The role of the comedian is a broad church, often those shouting the loudest but with the least to say occupying the best pews. Many a fine comic has entered the profession to enlighten audiences while making them laugh with a viewpoint which illuminated whilst holding the world up to ridicule. And many stand-up comedians treasure their profession as the greatest of artforms. For others, it is a short cut panel shows and substandard sitcoms. But as long as they’re entertaining, should it matter?
While Richard Herring could never be accused of trivialising the craft, he does not believe there is a requirement of comedians beyond the obvious: “No, comedians have no duty to anything other than to make people laugh (and even then not always).” Herring told Coney’s Loft whilst out on his latest tour.
“Personally I want my stuff to have a bit more to it and I love it if my shows make people think and discuss issues (I generally provide questions rather than answers) but for me, making them laugh is still the most important part of the job, even if sometimes I will do something that might make them cry. Overall laughter must win!”
Herring has featured on the British comedy scene since the late 80s. Occasionally flirting with the mainstream, but often on the periphery, he came to prominence as one half of double act Lee and Herring. After writing for shows such as Spitting Image and On The Hour, the East Yorkshire-born, Somerset-raised funny man hit the big time with surreal BBC2 sketch show Fist Of Fun in the heady comedic days of the mid-90s. Together with partner Stewart Lee (who has since enjoyed his own renaissance in the comedy world), they rode the zeitgeist of 90s comedy culminating in the criminally overlooked This Morning With Richard Not Judy.
Herring seemingly went off the radar after his split from Lee (no acrimony, the two simply decided to pursue their own projects). However, the tireless creative he is, Herring continued to write and perform solo shows, with subject matter ranged from weighty concepts to the deeply personal. Religion (Christ On A Bike), politics (Hitler Moustache) and love (What Is Love, Anyway?) were all tackled to critical praise as were turning 40 (Oh Fuck, I’m 40) and being the difficulties of adolescence (Headmaster’s Son).
Whilst his creative output has been consistently prolific, Herring’s personal life - which he has drawn upon throughout his career - has often been tumultuous. In 2016 however, we may hope to find Herring in a more content, positive place. He is married, his first child was born a year ago and his podcast Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre Podcast (RHLSTP) is the leader of its genre. Looking at the subject of this tour, Happy Now?, along with his mission to perform his back catalogue of shows back-to-back last year, it seems Herring may now be in somewhat of a reflective mood, pondering happiness and his position in life.
“As I discuss in the show, I constantly think about everything, so even if I am happy I am bracing myself for what might go wrong.’ said Herring, ‘I have found it hard to be happy, though looking back I can't see why, I have had the jammiest life ever. I have definitely focused too much on my job, but I love my job. Having a family means the work I do now has some meaning beyond self-affirmation."
Many of us would wince at re-living our past creations at the age of 47, how did Herring cope with performing material he had written while going through earlier, darker times? “It was quite a journey back through my life, but quite positive. I was sad in my late 30s, worried I'd left it too late for love and a family, but the last few shows have gradually seen me get my life (sort of) together. Plus the shows are all good. I was amazed at the standard and hardly embarrassed by any of it.”
As with much of his material, Herring is candid about his own life whilst presenting RHLSTP which often makes for gripping and hilarious, listening. The podcast has produced some enthralling chats with guests such as Simon Pegg, Stephen Fry and Russell Brand as well as his old sparring partner Stewart Lee. It’s a much recommended way to spend an hour. Herring seems to have found his forte in the podcast format, he confesses to liking “the immediacy, the autonomy and the lack of restrictions” but regular listeners of RHLSTP will know there is more to it than that. As well as the national bombshell which Stephen Fry dropped when revealing he had attempted suicide in 2012, his shows often deal in philosophy, the creative processes and important questions around talc-dispensing tits.
So with a largely sold-out stand-up tour, successful podcast and a family does Herring still harbour greater ambitions? “I would like to write sitcoms for TV - as budgets are too large for me to do it myself [many of Herring’s projects are crowdfunded] and if the right thing came along I would consider being on TV again. But it would be very difficult to get the autonomy I now have and I also like the fact I am relatively anonymous. At the moment enough people come to see me and they all get what I am doing. TV might get me larger audiences, but at what cost?”
Whether he is contemplating the nature of happiness, playing snooker against himself (another, less popular internet-based project) or asking fellow comedians if they’ve ever seen a ghost, fans can always rely on this ‘other 90s comedian’ to come up with the goods, no matter what the intention behind it is. Driven by a desire to explore comedy in all its form, Richard Herring will always be interesting and that’s perhaps the one pre-requisite of any art form.
Richard Herring performs at the Epstein Theatre on Saturday 29 February.