What does it mean to be a successful comic? Richard Herring isn’t sure. He’s been a ‘professional funnyman’ for nearly 30 years, yet — as he’s the first to admit — he’s largely unknown beyond the circuit. Even then he has doubts. ‘I’m never in those top-100 stand-up lists,’ he says, when we meet in Soho ahead of his new tour. He admits his old shows have largely been forgotten and he hasn’t been to an awards ceremony for decades. As promo strategies go, it’s a curious one.
But then Herring is an odd one. In the late 1990s, he was part of a new wave of Oxbridge-educated fame-hungry young comics who exploded on to television. But while his contemporaries — Steve Coogan, Armando Iannucci, Chris Morris — thrived in the limelight, Herring made a quick splash before disappearing from the schedules almost entirely. He hasn’t made a BBC TV show this millennium.
Yet at 52, Herring is more successful than ever. Or at least in some ways. He’s got more work than ever before and can sell out a West End theatre in a few hours (on a Monday night no less). He’s worked with everyone from Stephen Fry to Jonathan Ross, and from Mary Beard to Louis Theroux. And now, apparently, Paul McCartney wants to come on his self-produced podcast. Yet he’s still not on television.
Does it bother him? Not really. ‘I was never really one for celebrity parties,’ he says. Nor did he enjoy ‘constantly battering at the door’ of television executives. ‘In your twenties, everyone’s ambitious and is fighting against each other. I was constantly worried about work,’ he says. He prefers his life now: financially stable and settled down in Hertfordshire with a family and a dog.
To understand how things changed, you have to go back to the early 2000s. Herring, still trading partly on his television fame, went back to performing full-length shows at the Edinburgh Fringe, quickly becoming a firm favourite with the kind of comedy geeks who make the annual pilgrimage to the festival. His masterstroke — intentional or otherwise — was to bet big on these geeks. Forget the fickle TV execs, he figured, and focus on the real fans.
In order to cultivate a regular audience, his work became more autobiographical. He wrote material ‘about the frustration of being a middle-aged man who was not in a relationship’. He loaded each show with call-backs and in-jokes to please regulars. And he decided to do for himself what the big comedy labels wouldn’t: he began producing his own DVDs and manning his own merchandise stall after the show.
Then in 2013 he became one of the first comedians to launch his own podcast. He wanted to interview names from the British entertainment world, but to bring his quirky fanbase with him. To keep the regulars on side, he peppered the interviews with the kind of idiosyncratic, buffoonish humour he’d refined on stage. ‘It was just meant to be a chat between two people, messing around with ideas,’ he says. And it worked.
Skip forward six years and the podcast — Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre Podcast, or RHLSTP (pronounced as an unbroken string of consonants) — has become a full-time job. Probably his first ever. ‘I didn’t expect to be doing it seven years later,’ he admits. ‘It’s nice to have something to be proud of.’
The show’s success is built on Herring’s fanbase — the people who ‘get him’; in his own words, ‘chunky bearded men’ who stay away from social situations. He has an ongoing joke about how many of his audience work in IT. With RHLSTP he’s tried to give them a community. Fans turn up in droves and pay their monthly subs to join a deliberately naff ‘fan club’. They buy books of the ‘emergency questions’ he uses to drag celebrity guests off-script. (‘Is it cheating to have sex with a robot?’ is a typical example.)
Is it emotionally draining to cater for an obsessive fanbase? Perhaps unfairly, I find myself thinking of Jordan Peterson, the psychiatry professor turned anti-feminist cultural icon who lives a rock-star lifestyle on the back of his male super-fans. Like Peterson, Herring receives emails from fans saying he’s helped alleviate their depression and loneliness. One wrote to say that Herring’s interview with Jimmy Cricket had stopped them taking their own life. ‘That probably wasn’t an expected repercussion for me or Jimmy,’ he laughs.
Luckily his fans rarely overstep the boundaries, he says. ‘Most people understand they can’t try to corner me for more than a few minutes.’ Perhaps those who do cross the line can be forgiven. On stage, Herring is affable and matey, coming across like someone who would happily go to the pub with you. If you didn’t have many friends, you’d probably like him.
Off-stage (or at least when being interviewed), he’s slightly different. Pleasant, yes, but cautious and terribly nuanced. He thinks at length about his answers, often going back and forth on questions about the ethics of comedy. He seems like a man replaying an argument with himself.
He’s been thinking about his back catalogue lately. In the 1990s, his television routines sought to satirise the thinly concealed sexism of lad culture, although largely by apeing and exaggerating it. In retrospect he admits the routines may have blurred the lines. ‘You didn’t have to worry about a joke being taken out of context in those days,’ he says. Neither did you in 2009, apparently, when he grew a Hitler moustache and wrote a comedy show about people’s reactions.‘I wouldn’t do that again,’ he says quickly.
In some ways the anxiety is understandable. In an age of renewed puritanism, many comedians live in fear that their back catalogues might return to haunt them. ‘This cancel culture is just hypocritical,’ he says. ‘If you trawled anybody’s life, and everything was written down or photographed, you’d find some appalling things that they’d probably forgotten about.’
But then again Herring has one big advantage: he doesn’t have to worry about over-cautious media types dropping him because, well, they were never booking him in the first place. For Herring to be ‘cancelled’, it would have to be his own fans who made the decision.
Until then, he’s secure in his position as the comedy podcast king. That might not be the most obvious definition of success, but you can see why he likes it.
Richard Herring's Leicester Square Theatre Podcast is touring until 6 December. He plays Oxford Playhouse on 27 October, Cambridge Corn Exchange on 8 November and the Leicester Square Theatre on multiple dates. For full dates, visit rhlstp.co.uk.