Richard Herring: The power of free

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Famous in the nineties for his double-act with comedy partner Stewart Lee, Richard Herring is now producing his own weekly comedy revue, As It Occurs To Me, and giving it away for free as a podcast. He explains all to Scott Matthewman

Since splitting with TV comedy partner Stewart Lee at the end of the 1990s, Richard Herring’s comedy CV has been divided between writing and script editing TV and radio comedy and a stand-up career.

For the last couple of years, he and broadcaster Andrew Collins have produced the weekly (and deliberately misspelled) Collings and Herrin Podcast, nominally a discussion of the week’s events, that has frequently nudged into the top of the iTunes comedy charts. Now, Herring has launched his second podcast venture, a live comedy show recorded every Monday at London’s Leicester Square theatre and then released, unedited and for free, on the internet the following day.

“It’s called As It Occurs To Me,” he explains, “because it’s about either things that have happened to me that week or things that I’ve thought about.” The initial template is based upon his Radio 2 comedy series That Was Then, This is Now, which aired for three series between 2004 and 2008. Each week he will be joined on stage by two actors from that series, Emma Kennedy and Den Tetsell, although “that might change if they get work,” he admits with a laugh. “I can only pay them a minimum.”

A mixture of stand-up and sketches, Herring says the show’s format will be quite fluid. “I’m seeing these first ten [weekly episodes] as a way of finding my feet, and a way of building up the show. I’m hoping that as the weeks go by, the format will change and maybe solidify. But it’s great to have that freedom, not worrying myself about whether a certain number are listening, and whether the controller of the channel is going to like it or not.”

The creative freedom is clearly one that appeals about the whole project. “It’s been something I’ve been thinking about for a while, partly through doing the podcast with Andrew Collins, but even before that. It’s not like it’s that difficult to get stuff on the radio, but there are so many hoops to jump through. And then you have to deal with compliance and time limits and stuff.

“And I like the immediacy of just coming up with an idea and straight away putting it out the next day, rather than waiting for a gap in the schedule. So I thought it would be an interesting experiment to sort of do-it-yourself.”

As part of the experiment, many people are giving their services for free or at a reduced cost, which Herring does not see as a long-term solution. “The thing with this show is that if the 400-seat theatre is full, even once you’d paid everyone I’d make round about as much money as I’d make on a radio show. If enough people came,” he emphasises. “We’re doing this first run to see what happens, really. It’s not going to break even.

“It’s not really about the money, though, I have to say. But with the podcast with Andrew Collins, we’re now doing live ones where we’re paid to go and do them in a theatre, and people come and pay to see it. So that’s a way of generating money once the audience get into the show. In the same way as the music industry is now, you’re giving the thing away free online in order for people to come and see you live.”

And it is not only the live versions of the Collings and Herrin podcast that have seen ticket sales surge. This year saw Herring’s Edinburgh Fringe show, Hitler Moustache, become one of his most successful. “I’ve definitely noticed an upsurge,” he says. “It’s hard to say whether it’s down to the podcast, but in the last two or three years, ticket sales have been on the increase. It’s due to a lot of factors, but certainly a lot of people do come up to me after the show and say, ‘I listen to the podcast,’ or ‘I heard about you through the podcast’.

“So it pays off, I think, in the long run. And I think people feel grateful that I’ve given them so much free comedy. I think a lot of people go, oh well, if we go and see him once or twice a year, that’s a way of paying him back. Or if we buy his DVD online then that’s a way of paying back.”

On a personal level, while Herring expects to lose money on this initial run of podcasts, he believes that at the moment finances are working out well. “The tours are going quite well, and every now and again I do a little panel show or whatever. That provides, comparatively, quite a lot of money. So I’d rather use that money to work on my own projects. Much as I enjoy doing those panel shows, it’s nice to think that the money from them gives me the freedom to explore my own stuff.”

For the last seven years, Herring has also been writing a daily blog on his website, which he says he sees as a starting point for many of his ideas. “It’s been really hard to get people to understand what I mean by doing [the blog]. So part of doing this show is to show the potential of using stuff from the blog, reusing the idea of what happened to me this week as the basis for a show.”

In terms of radio comedy programming, the BBC has a monopoly in the UK, and I ask Herring if he feels podcasts provide a possible source of competition for the Corporation. “I’m not competing with the BBC,” he insists, “but I think it’s a viable [route] for performers to get their stuff out there in the way they want.

“I’ve script edited Little Britain, and you’d think with those guys [Matt Lucas and David Walliams] that they’ve made enough money, why do they even go through the BBC at all any more? And they have the BBC telling them what they can, and can’t, do. Why not just make it themselves with all the money they’ve got, and then sell it themselves, not having to give the BBC any money and not have the BBC imposing control over it – and then sell it to the BBC, or whoever wants to buy it.

“I think there’s now a way for people who are frustrated at the difficulty of getting things on, and the number of good things that are pulled off the TV after a series or two. I’ve been lucky to get things on the radio and onto TV, but you’re at the mercy of other people. As a creative person and as I get older, I just want to get my stuff heard and out there.

“You can sit around and wait for five years for someone to like you and put your stuff on the telly, but actually it’s better to just get on with it.”

* Richard Herring will be touring his new stand-up show, Hitler Moustache from January 29. For details see www.richardherring.com

* As It Occurs To Me is at the Leicester Square theatre every Monday until December 12.

* A longer, audio version of this interview is available as a podcast at thestage.co.uk/podcasts

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