Richard Herring on taking RHLSTP on tour
The Podfather and double-Taskmaster champion has been described as this generation’s Michael Parkinson, for his longform interviews that allow the seldom-offered gift of time to his showbiz guests. As part of the comedy partnership Lee & Herring in the nineties, and having enjoyed radio, sitcom and Edinburgh Fringe success as a writer, Herring has spent the past three decades contributing to the UK’s rich comedy landscape; one comprising the likes of Stephen Fry, Steve Coogan, Miriam Margolyes, Richard Ayoade, Charlie Brooker- all of whom have been interviewed by the man himself. We catch up with him as he prepares to take his smash-hit Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre podcast on tour.
I read, a while back, that you try to do minimal prep for interviews. Is that still the case?
Not really. Sometimes it can work doing that, but sometimes on tour, if you're doing six interviews in three days, it makes it a little bit hard. [I tend to think] let's try and find some avenues to go down that maybe not the well trodden paths, which means digging in a bit. But I usually do it on the day. So if people have a book out, I might read the book. And that's helpful. But yeah, otherwise, you can find quite a lot just by looking up old interviews and finding the bits where you think, Oh, that's weird. They haven't talked a bit more about that. It can be fun, not knowing very much and not being very well prepared. And then you end up finding out stuff. I think in a way you want to research, just find out what people have been asked a lot and just make sure you don't really go down that route too much. But obviously, if you have someone like Lisa McGee on you sort of have to talk about Derry Girls.
You want to find those new rabbit holes. Yeah, absolutely. But I suppose it must take the pressure off having the sort of emergency questions baked into the format.
Yeah, well, that's where they came from, really. I interviewed Jonathan Ross and I kind of dried up because I got a bit intimidated. Only for like, maybe five seconds, but it felt like a long time. And I thought, ‘Well, I should have something ready.’ The [emergency question about] sucking your own cock came out of my standup. In the very first one, I asked Tim Minchin [whether he had ever tried to]. It’s nice to have that 5000 questions to fall back on if things really dry up. But on tour, it's been very much like, ‘Oh my God, how has that hour gone by so fast?’
You must have those emergency questions down to a fine art now. Is there sort of a formula that you follow?
There isn't really a formula. It's just, I can tell which ones are good and which ones aren't. People send them to me all the time and nearly every one written by an adult is terrible, and often ones written by kids are quite good. Either the question has to be so funny that you can ask the question and it doesn't really matter what happens, or it's got to be something that you can get multiple answers to. So a bad one is where, you know, three or four people start giving the same answer, because that's not what you want.
So you want to try and find something where people can be imaginative, where you learn something. But it’s all just fluke. Obviously entertainers want to entertain, so if you ask a question they've never been asked before, they will try and find an answer. No one wants to sit there going, ‘Oh, God, I don't know,’ [although] occasionally that happens. But they will find something. And it will generally not be a story they've told before. The funniest bit for me, is where, you know, it's me and another comedian, just riffing on an idea or revealing a story… If you've got someone like Bob Mortimer sitting there and you're riffing with him, and you make him laugh as a comedian. That's sort of an unbeatable. So those are my those are my favourite moments.
I think that also speaks to the fact that people feel comfortable with your setup, knowing that it's sort of all in your hands and not part of a big machine.
Yeah, I think people trust me. You know, we say to people, ‘if there's anything you say that you want to take out, we'll take it on the podcast.’ Obviously, we can't take it out of the minds of people who've seen it and there might be a journalist who might write about it. But I think people do trust me, they know I'm not trying to catch them out. Stephen Fry early on was obviously an example of that, where he talked about his recent suicide attempt, which wasn't something I would have ever tried to get out of him.
I'm not trying to get a scoop [but people have] time to tell the story which I think you don't, really, in many interviews anymore. If you're on the radio, you might start telling a story that makes you look bad for the first two minutes, and then they cut you off before you can explain it and turn it around.
[And] the audience is so lovely at my gigs, they're so receptive, and they listen, and they laugh at the right things. With Stephen, it was just such a lovely atmosphere. And I think that's what made him feel he could open up. And what was interesting about that one was that there were three or four days where people could have gone on Twitter or gone to the press [before it aired] but no one did. That's what I think sets [RHLSTP] out from most of these other interview podcasts. The audience there make it feel like you’re amongst friends.
Do you think that's the importance of going on tour, taking it out of Leicester Square and meeting those fans further afield?
Yeah, it’s really nice for that. But I think what's interesting is also you ended up booking people that maybe wouldn't have booked. Out of the 35 guests booked on this tour so far, I think only maybe seven or eight of them have been on before. Whereas in London, you do end up kind of getting a lot of repeat guests. London audiences are getting a little bit blasé, you know. It’s still pretty fantastic, we've got to a point where everything, whoever it is, will sell to 200-250 tickets or whatever, and then probably sell out if it’s a big name. But still, London [audiences] are a bit like, ‘Oh, it's only Steve Pemberton. We might come out.’ [Laughs] You know, so it's nice to come out where that doesn't really matter anymore.
Speaking of guests, Newcastle's on the first of October and you've got two shows. One is with Lauren Pattison and one's with Jason Cook. Tell me a bit about them both.
[Lauren previously] did an Edinburgh one. And I think she did a remote one. I really like her. And I really like her comedy. I think she's just terrific. So really glad because we haven't done a proper full live one before. And Jason I haven’t seen for ages, but we used to gig back in the noughties. And we did a gig where the act had to get as drunk as possible, at The frog and bucket. So I remember that gig. Well, I remember some of it [laughs]. And what's nice about Newcastle is it’s two separate shows. It means we can have a bit longer with each guest.
The last time [we were in the Newcastle Stand] we had [comedian and actor] Dave Johns and [comedian] Seymour Mace on the same show and yeah, The Stands are just always the best comedy venues. What's lovely about all of my tours, is I'm in a weird position where some places I can sell 1000 tickets, and some places I can't sell 100 tickets. So I get to play comedy clubs and massive theatres, and the next day I might be in a little club in Bridgend. I get to experience all the different kinds of places you can play.
It must keep you really in the loop.
Yeah, well, you know, I'm trying to stay as you know, tuned into new comedians as possible. Obviously, it's kind of difficult to . I'm not on the circuit really anymore. But that's what I've always wanted [with this show], to try and keep that balance and show all the different types of people that are doing comedy and all the different people I think are funny.
I wanted to ask you a bit about life after Taskmaster, whether you feel that's changed your sort of outreach at all, or the way that you're seen in the street, anything like that?
No, I mean, hardly at all. Which is slightly disappointing [laughs]. It's hard to judge because it happened in 2019 and obviously there was the pandemic. And I think because there were two very big, very funny characters on my show, which were Johnny Vegas and Daisy May Cooper, I was aware thatI wasn't going to compete with them in wackiness. So I thought I'd be myself and, you know, mainly try to win it.
So even though I won, I don't think it would make people go, oh I must go and see that guy. So yeah, I don't know. I don't think it's hurt me, I have to say. Some people go on and then, you know, become sort of stars and tour off the back of it. But I think a lot of that is new people that people haven’t yet heard of. Whereas I think with me, it's like, ‘Oh it’s that fucker again. I thought he'd given up 30 years ago.’
Words: Louis Cammell