By Noel Oxford
I have learned more about the comedian called Richard Herring in the past week than I ever did in over a decade of loyally following his output. Having read his book, shaken his hand, stalked him on Twitter and now, finally, got his actual living words in my inbox, I feel like we are close to being brothers.
If you don’t remember Herring from his halcyon telly days alongside grumpy beanpole Stewart Lee in the 1990s, he is a man who makes incredibly layered and relevant comedy for the clever, and mixes it liberally with lovely, palatable cock jokes for the rest of us.
Besides telly, he’s done stand-up, written books, recorded dozens of podcasts, kept a daily blog for bloody yonks and most of his work he just gives away for free, because he’s probably a socialist.
I knew all that before though. The main thing I’ve learned about Richard Herring this week, is that he is incredibly prompt and gracious, and by those very virtues, he is now the third most famous person I’ve interviewed, after Dennis Taylor and Brian Wilson (the MP, not the acid casualty musician).
Thanks so much for your time, Richard. What are you up to right now?
I am in the middle of promoting my new book, so I have just been on Channel Five’s The Wright Stuff and am doing lots of readings and publicity stuff. A new series of As It Occurs To Me starts in a week and a half (of course nothing is written as yet) and I am shortly starting work on rewriting my 2001 show Christ on a Bike, which I am doing at the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh this year.
Unless you mean right now. In which case I am filling in this questionnaire.
You’ve written a very fine book! Well done. Tell us about it.
It’s called How Not To Grow Up and it’s about the year I turned 40 and how it felt to reach that milestone, comparing myself to my dad at that time and trying to work out if I had wasted my life. It was an interesting year which started out with me behaving a bit wildly and ended with me in a bit of a better place. It wasn’t an entirely happy time, but it was largely quite a funny time in retrospect. I wanted to write something honest about my life and the way I’ve been living it, that hopefully would resonate with most people – I am not sure any of us feel that we are truly grown up.
How’s it selling?
Well, it’s only officially gone on sale today so don’t know. Sold quite a few copies at the readings and it’s been up into the top 80 books on Amazon, so hopefully that’s a good sign. But it’s early days.
What is a good review on our fine website worth to you? We accept sweets.
I hope that anyone who wants to write about it will do so honestly and I am as interested in hearing bad reviews as good. It’s one of the ways you learn to be better.
A lot of the material in the book is echoed in your show Oh Fuck, I’m 40! Why revisit it?
I don’t really see it as being the same idea as the 40 show, which was really about reaching 40 rather than what happened afterwards. There are one or two bits that are in both works, but the show was about 20,000 words and the book is 120,000 words, so I clearly had a lot more to say on the subject. And I wanted to talk more honestly about the personal things that were going on, which I can only do with the benefit of hindsight – I wrote much of the 40 show before I was actually 40 – and I wanted to tell the story of how I left some of my old life behind and met my girlfriend.
You seem quite happy to describe yourself as a “manchild”, a term that I think carries some stigma. Are you trying to reclaim that, now, as well?
Not really. I like to embrace the negative things about being immature as well as the positive. I think most of us (men and women) are children inside and the book if anything is trying to show that a lot of “sensible” people are hanging on to the worst aspects of childhood (the self-centredness, the selfishness) and look down on what I think are positive things about being childish (playfulness, the ability to laugh at things, the sense of wonder at this incredible world).
What do you think of all this NEET/kidult stuff in the papers lately? Has any of that been in your mind as you’ve been writing and touring?
I haven’t noticed all that much. I hadn’t heard of the term kidult til I did the 40 show and I don’t know what NEET means. I am glad to know that I am not alone and that there are other people facing the quandaries I went through – I hope reading about me going through them will help them a bit. But the book’s mainly about making people laugh. Mainly at me.
You’ve obviously set a lot of stock by milestones and landmarks like 40. I’ve recently turned 30 and experienced very much the same sort of thing as you describe. Why do you think we’ve ascribed such arbitrary importance to something so arguably silly?
It’s just a pointer isn’t it, that we’re getting older and further from our youth and closer to death. There are expectations both from society and our younger selves and you’re bound to take stock, even though the landmarks are arbitrary. It’s a good thing to take a look at your life every now and again and make sure you’re happy with how things are, or if you can improve them. Maybe the younger you was wrong to have certain expectations or maybe the younger you was on to something. It’s worth checking.
My thirties were definitely my happiest time if it helps – though now I’m over the wobble I am loving my forties too.
Is there much difference between being funny on paper and funny on stage?
Yes there is – you can use a lot of tricks and force of personality when you’re speaking and also get across irony and sarcasm in ways that can be lost on the page. You also have a little more scope to explore things when people can read at their own speed. But some of it is the same and sometimes I perform something that’s very written and like prose, whilst you can sometimes be punchier in writing. I have always done both so it’s not a gear shift for me. I am as much a writer as a comedian.
How do you feel about your comedy output now, as opposed to in the 1990s, when you were enjoying greater success? What are the main differences?
I am not sure I really was enjoying greater success then. I was on TV but don’t think you can measure success in those terms. Especially as none of our TV shows really captured the public imagination (though there was a loyal cult audience for it). I think I am way more successful now. More people are coming to see me live, more people are buying my stuff, I am making a much better living and I am much better at what I am doing. And enjoying it way more.
We were young and ambitious back in the 90s and Stew and me had lots of arguments about what we should be doing, due to our insecurities and inexperience. It’s much better to be in a place where I feel comfortable with what I am doing. And to be almost totally autonomous and be able to make a living without worrying if the BBC are going to give me another series.
I am proud of the work Stew and me did together and think it deserved more acclaim than it got, but it’s only in the last couple of years that I have felt my career is really getting somewhere. And I am glad to still be producing interesting and acclaimed work in my forties, which might not be happening if we’d had more success earlier.
Hitler Moustache seems to have gone down really well with nitpicking bastards like us, as did Headmaster’s Son, and rightfully so. How does it feel to think you’re doing (arguably) your best work in the middle of your career?
See above really, but I am hopeful that I will continue to get better at what I do over the next 20 years too. It’s good to have hit a purple patch at the moment and to have had a few shows that have been liked by nearly everyone. But I think Someone Likes Yoghurt which divided people a lot was just as good a show – just people hadn’t tuned into me in the same way.
How do you think you’ll know when you’ve hit the peak of your powers?
I don’t think I will be able to tell that. Only in hindsight I guess when I realise I am only producing rubbish! But part of being successful is to take the chance and do something that might fail. Not everything will be as good as your best thing and you can’t beat yourself up about it. My least favourite show of my own is the Hercules Terrace one, but it is probably the most important one I did, in that it was that that spurred me back into stand up, but also made me more confident to try new things and to believe in myself more. Each new thing is a step and sometimes a backwards step or a side-step is more important than a leap forwards.
You mentioned you’re doing Edinburgh this year, as usual. Can you tell us a bit more? What have you got lined up?
Yes, I am doing Christ on a Bike: The Second Coming and also ten Collings and Herrin live podcasts and one live AIOTM.
What’s it like buying yoghurt with a Hitler moustache? Did anyone query your purchase?
It wasn’t something that ever struck me. No, no one asked me about yoghurt when I had the moustache. Perhaps they were distracted.
Why are you so mean about Peter Kay, and do you think you could beat him in a race?
I think Kay is very good at what he does, but it disappoints me that the public love it as much as they do. As a comedian I want to try and do new ideas and stuff that no one else has done, but Kay’s stuff is pretty obvious (though well put together and artfully performed) and the kind of stuff I would expect to hear for free from my mates on a night out at the pub.
But when I joke about him the joke is as much directed at myself as at him, and the possible jealousy fuelling my anger. I wouldn’t swap places with him though. I have no interest in playing stadiums and though I am happy to be paid don’t want to do stuff just for the money. Different things motivate different people and the reason I give so much away for free is because it is comedy that interests me and getting better at it.
I could definitely beat him in a running race. I am pretty good at running.
DO you remember Rola Cola?
I actually don’t.
Can you please draw us a trademark Richard Herring spunking cock?
Not on my computer I can’t.
Anything else you would like to say to our shambling audience of cretins?
I hope you will keep checking out my stuff and that you will enjoy most of it. I am a comedy fan myself and understand what an important part the paying public play in sustaining my career. So keep letting me know what you think and allowing me to be as experimental as I am being.
Thanks again, Richard, really do appreciate your time.