Let's begin with what probably sounds like an old Scandinavian proverb: When the going gets tough, the Herring gets going.
The enduringly adaptable Richard Herring was once pronounced King of Edinburgh (Fringe), then became a podcast pioneer, and is now taking a similar lead with lockdown streams. It seems quite curious to recall that, initially, his diversions into live shows and podcasts were largely due to TV/radio plans not quite panning out; now the gig shutdown has spawned a splurge of creativity back indoors. And sometimes outdoors.
Herring's streaming schedule was locked-in almost as soon as the lockdown began. Most days it's stone-clearing at 8am, then Me1 vs Me2 Snooker at 7.30pm, both of which are unconventional viewer-getters. Then on Wednesday evenings it's a live version of his hit interview podcast, RHLSTP. Who else is offering outside broadcasts and live sport to action-starved viewers right now? Exactly.
Elsewhere, of course, times are really tough. Another reason for this chat with Richard is that he's a patron of Scope, raising many thousands for them over the years. The UK's foremost charity for disabled people is doing sterling work during this crisis, but is currently lacking the regular income from its shops etc, so do contribute to their urgent campaign, if you can. As Richard mentions below, they've got a groovy attitude to weird and wonderful comedy.
Which is a good way to be right now, as the nation's comedians explore experimental new avenues. Time to check in with a very adept adaptor.
How are you finding the lockdown - you seem to be making a good fist of it?
Having two young kids is making the lockdown exhausting. You don't realise how much help you get usually - especially with one of them at school - let alone having to do lessons. We're both trying to find time to write as well, but it's really hard to get any momentum for that.
You're getting lots of online shows out there though. How did those come about?
But it's nice for both Catie and me to have our online stuff to keep us busy and in work.
Gutted though as I had loads of big gigs and a whole run at the Leicester Square Theatre which have been postponed. Luckily got the Michael Palin RHLSTP in just in time; would have been gutted to miss that. At the start of 2020 I felt it was going to be a cracking year for me as every day I got more exciting news (and some TV stuff).
So things have gone in a different direction, but weirdly it might be an opportunity to make something of the more esoteric ideas that I really like, but are always going to be niche.
How did Me1 vs Me2 Snooker come about, years ago?
There was a 6' by 3' snooker table backstage at a gig and I started playing myself, like I did as a teenager, and commentating on Twitter.
I was amazed how quickly people got into it and started supporting a player, even though no one could see what I was doing and there was no real difference between my two personas. And personas developed. I thought the idea of doing an audio podcast of a man playing himself badly at snooker and seeing where that led would be interesting.
It's as much art as comedy for me (and I was asked to 'perform' at a transgressive art festival, about the way our main battle is against ourself, and the fragile boundaries between sanity and insanity). But I also thought it worked as sport.
Do you feel like a sporting prophet now? As a sports fan I'm finding it quite therapeutic...
Too much sport is really [just] good athletes doing well, but a man unsure of all the rules playing badly against someone who is exactly the same as him is good too. It parodies the way we create allegiances in sport, but also people get behind one player or the other.
And it's interesting to try and make something with severe limitations work as entertainment for many years - sport also does this. I think I've been going for eight years on and off now - maybe nine.
Me2 resisted bringing in the cameras as being too mainstream, but we've done a few filmed ones for DVD extras etc. And it's fun to develop more characters, totally unplanned, in front of the audience.
What's been the standout match so far? And who's the breakout star of the sport?
Me6 vs Me7 pitted Northern Ireland versus the Republic of Ireland for the prize of Ireland's future, so it's hard to beat that. Me11 is the breakout star as the first female self-playing snooker star (I was going to be a Geordie that night but changed my mind at the last second due to a comment in the chat room).
It's great to see a female player doing so well at the game, but also - and I hope she won't mind me saying - she's become a bit of a pin-up for me and a lot of the viewers. It turns out that if you are a nerdy man in lockdown then a 52 year-old man making basically no pretence of being female is enough.
She also proved a fabulous referee for the final, when all the male referees have been terrible.
I've not been up early enough to catch stone clearing yet - could you talk us through a few highlights there.
Again stone clearing was a more arty piece as a podcast and I thought it quite important that it was audio only, this time man's battle against nature and mortality and the pointlessness of trying to make a mark on the earth (or of doing anything). Also it's just crazy, obviously, and about the slide into madness and redundancy. I can't claim it's all parody because I started doing it for real.
But when I realised I could Twitch on my phone I thought it might be fun to do it live. It started just after Stone Easter (when the plough doth come and throw up a whole new crop of big stones), so it wasn't representative of day-to-day stone clearing.
Again it's about trying to find new stuff in the severe limitations of the same thing happening over and over again, so any unusual discovery (I feel I might be removing the remains of a Roman villa) is interesting. But the day the farmer was in his tractor and seemed to be coming for me over and over again was exciting.
And the live-streamed RHLSTPs? That's a new departure.
RHLSTP is a bit more mainstream comparatively. It's different without an audience. But in some ways better, as you sort of forget it's not just a chat with a mate, so it's been quite revelatory and the one with Adam Buxton was particularly lovely and interesting (I thought).
It's great we can carry on producing these, as otherwise the podcast feed would run dry. I had so many stored up after the tour that I'd been putting out two a week and might have regretted that.
I guess we might also be able to get some guests who don't live in the UK or who don't want to do it with a live audience. Though booking guests remains as annoying as ever for me, and I have little idea about who is coming up. Getting to see immediate reaction from the audience is a double-edged sword. But most people seem to be enjoying it so far.
You've raised loads for Scope over the years - what made you choose it as your major charity, originally?
I was going to run the Marathon, partly as an elaborate attempt to kill myself without upsetting anyone, as I was quite depressed. A friend told me that if I did it for Scope I could get a guaranteed place. I had no personal connection with the charity beyond being friends with Francesca Martinez and having a friend with a daughter with mild CP. But the people I met from Scope, particularly Vivian Elliot, did an amazing job of showing me where my money raised was going.
I had wanted to do a programme for Talking Cock for Macmillan Cancer and testicular cancer in particular, but they said they weren't sure they wanted to be associated with a show like that. Even when I sent them the reviews, they still said they'd rather not.
I asked Scope instead and they said they'd love the money and support: I've raised over a third of a million pounds for them in the last 20 years via the programmes. So just happenstance really, but I have found the work with Scope very fulfilling, and got involved with a lot of their equality campaigns, and am now a patron of the charity. It worked out OK.
Any thoughts on how lockdown might affect comedy, longer term?
I think it should help comedians and clubs realise how important the online element is. We had got into Twitch to livestream theatre RHLSTPs and I hope more clubs will find a way to increase audiences that way once they're back up and running. And I am sure there will be some breakout stars who use the internet to great effect in the next few months.
It does open up interesting possibilities.
You can do anything online, as my snooker and stone clearing shows, and if you can get an audience of a few thousand worldwide then you can make a decent living. It's always been the appealing thing to me, to be able to make your own content as you want to make it, and find the audience who will enjoy it. Obviously with my 12-year run up I am in a bit of a better position for this than most comedians, but it's only in the last two years that it's really been possible to monetise it.
More important is it being a shop window for your stuff and a way of trying out new things. Michael Spicer, who was on RHLSTP this week, has found that with his Room Next Door sketches, which were already big, but could have been created for lockdown.
So I am fearful and excited in equal measure. And hope that the lockdown lasts long enough to turn the snooker into a phenomenon that sweeps the world. That might take five years or so, but it's a small price to pay, right?