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Saturday, July 2, 2022

Interview: Richard Herring

The comedian on his podcast, his time in Oxford and living in Boris Johnson's armpit

For many an ardent comedy fan, Richard Herring is the unsung king of interviews. His podcast “Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre Podcast” (or RHLSTP as Herring and his audiences are sure to remind you) would often be the reason I would scare early morning commuters on the tube with my earphones in and a frenzied smile on my face. As a prolific stand up, writer and radio personality, I was somewhat daunted at the prospect of interviewing Herring, whose guests have varied from Stephen Fry to Edgar Wright to Brian Blessed. Beginning his career as part of the comedy duo Lee and Herring, Richard’s early success was to be found in TV cult classics such as Fist of Fun (1995-1996) and This Morning with Richard not Judy (1998-9). Ahead of his upcoming episode of RHLSTP at the Playhouse later this month, we spoke to Herring about his podcast, and what to expect.

 So, Richard, you started your comedy career here as a student with the Oxford Revue?

“Yeh I was here from 1986 till 1989. I came to university and pretty quickly concentrated on the comedy rather than history. I met Stuart Lee in the first term, and we started writing together for the second term and then we ended up working together for thirteen years after that. So, it was a very good time and we had a lot of fun. I think what was one of the most enjoyable things we did was we put on an obscure medieval shepherd play- we walked around Oxford in a cart and performed this play in medieval English. It wasn’t our usual thing, but we collected donations and gave them to charity.”

Did you have a favorite venue that you performed at?

“I did a lot of acting and comedy, particularly in the Burton Taylor rooms which I’m sure are still there. I also had roles at the Playhouse, which I will be returning to. We used to do a comedy show in the Oxford Union, but it was in the cellar underneath; up above in the debating chamber, there was Boris Johnson and David Cameron and Michael Gove and underneath was us- it looked like some kind of Gunpowder Plot. But that was where, among various people, I met Armando Iannucci and Al Murray. So, I think there is a play somewhere down the line about the various destinies of those two groups of people- maybe the wrong ones ended up ruling the country.”

You are taking your show RHLSTP to the Playhouse very soon. What guests do you have lined up?

“I’ve got the journalist and author environmentalist George Monbiot coming on. I’ll probably pair him up with a comedian. I asked David Cameron if he wanted to come on- if he wants to do it then he’s welcome to, but he may get some questions that he doesn’t like.”

You mentioned that some of your contemporaries such as Armando Iannucci and Al Murray were at Oxford at the same time as you – were those the first guests you were looking to when you started your podcast?

“I mean both have been on, so it’s nice to have my friends on. But mostly for the podcast, I don’t really mix in celebrity circles. I like to take a punt on someone I don’t really know, and therefore have to get to know on stage. Bob Mortimer, for example- I never met Bob before properly and that was a really great interview. I’m very excited for upcoming guests that I like, but who most people probably have not heard of- like the author Jonathan Ames, or John Hopkins, who plays for York City. So, it’s kind of fun to see who will come on. I asked Paul McCartney if he would do the Liverpool gig. I did get a response. The response was no”

You have heard of breadth of different guests on your show- who has been the worst?

“Nearly everyone is good. Weirdly, Stewart lee was pretty bad the second time he came on- he’d had a couple of drinks, so we edited that quite a lot”

Your shows are known for having interactive audience participation. Have you had your any difficult audience experiences?

“Most of have been okay. I think the success of the podcast is down to the audience being so great actually; during the Stephen Fry interview, when we he spoke about his suicide attempt, nobody in the audience even tweeted about it. No one went to the newspapers and when it broke it became a massive worldwide story. And that’s why I think it’s a very classy audience- nobody thought “ok let’s make 50 quid out of going to a newspaper to break this story”. The audience enjoys the comedy, but they also enjoy the serious bits, and that really does create this atmosphere. What’s great about the podcast is that the audience makes it- the listeners will decide if the show gets recommissioned. Recently, they have started chipping in and contributing a small bit of money to keep us going as well. It is a very symbiotic relationship, and I think they’re a crucial part of what makes it work”

Many comedians cite Herring and Lee as influential for them. What have been your favourite comedy duos?

“As a kid, I always loved more mainstream double acts- Morecambe and Wise were a brilliant act, and something that also brought all the generations together. I remember watching their show with my family- there were different levels of humour for different viewers. I used to love Cannonball in the early days too, but as you get older you pretend you thought those shows were a bit naff. But really, Rik Mayall and Monty Python were my main comedic influences. I’d listen to the Monty Python records because I was too young for the TV series. Rik Mayall was a man of that generation, and made it seem possible to me that being a comedian wasn’t just for working men’s clubs.”

If you could resurrect any of your old shows, be it TV or the radio, would you?

I sort of feel like the stuff Stewart and I did in the 90s, it didn’t really get the credit it deserved. I think comedy fans love it and they’ve stayed very true to us over it, so it all retained this air of “cult program”. A lot of comedians were watching us as kids. We were young when we got on the TV and it just felt like a natural progression. I don’t think I appreciated how lucky we were to have that opportunity.  There’s an element where I would like to go back in and do some of those again. But also, you know you move on and you come to new things. I always felt I’d rather keep moving and find something else to do than the rest on your laurels and try and do the same thing over and over again. This podcast is the only thing I have ever done for this length of time and it’s only because I think it adapts and changes so much. It doesn’t feel like the same show I started with. I’ll carry on doing it until people stop listening or until I suddenly go that’s enough of that. I’m enjoying it more and more all the time, whereas usually with touring, I’m looking forward to It being over”

Speaking of your stand up- back in 2015 you attempted to carry out every single one of your previous eleven tour shows followed by one new one in six weeks. What was your response to going back to your old material?

“For the older shows there were bits that I wouldn’t do now but they made sense as I was at that time. As I approached my 40s, I was single and quite frustrated, and the shows were parodying that. I think the thing about those shows was it was pre-Twitter. I was a bit nervous about it because there were lines in the show, that if out of context in tweets, they might look a bit weird.

Shows like “Someone likes Yogurt” (2005) were too long and were deliberately aggravating and annoying. I had to listen to it so many times and I start to get quite annoyed. Now that I am a parent, I realize that my shows are sometimes peoples’ one night out in a month- I don’t want to aggravate them. I did my old shows because Edinburgh was too hard, but this obviously was much harder than doing the Fringe. Amazingly you know it worked out. I’m glad I did it. I don’t think I could do it again.”

A regular source of comedy on your own show is the topic of Pointless. Both you and your wife (Catie Wilkins) have been contestants on the show. Who would you say is better?

I’m definitely better on Pointless than she is, but our partnership on the show was the closest I came to winning. I’ve been let down by my partners every time. Catie got the highest answer on every question- it was like she was playing Family Fortunes. She was better than most of my other partners. It nearly worked and we only lost in the third round by two points, so it was very tight. So maybe I’ll win next time I go on- that’ll be the fourth time and there are only four teams, so statistically if I haven’t won after four, then maybe I should stop playing.

For those who haven’t listened to your podcast, often you introduce emergency questions to your guests- what is the criteria for a really good emergency question?

“It’s difficult really. I think I am pretty good at coming up with them and also pretty bad. I enjoy the more mundane ones, designed to give a very good choice between two things that are not diametrically opposed. Or even questions you wouldn’t ask, like “Have you ever flown a kite?”  that’s a good emergency questions because it’s something nearly everyone has done but would never have talked about. There will usually be a story. My favourite at the moment is asking what one item you would take from an art gallery or museum anywhere in the world. Often, it’s the questions that have the ability to allow the person you talk to give an interesting answer. I don’t know if I can be rude, but the one about whether a man has ever tried to pleasure himself orally- there are not many answers. So, some questions kind of run their course. “

In that vein, we thought we would conclude here by asking our own crafted emergency questions. Are you ready?

“Yes, I’ll be very brutally honest. You’re quite young, but you might be OK.”

Would you rather have bat wings and be able to fly but never have sex again OR only ever have sex in a bat costume?

“I would prefer to only have sex in a bat costume- that’s how I have sex anyway so that was the perfect question.”

Would you rather leave the EU with no deal or live in Boris Johnson’s armpit for 10 years?

“I think for the good of the country I’d have to live in Boris Johnson’s armpit. I think it would probably be quite interesting- I mean you would see him getting technology lessons quite a lot. I’ll do it for you!”

For the full interview, listen to Oxide Guestlist on Oxide Radio

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