’s just how you handle it and what you find to laugh at. Most jokes are about context and status and something can be very funny said by one person and deeply offensive said by another. There are jokes I wouldn’t do, mainly because they’re not good jokes or have the wrong victim. I mainly like to joke about myself, but prefer comedy that punches upwards rather than downwards. Sometimes, if said in the right circumstances an ‘offensive’ joke can make a valuable point and sometimes the only way to gain temporary power over death, illness and horrible crimes is to laugh at them. It can be a release valve.


      HOW HAS SOCIAL MEDIA CHANGED THE WAY YOU WORK?

      It’s given me the freedom to do the stuff I want to do without having to go via a committee. So the things I do for fun or that are too racey or avant garde for mainstream media I can do myself as a blog, podcast or a tweet. It’s allowed me to cultivate an audience who consume the stuff I give out for free, but then largely pay to see me live. This job can be frustrating when projects don’t get commissioned or get changed by people who don’t know anything about comedy. The internet allows me to put out ideas, in various states of preparation, that I couldn’t do elsewhere. And the blogging and podcasting has made me a better writer and comedian and provided me with ideas that I have then examined further in my shows and books.


      IS COMEDY A CRAFT YOU CAN LEARN OR AN INHERENT GIFT?

      You can learn a lot of the techniques, but I think you have to have an inherent understanding of what’s funny or what might be funny. A good comedian can find humour in places that no one else would think of looking for it. You can learn the formulas, but you need to be an expert to make them invisible or subvert them or make the leap to break the rules entirely. And it’s such an odd job and a long learning curve that I think you really have to want to do it and so probably have some talent to begin with or it will be a long and frustrating life. Which it pretty much is if you know what you’re doing too.


      DO YOU FEEL THE SAME CHANGES HAVE OCCURRED IN COMEDY OVER THE LAST FEW DECADES AS OTHER FORMS OF ENTERTAINMENT?

      Comedy, like all media and art forms, swings back and forth on a pendulum. In some ways comedy has become more commercial, but there’s a much healthier left-field wing too and the internet has allowed smaller acts to get their work out to a big audience and make DVDs a viable option for someone like me. Whatever I was doing five years ago seems to be what’s happening in comedy. But whether I’m five years ahead or behind the pendulum I’m not sure.


      YOU’RE PLAYING ERIC’S IN LIVERPOOL, A COMPARATIVELY INTIMATE VENUE; DO YOU FEEL THE CAPACITY OF ARENAS LENDS ITSELF TO STAND-UP?

      I prefer to play more intimate venues, though obviously there is a commercial trade off. But I can’t see much point in playing to 10,000 people other than to make money. I like live comedy because it’s a live experience. And in my tours I play venues of 100 seats and some of 1000 seats, usually around 300. It’s nice to have the variety and for me 500-1000 would be the ideal combination of intimacy and commercial success. But I rarely get to play the big venues, so can’t be sure I’m not just saying that because those are the rooms I play. As a punter I don’t like seeing stuff at the O2, so imagine I wouldn’t as a performer. You might as well just watch the DVD. It’s great when you can see and sense everyone in the room and I like that whether it’s 30 people or 3000.


      ARE THOSE WHO ARE COMMISSIONING COMEDY MAKING DECISIONS THAT OFFER VIEWERS A DIVERSE CHOICE?

      I think it’s a hard job, but that maybe in today’s environment there aren’t enough commissioners prepared to take the chances involved for creating groundbreaking and brilliant TV. It’s safer to go for something that seems like something that is already successful (even though most truly successful shows are very original) and it’s hard to give a new show the room to breath that it needs. The best comedy shows take a few weeks for the audience to get into the swing of things. But for all the rubbish that makes it on there are many great shows. And if Stewart Lee can get a show on TV under his own rigorous terms then there is hope for us all.


      DO YOU FEEL YOU’VE HAD THE RECOGNITION YOU DESERVE FOR YOUR VARIOUS WORK?

      Probably not, but I’ve been lucky to work constantly for 20 years and have been involved in many TV and radio shows, which is more than many people get. I’m pretty proud of nearly everything I’ve done and nothing has really had any widespread recognition. In some ways that makes me lucky, because I’m still doing what I want to do and hardly anyone is judging me via an early success, But it’s frustrating that sometimes my written work doesn’t get produced whereas others with more recognition, but less of a work ethic are given series after series. But the people who get me and like me stay very loyal and it might suit me to be an outsider who is a bit unfairly overlooked by TV and awards and top 10 lists. Stewart is having to cope with suddenly being recognised as a great comedian and I’m not sure it’s an entirely positive experience for him, especially as like me he’d built himself up as a bit of an outsider.


      DO YOU FEEL THERE ARE ANY DEEPER PSYCHOLOGICAL REASONS FOR COMEDIANS DOING WHAT THEY DO OTHER THAN USING IT AS A VEHICLE TO ENTERTAIN PEOPLE?

      Sometimes. And many comics are a bit needy or crazy or self-obsessed. But were they like that already or did the job make them that way? I always just liked making people laugh and people who made me laugh, which might come from some kind of neediness, but I hope was more to do with just enjoying laughing. There’s an element in us all probably that wants to show people they were wrong to treat us badly or underrate us. And some comics are driven by revenge. But though I play around with madness and eccentricity I hope that I am relatively down to earth and sane. I’m probably not though.


      YOU’RE ALREADY A PROLIFIC WRITER AND COMEDIAN, WHAT’S NEXT?

      Looks like I will just carry on doing more of the same. I’m enjoying touring for half the year and writing for half the year and filling my time with dumb podcasts and blogs. Hopefully I’ll keep experimenting. I’ve written a TV comedy drama which I’d love to get made, but I’ve been doing this long enough to know it’s unlikely. I’d quite like to become a professional snooker player, who only plays snooker against himself, quite badly, but people still want to pay to watch that.

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