Siobhán Kane interviews comedian Richard Herring, who brings his What Is Love Anyway? show to Whelan’s on Friday 6th January.
Richard Herring has been one of comedy’s most interesting and prolific contributors for over twenty years, beginning his career in earnest through writing (along with Stewart Lee) for the brilliant Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris’s radio programme On the Hour in 1991. The satirical programme was a kind of apprenticeship for many writers and ideas (notably Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge made his first appearance as the “Sportsdesk reporter”), but it also evidenced the chemistry between Lee and Herring, and over the years they became synonymous with a subversive, inventive kind of comic writing; surreal, satirical and subtly direct – from Fist of Fun right through to This Morning With Richard Not Judy.
When the writing partnership ended with Lee (they remain great friends), Herring continued to create interesting work, and his many one man shows (that have often debuted in Edinburgh) have been well wrought wonders such as Christ on a Bike (which he revisited at the Fringe last year, ten years on), The Headmasters Son and Hitler Moustache. He moves easily between live performance, television and radio, contributing so much to each medium, from his comedy drama You Can Choose Your Friends, to the hugely popular podcasts he began in 2008 Collings and Herrin with broadcaster Andrew Collins.
What really makes him so gifted, is that he is far more than a comic, and his searing intelligence flies out of so much of his work – he has a particular grasp of satire that exhibits a freewheeling, inspired mind, and over the years he has approached various subjects such as religion and politics with abandon, creating new fans in the process. His most recent show explores the complicated world of love – What is Love, Anyway? and before his Dublin show, he talks to Siobhán Kane.
You have been so comfortable in collaboration throughout your career, with Stewart Lee, Andrew Collins, and others, can you explain the similarities and differences between your kinship with those two men in particular? The main difference I suppose is that I played the low status character with Stewart and the high status character with Andrew. The partnerships were very different though – I worked with Stewart for well over a decade and we were in each others pockets and scripted most of our stuff, whilst Andrew would just pop round to my house once a week and we’d piss about. Given Andrew was not a comedian I was amazed at his ease and wit especially when we did the live gigs. He was a lot more easy going than Stew, but then again we didn’t spend so much time together.
Seeing some of your work, like Hitler Moustache and Christ on a Bike transcend controversy to get justly great reviews was quite comforting- I couldn’t really understand why these people felt so offended by something that is clearly within the context of comedy and satire – what are your thoughts, and also what have been some of the strangest things that have happened to you because of the controversy? Any controversy from either of those shows came from a tiny minority and got whipped up a little bit in the media. Most people, and most Christians, were prepared to give the shows a chance on their own merits. Funnily enough in both cases the criticisms or attempts to create news stories came from people who hadn’t actually seen the shows. It was odd going out of the venue in Glasgow to see an organised 30 person strong protest with placards made about me “Herring caught in God’s net” kind of thing. I tried to have a conversation with the protestors at the few venues where they turned up but they weren’t interested in listening or indeed seeing the show.
I saw Christ on a Bike again in Edinburgh last year, was part of you revisiting it to remind yourself how enjoyable it was, and also to revisit the work and see if you felt it still stood on its own merits? I wanted another crack at it because I felt I was a better stand up and that many of the people who now enjoy my stuff had not seen this show. It also had my favourite of my own routines in it. it felt a shame that a good show like this one was not on DVD, but I was also interested to revisit if and see what else I had to say on the subject. I expected to need to change it more than I did. It mostly stood up very well. But I did make a few additions and subtractions. I am glad I went back to it and might do the same with Talking Cock next Edinburgh.
Revisiting work can act as a marker of sorts – do you feel you have changed a great deal from when you first wrote Christ on a Bike? I have changed quite a bit, though not so much in my attitude to religion, though I am perhaps a little more “live and let live” with it all nowadays and a bit more respectful to religious people’s views and rights to believe what they want. I felt more sympathy for the vast majority of Christians who follow the teachings in the Bible, who are seemingly side-lined by more extreme and less good Christians who make all the fuss. Turning the other cheek is difficult but admirable. All but a tiny minority manage to pull it off. Most Christians who bothered to see the show enjoyed it. It’s pretty positive about Christ in the end.
Language seems of paramount importance to you, the nuances, the room for misunderstanding – when did this love begin, and do you find yourself going back to certain writers in particular for not only inspiration but a kind of anchoring? Who are your favourite writers? I have always loved stories and writing and enjoy the power of words and the fact that you can make new combinations that haven’t happened before. I love Kurt Vonnegut, Charles Bukowski and Jonathan Ames. But I am more influenced by comedians than writers. Tina Fey, Larry David, Tim Minchin and many more.
This (along with writers block) seems to also account for the fact that you have a blog that you studiously write every day, is it the routine that you like about it, or the continuity of it? I don’t always like it, but I am quite obsessive about stuff and once I have set myself a challenge I find it hard to back away. It would seem a shame to miss a blog now, so close to the decade. I like the fact that I have this little record of tiny parts of my life and it’s been very useful for writing routines and my book. I do it as much for the people who read it as myself though, I suppose.
When you wrote for On the Hour in the early nineties, did you feel that you were contributing to something quite special, did you feel a very keen sense that Chris Morris and Armando Iannucci were like-minded irreverent souls? It was my first major writing job, so although I sensed it was special I didn’t really have anything to compare it with. It quickly took off and it’s hard to know if I really knew it would do so well. But it was clear that Morris, Iannucci and Coogan especially were something special. But Armando collected together an incredible team of talented people. And Patrick Marber.
At the time you were working so much with Stewart on things like Fist of Fun and This Morning with Richard Not Judy, things seemed so much more possible – it seems almost impossible that a show like This Morning…would get broadcast now on a Sunday morning, it was perfect, and subversive. How you feel about the landscape for comedy now, has it changed dramatically since those times?You continue to navigate your way through as brilliantly as ever, but somehow the medium of television seems to have been rattled. I think something like TMWRNJ would happen on the internet now. And maybe the internet would have been a better home for it. It was nice that it was on proper TV as that did make it more subversive and also created boundaries that we could push at, but I love the freedom and autonomy of the internet and of stand up. It’s amazing that Stew and me got on TV, especially as most of the TV people seemed bamboozled by us. It was a time though where chances would still be taken and maybe there wasn’t so much competition. I didn’t quite appreciate the opportunity at the time, but think we did well with it. It feels like a different country and a different person though.
Yet there is a positive side to that in terms of things like web episodes that you have done – there is perhaps a wider landscape now that can be navigated? Yes, exactly. Now the internet allows me to do whatever I want with no parameters and no interference – and no money, but that’s not so important.
Would you say that radio is your preferred medium? It is not only that you have written so much for radio and contributed so much to it, it is also that somehow that you stretch the boundaries of what is expected of it. I always think there is something so intimate about the radio, it implicates itself into people’s lives much more subtly than television, and though not as visceral as the live experience, has more in common with it, perhaps – what do you think? I do love radio, though podcasts have a similar intimacy. I prefer stand up above all else though because the performance only truly exists in the room on the night. I like autonomy which I get from stand up and podcasts, but on radio you are usually pretty much allowed to get on with things and I am grateful that Radio 4 let me push at the boundaries once again with my Objective show.
You have performed so much at the Edinburgh festival, and there is something inherently special about that place, can you expand on why? Is it because it is a kind of gladiator pit for artists, set amidst beautiful gothic architecture? I like having a deadline and I like being allowed to do whatever I want without having to go via committee. The Fringe gives me both. I don’t see it as gladiatorial. It’s mainly a celebration of theatre and comedy in an environment where you can socialise with and watch your peers. Increasingly though, I retire to my own little bubble, but enjoy working up a show and having the deadline of the first performance to work towards.
Your love of history is obvious, and is what you studied at university, but where did this love of Rasputin begin? What do you love about him? As a teenager I was a bit obsessed with mysticism and paranormal and so figures like Rasputin and Nostradamus, and Jesus, were fascinating to me. Rasputin is a fascinating character and his influence on a major part of the history of the 20th Century and his hold over the gullible and the religious interests me massively. He was like a rock star and lived that kind of hedonistic life style, but was conflicted due to his faith and began to believe his own myth. It’s heady stuff and maybe I would like to identify with him – I’d like to, but I don’t.
What is Love, Anyway – explores something that can shroud or illuminate a person’s life, and love is such a complex terrain, it is understandable why you were attracted to the subject, but does its inherently nuanced aspects make it a difficult subject to tackle? Not really, the nuances made it interesting to me. This was actually the easiest show to write of any I have done – if anything the problem was I had too much to say. It’s great to have something complex and multi-layered to investigate and it meant that I was able to surprise myself and learn things along the way
You seem to choose things that are never going to be easy to explore; Hitler, Jesus – and make it all seem so effortless – something a great teacher does, and I see you in those terms, and since your father was a teacher, did you ever consider it? Perhaps this is a kind of teaching, really? I think I would have been a teacher if I hadn’t done this and yes, with shows like Talking Cock and Christ on a Bike I do sometimes feel like a lecturer. I think it’s important to ask questions about things, answers are less vital, but comedy has a great power to inform whilst entertaining.
How important do you think American comedy has been to you? I have been thinking a lot about various American comics grasp on satire and I think there is a really interesting dynamic there, because it is a country that extolls the rights of freedom, for example, but then has countless ways to curb such freedoms – the political correctness is so po-faced that satire has a genuine, valuable place in that society, the way The Daily Show is more real than Fox News. What do you think? I think most of the great comedy at the moment is coming out of America. There is lots to satirise there, but there are some terrific people working in sit-com especially who are creating multi-layered work that is also genuinely funny.
You are so prolific, looking back, which shows or pieces of writing do you feel most proud of? It’s very hard for me to pick anything out. Christ on a Bike was a very important show to me but Hitler Moustache and Objective have bits that I am very proud of. I also very much like the denouement to What is Love Anyway? which takes an audience from laughing, to the point of crying, back to laughing within the space of a few seconds
If you had to be a superhero, which would you be? I would be TubeMan, a character I came up with who dares to confront people who are being impolite or inconsiderate in public situations.
Running seems of huge importance to you – I think it is a huge achievement to run a marathon – is it another anchor in your life? I enjoy running when I do it and find it a great way to relax and think and get fit. I don’t do it anywhere near as much as I should though. So it’s not really an anchor. I haven’t had many anchors in my life which is probably why my career has been a bit mercurial, but my girlfriend is now helping me to understand that there are more important things than work and to get my life, my successes and failures into some kind of perspective.