For comedy aficionados, Richard Herring needs no introduction. So we’re not going to give him one. Declan Tan asks the questions
What is it you strive for in your shows?
Mainly to make people laugh, but along with that I suppose my main goal is doing so in an original way and hopefully also producing something that will make people think and maybe challenge their world view. But it’s different for each show.
Is there some kind of ideology behind your routines, something that you’re consciously trying to get across?
Sometimes. Other times not. Each show and routine tries to do different things. But I guess if there is a common theme it is challenging preconceptions and making people think about what they believe. If something is true I think you can question it and it will still hold up. If it’s not true then questioning it can help you realise that. By making people laugh you can get their guard down a little bit and discuss things that you might not be able to do or tackle subjects that might otherwise make people clam up.
What do you think of the whole interview procedure, is it worthwhile to ask someone to discuss his/her work?
It’s good to be questioned about what you do and to think about it yourself. Often interviews and the self-analysis that they entail can help one get to grips with something you’re doing or indeed make you question your own motives.
Would you consider your comedy ‘alternative’?
I don’t think that term really has any meaning in the 21st century. It’s a bit of an 80s term. I am not doing mainstream stuff on the whole, I suppose. But comedy loses some power if it becomes too mainstream anyway. I think my audience will always probably be smallish in comparison to those big TV names, but I would prefer to be creating interesting and original work. Though I am not opposed to doing TV or indeed some more mainstream work – you just have to be careful to get the balance right and I’ve realised from observation and my own experience that “success” can sometimes affect the quality of one’s work in a negative sense. I am lucky in fact to be in the position where I am an acquired taste and I am not the face of BBC prime time or crisps or something as it means I can cover the subjects I want to without being beholden to anyone else.
Does ‘alternative’ comedy have a relationship with truth and honesty?
I think most good comedy is about truth and honesty. But some of it is about lies. There are no rules. For me my honesty about myself allows me to be honest about other subjects. But sometimes I will take a contrary or dishonest approach to a subject in order to explore it thoroughly. There is a freedom in honesty though and it is good to express oneself.
You’re mentioned that you’re a fan of Bukowski. What is it about his work that you enjoy?
I like the fact that he’s not bothered about revealing himself to be an unpleasant or unscrupulous person. There is an honesty there that is endearing. We’re all fuck ups and it’s refreshing to read people who admit it with a sense of perspective. But he’s also a brilliant writer with an interesting life that has some parallels with mine, but is mainly entirely different. It’s good to see the world from another point of view.
Of course I am not saying that you have but what do you think of some literary figures’ move further to the right, in terms of politics, as they got older (i.e. Hamsun, Céline and Pound)? Does the same thing happen to comedians?
The same happens with a sizeable proportion of the population of all backgrounds. Realism and idealism are things that one has to attempt to keep balanced in life and I am not surprised that people become more cynical and selfish as they grow older. But there’s no need for it to happen and in fact, probably amongst comedians most of the older ones have stuck to their guns or get more left wing if anything. Personally i think it’s good to keep an open mind throughout your life and there is no shame in changing your mind as long as you do it for the right reasons. I have always been fairly central left and don’t see myself changing too much. But it’s easier to be left wing when you’re poor and young then when you’re rich and old so I can see why people do change their mind. And don’t forget that a good proportion of people are left wing when they are young out of a pose or because they think that’s what they should do or cos they think it might get them somewhere. Time usually flushes these people out. But life has some difficult choices for us all.
Do you consciously try to evolve through each of your performances?
I keep working in all aspects of my job, writing, performing and the vagaries of delivery. I want to keep improving and fortunately find the craft so interesting that I can do a show 100 times and not get bored with it, because I am discovering new avenues in the routines or new ways of doing them. It’s more perfecting than evolving in that sense. But I also don’t want to turn into a bitter old man saying things were different and better in my day. I love comedy and exploring the way it changes, but I also want to stay relevant. But these things tend to come organically rather than as the result of planning. By staying original and pushing oneself hopefully one can help to shape the way comedy is going, as well as being shaped by the work of others. You have to stay interested, which so far i have.
Are there any comedians, or styles, that you particularly respect? And any that you don’t?
I like any comedian who can surprise me. Originality is again the key. I tend to like the ones who have thought of something that I haven’t thought of, or expressed it more clearly, than the ones who tell me stuff I already know. But sometimes an observational comedian using the more basic comedic formulas can still be skilful enough to surprise me and in some ways I find that more impressive than some of the more avant garde comics. A comedian has to keep moving and not get too predictable. Not many achieve that over a whole career.
Who would you say your influences are (comedic, literary, political or otherwise)? Or does the idea of listing them seem arbitrary and tedious?
I think you get influenced by everything, good and bad and the list would be too long and complex to have any kind of meaning. As a child I was very impressed with Monty Python and Pete and Dud and The Young Ones. But if the influence was anything it was about the importance of being your own person and creating stuff that was yours. But throughout life you meet people, read books, see shows which shape you as a person.
What do you think of the brand of comedy that usually fills stadiums and sells millions of DVDs?
I am impressed by any comedian who does their job competently, even if it’s not my sense of humour. It’s a tough job and it’s not easy to get that many people to like you. It’s not my cup of tea generally speaking, but it’s only lazy comedians who coast on a wave of success and don’t put the work in that annoy me. And there are plenty of those at all levels. And it is possible to do something that is populist and also worthy. Tim Minchin and Morecambe and Wise spring to mind. I don’t have a problem if an act becomes popular. That is not what they should be judged by and there is no shame in success if achieved on the right terms
Are you at your happiest when on stage, or when writing your material, or neither?
I prefer performing because it’s more of an immediate thrill and just writing can be lonely and hard to cope with, whilst there is nothing that compares with making a crowd of people laugh. But after working very hard and going through pain and tears to write, it is also very satisfying to get something finished that you are proud of. I am lucky to be able to do both. If I had to do just one I think I would be unhappy
Has performing ever felt futile and fruitless? Any moments of despair? If so, What has kept you going?
All the time, at regular intervals. It is quite futile in many ways and as a performer your mood is very much affected by your last gig, or how things are going right now. You just have to push on through it and luckily (and kind of sadly) a good gig can banish the blues immediately. It’s a tough job in many ways and there is little security to it and one is always fearful that there might be better ways to fill one’s time or that one might have lost it. But the same is true of any job and life in general. You just have to keep on pushing on or lie down and die! Nothing we do has any real meaning in the long term and we’re just specks of dust on a rock hurtling through space. What keeps us going?
Has there ever been a moment when you’re felt contempt for your audience? How about hecklers?
Again these moments come along every now and again and sometimes an audience or a member of it deserves contempt. The danger is that you start to hate all audiences and forget that you are there to entertain them, they’re not there to pander to your ego. If a crowd is dull or misses the nuances you sometimes feel like slacking off and not giving them the best show, but there’s a chance that the dullness is something to do with you, or they’re just quiet and don’t show their enjoyment as much, so a big part of the job I think is to have the grace and ability to keep performing as if it’s the best gig ever. You can’t let your head drop – though sometimes it gets hard. Hecklers are generally just a pain in the arse. They’re easier to deal with than people realise and it’s an annoyance usually if they throw you off your stride. But again you have to embrace the changes and the unpredictability of live performance and try to make a positive out of it. If you have too much contempt for your audience or comedy in general then (unless you harness it and make it the act, which is hard, but possible) you’re heading in a bad direction. No one is forcing a comedian to be a comedian. If you hate it all of the time then you can stop.
Do you think a comedian or an artist has any other purpose than expression/creation?
It’s fine to be just entertaining and to give people something to laugh about. Life can be bleak for us all and if a comedian telling a cock joke makes someone forget their problems for half an hour or banish the blues then that is something to be happy about. There’s a danger that comedy can become all about subversion or expression and I think you have to keep the funny in there. I am lucky to be able to use my work to create and express myself, but there is nothing wrong in making people laugh until their sides hurt.
What do you think of the current state of comedy?
I think it’s pretty much the same as it’s always been. Lots of good stuff, plenty of bad stuff. Lots of the good stuff doesn’t get the credit it deserves, but some does. The stand up circuit is much more inventive and interesting than when I started out. TV is producing similar amounts of great and terrible stuff, but now with the internet there are a lot more outlets for people to do interesting stuff. The people at the high end doing stadium tours and making loads of money might seem a bit mercenary and weird, but there were always these types of comedian and if anything there is more opportunity for invention and self-expression.