Tag Archives: Richard Herring

How to think up a title for your very first Edinburgh Fringe comedy show

First of all, think of it not from your viewpoint but from the viewpoint of the punters and the reviewers.

In my opinion, you should have a title which starts in the first half of the alphabet.

ZEBRA JOKES FOR FOLKS may seem like a good title, but punters looking through the Fringe Programme start at the front and work through looking for attractive shows. So they go A-B-C-D-E etc etc.

By the time they get to M or N, after literally hundreds of shows, they are starting to skim the listings, their eyes are glazing over and the time slots they want to fill-up already have multiple shows vying for their attention. By the time they get to Z, they probably wish they had never had the idea of going to the Edinburgh Fringe in the first place..

For this reason, the late Malcolm Hardee used to start his titles with Aaaaargh!… increasing the length of the Aaaaaaaarghs year-by-year to out-manoeuvre copycats.

He was almost always first in the Fringe Programme’s comedy section listings.

In Edinburgh in August, you are not the only show in town…

Don’t go for Aaaaaaargghh! The market for it is already full. But I suggest you have a first word which starts with a letter between A and M.

Using the title A ZEBRA SHOW probably will not work because A and THE tend to be ignored by the Programme’s alphabetical listers.

Also, in my opinion, you should have your name in the title because, ultimately, the reason you are performing at the Edinburgh Fringe is to sell yourself and awareness of yourself to punters and to the media – NOT primarily the show.

Jonathan Ross first became famous on the Channel 4 show THE LAST RESORT WITH JONATHAN ROSS.

No-one knew who the fuck Jonathan Ross was when it started (not the punters; not TV industry people) but, because the show was good, they inevitably got to know his name. Every time the show was mentioned or printed, his name was publicised because it was in the title.

Another important thing is DO NOT BE TOO CLEVER with a title. Achieving impact is more important than being seen to be clever-clever. The more clever a title is, very often the more confusing, obscure and – when glimpsed for 1½ seconds on a flyer or in the very cluttered listings page in the Programme – possibly the more incomprehensible it is – especially to people from the US, Oz, Europe etc. The dividing line between being intriguing and confusing & annoying is narrow.

Your self-explanatory title has to stand out without an image

You only have 1 to 1½ seconds at very most for the title to register in people’s brains as they skim through listings, see your flyer among many or see your poster among many 15 feet away across a street.

KISS – Keep It Simple, Sucker.

The other thing to remember is that, in lists of “Today’s Shows” – either in The Scotsman newspaper or on a board at the venue or elsewhere – the punters only see the title in isolation – they may well NOT have read your 40 carefully-crafted words in the Fringe Programme. So your sole sales pitch to the punters who have never heard of you and who have no idea what your show is about is the title.

My inclination would be to figure out what TYPE of comedy show it is going to be.

Then figure out three words which make that obvious.

Then make them jolly and attractive (no easy feat).

And mix your name in there somehow.

I know that, when the Fringe Programme deadline comes, you will almost certainly have very little idea what is actually going to be in your show. But is it satire? Quick fire gags? Stories? Autobiographical? Physical comedy? Gay? Variety? Sketch? Surreal? Rude? Clean? Cutting-edge? Clowny? Family?

As a punter, if I see a general show title from a performer I have not seen, I have no idea what the show is like. It could be any of the above categories. If it is in a simple Daily Listing in a paper, in a magazine or on a board, there is not even a flyer or poster image. Just the title.

So the title on its own has to tell the punters – or at least hint – what TYPE of comedy show it will be.

Someone like Jimmy Carr does not need to do this. Because people know what to expect. They know who Jimmy Carr is and they know he is not a comedy magician or a juggler or a drag act.

Janey Godley is unusual in that her name will bring in punters

Someone like Janey Godley can get away with titles using puns on her name because she has a big existing audience in Edinburgh. So For Godley’s Sake! will work for her. The word GODLEY will get in her dependable audience.

But, the punters probably have no idea who you are – it is your first Fringe show. Remember that, defying expectations, a large percentage of your audience is likely to be local NOT from London. All the Fringe Office research I have ever seen seems to confirm this.

Another bonus to a clearly-defined title is that the title – as well as helping the punters know roughly what your show is about – will actually concentrate your own mind on exactly what the show is about and will stop you whizzing off in all sorts of irrelevant directions. Everything in the show should relate directly to the title.

And don’t use meaningless words – every word has to actually mean something. This is more important in the text rather than the title, but…

“Hilarious” and “rib-tickling” mean bugger-all.

Your show is in the Comedy section fer feck’s sake. Every show can say it is “hilarious”. What is your show’s Unique Selling Proposition? Why is it better and more interesting that the other zillions of comedy shows yelling for attention?

Do not even THINK about being zany!

Meaningless words like “wacky” and “zany” are actually suicidal. If any experienced reviewer sees those words in the description, it screams “18-year-old University student wankers who think they are funny and want to be famous and fêted”. It is like people putting up signs saying: “You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps”.

These “wacky” and “zany” shows are almost guaranteed to be laughter disasters. I would personally avoid like the plague seeing any show describing itself as “wacky” or “zany” and I would be more likely to go see a comedy show calling itself “Satanic” than one claiming it is “hilarious”.

In my opinion.

But that don’t mean a thing.

The other vitally important factor to bear in mind is the oft-repeated refrain from William Goldman’s book Adventures in The Screen Trade – “Nobody KNOWS anything”.

However experienced or knowledgable anyone is, they don’t KNOW what will work.

You have to ultimately go on your gut instinct, have self-confidence and ignore any advice you think is wrong.

Don’t forget you can probably change the name of your show either until you submit it or until the final deadline for the Fringe Programme (both have been the case in past years) or until some arbitrary date that the Fringe Office may conjure up.

Because, just as this may be your first year at the Fringe, so it is for a lot of the people working for the Fringe Office, many of whom change from year to year.

Richard Herring had to splurge out his ‘O’

There was one inglorious year – 2012 – when a completely barking mad person was in charge of the printed Programme. I blogged about it at the time – here and here and elsewhere.

2012 was the year poor Richard Herring had his show asterisked TALKING C*CK despite the fact that the origin of the word ‘cock’ in that phrase is not sexual (it comes from ‘cock & bull story’) and despite the fact that his original show TALKING COCK had been printed in the Fringe Programme with impunity ten years before, in 2002.

In 2009, I staged a show which the Fringe Programme had happily printed as  AAAAAAAAAARRGHHH! IT’S BOLLOCK RELIEF! – THE MALCOLM HARDEE AWARD SHOW. They would never have allowed that in 2012 and that had nothing to do with changing public taste but with individual stupidity in the Fringe Office.

Never assume anyone anywhere in Edinburgh in August is sensible.

2012 was the year the title STUART GOLDSMITH: PRICK was UNacceptable by the Fringe Office but the title STUART GOLDSMITH: PR!CK was totally acceptable (with an exclamation mark replacing the I)… and Australian comedian Jon Bennett intended to perform his first Edinburgh Fringe show: PRETENDING THINGS ARE A COCK.

The show’s title had been printed in full without any problem in the brochures for the Adelaide Fringe, the Edmonton International Fringe, the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, the Montreal Fringe and the Vancouver International Fringe. But the Edinburgh Fringe Office that year insisted the word COCK had to be changed to C*CK.

Mindless Fringe Office censored the word but not the image

To make matters even more ludicrous, the word had to be printed C*CK in the Programme listings, but the image for the show (also printed in the Programme) had the word COCK rising erect from a man’s groin.

The same Programme happily printed the show title MOLLY WOBBLY’S TIT FACTORY, a show by KUNT AND THE GANG and Reginald D Hunter’s show WORK IN PROGRESS…AND NIGGA while banning another comedian’s show title because it included three dollar signs in a row –  $$$ – which, it was claimed, did not fit ‘the Fringe’s house style’.

Always assume that everyone in Edinburgh in August is on some hallucinogenic drug or has a severe personality disorder. This assumption has served me well.

Never assume anything at the Fringe is easy or anyone is sane.

Most importantly, do remember that the title of your show is all about self-promotion, not necessarily about the show itself.

One template which I do recommend for any Edinburgh Fringe show title is:

AAAAAAARGH! I LISTENED TO JOHN FLEMING AND THAT IS WHY I, (INSERT YOUR NAME HERE), HAVE THIS CRAP TITLE FOR MY (INSERT YOUR GENRE HERE) COMEDY SHOW.

Trust me.

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Filed under Censorship, Comedy, Edinburgh

The difference between comics and comedians. Some are born; some made.

Penny Dreadfuls audio book

Penny Dreadfuls’ audio book

This week’s guest on the increasingly prestigious Grouchy Club Podcast was comedy performer Thom Tuck, whose idea was to come on and plug the two new Penny Dreadfulsaudio book releases. This seemed perfectly simple.

But, as always, comedy critic Kate Copstick and I got sidetracked. For example, in this section…


Kate Copstick and Thom Tuck at the Grouchy Club

Kate Copstick & Thom Tuck eat at the Grouchy Club in London

JOHN: What did you want to be when you were 16? Did you want to be a stand-up comedian and Doctor Who acolyte?

THOM: I’m pretty sure I wanted to be funny. I was always a performer and, in school plays, it was always: Well, you be the funny one.

COPSTICK: Oh good! Well, that’s a good sign! The great Mark Steel said to me that the great comics are the ones who could never have been anything else.

THOM: Yes.

COPSTICK: You say to them: So, what did you want to be?… Comic!… What would you have been if you hadn’t been a comic?… I’ve absolutely no idea. I couldn’t NOT be a comic.

THOM: With people like (Doug) Stanhope and Patrice O’Neal, that’s unavoidable. You ARE a comedian. There’s no…

COPSTICK: Michael McIntyre.

THOM: I think Michael McIntyre is born to be a light entertainer.

JOHN: Ah well, yes…

COPSTICK: (GROWLS)

JOHN (TO COPSTICK): That’s OK.

THOM: He’s very good. He’s a very good comedian, but he’s not a ‘comic’ in the same way. I think there’s a distinction.

JOHN: You mean stand-up…

THOM: Yes, a stand-up comic on the road. Inescapable. There’s no destiny beyond the road.

COPSTICK: Oh, I see what you mean. So, once you’re on telly doing a ‘shiny floor’ show, you are no longer a stand-up comic…

THOM: No, not necessarily. But I don’t think he’s…

COPSTICK: What about John Bishop?… Oh… He obviously wasn’t born to be a comic, because he spent most of his life not being a comic but…

THOM: He was in marketing, wasn’t he?

COPSTICK: Correct.

JOHN: Or whatsisname…

COPSTICK:Jimmy Carr.

JOHN: Yes.

THOM: Well, Jimmy Carr is classically not a born comedian. Not a born comedian in any way.

JOHN: He is a made comedian.

THOM: Yeah.

COPSTICK: He’s a brilliant…

JOHN: …brilliant…

COPSTICK: … a brilliantly made comedian, yes.

THOM: There are people who, if they hadn’t found work being stand-ups would have been just drunks in a corner.

COPSTICK: Exactly. Stanhope would have been an ugly drunk and drug addict.

JOHN: You can be both, Thom. You can be both.

THOM: Yes… I mean, I don’t think Stewart Lee is a natural comic.

COPSTICK: No.

THOM: He’s a comedian and he has made himself a comedian and he has made himself battle-hardened, but he’s not a natural… If he had ended-up not finding stand-up and becoming a writer, a novelist…

COPSTICK: Well, that is what he wanted to do. He wanted to be a writer.

THOM: I don’t think I am a natural comic either.

JOHN: Actually, I suppose Stewart Lee is a writer who performs, isn’t he?

COPSTICK: Yes, I think Richard Lee is a more natural.

THOM: Richard Lee?

COPSTICK: Not Richard Lee – Richard Herring. Oh my God! I’ve just come up with the perfect comedian! We are going to put them both in test tubes and meld them!

JOHN: Richard Lee and Stewart Herring.

COPSTICK: That sounds like a job for Doctor Who.

THOM: Fist of Fun crossed with The Fly.

COPSTICK: Stewart Lee will just get progressively hairier and hairier and hairier. That’s a recipe for some very interesting…

JOHN: …composite comedians.

Thom Tuck

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Comedian Diane Spencer gave birth to a giant dwarf and sees numbers as colours

Diane Spencer - photograph by Steve Ullathorne

Diane Spencer has had a colourful life in more ways than one (Photograph by Steve Ullathorne)

Yesterday afternoon, I had tea with comedian Diane Spencer at Soho Theatre in London, to talk about the recording next Tuesday of Diane Spencer: Power Tool, her sixth hour-long show (at the Backyard Comedy club in Bethnal Green). We got diverted from the subject, though it started off OK.

“DVDs are on the way out,” I said.

“And there is a slight problem,” said Diane, “because a DVD may be region encoded. I sell them through a website where people can digitally download the stuff and watch it on their computers, iPads or phones. And I put all my work on YouTube anyway.”

“For free?” I asked.

“Yes. And people can buy a copy if they would like to. I did have a DVD deal for a while but the collapse of HMV had a knock-on effect and then the European version of HMV also collapsed and that had a knock-on effect to the company I had a DVD deal with.

“A lot of people have told me putting my shows online for free is bonkers but, equally, what’s now starting to happen is what I wanted to happen – people are coming from the online world to my gigs because they’ve seen everything I’ve ever done. I’ve just come back from a festival in Denmark and there were a couple in the front row. Afterwards, the woman told me: I’m so glad I got to see you live. I saw you on YouTube and think you’re great. So she bought a ticket to come see me.”

“Richard Herring,” I said, “reckons his online podcasts get him a bigger audience for his live shows in theatres. Everybody has to move on. You were in a play at Edinburgh this year. Any plans to act more?”

Diane Spencer - photograph by Steve Ullathorne

Diane Spencer – an actress before a comic (Photograph by Steve Ullathorne)

“I was an actress before I was a comedian,” said Diane. “I’ve been in several commercials and I was at the end of a Japanese film.”

“Called?” I asked.

Climbers High. It ended with the man finding his son in New Zealand with his Kiwi wife – me.”

“When was this?’

“Around 2009. I also got nominated as Best Actress in a 48-hour film festival – a short film called Nature’s Baby, where I gave birth to a giant who also had achondroplasia – dwarfism.”

“So you gave birth to a dwarf?”

“A giant dwarf,” Diane corrected me, “and he rampaged through the city.”

“So what is next for you?” I asked.

“I’ve decided to get serious about making a sitcom. I got an email today from a company who have made very successful, award-winning radio programmes. We’ve been working together on a comedy sci-fi radio sitcom. I’ve always wanted to write sitcoms: that’s why I got into stand-up comedy – I wanted to check I was funny. So there’s that and I’ll be working on my next hour-long live show.”

“Do you know what it’s about?” I asked.

“At the moment, I can only describe it in terms of almost shapes, colours and feelings.”

“I’m happy with that,” I said, “Go for it.”

“It’s pinky-blue with a little bit of green. Pinky-blue is definitely there.”

“What shapes?” I asked.

“I’d say triangles. But dark triangles.”

“And feelings?” I asked.

“It needs to be direct. There’s an issue of communication there. And it’s going to be uplifting. I know that much.”

“So,” I said, “it will be uplifted pink triangles.”

“Uplifted pink and blue triangles,” Diane laughed.

“Why pink and blue?” I asked.

“I dunno. I just see pink and blue.”

Diane Spencer has had a colourful life in more ways than two

Diane Spencer at the Soho Theatre Bar yesterday afternoon

“Once,” I told her, “I was directing a voice-over man I had never worked with before and he asked me: What colour are the words? He said: Are they brown? They feel brown or orange.

“Of course they did,” Diane told me. “He probably had synaesthesia. I have it too. My brain makes an automatic connection between letters and colours and numbers and colours. Some people make an automatic association between music and colours or music and tastes. I once wrote a sci-fi thing about this. I wrote the pilot episode. We recorded it at the BBC with seven comedians. It was about how anybody with synaesthesia went on to develop telepathy. It didn’t get anywhere.

“Synaesthesia only affects 4% of the population. There is a book called The Tell-Tale Brain by Vilayanur Ramachandran and he had a chapter on it. The funny thing was he was writing Is it real? and I was thinking Trust me, buddy, I’m looking at the colours in your words. It is real.”

“What colour was his book?” I asked.

“A whole book,” explained Diane, “wouldn’t be a colour for me. To me, it’s individual letters and numbers.”

“What colour,” I asked, “is 666?”

“That’s purple-purple-purple,” Diane said immediately. “But not quite purple: it’s more like a burgundy purple. A six is almost like a two-tone purple.”

“What is 665?” I asked.

“Five is blue,” Diane said immediately. “a steely blue, like a grey-blue.”

“What,” I asked, “is Fleming?”

“What’s interesting,” said Diane immediately, “is that the F in Fleming is overshadowed by the L. So F is green – L is white – E is light blue – M is orange – I is a weird one because it can be white or black – N is a warm colour like a yellow – and G is dark green like a bottle green, a darker green that the F.”

Diane Spencer (Photograph by Steve Ullathorne)

Diane Spencer – She is one of the 4% (Photograph by Steve Ullathorne)

“So,” I asked, “are these colours unique to you? Do all the 4% of people with synaesthesia feel the same colours?”

“No, we don’t have the same colours. Everybody has different colours.”

“Does it help you write your scripts or perform?”

“I don’t know. It helps me remember things, because I can see the shape of them.”

“So you don’t see one word as one colour,” I said. “It’s individual letters.”

“Yes.”

“So,” I said, “looking at a poster on the Soho Theatre wall, “if I said Olivier Award winning, as a phrase, that wouldn’t have any effect at all?”

“Well, it does, because I’m aware of the different colours in the words. Every single word has its own colours. I know that, on that poster, all the words are in white, but the A is also so clearly in red.”

“That’s fascinating,” I said. “And you have always thought this way, even as a child?”

“I thought everybody saw the same things I did. The shock was when I discovered not everybody had it. I was working at the University of Auckland in New Zealand and had decided I wanted to be a comedian…”

“You could have been a chameleon,” I suggested.

“…and an e-mail went round,” Diane continued, “from one of the research students saying Do you see colours over letters? and I thought Doesn’t everyone? and then, when I realised not everybody had it, I went Oh my God! I’ve got a THING?

“But,” I asked, “your eyes don’t see a letter as yellow? Your brain understands it as yellow?”

“It’s like two layers,” explained Diane. “It must be a cross-wiring of the senses, though I can’t see how a colour can be a sense. My eyes quite clearly see that’s white lettering on that poster there, however I can also see-but-not-see the imprint on top and that’s clearly yellow.”

“You’re seeing the imprint with your eyes?” I asked.

“No, but I know it is yellow. The thing is, if you tell someone that, you sound like a loon… But my new show is nothing about that.”

“Maybe it should be,” I suggested.

Diane Spencer - Power tool

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Edinburgh Fringe: Comic Jim Davidson faces the alternative comedy Fascists and I am maligned by comic Jeff Leach

At The Grouchy Club yesterday: a bad selfie of Coptick and me

At The Grouchy Club, Copstick let rip at ‘right on’ comedians

At the daily Grouchy Club, my co-host Kate Copstick and I try to know our audience. Sometimes we already know them.

“Who is this gent in the front row?” I asked yesterday.

“This gent,” Copstick told me, “is the reason I am here. This is Robert Dawson Scott who, in 1999, was Arts Editor of The Scotsman and he gave me my job as a critic.”

Later, Copstick asked: “Has anyone been to see Jim Davidson?”

“I’m going to Jim Davidson’s Funeral on Tuesday,” I said.

“There is a double act called Ellis & Rose,” Copstick explained to the audience. “They phoned me today..”

“Oh, you too!” I said.

What a pair! - Two Jim Davidson goodies

In the Fringe Programme, Jim Davidson’s show and the spoof funeral show are next to each other

“They’re doing a one-off show,” Copstick continued, “called Jim Davdson’s Funeral, which one cannot help but feel is going to be a bit anti-Jim Davidson. They wanted to invite him to The Grouchy Club tomorrow and ‘have a heated debate’. But I don’t really see why Jim Davidson would want to come here considering that, whatever he is offstage, he is technically a brilliant comedian.

“It really irritates me when a lot of baby-boy comics and – even worse – baby-harridan comics get up on their hind legs to criticise him when they are doing –  supposedly ironically – quite a lot of racist, sexist stuff themselves. They are just dressing it up and he doesn’t. I don’t think I’d laugh like a drain if I went and saw his show, but I really… It’s a horrible… It’s… Look, I interviewed Richard Herring and he said that the very first time he came up to the Fringe was in 1987, right at the height of the alternative comedy ‘We Hate Thatcher’ mood.

Even after Fist of Fun, Richard Herring (left) and Stewart Lee were not getting enormous bums on seats

The Young Herring (left) went to Edinburgh with Stewart Lee

“Richard came up here with the Oxford Footlights. He and Stewart Lee were both involved with the Oxford Footlights; Stewart mainly as a writer.

“Richard was really excited. It was his first time ever in Edinburgh and all these comics were listed as being here who were his idols and whom he loved.

“But, for the whole first week, every time they went on stage, there was a contingent of alternative comics heckling and booing them. One time, Keith Allen completely disrupted the show and ended up punching the theatre manager in the face.

“The thing is all of the boys in that Footlights show were from comprehensive schools. None of them were posh. They were just clever boys from comprehensive schools who had done really well. But the ‘alternative’ lot were so far up themselves about how marvellously ‘right on’ they were that they didn’t even stop to find out.

“I think there still is a kind of Fascism in comedy that thinks We are the right-thinking ones! You are bad!

Jim Davidson’s current Edinburgh Fringe show

Jim Davidson’s current Edinburgh show

At this point, Malcolm Hardee Comedy Show helper Stephen O’Donnell suggested from the audience: “Some old comics get to re-invent themselves but, maybe because of what’s happened with him in the last ten years, Jim Davidson might be beyond that possible re-invention. You have to go away to come back and, because he has been newsworthy in the last five years, he is not really able to go away and come back. So he really just has to go on and show he can do what he does.”

“Also,” said Robert Dawson Scott, “he’s made it difficult for himself because, before the arrest and all that stuff, he very clearly positioned himself as ‘not alternative’. He thought they were not funny and he was rude about them. He may have some bridges to build.

“I gather,” he continued, “that most of his show is about being arrested, which is why it’s called No Further Action. Clearly it was an unpleasant experience – although possibly comedy gold.”

“And,” said Copstick, “if somebody else had been doing it, everybody would be going Yah! The police are terrible! But, because it’s Jim Davidson, they go: Oh, there’s no smoke without fire.

Kate Copstick & Steve Bennett: The Counting House last night

Kate Copstick & Steve Bennett: The Counting House last night

Yesterday evening, I accidentally bumped into Copstick again in the queue for Scots comic Richard Gadd’s show. Also in the queue, was Chortle comedy website boss Steve Bennett.

Richard Gadd recognised Copstick and Steve and, in a show of bravery, sat them in the front row. I sat with them. It must have been a comic’s worst nightmare in the small venue: performing at times only about 18 inches away from the two most-read reviewers in British comedy… and a fat, bald bloke who was clearly a bit too old for a comedy show.

Towards the end, Richard Gadd started eating the heads off flowers.

After the show, Copstick said to me: “It’s a bit dangerous eating flowers. Some can be poisonous.”

“He’s probably researched it is OK to eat those particular ones,” I suggested. Then I thought about Richard Gadd’s show. “Maybe not,” I added.

Blanche Cameron, Lewis Schaffer, Heather Stevens

Heather Stevens in normal Edinburgh pose

I went to bed early last night – early for Edinburgh – just before 2.00am.

At 1.56am, I got a text from Heather Stevens, the primus inter pares of comedian Lewis Schaffer’s entourage. Heather is a woman who seems to know everyone and to be everywhere at this year’s Fringe. Her text said simply:

“The phrase John Fleming’s spunk in her eye featured in Jeff Leach‘s rap battle against Sofie Hagen tonight.”

I know no more, dear reader, except that I am innocent. I have never talked at any length with Jeff Leach. I have never talked at all to Sofie Hagen. I have a notoriously bad memory but, if such an incident had happened, I feel sure even I would have remembered it.

All I know is that I feel soiled. Desperately soiled.

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In a Soho coffee bar comic Al Murray – no longer as The Pub Landlord – gets serious about British wars and Germans

Al Murray writing at Bar Italia this week

Al Murray was writing at Bar Italia this week

When I first saw Al Murray’s comedy act, many years ago last century, during the reign of the middle-aged Queen, it was an audio act. He came on, a slim young chap, and made the sounds of assembling and dismantling Army automatic rifles and suchlike.

For the last twenty years, he has been performing comedy as the bigoted Pub Landlord.

When I arrived at Bar Italia in Soho to talk to him this week, he was writing down some comedy ideas. Or maybe not. They might have been some Pub Landlord ideas. Or maybe not. I forgot to ask. I have a bad memory. What can I say?

“So,” I said to Al, “you’re an intelligent, sophisticated man.”

“Yes,” he said.

“But,” I continued, “everyone thinks you’re a thick East End or Essex barman. You’re a young Alf Garnett.”

“Yes, isn’t that fantastic?” he replied. (He must have been asked the question hundreds of times.) “I get to be who I really am off-stage, no-one knows who I really am and I get to talk about the things I want to talk about elliptically. I think that gives me great freedom.”

“Though, as yourself,” I said, “you get to do TV documentaries on the Second World War like Road To Berlin. Was that a difficult sell to the TV company?”

AlMurray_RoadToBerlin_Wikipedia

Al’s ten-episode 2004 documentary series

“I was on Frank Skinner’s TV show,” explained Al, “and he said Oh, you’re really interested in World War Two and the woman commissioning programmes at the Discovery Channel saw it. It was a long time ago and I haven’t done one since. In TV, there’s this thing that the person who commissioned your programme moves on and you’re left high and dry and that happened then. We went back to Discovery saying We wanna do Road To Rome next, the desert campaign and then up through Italy – and the new commissioning editor said Oh, I think the whole World War Two party’s over.

“We’re British,” I said. “It’s never going to be over.”

“Exactly,” laughed Al. “For you the War is over! – It couldn’t be any the less true. We like to think we won it.”

“Did I miss something?” I asked. “I thought we did win it?”

“With a little help from our friends,” said Al. “Obviously The Pub Landlord thinks we won it on our own with no-one else.”

“Well, we almost lost the Battle of Waterloo,” I said. “It was the Prussians who won that.”

“No, no, no,” said Al. “Wellington only fought it when and where he did because he knew the Prussians were turning up at teatime. That was the bigger thinking that was going on which, essentially, Napoleon fell for.

The charge of the Scots Greys at the Battle of Waterloo

The iconic charge of the Scots Greys at the Battle of Waterloo. (But did the Prussians really win? It depends what you read.)

“Historically, that’s a real bone of contention. If you read German history, that IS what happened: the Prussians won the battle. But, if you read our history… although our army at Waterloo was probably 60% made up of German soldiers anyway…”

“Really?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said Al. “It was a multi-national army. Soldiers from Nassau, Hanovarians, people from all over Germany, Dutch soldiers, everything. It was a coalition army against Napoleon.”

Culloden,” I said, “fascinates me, being Scottish, because it wasn’t a battle between Scotland and England, it was a battle between Catholics and Protestants; and Highlanders versus Lowlanders and the English and their Hanovarian royal family.”

“And it was a Franco-German dust-up,” said Al. “The French Germans versus the Scots Germans.”

“And the best fighters on Bonnie Prince Charlie’s side,” I said, “were the Wild Geese, who were Irish.”

“Yeah,” said Al. “These are the kind of conversations I can have all day, to be honest.”

“And you wrote a book about…”

Al’s book: Watching War Films With My Dad

Al’s book about growing up in the 1970s

“It was a book,” said Al, “about growing up in a family where this sort of stuff got talked about a lot, where it was regarded as interesting and important. And, at the same time, about growing up in the 1970s when it’s Action Man toys, Airfix models and Where Eagles Dare type films. That very post-War part of our entertainment culture. And realising that the thing which you think is a big adventure when you’re a boy is actually a vile, disgusting thing, but nevertheless fascinating.”

“It could be argued,” I said, “that the Second World War is the only totally justifiable war – concentration camps and all that.”

“But that’s not why we went to war in 1939,” said Al. “It’s interesting now there’s this current debate about whether the First World War was justified or not. In fact, the Germans invading Belgium (in 1914) is a better traditional British casus belli than the Germans invading Poland (in 1939)… Poland is a lot further away from here and the Belgian coastline is close. Though the 1939 Germans were bigger bad guys than the 1914 ones. Arguably. It’s all very complicated. There’s a way we need to see it and there’s what probably really happened.”

“So what’s the way we feel we need to see it?” I asked.

“That we were fighting the evil nasty Nazis. What really happened in the politics of the late 1930s was the collapse of diplomacy – again – and Britain being run ragged too many times and, on a raw level, a loss of face and prestige and Britain having to do something about that. I reckon. But what do I know? I am but a humble comic.”

“But…” I prompted.

“Well, I was talking about this the other night,” said Al. “I’d managed to inveigle my way into dinner with a couple of real historians and they were saying, in Europe, World War II is regarded as the most gigantic calamity, a hideous thing… whereas we seem to regard it as character forming and it gave us all sorts of good things.”

“Well,” I said, “we’ve always been at war. There’s that statistic that, in the last 100 – or is it 150 now? – years, there’s only been one year…”

“…only one year,” said Al, “supposedly 1968, when no British soldier has been killed on active service.”

“You studied History at Oxford University,” I said. “So really you wanted to be a historian…”

Al as The Pub Landlord

Al as the Pub Landlord

“No, no, no no,” said Al. “When I got to Uni I was thinking What the hell am I gonna do? History was the subject I found easiest. But, once I got there, my academic career became very dismal very quickly, because I got involved in doing comedy.

“I thought I was going to end up playing in bands and I remember unpacking my drum kit on my first day at Uni in a music room in my college and Stewart Lee and Richard Herring were in there planning their sketch show that they were going to do the following week.

“They had been at the Edinburgh Fringe that summer and they didn’t tell anyone their sketch group had sometimes outnumbered the audience, so they came back to Oxford University in great glory and did a big sell-out run and I remember thinking This is the thing I’m looking for – doing comedy. It had never occurred to me before…”

… CONTINUED HERE ..

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Richard Herring on buying back his own TV series from the BBC, not being more famous and regaining happiness

The creation of the universe, the paranormal. Whatever next?

Richard Herring’s new self-financed 6-part online TV series

In two of my blogs earlier this week, comedian Richard Herring talked to me first about creating free content like his podcasts to entice people into his live shows and then about his self-financed online TV series Richard Herring’s Meaning of Life – he is recording the second episode at the Leicester Square Theatre this Sunday.

Richard first rose to fame as a double act with Stewart Lee on BBC radio and TV in the 1990s.

“I remember when we were doing TV pilots,” Richard told me, “you’d be thinking This is great, but what are the people upstairs at the BBC going to think about it and will we have to change it for them? To not have that pressure is amazingly freeing now. Part of the reason I went into podcasting in 2008 was because of the Sachsgate thing. Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross had done all this bad stuff on the radio and then the BBC clammed up. You couldn’t do anything.

“People were saying You mustn’t even swear in the warm-up to the show in case there’s a journalist in the audience. It was just insane and I thought, Well, if I do it on my own, I can say whatever I want.

“You did have the advantage of being established,” I said.

“I had a little leg up,” admitted Richard, “in terms of enough people knowing who I was from having done that stuff with Stewart in the 1990s – it had a very dedicated following really of 14-year-olds who then grew up and did stay quite loyal to us. But it wasn’t a massive cult thing. It wasn’t like I started podcasts and a million people listened. And, if anything, most people would now know me from the internet stuff I’ve done. I think most of them are surprised when they find out either that I worked with Stewart or that all this old stuff exists.

“We are bringing out all that old stuff ourselves. The BBC wouldn’t bring out Fist of Fun as a DVD or repeat it, so we bought it from the BBC and we’re hopefully buying This Morning With Richard Not Judy from them too. But it’s more expensive to buy and I think DVD is falling off the radar a bit.

“Fist Of Fun” - now out as a DVD with BBC logo

The Fist Of Fun DVD out now with BBC logo

“We paid around £50,000 to buy two series of Fist of Fun. We’ve got the rights to sell it for around five years and we sell them at £25 a series. So you only need 2,000 people to buy them and you get your money back, though there’s other expenses on top of that.”

“What about Equity and the Musicians’ Union?” I asked.

“The BBC do all the clearances,” explained Richard. “About £10,000 of that £50,000 is for the clearances. The BBC still own it ultimately. We’re just leasing it and after a certain amount – when we’ve made our money back – they get 25% of the money we make.”

“Why didn’t they want to do a DVD themselves?” I asked.

“Because they didn’t… they never liked… It was amazing we got four series. We did two series of Fist of Fun. The second series had better material, but the first series was a really beautiful kind of… It had its own feeling. We were learning on the job, but Fist Of Fun was overflowing with ideas. There are jokes flashing up which you have to freeze-frame to get. It was a young person’s programme. The BBC got worried it would scare off their viewers, so they made us go into a studio for the second series and slightly spoiled it. Then we got kicked off. Then we came back and did two years of This Morning With Richard Not Judy.

This Morning With Richard Not Judy

Lee (right) & Herring This Morning With Richard Not Judy

“But, again, they didn’t know what to do with it. They kept cancelling the repeat and moving it around and there were weeks off for sport. By the second series, the newspapers had just started writing about it and we felt, if we did another series, it could just get over that hump. But then Jane Root came in, didn’t like it and she was at BBC2 for five years (1999-2004). So that was the end of it.

“Stewart and I had met at Oxford University, but we weren’t a very archetypal Oxbridge type of act, so we didn’t really get any of the benefits of Oh, come on in… We just confused everyone.

“I went to Oxford because of the comedy. I studied History but I went because I wanted to get into the Oxford Revue. I was a massive fan of Monty Python and I just dreamt of getting into the Oxford Revue. I wanted to be a comedian.”

“So you dreamt of being the person you now are,” I said.

“But more successful,” laughed Richard. “I probably wanted, then, to be the most famous and successful comedian EVER – which I don’t now. I just want to keep working until I drop. As long as I’m still creating interesting stuff and keep trying to push back boundaries and to slightly fail.

“To fail at what I wanted to do has been good for me. With Lee & Herring, if things had twisted a different way, I think maybe we could have been like Little Britain and I think that would have destroyed us both in different ways. I think I would have gone off my head with the excitement of being that famous and Stewart would probably have killed himself if he’d got that famous.

Richard Herring’s show Hitler Moustache

Richard Herring’s Hitler Moustache show

“Now I think I’m in almost the perfect position for a comedian.

“Being too famous can distract you and restrict you. If I were David Walliams and I had said Oh, I’m going to have a Hitler moustache for a year I think my management would have gone No, I think you’d better not do that, because you won’t get this or that contract. The fact I have the autonomy to make insane decisions creates some interesting experiences.”

“But then there’s the money,” I said.

“We didn’t really earn any money from Lee & Herring. After ten years of working together, we’d had five years of not being paid and five years of being paid a bit, split between the two of us. By the end of it, I’d put the deposit down on a flat. That’s all I’d managed to do.

“But when I wrote 37 episodes of Time Gentlemen, Please! (2000-2002) – not entirely but mainly on my own – I was paid very, very well per episode so then, for the first time in my life, I had money and I sort-of took two years off. I was still doing bits and pieces. I wasn’t not working. I was doing a lot of writing – or trying. I was still doing some work. I did Talking Cock, which did pretty well and, for the first time in my life, I got repeat fees – from Time Gentlemen, Please!

Talking Cock was revived as The Second Coming

Talking Cock – later revived, with The Second Coming added

“I’d bought quite a big house and had a big mortgage and every time I thought I was in trouble a cheque would drop into my lap that was enough to keep me going. I was sitting in this big house which I’d been going to move into with my girlfriend who had a child by someone else. We were going to have a family. I had this house. But then we broke up and so I was sitting in the attic trying to write about cocks and slowly going a bit crazy. I had lost my way a little bit.

“Writing the blog helped but coming back to stand-up was massively helpful. It meant I got out and performed and I realised – although I’m happy writing and I like writing – I need to perform a little bit.

“When I came back to stand-up, I did a gig in Hammersmith in a little room to ten people and Jimmy Carr was 100 yards away at the Hammersmith Apollo playing to 3,000 people. But I was thinking: I’m really happy.

“My problem was I had been sitting back waiting for people to come to me which, in the old days, you had to. In the 1990s, you had to get commissioned by a broadcast company to make a radio show or a TV show. But now you can do it yourself. I can make Richard Herring’s Meaning of Life without a broadcast company as a six-part online TV series.

A ‘selfie’ taken by Richard Herring last week

A ‘selfie’ taken by Richard Herring last week

“A lot of comics make excuses about why things don’t happen for them – and there ARE good excuses; there’s a lot of luck in this business – but you’ve got to work hard and, increasingly, there’s so much competition, so many good comedians. But you can now make your own break – though, even then, there’s luck involved.

“It’s much more important to be doing something you’re happy with and be happy in your life. I think for a long time I wasn’t. Certainly 10 or 15 years ago I was quite unhappy, but I turned it round.”

“So where are you off to now?” I asked.

“I’m going home to my wife. She’s making me some tuna.”

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Comedian Richard Herring on financing his own TV series and an alternative to losing money at the Edinburgh Fringe

Richard Herring ponders the meaning of life online

Richard Herring ponders online meaning

In my blog a couple of days ago, Richard Herring chatted to me about creating free content like blogs and podcasts as a way to generate paying punters for his live shows.

He has been podcasting since 2008 and his Leicester Square Theatre Podcasts – available on iTunes and on YouTube – continue but, this Sunday at the Leicester Square Theatre in London, he is also recording the second episode of his new online TV series Richard Herring’s Meaning of Life.

The Meaning of Life is another leap forward, he told me over a fifth coffee at Bar Italia in Soho, “because it’s going to cost me money, which none of the other stuff has really done.

“All the podcasts used up my time, but they’re basically free-to-do. I just recorded them on a computer or whatever. I spent a bit of money on equipment, but not very much. Then I just put them out and it’s fairly easy to do. But, with The Meaning of Life, the idea was me thinking: I’d like to do my own 6-part stand-up show on TV, but nobody is particularly interested in giving me that opportunity – so why not do it myself?

A ‘selfie' by Richard last week

A thoughtful ‘selfie’ taken by Richard last week

“We’re doing six shows and, including all the editing, the cameramen and so on – I’m not getting paid, but we’re paying everyone else – it’s going to cost me around £20,000 to film six of them.

“There’s six monthly recordings and that’s a lot of work. I’m trying to write new stuff and not use any old material. I’m writing at least 30-45 minutes of new material each month. I’m trying to use no stuff from my previous stand-up shows but there’s a few things from the 1990s where I think: Well, there might be something in developing that idea.

“We’re recording them every month but really we should have done them every two months. I under-estimated how much work would be involved. I have to write them properly and I go out and do a few gigs on the circuit to familiarise myself with the material. It’s mainly me doing stand-up, but we’ve got an animator who’s 3D animating a sketch with my voice and Christian Reilly is doing the theme music and there’s an interview in each show.

“The first one will hopefully be out at the end of this month – it will probably be about 45 minutes to an hour long – and it will have taken two months to put it together. It would be nice if they came out every month, but I don’t know if we’ll be able to manage that.”

“And I presume the material won’t date,” I said.

The creation of the universe, the paranormal. Whatever next?

The creation of the universe, the paranormal. Whatever next?

“No,” laughed Richard, “because it’s about the meaning of life. Each episode is about a big subject. The first one is about the creation of the universe – so that doesn’t really date. The second one’s about the paranormal.”

“And,” I said, “as an online show, it will get you seen worldwide.”

“Yes, the great thing about the podcasts is I’m getting Australian and American fans without travelling. I haven’t been out to Australia in ten years; I’ve never done anything in America. And I’m building up a sort-of fan base. Within the business, people know who I am, but I’m under the radar of most people so, if people do discover me, it’s quite a surprise for them and there’s a lot to catch up on: the TV stuff, the DVDs and hours and hours of podcasts.”

“I guess,” I said, “you’re under the radar in, say, Sacramento.”

“Oh definitely in Sacramento. But, even in the UK. If I walk round the middle of London for two hours, two people might recognise me. It’s nice in a way because it means I can carry on doing my job. I can sit in a coffee shop and work and look around and see what’s going on. No-one clocks me. If I were Ricky Gervais, all I would hear would be: Is that Ricky Gervais?

“On the last series of the Leicester Square Theatre Podcast, a website was offering me around £5,000 to advertise during it. I decided it wasn’t really enough money to justify selling-out, but also they wanted me to do an advert in the middle of the podcast as well as at the start and the end and I felt it would break the flow and my audience would laugh in the face of it and then they wouldn’t pay me anyway. I also figured If they think they’re going to get £5,000 of business out of advertising on my podcast, then it is surely worth more than £5,000 as an advert for me.

“I think one important thing about The Meaning of Life is showing what you can do if you’re prepared to put up some money.

Going to Edinburgh is financial death for some

The Edinburgh Fringe can mean financial death for some, though success for Richard

“People go to the Edinburgh Fringe and spend £10,000 and five people come and see them and they get one review. If you have got £10,000, why not make a very good one-hour video with some sketches in it instead?

“If you can find three friends with three video cameras, you can do it. You can do whatever you want. You can put that on YouTube for free and potentially millions of people can see it and you can send that link to journalists and producers when they’re not being bogged-down in Edinburgh.

“If you’ve got that much money to spend and to lose, then that’s a better investment than going to Edinburgh and spending the money doing a show that’s fantastic and 100 people see it and that’s the end of it.”

“But the problem is production quality and covering costs?” I suggested.

“Yes,” agreed Richard. “I thought we could make The Meaning of Life look like a normal TV show, but my shirt’s hanging out and it looks a bit messier. We get a little bit of money from the door because the tickets are very cheap – £10 – I struck a very bad 50/50 deal with the Leicester Square Theatre because I thought no-one would come and people are coming.”

“And the bonus of doing it yourself,” I asked, “is you have fewer content restrictions?”

“Yes,” said Richard, “The thing about the Leicester Square Theatre Podcasts (which are videoed and put online at YouTube) where I interview a comedian for an hour-and-a-half or two hours is that you couldn’t do it on broadcast TV. No-one would let you do two hours of talking to one person on broadcast TV.

Stephen Fry on Richard’s Leicester Square Podcast

Stephen Fry was guest on a recent Leicester Square Podcast

“In the end, someone like Netflix might buy them: someone who doesn’t have to put it into a fixed schedule. Four of my stand-up shows are already on Netflix.

“Within five years, I think most people will just have a TV and they’ll select what they want to watch from the BBC or YouTube or richardherring.com and they’ll watch it whenever they want. So we are all broadcasters now. It’s just finding a way to get some money back from that.

“I’ve heard club comedians say Oh, I can never get on the Michael McIntyre Roadshow – which I can’t get on either – but now you can make your own TV show. You can go into any club with three cameras. It doesn’t matter what it looks like. No-one is watching stand-up saying: Ooh, it has to be swooping cameras on a big stage. If the material’s good, you can put it up online and that will cost you let’s say £500 to pay the cameramen and edit it together. It can be done. There’s no excuse any more for not doing it.

“People used to say Well, I WOULD write a novel if anyone would publish it. You can publish it yourself now. You can upload it as an eBook. You can get it out there. It’s exactly the same with all of these things.

“It’s also about understanding that you don’t have to be paid immediately, that it can build up.”

… CONTINUED HERE

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