Freeview comedy channel, Dave will be sponsoring the Leicester Comedy Festival next month. Amongst the festivities is an exciting competition judged by veteran comedian and king of internet comedy, Richard Herring. I got the chance to speak to Richard about the upcoming competition, as well as how he uses the internet as a medium for comedy and how it has changed the way people make us laugh.
Richard, you'll be judging a competition at Dave's Leicester Comedy Festival pretty soon, can you tell us a little about the competition?
Yeah, for the competition anyone can upload anything that's funny. It can be any video but it has to be 30-60 seconds long- I suppose that's the skill. It can include sketches, animation, stand-up, a joke- whatever you think is amusing, and then they'll be judged by a panel including myself and some other comedy people, and I think some writers and critics. The one that we say is the best will win £5,000 and some top comedy advice from the creators of The Inbetweeners. So, that's quite a good first prize, and the second prize is £2,500 so it's a good opportunity. I personally love the internet as a medium for getting comedy across and I think this a nice way for someone new to try and get their work noticed and also win a bit of money, which will hopefully help them push onwards and make that into a career, if that's what they're interested in.
You mention that you now use the Internet a lot. Do you think that the old Radio 4 route into comedy, coupled with the laborious commissioning process is less relevant than it used to be?
Well, I think the Internet has made it less relevant because in the old days, when I started that was the only way to get anywhere- to get commissioned, usually by the BBC. That was a difficult process and it was difficult to break through. In fact for Lionel Nimrod, our producer had to threaten to resign when they said they weren't going to make that show. It was difficult to breakthrough but we were lucky enough to do quite well with that but even now as a fairly established comedian, it seems to me even now easier put something together myself. Something like As It Occurs To Me was an idea that I'd vaguely pitched to the radio stations and then I kind of thought, 'it'll take months to get anywhere, and then they won't let me say what I want to say because it's on the radio, and it'll have to be half an hour long', so why not just go out and make these things yourself?
That's not to say that radio and TV will become irrelevant, but I think it means that it's more democratic. You don't need to know the right people, you don't have to have the good fortune to be one of the acts that radio and TV people like, you just get out there an put something up and it's a way to discover if you actually are funny. In the past, if you weren't funny, you could pretend that it was all down to the unfairness of the system. Now you can put up books, audio, video or whatever, and it'll be judge on how many people listen to it. Also, another good thing about the internet is that the whole world and tune into it, so your more likely to find the like-minded souls that might like it. You might be doing something that's too niche for TV and 10,000 people might like it and that's enough to give you a good kick-start, or start making some money out of it, if that's important to you.
Do you think people's ultimate goal is still to get on the tele?
I think it probably is but I also think that it doesn't need to be. I'd also like to see more comedians just being concerned about good stuff and not really worrying about whether they're on TV or not. I think it's less relevant but it's obviously helpful in getting people to come and see you live. For someone like Stewart Lee, it has obviously injected a new life into his stand-up audience, but then again is it necessary? He's now slightly struggling over whether he's getting the right sort of people coming to see his stuff, so you don't necessarily need to do it. I haven't really been on TV in any major form for 15 years, and through using the internet I've managed to build up my audience to a very healthy number which means I can tour and make some money, and I've worked quite hard to get there. TV isn't necessarily the be all and end all. I also think that being famous is not as good as you might think. I think when I was younger, I was aiming to be the best comedian, and the most well known comedian and wanted everyone to love me, but actually, now I'm older, I think it's pretty cool that I can sit in coffee shops, enjoy a coffee and listen in on other people's conversations without them saying "isn't that Richard Herring over there?" You realise that there are more important things and I think, for me, comedy is the most important thing and if I do get some kind of TV exposure- great. If not, it's not the end of the world and I'm not going to try and avoid it but I also think, as long as the internet's there I can carry on doing everything I want to do, however stupid and self-indulgent it might be.
How do you reckon you would have used the internet if you and Stew were starting out now as opposed to 25 years ago?
I don't know, it'd be interesting to see. Stew would probably have been as resistant then as a young man as he is now as an older man. What I really like about it is that it feels a bit punk rock, I like the home made nature and the fact that you can do whatever you want to do. We were sort of doing internet shows on the radio before the internet. It would've suited us quite well, we were very interactive and we had email for our first TV show probably before anyone else did. In all likelihood, we could easily have done a show like Fist of Fun on the internet- it wouldn't have looked quite the same but there was a sort of Wayne's World feel to it, and that was a kind of internet show before the internet. I'm quite surprised it hasn't happened more with digital TV and that there aren't more lo-fi, really cheap digital comedy shows going on.
There was a period when they tried to do that on things like UK play, wasn't there?
Yeah, they did, but you can do really cheap shows that are properly funny, and that's the thing I'm hoping to show with the internet- that those shows don't cost me anything and you could film them and it wouldn't cost much more. They're still entertaining and you don't have to spend lots of money on sketches and a studio if you keep it lo-fi, and I think that's why something like this competition is quite interesting because it's not about producing something heavily produced that looks amazing. If you do that- great, but it's more about making someone laugh in a minute. I guess that's what you have to do as a stand-up as well. You have to be funny straight away, and to me that seems like quite a terrifying prospect, but I suppose that's what you need to do as a comedian. The biggest reaction I ever got from a live audience was a sketch I did as a student where someone said, "introducing Harold Pucks: the man who can only live in a vacuum", and then I would run on, and halfway across the stage, suddenly realise that I wasn't in a vacuum and just die in quite an elaborate fashion, diving across the stage. It was one of those jokes in which I just hit the floor and there would be an amazing laugh, and that was a sketch that took, at most, 45 seconds. So, you're looking for something like that, I guess. Something that's stupid, surprising or silly that can get a big laugh, maybe with a slight set-up. So, yeah, I think it would have suited us, but I'm also actually very glad it's here now. It's fallen very nicely for me and I was slightly wondering where I should be going and sitting, waiting for people to get in touch with me and realising that that wasn't really happening, so it was nice to take the autonomy and just get on with it. That's' what I've been doing for the last seven or eight years. 90% of what I do is generated by myself, whether it's an Edinburgh tour or a podcast. No-one comes to me and says "write this" and it's nice to have that power and that control over what you're doing, which I think the internet gives you.
Do you think that, with so much stuff out there, it's easier for stuff to get lost, or do you think that the best things shines through? You're established now, but I'm guessing that if someone started with a podcast of them playing themselves at snooker, it probably wouldn't get listened to.
Well, to be honest, it doesn't get listened to by many people anyway. I suppose I was and I wasn't [established]. With all the stuff we did on TV, it got an audience but it was very cultish, and when I toured on my own I was getting hardly anyone coming to see me in the early 2000's- genuinely down to around 30 people, and even when we toured as Lee and Herring, we didn't really get people in, so we weren't massively established. It helped that some people knew who we were, but the great thing about the internet is that you can do one thing, and if you do it very well, and it's get retweeted and emailed and it's on Facebook, it can reach an enormous audience very quickly. If something's good, I think it will, unless you have absolutely no friends or no one to show it to, spiral out of control. I think that's a good way of determining whether what you're doing is going to work or not. For the more eclectic stuff that I'm doing, it would be hard to get those things up and running, but also, there's nothing wrong with spending 10 or 15 years doing something without anyone realising that it's good. In fact it's quite a good thing because the problem with the internet is that there is this chance of an immediate result, and actually as a comedian, you want to be grafting away, and I think that's why I'm hopefully in a position where I'm producing pretty good stuff. If you take the last eight years, I've worked pretty constantly on stand-up and on podcast stuff, and really had to work at it and it's still very much below the radar. It's getting bigger and bigger, but only very gradually, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Also, if you film something and it exists, you can always direct people towards that. If you look at the Isabel Fay Haters video that I was a part of, that's a real calling card for her and it's led onto her getting a deal and stuff, so I think it's choosing your moment right and not getting ahead of yourself. The young comedian's curse is that they want everyone to know how brilliant they are straight away, and they might be pretty good, but they're not going to be as good as they are in ten years' time. If you work for ten years, you'll get better as a comedian and you'll look back at the things you were doing ten years ago going "this isn't all that good!" It's all relative really.
Finally, will we see any more AIOTM?
Never say never, but it was such hard work, and I think it might be difficult to get the team together again; they seem to be going on to all kinds of success elsewhere, so I don't think we'll do any more of those, but you never know. We might do a special or something, but I found it genuinely mentally disturbing to have to do it so fast, so I'm kind of thinking that there might be some way of doing a slightly more scripted, less-than weekly, video stand-up/sketch show that I'd put on the internet and I'm interested in exploring what the internet can offer me, so we'll see what's possible. We're definitely doing some more Leicester Square Theatre Podcasts and we might try and film them and ask people to pay for the videoed versions if they want to, but only a token amount. I also thinking of doing something along the lines of Stewart Lee's stand-up show, but not on TV as it wouldn't be massively expensive to put something together that would look pretty good, and obviously the content is more important than the way you do it. Who knows?
You can find all of the details of Dave's Leicester Comedy Festival here- http://www.comedy-festival.co.uk
Follow Jack Pelling on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jrpelling