Full interview from Men's Health - Life Lessons from Comedians published late 2018
Richard Herring on managing a manic schedule
1. You are renowned for your incredible work ethic and work schedule. New tour almost every year, books, podcasts, writing, gigging, TV – it’s non-stop. How do you juggle it all?
I actually feel I am quite a lazy, disorganised person, but I work well under pressure and if there is a deadline. There is no hiding place in my job and the fear of humiliation spurs me on. And as long as I have a bit too much on my plate, that means I can keep on creating stuff just in time. It’s painful and scary, but it turns out these are good conditions for creativity and I generally cope with pressure quite well. Which is lucky as standing in a room full of strangers and making them laugh for 90 minutes is quite a challenge.
But procrastination is part of the process, the cogs are always whirring and you can never entirely relax and forget about work, and when forced to apply myself, I work quickly and discover that the hours wasted playing card games on my phone were actually somehow achieving something.
In the past I have worked too hard and been too obsessed with my job, but it’s something that I love and am fascinated by and if I had another job this is what I’d try and do in my spare time. Without the obsession and the desire to push myself I suppose it would be impossible. But sometimes I look back at a busy year and wonder how I squeezed everything in.
2. You do so much yet there is never a dip in quality. How do you ensure that? Are you a list maker or what is your secret please?
I constantly try to organise myself better or convince myself that if I worked hard for four hours a day I wouldn’t have to cram in loads of 18 hour writing sessions when the deadline is approaching.
But for me, creativity comes from fear and chaos. Often you can slave over a routine for weeks or months, but the perfect line or thought will come from improvisation in the white hot heat of performance.
I have a job that I love, but it’s one that is precarious and dependant on me being good enough to ensure that my audience will pay to see me again. They might forgive one duff performance or noble failure (comedy does not work without the element of the risk) but probably not two. There’s a lot of other comedians to go and see. Luckily I am still fascinated by what I do and aware that there will always be room for improvement and I am constantly trying to hone my performances down to the smallest details. As long as you are driven enough to want to be better and determined to provide people with a quality product that is worth their time and money then you have a good chance of success. If lists help you, make lists. I prefer a whirlwind of pandemonium which I have to try to harness, like a madman trying to conduct the lightning.
3. Many people wake up with a list of ten things to do and feel daunted by them so do none of them. But you clearly embrace it. Is that a mindset that you have naturally or did you teach yourself to be this motivated?
I am often overwhelmed. Often I can do nothing because of the sheer weight of stuff that I have to achieve.
But in my job the procrastination and stasis are part of the process. Sometimes an idea needs a long time to percolate. Sometimes I am just not ready to sit down and express something.
Ultimately if faced with a seemingly unsurmountable task you have to stop putting it off, break it down into tiny parts and not think about the mountain of problems ahead of you. There are so many disappointments and humiliations to face when you’re a comedian or a writer, so you really have to want to do it. To the crazy extent that you can be in a room full of people yelling their hatred of you in your face and you still go back the next day and try again. Motivation and ambition are probably necessary factors, but they can also be negative factors if you’re not too careful or lose track of who you are or what you want.
I like making people laugh, I want to be the best I can be. I am not content to coast along. I want to provide for my family, but also give myself time to be with my family. These are now my motivations. Perhaps in the past they were more selfish and self-defeating. But I might not have arrived at this calmer place had I not had a youthful obsession with “success”.
4. What advice would you give to someone struggling to cope with everything that life (or their boss or their own ambition) keeps throwing at them?
Accept the struggle. It means you care. It means you want to do the job well. People breezing through are either good actors or don’t give a shit about what they’re doing. But the biggest lesson I learned was to not get wound up with competing with other people or basing your self-worth on being “the best”. There will always be someone doing better than you, especially if you have that mindset. Compete with yourself. Acknowledge your successes as well as your failures. I would see comedians filling arenas, whilst I might get a hundred people at each show and it could have driven me insane with envy. But then I started thinking, “Shit, a hundred people are giving up a night and their hard-earned money just to watch me, that’s incredible.” And I have slowly built my audience up over many years so now I might sometimes get 700 people at a show. Terrible if I am comparing myself to Michael Macintyre, but amazing comparing myself to me!
It’s natural to want things to happen quickly, but actually it’s much more satisfying when something happens after a protracted period of hard work. And I have seen comedians who have the kind of success that I once craved, still looking miserable, because they are still comparing themselves to someone who is doing “better”.
You learn more from your disappointments and failures than you do from cruising through life. The scars make you stronger, but getting yourself and your life in perspective should be your ultimate goal. And accept your personal triumphs on their own terms.
5. Even since becoming a father you don’t seem to have slowed down despite the fact that you have also clearly factored in lots of quality time with your family to your frenetic schedule. How do you strike that balance? And has being a parent and husband changed how you work?
Having a family has totally changed my focus. I still love my job and more than ever I need to make money from it. But I have realised how empty my youthful ambitions were. My job could never give me the happiness that my family do and it’s so much more satisfying to know that you’re working for other people and not just yourself. I am taking a lot more time for them and for myself and that’s much healthier for my mental state. I want to be a good dad, who plays an equal role in the upbringing of the kids and who they remember as someone who was around for them.
So I have slowed down a bit - I just took three months off to allow my wife to focus on her work, after she did the same for me when I was on tour. And I am going to cut down on touring as I don’t think like being away from home now I have so much here. I now turn down gigs and other work in a way I never used to before. And select the jobs I do on slightly different parameters.
The balance is difficult, of course and it’s found through trial and error. And I am knackered and it’s still very stressful, but I am content in a way I never was when my job was my only focus.
Ironically, having a family makes me better at what I do, more focused, using my time more efficiently and with more sense of perspective.
I can see another life where I got the fame and adulation that I craved, but came home to a home full of nothing (except maybe a jacuzzi full of supermodels) and I thank my lucky stars it didn’t turn out as planned… wait a jacuzzi full of supermodels? What have I done?