Not one of the cool kids
By Adam Biles.
If, in the Comedy Pantheon, there is a single seat reserved for double acts, in the case of the creators of Fist of Fun and This Morning With Richard Not Judy, the smart money – or at least the cautious money – will currently be on Stewart Lee and not Richard Herring being the one chosen to rub shoulders and swap (exploding?) cigars with Ronnie Barker, Peter Cooke, Eric Morecambe and…uh…Eddie Large.
Lee, after all, has two BAFTA-winning stand-up series under his belt, as well as a critically lauded autobiography How I Escaped My Certain Fate and a regular Guardian column. Twelve years after abandoning stand-up, owing to waning audiences and his distaste for the agents and promoters that strip-mine performers’ revenue, and seven years after his tentative return, Lee now plays to sell-out crowds on tours organised entirely on his own terms. Lee, in short, has become one of those performers – alongside Lenny Bruce, Andy Kaufmann, Bill Hicks and Daniel Kitson – that critics and fans like to label “artists”, as if there’s something wrong, or mildly tawdry about being a mere “comedian”.
Herring’s story is different. After This Morning With Richard Not Judy was denied a third series by the BBC, and their double-act was amicably dissolved, Herring ploughed on with stand-up, carving his own niche of themed shows, that combined cuttingly intelligent social and psychological commentary with a joyful puerility. It’s a fine line to walk – tilt too much one way, and the subject loses its humour, too much the other and serious or sensitive subjects risk being overly trivialised. It’s a line, however that Herring, for the most part, has walked with skill, increasingly so as he has matured as a performer. So shows like Talking Cock, Christ on a Bike and Hitler Moustache have won him critical plaudits and a hard-core of loyal fans, but – for whatever reason – have not quite propelled him either into the ranks of the comedy “artist-ocracy”, now occupied by his former partner, or into the gang of arena-touring “Haircut Comedians” like Russells Howard and Kane. For those too young to remember Fist of Fun, Herring is likely to be an unfamiliar face. For those who do remember it, but have only cultivated a passing interest in comedy since then, it might seem that Herring’s destiny was to fall between the cracks of comedy history.
In his Richard Herring’s Edinburgh Fringe Podcast (“or, as all the cool kids are calling it, RHEFP!”) the man himself seems to share this view. Throughout the twenty-five episodes of the most recent season, Herring repeatedly confesses his fear that he will become the Rodney Bewes to Lee’s James Bolam. It was an idea he previously explored at length in the sister-show Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre Podcast (“or, as all the cool kids are calling it, RHLSTP!”) in which he invited comedians and writers who were once his fledgling contemporaries, but whose careers, in his view, have far outstripped his own. So Jonathan Ross, Charlie Higson, David Baddiel, Armando Ianucci, Graham Linehan, and of course, Stewart Lee, were subjected to Herring’s accusations of betrayal, material theft, and general Machiavellian scheming, accusations Herring levelled with the right balance of humour and sincerity to inspire the discomfort in his audience he seems to enjoy so much, as well as occasional unease in his guests.
But Edinburgh is different, for many reasons. 2012 was Herring’s 25th consecutive year at the Fringe, and whereas RHLSTP was recorded on a weekly basis, RHEFP was a daily affair – one of Herring’s two daily shows, alongside Talking Cock: The Second Coming – with, for the most part, lower-profile guests.
It may seem curious to review a podcast, from Paris, a week after the festival closed, and to not consider a single show, but the series as a whole. And yet I believe that it is only in listening to all twenty-five episodes, of following Herring’s personal odyssey as his energy and audiences fluctuate, as he gets sick, recovers, suffers hangovers, boredom and frustration, that the true achievement of RHEFP can be understood.
For anyone who has spent time at the Fringe (I did my share of leafleting for friends’ shows as a student) will know that for the majority of performers – excluding the big names who roll into town for a handful of nights, sell-out, then roll out again – the month of August in Edinburgh can be a cocktail of delirious joy and filthy anxiety. If you weren’t bi-polar before your month at the Fringe, you most likely would be by the time you left. Herring, intentionally or otherwise, captures this in vivid detail, doing little to disguise his dismay at poor ticket sales or unreceptive crowds.
Of course it is a performance, it can’t be anything but. And yet the line between persona and personality is a tricky one to draw in Herring’s case – perhaps even for himself. Stewart Lee has made much of the fact that people don’t seem to understand that “Stewart Lee” on stage is not the same as Stewart Lee on the street, but watching his interview with Kate Thornton after his BAFTA win, the distinction is evident. Lee comes across as humble, almost nice, and while this does nothing to detract from the brilliance of his material, it does illustrate how minutely crafted his stage persona is, and perhaps slightly undermines the suspension of disbelief. Herring, on the other hand, has always seemed more genuine, less crafted than Lee in his performance style. This can at times lead to a certain carelessness, a certain flabbiness, in his delivery, but it also means that when he lets a barb fly, or complains about his life, or sulks about his ticket sales or the intelligence of his audience, it’s much more difficult to draw the persona/personality line, and this adds a certain frisson to his work. The podcast-interview format can only encourage this blurring. Herring is forced to be spontaneous, to react to his guests and audience in a way that, I suspect, would be very difficult for the more meticulous and controlled Lee. There are also moments – often when he talks about the financial implications of not selling enough tickets – that the listener can clearly feel not only the extent of his twenty-five year struggle to make a career out of his vocation, but also the anxiety this struggle constantly inspires in him. Near the end of the run he gave away 50 free tickets to Talking Cock that evening, before imploring people only to take a ticket if they planned on coming because “I have to pay for these myself.”
There is also the challenge of interviewing itself, of researching guests’ lives and of finding interesting enough topics to fill an hour. Herring manages this by revelling in his own ineptitude as an interviewer, and the laziness that means his “research” amounts to nothing more than printing the guest’s Wikipedia page minutes before leaving his flat. There is a delicious exchange with Susan Calman, when she calls Herring out on this, seeming disappointed that a man she refers to as a “comedy legend” should let himself down so sloppily. Herring also delights in asking his stock questions – a heresy for professional interviewers. So, “if you had to have sex with an animal – if you had to – which animal would you choose?” and “if you had to have sex with a Doctor Who alien – a non humanoid Doctor Who alien – which one would it be?” are insolently jemmied into every interview whether the moment is right for them or not. About halfway through the run, a third stock-question joins their ranks. “Have you…” – Herring begins, the inflection in his voice suggesting that he is trying to stop himself laughing at how absurd, how misplaced, how childish, and yet how wonderfully funny, if only for him, the question is – “Have you ever seen a ghost?”
A lot of what Herring does might be qualified as “little brother humour” (perhaps that explains my soft spot for him, as a little brother myself) – the dirty, silly stock questions, the immature puns, the lecherous advances to female guests and audience members, the impudent clock-watching when he and his guest run out of things to say to each other – but it’s “little brother humour” couched in something bigger, in a questioning intelligence that made Herring the perfect partner, the perfect equal, to Lee. And even though his guests give as good as they get (most commonly baiting the newlywed Herring with the apparently indisputable fact that his wife is far too young and far too pretty for him) among the younger comedians there is an undeniable sense of deference and respect.
It’s some commitment to listen to twenty-five hours of a childish, seemingly-inept, faded-star of a comedian, interviewing other comedians who you may never have heard of. But this past month, this is what I’ve done. Daily. Religiously. In the final episode, Herring interviews Rumpel, a performance artist known for shows that last upward of fifty hours (he doesn’t feature in the Guinness Book of Records because they insist upon schedule breaks in any endurance record attempt, and he considers that cheating). Rumpel is an odd character, who delivers stilted responses, often prefaced by long pauses, and Herring doesn’t have much to ask him. At a moment though, he does ask how he manages to stretch a performance out over such a long period. It’s ironic that Herring should ask such a question, because with the 25 hours of RHEFP that is exactly what he does himself, and, on balance, it’s a performance worth listening to.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Adam Biles (@adambiles) is a writer, translator and journalist based in Paris. His short stories and poetry have been published in many journals, including 3:AM Magazine, Vestoj and Chimera. His novel Grey Cats was chosen as a runner-up in the inaugural Paris Literary Prize, and will be published by 3:AM Press this autumn. He hopes to have his second novel, Feeding Time, completed soon.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, September 4th, 2012.