Richard Herring began podcasting in the same month he started dating his future wife. ‘I was 40, and was aware that I could be on the tail down into oblivion,’ he recalls – a reference to his career prospects, though possibly his romantic fortunes, too.
Having enjoyed success with Stewart Lee in cult 90s BBC comedies Fist of Fun and This Morning With Richard Not Judy, Herring was ‘doing okay’ as a stand-up, but growing frustrated at seeing various TV and radio projects kicked into the long grass.
‘It was around the time of the Jonathan Ross-Russell Brand thing, and radio got very scared about everything,’ he says. ‘So for me, the appeal of the internet was the ease of doing it, and the freedom of doing it. I liked the fact you can say what you want.’
He started out doing a show with his old 6 Music co-host Andrew Collins, until that ‘all turned a bit weird’, after which he struck out on his own. Fast forward 11 years, and – in addition to being a married father of two – Herring is riding high as the multi-award-winning ‘podfather’ of online comedy.
‘The internet probably saved me,’ he admits. ‘It certainly helped me progress to where I am now. I was touring, but not that many people were coming to see me – enough to make a bit of money, but the podcasts have increased the audience to the point to where I can actually make a good living.
‘I didn’t care about the money, though,’ he adds. ‘I cared about being able to get the ideas out there, without having to wait two years. I assumed the podcasts wouldn’t lead anywhere. But accidentally, I’m an amazing businessman, partly due to my lack of interest in making money.’
Not just that, he’s also ‘the best celebrity interviewer in Britain’ – according to The Guardian, at least – thanks to the huge success of his long-running Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre Podcast (or RHLSTP, to use its deliberately unwieldy non-acronym).
Recorded in front of a paying audience, each edition sees Richard interviewing a notable guest about their life and career. But while the show is designed to be funny, it has also proved to be unusually revealing: it was on RHLSTP in 2013, for example, that Stephen Fry went public about his attempted suicide, while a memorable recent episode featured Les Dennis picking over the bones of his marriage to Amanda Holden with a mix of humour and lacerating honesty.
‘It didn’t really start out as an interview podcast, so much as two people messing around together,’ Herring explains. ‘But I’ve just got quite good at adapting to the guest, and going with whatever they want to do. It’s a very relaxed format, and a long format, and I bother to do my research. My theory is, the minute the person opens up the part of their brain where they’re ad-libbing, rather than sticking to the usual script, that’s when you end up with new and revealing stuff.
In the case of Stephen Fry, the question actually came from the 12-year-old son of the show’s producer. ‘He said, “What’s it like being Stephen Fry?”’ Herring recalls. ‘There was just something in that question that made him answer with a candour that was more than you would expect.’
Occasionally, the mood can sour, like when he appeared to offend Stephen Merchant with a near-the-knuckle joke – ‘For about five minutes, it was a bit awkward,’ he admits – and a handful of interviews have never seen the light of day at all.
‘The guests do have sign-off, but only Richard E Grant has used it,’ says Herring. ‘I don’t understand why – it was genuinely one of the best interviews we’ve done. I’m upset about it, because I worry I upset him. But I don’t think I did. It’s probably more his people.
‘We often take out bits that people want to take out, and I personally didn’t let one go out because the guest was too tired and emotional and came across as a dick. If I embarrass myself, I tend to put it out, but if the guests embarrass themselves, I don’t.
‘It’s about listening, and judging, and risk-taking,’ he adds. ‘Because I want to be able to throw in some lines that might derail it completely. You don’t know until you’ve done it whether you’re going to get a laugh, or whether the person is going to get annoyed. Which is a particular frisson in itself.’
Currently, Herring is on the road with a touring version of RHLSTP (which keeps the name, even though it’s not at the LST). This week, for example, he’s in Northampton with the Reverend Richard Coles, and in Glasgow with comedians Limmy and Fern Brady. Gratifyingly, he finds ticket sales aren’t necessarily linked to the calibre of the interviewee. ‘Some places sell out way in advance regardless of the guests,’ he says. ‘Though in London they’ve got a bit spoiled, and they wait to see who’s on.’
He still books all the guests himself. ‘It’s a nightmare,’ he admits. ‘I might look into getting a booker, but the danger is not getting people I want. Part of the appeal is I only have people I like and respect, and want to talk to. If I can get in contact with the person, I can usually sort it out. It’s going through agents that’s difficult. Though we do pay people, so it’s not a terrible gig.’
RHLSTP isn’t the only thing keeping him out of mischief. Since November 25, 2002, he’s also written a daily blog – as in, every single day, for 18 years – called Warming Up, which is now considered such an important social document, it is being archived by the British Library. ‘I think there probably is some historical value in it,’ he says. ‘Hopefully I’ll be seen as the new Samuel Pepys. Although Pepys got lucky, with the Great Fire of London. If he hadn’t had that, he’d be nothing.’
He’s also recently launched a podcast, Stone Clearing with Richard Herring, dedicted to his hobby of removing stones from the field near his Hertfordshire home. And then there’s his annual fundraiser for International Women’s Day, which he spends trawling Twitter in search of trolls sarcastically asking ‘When’s International Men’s Day?’ and politely pointing out to them that it’s on November 19. Last year his tireless efforts over a 16-hour shift raised almost £120,000 for the charity Refuge.
Over the past 25 years, Herring has also written and performed 18 themed stand-up shows on subjects as diverse as religion and yoghurt. For 2009’s Hitler Moustache, he grew a toothbrush ‘tache to see if it could be reclaimed from the notoriety of its most infamous champion.
‘Weirdly, you couldn’t do it now,’ he reflects. ‘In 2010, the idea of the Nazis coming back was ridiculous. The show was an attempt to stop right-wing politics proliferating. So it definitely worked,’ he adds, with a hollow laugh.
‘It was also early in my relationship with my wife, and she stuck with me having that moustache for a year. So that was quite a good sign that she was the right woman for me,’ he adds of Catie Wilkins, a successful children’s author and comedian who co-hosts her own cult podcast, Drunk Women Solving Crime.
‘I’ve done a few things that involve semi-ruining my life for comedy. I nearly drove myself mad with The 12 Tasks of Hercules Terrace [in which he attempted challenges ranging from skydiving to, er, killing the Loch Ness Monster]. I’ve always been interested in exploring that little edge between madness and sanity.’
His 2008 show The Headmaster’s Son was inspired by his school days at The Kings of Wessex School in Cheddar, Somerset, where his father was indeed the principal. ‘It wasn’t particularly traumatic,’ he says. ‘I guess it changed my life in the way I was viewed with suspicion by a lot of people, at least some of the time. But I was awkward about making new friends, and stuff like that, anyway. My dad was a very popular headmaster, and the show sort of concluded that, if I’m a dick, it’s because I’m a dick, not because of any childhood trauma. But equally, a lot of comedians tend to be sons of teachers or bishops and stuff like that. If you’ve got a figure of authority, maybe you’re fighting a bit against that.’
A running theme throughout both RHLSTP and Herring’s stand-up is his relationship with Stewart Lee, in which he adopts the role of the embittered, jilted wife forced to watch his former partner go on to BAFTA-winning glory as Britain’s most feted comedian. Though clearly a comic conceit, it’s hard not to feel there’s a genuine edge to those jokes…
‘There sort of is and there isn’t,’ he says. ‘My audience got the joke – I don’t begrudge Stewart his success. I’m very pleased for him. It took him a long time, and he nearly gave up, so he’s an example of what can happen if you stick to your guns. I begrudged, I think, the assumption that I was somehow influenced by him; that I was the guy who Stewart Lee carried through the 90s, and then failed when he wasn’t there. Because the truth is we both influenced each other. Quite a lot of his routines, which he doesn’t remember, were actually my ideas. But he does them in a way I’d never have done them, so I don’t really care. But I don’t like the assumption it was a one-way process.’
What’s their relationship like today?
‘We don’t have a very good relationship. But it’s not because of any of that, really.’
How does he look back on the Fist of Fun days now? ‘My ambition as a teenager was to have my own BBC TV show, which we did in five years,’ he says. ‘Weirdly, it’s lasted better than I thought it would at the time. We never got awards, or were even nominated for anything. But the people who liked it were comedy fans, many of whom have become comedians themselves, and they’ve stayed very loyal to us both. I just wish it had happened a bit later – at the time, I was young, and I didn’t appreciate how amazingly fortunate we were.’
Prior to Fist and Fun, Lee and Herring had been writers on Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris’s seminal radio comedy On the Hour, including contributing to some of Steve Coogan’s earliest Alan Partridge skits. How would Herring express their contribution to the hapless sports reporter’s creation in terms of a percentage?
‘It’s very hard. Nothing, really,’ he says. ‘The reality is it’s very much Steve’s thing. I’d say we had more of an input than Patrick Marber, who does own quite a lot of the character.’
Their decision not to write for On The Hour’s beloved TV spin-off, The Day Today, stemmed from a disagreement over the ownership of hapless news reporter Peter O’Hanraha-Hanrahan (played by Marber). ‘That came out of me waking up one morning, on the day of the Maastricht Treaty, and listening to a guy on Radio 4 trying to explain what it was all about,’ Herring recalls. ‘He was going, “Well, there’s certainly a lot of stuff in this report…” So I went in and said, “This is a great idea for a character – a reporter who doesn’t have any idea what he’s talking about”. And they took it away and did it. I didn’t get a credit, and they said “You didn’t write it, you just heard it on the radio.”
‘It was a massive opportunity,’ he says, of The Day Today. ‘I knew this was going to be the Monty Python team of our generation. And I do sometimes imagine the alternate universe, where I’m on the writing team. I’d have probably ended up a writer, not a performer. They’re all writing films and American sitcoms and stuff. If I’d been on the writing team, would I be doing that? That’s a very different life.
‘But I feel sort of fortunate, because if we’d written for The Day Today, Lee & Herring probably wouldn’t have happened. You can’t go back and regret things too much.
‘I still don’t really understand why some people become very successful and some people don’t,’ he admits. ‘But longevity is all I’ve ever really been interested in. I don’t want to be massively famous, or massively un-famous. I’d much rather be in the middle. If I could stay at this level, I’d be very happy. Though if someone said I could make a million a year doing RHLSTP in Las Vegas, then I’d give it a go…’
‘In the end,’ he says, ‘most comedians would look at my career and think: that’s amazing. I realised quite a long time ago that if you live your life comparing yourself to other people and worrying about how they’re doing, you’re never going to be happy.’
Watch / listen to RHLSTP at https://www.rhlstp.co.uk
An edited version of this article was published in Waitrose Weekend, 14 November, 2019
(c) Waitrose Weekend