Twenty years ago, Richard Herring had a hit with Talking Cock, a stand-up show all about the penis that was licensed around the world and spawned a successful book. It’s taken him this long to come up with what might seem the obvious sequel, a book about balls. And even then, it took him contracting testicular cancer, at 53, to get the inspiration.
Can I Have My Ball Back? primarily charts his journey through the diagnoses and treatment he underwent last year, but addressed with the lightest of touches. Herring’s instinct is to make a joke about anything – one coping mechanism was to make a ventriloquist’s doll that looked like a swollen bollock for his online series – but occasionally the reminder of his mortality becomes acute, especially when he considers how much of his children’s formative years he might miss out on. The idea he could be replaced in his wife Catie’s affections played much more for laughs as he imagines some smarmy mustachioed lothario quaffing his precious single-malt whiskey.
Anyone going through similar experiences – of the cancer treatment, that is, not visualisation of a wife’s future seducer – is likely to find both solace and comic relief in the frankness and wit of Herring’s descriptions. His honesty stretches from describing the very male reluctance to have the anomaly he spotted seen to (even though he was once part of a campaign encouraging men to do just that) to a form of survivors’ guilt that he got off lightly from his scrape with cancer compared to others.
He actually makes losing a bollock remarkably reassuring. For far from being a death sentence, testicular cancer has a 98 per cent survival rate – a statistic Herring wishes he’d known from the start – and his chemotherapy was a minor inconvenience rather than a life-changing upheaval. He even manages to film Taskmaster’s Champion Of Champions soon after treatment, and credits cancer with extending his life, as now he pays at least some attention to his health. And there’s extra freedom in his shorts whenever he exercises.
Nor does he consider that being a monoballer makes him any less than a man, under that very primitive definition of masculinity which is again interrogated with a very light touch. Between Herring’s first-hand experiences are chapters of ball-based facts. These are normally based on their metaphorical links to fortitude – despite being famously not very pain-resilient at all – which is why Hitler having only one of them was such a powerful wartime burn. These sections are similar in tone to Talking Cock, in mocking the mythology around the testicles – as well as containing more elaborate euphemisms for the love spuds than you’ll find outside Roger’s Profanisaurus. And reminding us of the most important fact through all of this: that balls are inherently funny.
The comic is also prone to going off on tangents – no surprise if you’re aware of his work online – and describes in some detail the monumental futility of his quest to clear a field near him of every last stone (and manages to get the reader invested in that activity) or the discordant jingle of a advert for reclining chairs.
Even in his retelling of the cancer story, Herring admits his
comedian sensibilities were always telling him there’d be material in
his experiences, joking that maybe a small body part was a price worth
paying for inspiration. And he was quite right: there’s great material
in here, underpinned with real emotions and with every absurdity, both
his own and the treatment’s, offered up for ridicule.