January 24, 2014
Richard Herring on buying back his own TV series from the BBC, not being more famous and regaining happiness
In two of my blogs earlier this week, comedian Richard Herring talked to me first about creating free content like his podcasts to entice people into his live shows and then about his self-financed online TV series Richard Herring’s Meaning of Life – he is recording the second episode at the Leicester Square Theatre this Sunday.
Richard first rose to fame as a double act with Stewart Lee on BBC radio and TV in the 1990s.
“I remember when we were doing TV pilots,” Richard told me, “you’d be thinking This is great, but what are the people upstairs at the BBC going to think about it and will we have to change it for them? To not have that pressure is amazingly freeing now. Part of the reason I went into podcasting in 2008 was because of the Sachsgate thing. Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross had done all this bad stuff on the radio and then the BBC clammed up. You couldn’t do anything.
“People were saying You mustn’t even swear in the warm-up to the show in case there’s a journalist in the audience. It was just insane and I thought, Well, if I do it on my own, I can say whatever I want.”
“You did have the advantage of being established,” I said.
“I had a little leg up,” admitted Richard, “in terms of enough people knowing who I was from having done that stuff with Stewart in the 1990s – it had a very dedicated following really of 14-year-olds who then grew up and did stay quite loyal to us. But it wasn’t a massive cult thing. It wasn’t like I started podcasts and a million people listened. And, if anything, most people would now know me from the internet stuff I’ve done. I think most of them are surprised when they find out either that I worked with Stewart or that all this old stuff exists.
“We are bringing out all that old stuff ourselves. The BBC wouldn’t bring out Fist of Fun as a DVD or repeat it, so we bought it from the BBC and we’re hopefully buying This Morning With Richard Not Judy from them too. But it’s more expensive to buy and I think DVD is falling off the radar a bit.
“We paid around £50,000 to buy two series of Fist of Fun. We’ve got the rights to sell it for around five years and we sell them at £25 a series. So you only need 2,000 people to buy them and you get your money back, though there’s other expenses on top of that.”
“What about Equity and the Musicians’ Union?” I asked.
“The BBC do all the clearances,” explained Richard. “About £10,000 of that £50,000 is for the clearances. The BBC still own it ultimately. We’re just leasing it and after a certain amount – when we’ve made our money back – they get 25% of the money we make.”
“Why didn’t they want to do a DVD themselves?” I asked.
“Because they didn’t… they never liked… It was amazing we got four series. We did two series of Fist of Fun. The second series had better material, but the first series was a really beautiful kind of… It had its own feeling. We were learning on the job, but Fist Of Fun was overflowing with ideas. There are jokes flashing up which you have to freeze-frame to get. It was a young person’s programme. The BBC got worried it would scare off their viewers, so they made us go into a studio for the second series and slightly spoiled it. Then we got kicked off. Then we came back and did two years of This Morning With Richard Not Judy.
“But, again, they didn’t know what to do with it. They kept cancelling the repeat and moving it around and there were weeks off for sport. By the second series, the newspapers had just started writing about it and we felt, if we did another series, it could just get over that hump. But then Jane Root came in, didn’t like it and she was at BBC2 for five years (1999-2004). So that was the end of it.
“Stewart and I had met at Oxford University, but we weren’t a very archetypal Oxbridge type of act, so we didn’t really get any of the benefits of Oh, come on in… We just confused everyone.
“I went to Oxford because of the comedy. I studied History but I went because I wanted to get into the Oxford Revue. I was a massive fan of Monty Python and I just dreamt of getting into the Oxford Revue. I wanted to be a comedian.”
“So you dreamt of being the person you now are,” I said.
“But more successful,” laughed Richard. “I probably wanted, then, to be the most famous and successful comedian EVER – which I don’t now. I just want to keep working until I drop. As long as I’m still creating interesting stuff and keep trying to push back boundaries and to slightly fail.
“To fail at what I wanted to do has been good for me. With Lee & Herring, if things had twisted a different way, I think maybe we could have been like Little Britain and I think that would have destroyed us both in different ways. I think I would have gone off my head with the excitement of being that famous and Stewart would probably have killed himself if he’d got that famous.
“Now I think I’m in almost the perfect position for a comedian.
“Being too famous can distract you and restrict you. If I were David Walliams and I had said Oh, I’m going to have a Hitler moustache for a year I think my management would have gone No, I think you’d better not do that, because you won’t get this or that contract. The fact I have the autonomy to make insane decisions creates some interesting experiences.”
“But then there’s the money,” I said.
“We didn’t really earn any money from Lee & Herring. After ten years of working together, we’d had five years of not being paid and five years of being paid a bit, split between the two of us. By the end of it, I’d put the deposit down on a flat. That’s all I’d managed to do.
“But when I wrote 37 episodes of Time Gentlemen, Please! (2000-2002) – not entirely but mainly on my own – I was paid very, very well per episode so then, for the first time in my life, I had money and I sort-of took two years off. I was still doing bits and pieces. I wasn’t not working. I was dong a lot of writing – or trying. I was still doing some work. I did Talking Cock, which did pretty well and, for the first time in my life, I got repeat fees – from Time Gentlemen, Please!
“I’d bought quite a big house and had a big mortgage and every time I thought I was in trouble a cheque would drop into my lap that was enough to keep me going. I was sitting in this big house which I’d been going to move into with my girlfriend who had a child by someone else. We were going to have a family. I had this house. But then we broke up and so I was sitting in the attic trying to write about cocks and slowly going a bit crazy. I had lost my way a little bit.
“Writing the blog helped but coming back to stand-up was massively helpful. It meant I got out and performed and I realised – although I’m happy writing and I like writing – I need to perform a little bit.
“When I came back to stand-up, I did a gig in Hammersmith in a little room to ten people and Jimmy Carr was 100 yards away at the Hammersmith Apollo playing to 3,000 people. But I was thinking: I’m really happy.
“My problem was I had been sitting back waiting for people to come to me which, in the old days, you had to. In the 1990s, you had to get commissioned by a broadcast company to make a radio show or a TV show. But now you can do it yourself. I can make Richard Herring’s Meaning of Life without a broadcast company as a six-part online TV series.
“A lot of comics make excuses about why things don’t happen for them – and there ARE good excuses; there’s a lot of luck in this business – but you’ve got to work hard and, increasingly, there’s so much competition, so many good comedians. But you can now make your own break – though, even then, there’s luck involved.
“It’s much more important to be doing something you’re happy with and be happy in your life. I think for a long time I wasn’t. Certainly 10 or 15 years ago I was quite unhappy, but I turned it round.”
“So where are you off to now?” I asked.
“I’m going home to my wife. She’s making me some tuna.”