Richard Herring – 'I shouldn't have made it quite so relentlessly annoying and irksome'
Edinburgh Fringe stalwart discusses his cherished memories (and a couple of bad ones) as he takes The Best on the road
As Richard Herring embarks on his The Best tour, featuring his favourite routines across 12 shows such as Hitler Moustache and Oh Fuck, I'm 40!, he picks some memorable moments from his life on the road
Have you ever met a hero of yours on tour?
I saw CJ from Eggheads in a service station once. He was strutting around and showing off and enjoying the fact that he was CJ from Eggheads. But fame is a fickle mistress and hubris is its secret bedfellow.
Have you performed in a particular room that you'd always wanted to play?
It's always exciting to play the Hammersmith Apollo. It's way bigger than any venue I would get to play on tour and I only ever get to do ten minutes as part of a charity night. But I saw Billy Connolly here in the 90s and realised it is the perfect large venue for comedy. It can still be intimate even though it holds 3000 people. But performing to 3000 people is still a rare enough treat to be a thrill. It's much easier than doing a smaller venue, but the audience becomes like a living orchestra you have to conduct; it's fun to experience the way laughter dances round the room like a swirling wind or a lapping tide.
Can you recall any show which started off badly but ended up in triumph?
Some of the early open-spot stand-up gigs in 1990 were tough battles, many unwinnable, but occasionally you'd snatch victory from the fist of defeat. The Bear Cat club in Twickenham had a lively audience with a healthy disrespect for new acts, who would often be heartily booed before they'd even walked on stage. Often the booing would go to the end, but occasionally with a sharp-witted response to the heckles (and I only remember one that revolved around the assailant's girlfriend being a sheep: though it was a bit cleverer than it sounds) you could leave to cheers.
Conversely, can you recall any show which started off well but ended up going off the rails somewhat?
An early Lee and Herring gig at a university in Wales was going fantastically well until the rugby club arrived just before the end of the first half and then descended into a cacophony of terrible heckles. Nothing we could do to win it back. The sweet audience were as intimidated as we were and the gig came off the rails. I don't think I quite got to use the put-down I've always had ready: 'people in stone houses shouldn't throw glasses'. But it came close.
Which show are you most proud of and is there one that you'd do a lot differently if you were writing it today?
Very hard to say, but the end of What Is Love, Anyway? is one of my proudest achievements on stage, as I managed to tell a story that would make people laugh, then cry, then laugh again within the space of a few seconds. It was emotionally powerful and also properly funny and tied up a lot of the themes and tropes of the whole show.
I would write most of them differently because I am different, and some of them I couldn't write now because they were of a time. It's great to have another crack at some old routines with The Best because I'm a more experienced comedian, can do them better and am finding new jokes within them. I think maybe with Someone Likes Yoghurt, I wouldn't have made it quite so relentlessly annoying and irksome. It was the one I found it hardest to listen back to, but partly because the routines are designed to batter the audience and the first half should have ended 20 minutes earlier.
I now think it's important to make sure your audience have as good a time as possible and whilst it's fun to experiment with tedium or antagonisation, ultimately the job is to make them laugh. You can be clever-clever and deconstructive and mess around with the artform. But I want people to leave the theatre feeling they haven't wasted a precious evening off.
Is there a single routine that you wish you'd never done?
When I did all the shows again there were certainly a few routines that I wouldn't do now, partly due to increased sensitivity of audiences and partly due to the danger of a line being taken out of context on Twitter. But the inappropriateness was the joke and there was always a pay-off in however unpleasant I was, as you realised later on how sad or alone my 'character' was. But I am glad I did everything I've done, even the stuff that was shit, because that's how you learn and how you improve. The mistakes teach you more than anything else.
Is there anyone you have spoken about in any of those 12 shows that has publicly or privately taken you to task for something you said about them?
I don't think so. I tend to be quite good at making myself look bad and disguising the identities of anyone I am revealing anything about. And though I have occasionally had a dig at another comedian, they are always too big to have been in a position to notice. My wife has been very good about me doing material about her. She worried that in talking about the birth of our child I might be appropriating a story that was not the man's to tell, but she liked the way I did it, even if at times it revealed some intimate details.
Over the piece, it feels as though you've done pretty well critically, but is there one of these shows that you think deserved more plaudits than it received?
I have always got basically positive reviews, with the odd stinker. But nothing I've done has ever troubled the people who pick out awards and because I tend to play a stupid character I think some reviewers underestimate the cleverness and craft of some of my shows. But it's better to be a fairly constant four-star comedian than have one huge success and be chasing that forever. I think We're All Going To Die! maybe deserved to get more recognition than it did, but I have been lucky to get as much support and recognition as I have.
Richard Herring: The Best is on tour until Sat 10 Jun.