TV Comedian and celebrity interviewer, Richard Herring, brings his multi-award-winning show to Nottingham's Playhouse this November. In this exclusive preview, he talks of testicles, godlike powers and when podcasts go wrong...
A big thank you to Richard for taking time out of a busy schedule to chat with LeftLion today and let’s dive straight in. What can we expect from your forthcoming evening at the Playhouse?
Well, I’ll be talking to comedians Scott and Jemma Bennett. It's pretty interesting talking to a married couple, I think you get both sides of the story. But yeah, part of the fun for me, and the audience, is that the podcast is very free flowing and can go in any direction, usually somewhere very funny. Sometimes somewhere serious. And sometimes it falls off a cliff and goes a bit badly wrong. But people seem to like it even more when I put my foot in it or ask the wrong question. And the most interesting thing is when a guest forgets they're being recorded and tells a story that we can't really broadcast. So that's why it's worth coming to see the live show, because you get the bits that get excised for legal reasons! Maybe someone's been indiscreet. That’s a lot of fun. And it's a lot of fun meeting fans of the podcast too.
I read you're the best celebrity interviewer in Britain. What's the secret to getting the best from your subjects? Or should I say victims?
Yeah, I don't know that they're victims. Sometimes it can feel a bit like that. But I see it very much as a conversation. I'm not trying to trap anyone. I'm not trying to get anything juicy out of anyone. I'm not saying ‘I want to know about your personal life’. If someone comes and tells me about their personal life, that's fine. I think [the secret] is a mixture of incompetence. So, I lull them into a false sense of security by being pretty honest myself. If I ask a stupid question, I'll often answer it myself first. I'm not scared to embarrass myself. And that means the guest will be more likely to give an honest answer. I have these emergency questions, which I don't always use, but I think they're weirdly quite good. I came up with them accidently after I interviewed Jonathan Ross and got a bit intimidated. I had a moment where I don't know what I'm going to say. So, I thought I'll have some questions ready, but because they're quite left field, and people haven't been asked them before, you get really interesting answers. So, all the things that are my ‘secrets’, are just bits of fluky luck.
But I have a lovely audience. They laugh at the right things; they listen when things are more serious. There's a lovely atmosphere in the theatre always, and I think that makes the guest put their defences down. The famous one is Stephen Fry where he was extremely entertaining, and the audience loved him. You could feel the love in the room. And I think that was what made him decide to open up and talk about a suicide attempt that he had never talked about before. And I think that's it. The lovely atmosphere.
I think I'm quite good at finding the right level, and I'm quite good at making every interview a double act. If someone's very loquacious, like Brian Blessed, I only have to say about four words. And if someone's very quiet, like Mackenzie Crook, I might be a bit more funny. And I've done 600 of these interviews now. So hopefully, I’m getting quite good at it.
Also, the fact I can't tell you what will happen next is what makes it interesting. Usually, I lose interest in a project and move on to the next, but these podcasts all feel so different. There's something special about it. But if I thought about it too much, I might wreck it, whatever ‘it’ is.
Well, don't take my remaining ball away!
Your latest book is Can I Have My Ball Back? - What would you like us to take away from that?
Well, don't take my remaining ball away! Check your sensitive bits for unusual lumps and bumps. And if anything changes, go to your doctor. During lockdown, I realised there was something weird going on with my testicle and went to the doctor and he said, ‘Don't worry, it's probably nothing but we'll send you in for a scan anyway’. And it turned out I did have testicular cancer, and I had one testicle removed.
As a comedian, as well as it being quite scary, obviously, you’re thinking there's comic potential here. It was an interesting thing to happen to me because I'd already done so much stuff about it. I did a show called Talking Cock, and a book called Talking Cock and another book about International Men's Day and masculinity. And I'd just done Movember when in fact, I found I had testicular cancer.
So, all of these things are very much in my wheelhouse. It's interesting that fate has chosen me to be this guy who's ended up getting this condition quite late in life. And luckily, it's a very treatable thing. And luckily, I'm fine. So, there's no tragedy to in the book. There's some serious stuff in it. But I want to show that cancer isn't necessarily a death sentence anymore.
That's not to say we shouldn't take cancer seriously. I did feel all that ‘Oh, my God, my kids are young, I'm gonna die’ stuff. So, there was all those worries about that. But equally, I've always thought we can take serious subjects and find the comedy in the end. Even if it was a more serious cancer, I would have written a comedy book about it. But yeah, it's a funny book, I think it's an interesting book. And there's lots of facts about in the history of our attitudes toward men and testicles, why they're where they are, why they're so weird, why they're outside the body, which seems a strange place to put them.
So yeah, it's been a really interesting experience to go through and mainly positive. I'm also taking this out as a stand-up show directly after the current tour. Hopefully I'll be coming back to Nottingham with that and doing stand-up.
What made you want to be a comedian?
I loved comedy from a very early age. I love making people laugh. And I love clowns. I remember doing a puppet show, behind the sofa with my mom and my grandma, and them really laughing and me loving that feeling. I love writing stories. And I liked reading anyone who could make me laugh. So, I just knew I wanted to do something with that. But growing up in Cheddar, Somerset, in a comprehensive school, it didn't feel like a viable path.
Seeing things like the Young Ones and Rick Mayall and especially Monty Python, I knew that if I could get into Oxford or Cambridge, there was a possibility of doing comedy. So, I was interested in going to university for that, but I didn't really think it would necessarily be something that could happen. I was looking at people like Michael Palin or Rick Mayall and thinking, wouldn't it be ace to be that. And I think the alternative comedy scene really opened up that world to ordinary people. So yeah, I knew I wanted to do that. But obviously, my career's advisor, my parents, didn't necessarily go, yeah, that's a thing you can do.
What's the secret to being a good stand-up comedian?
I think just to be yourself and be original. You've got to have that confidence to get up there. The material is important, but I think a lot more is about wanting to do it, you've got to really work hard, because there's a lot of competition. A lot of people who are funny in real life, in the pub or stuff, would not be able to do it. Because you need to get up on stage, you need to be disciplined. There's no rules, because I can say ‘this is what you should do’ and then another comedian comes does the exact opposite and still makes a success of it. That's the beauty of stand-up.
But I think it's finding your own niche. Working out what's funny about you. So, there's a lot of thought that needs to go into your persona, your material, making the jokes as best they can be. I was never really a gag comedian, but I do a few one liners. People email me and ask: how do I become a comedian? And if they're doing that, they're just putting off the actual thing you have to do, which is get on stage, and see if you can do it and see if anyone finds you funny. And don't lose heart if they don't. If you give it awhile and nobody ever finds you funny, maybe do something else. But, equally, you never know. Somebody will go for years, and then suddenly, bang, they find their moment. So, there's no real answer, other than the desire to do it. And the ability to think of a new way of doing it.
Do you get nervous before gigs?
Not anymore. When I was a student, I remember being always on the loo a half an hour before gigs. But now, I don't need to psych myself up. Not that it's not good to feel a little heightened. I recently did a gig in Ealing in front of the 1000 people who weren't my audience, because it was a bill of lots of different comedians, and my material was brand new. So, I'm a little bit like, ooh, will they like me? Will I get out there and die? But equally, I was excited about getting on stage and doing it. And it was incredible! You realise why comedians go insane because I got so much adrenaline from it. And the rush is a drug really. You've got to keep your feet on the ground, some comedians go crazy, because it’s a godlike power when there’s a room of 1000 people who you don't know. And they're all laughing and they're all having a good time. That's an incredible thing to do. It's easy to see why people lose their mind and think they’re special.
Is it addictive?
It is and I do miss it when I don't do it. And I feel like a different person on stage. But I'm not sure which one's the real me. I feel more alive on stage, than off stage. But it doesn't really feel like me. At the Ealing gig, I came off stage, went around the back and watched the next act. And I couldn't believe that I had just been on stage. I think probably the best way to be is like, wow, that's weird, I was just up there and I was talking and they were all laughing. Rather than coming off and saying, Yes, I am a god! Yeah, that can lead to terrible, terrible things. People start to believe in themselves too much as we’ve seen.
How do you go about writing your material?
In 2002, I started doing a daily blog. And that's quite a good routine. Because sometimes you can't think of anything funny, but then you'll think of one moment and maybe it's funny. Like the famous one I did, Someone Likes Yoghurt. I remember struggling to think of anything for that day. Then finally, I remembered I'd been in the supermarket and bought nine yoghurts and the lady at the counter said ‘oh, someone likes yoghurt’. And then I just had this stream of consciousness, defending myself against this accusation. I thought, oh, people like this on the blog. And I wasn't even doing stand-up at the time. It was sort of weird. So sometimes by just writing every day, you'll find the germ of an idea, but it's difficult to sit down and write so you're sort of waiting.
Often two ideas collide in your head as you're thinking about something else. And although you can sit down and work on something you've got an idea for, I find I do most of that on stage now. I'll have an idea but it's not until I go on stage and I'm in front of an audience. I've done so much improv through all the podcasts, that I'm fairly confident if I go on and talk about an idea for a couple of minutes, I'll find that laughter. And often it’s better than anything you could have sat down and written.
But if you're starting out as a new stand-up, please try and write five minutes of really good jokes, or five minutes of a really funny story, and learn it. And then, once you've got your show up and running, then you can start dicking around with it and finding the new. So, you're always working on it. Which is not necessarily writing new jokes. Often it’s more just changing volume or a word here or there or taking a pause. Yeah, once you get into, there's so many ways to juggle the material. However many times I do a show, I’m still trying to perfect it. You only abandon it in the end, you never perfect a show.
What advice would you give young people wanting to get into stand-up comedy?
Just do it. Find out what you like and don’t worry if you end up sounding like someone else. Try and write five minutes, go and do some open spots, just get on stage and try stuff out. Be ready to fail. A lot of comedians have a really good first gig and then a really terrible second gig, which is obviously a better way round. If you have a terrible first gig, you might never go back. But don't be put off if you have a terrible gig. However funny you are, you're gonna be funnier five years down the line, if you work on it. You're gonna be funnier three months down the line if you work at it. So, you have to have the self-belief to do it. And just get on with it. If you look at successful comedians, they work all the time. When I started in the 80s and 90s, a lot of comedians didn’t work all the time, they came up with 20 minutes, and coasted on that for years. But it's a different scenario now. It's harder to make money and there's more competition. Yet, also, there's all these different arenas you could do stuff in. Look online, look at podcasts, look at filming a little sketch to put online to get people interested, do a funny tweet or whatever. There's all these different things you can do. But yeah, to be a stand-up, you need to be on stage and you need to just do it until you get good at it. Or until you realise it's not for you.
What's next for Richard Herring?
The podcast will carry on forever. So, if you don't come to the tour, you can listen to the podcasts eventually online. The stand-up is gonna be the next big thing. And I'm enjoying doing this silly stuff I do. I do a ventriloquist show online, which is quite niche. I'm kind of keen to write more books. I'm fed-up writing for TV and radio, it takes up so much time. And it's too hard to get stuff on. I’m better off just doing my own stuff. But writing books feels like a possibility. So, I might write a novel or a comedy novel or a comedy sci fi book. But we'll see...
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