Richard Herring is one of Britain’s leading comedy pioneers. William Gadsby Peet reels him in ahead of his tour dates at Camberley Theatre, Reading's Hexagon and Dorking Halls
Okay, let’s start with the disclaimer: Richard Herring is not, nor has he ever been, a member of the Communist Party. His politics, on the whole, are socialist in leaning, but not enough to warrant the title ‘Red Herring’. I just saw the opportunity for a pun and went for it.
In truth, I was lucky to secure a chat with him at all. It was March 8, International Women’s Day – a day upon which Herring, who comes to The Hexagon at Reading this month, is usually up to his gills in Twitter trolls who think it’s smart to ask: “When’s International Men’s Day?”
His responses are perfectly representative of Richard Herring the comedian: cheeky and silly; offensive to some, but ultimately good-hearted; and with a subtle edge of social satire beneath all the quirkiness and hair.
Born in East Yorkshire and raised in Somerset by parents who taught at the local school he attended – his dad was the headmaster – Richard was fascinated by humour from an early age.
“I didn’t really like music or pop records like the other kids,” he recalls. “I listened to Monty Python and Pete and Dud tapes, stuff like that. It was always my obsession. I kind of think I just wanted to be a clown, really!”
Richard spent much time performing sketches with his mates as a teenager, but it was at Oxford that he really got into his comedic stride.
“It was a very exciting time to be there,” he says. “I met Stewart Lee and Emma Kennedy, as well as various other people I’ve worked with for many years since. Armando Iannucci was there and Al Murray was in the year below us, so there were a lot of future greats on the scene at the same time.”
The meeting with Lee was the one that would prove most fortuitous. The pair were introduced at a party in second term and bonded over shared comedic tastes, going on to perform regularly together in a student comedy revue called The Seven Raymonds that also featured, among others, the writer and actress Emma Kennedy. Despite this gaggle of kindred spirits, however, it certainly wasn’t all plain sailing.
“We went up to the Edinburgh Fringe, but it was the wrong time to be in a student revue, as stand-up had fully taken over,” explains Richard. “We basically got heckled and bullied by all the fully grown comedians, who hated us for our years of perceived privilege as Oxford students. It seems funny, with hindsight, but at the time it was character-building, I think.”
With university behind them, Richard and Stewart decided to team up as a comedy duo because, inter alia, ‘Lee and Herring’ sounds a bit like Lea & Perrins, maker of Worcestershire sauce. This, verily, made both of these fine minds chuckle.
“We came to London determined to have a crack at it. Having moved in with a few friends in Acton, we started hitting the stand-up circuit and doing some writing and it all snowballed from there. I’d told myself that I would give it five years and then review things. If it wasn’t working out, I’d get a proper job. As it happened though, before the five years were up we had a TV series, so it seemed to be going quite well!”
Why did the duo split?
“Well, our series This Morning with Richard not Judy was axed by the BBC. By then we’d worked together for 13 years, and although we shared a very similar sense of humour, we were actually quite different as people. When you’re with someone day in day out for that length of time, it becomes quite hard to be civil to them if you’re not having sex. Which we weren’t – and anyone who says we were is lying!”
In any case, parting ways proved hugely fruitful for both Herring and Lee. For Richard, indeed, the split marked the start of an astonishingly productive period. Since 2002 he has written an entry in his Warming Up blog every single day, pioneered the comedy podcast format with his Edinburgh Fringe and Leicester Square Theatre series – the latter notable for the occasion on which guest Stephen Fry admitted an attempt at suicide – and managed to write and perform one-man shows at the Fringe for
11 consecutive years. Only the birth of a daughter with his wife, Catie Wilkins, kept him away last year. It is from these 11 years of material that the aptly – if somewhat unimaginatively – named ‘The Best’ tour has been crafted.
“I just want to do a show that’s funny throughout,” explains Herring. “A lot of my one-man shows try to make a point, but although ‘The Best’ has a bit of that, it’s really just me trying to be hilarious for 90 minutes.
“If I’ve paid for a babysitter and this is my one night out of the month, it’s a big deal. I want to come away feeling like I’ve had a good time. I don’t necessarily want to go see a young man who’s purposely trying to annoy me for 60 minutes.
“To be honest, I think stand-up is a brilliant relief valve. Go laugh at your life, or at other people’s. It helps. Ultimately, I think, it makes you less likely to go stab someone later, so that’s an added bonus.”
An evening of laughter that leads to a fall in knife crime? Sounds red hot to me.
- Richard Herring is at Camberley Theatre April 12, Reading's Hexagon April 27, and Dorking Halls May 5.
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