and his latest Edinburgh show The Headmaster's Son has gained rave reviews.
Can you tell us a bit about your new book, Bye Bye Balham, the collection of the first six months of your 'Warming Up' blog entries?
Originally, about three or four years ago, I had tried to do it as a sitcom - the story of a comedians everyday life, but unfortunately that got slightly pole axed when Lead Balloon came out. So this time last year, when I gave up drinking and suddenly had a burst of creative energy, I put the book together. Ebury Press, who I'd done Talking Cock with, said they liked the blog but they 'don't want to publish blogs, because they don't work.' Which I don't think is necessarily true, but that seems to be the industry's feeling about blogs – that they're not worth publishing. But, you know, I'd say mine is probably better than most. (laughs)
Probably most blogs aren't worth publishing, but then most things people write aren't worth publishing.
(laughter) Yeah, but I think mine works quite well as a story, especially with the additional bits I've added on to put each blog in context. So, after Ebury turned it down, I said to Go Faster, my DVD publishers, ‘Should we do the book together?’ And they said yes. We printed 2000, and you have to sell 350 or something to break even, which we’ve done. It can be so frustrating getting TV shows made and book deals done, and I am in the lucky position where I get a lot of things produced. With the Edinburgh shows it’s such a shame they just disappear, so it’s great to have them live on as a DVD.
It reads 'Vol 1' on the book cover. How quickly will we see the next in the series?
It relies upon me having the time to put it together. Others might not work as well – Bye Bye Balham reaches the point where I broke up with my girlfriend and go to Shepherd’s Bush, and that seems an obvious cut-off point. I think the next one might focus on when I was doing The Twelve Tasks Of Hercules - that might be a bit long to put in one volume though.
You've added new comments at the end of some of the original blogs...
Yes, sometimes to add context and sometimes to talk about things I didn't want to say in the blog at the time. For example, at one point I was writing a film script based on comedian Glen Wool's routine about how he got a spot on the end of his cock and had to get a biopsy. And while I was writing the script the same thing happened to me! I had to have a biopsy on it and stitches in it, exactly as in the script. It was really freaky, the doctors similarly couldn’t work out what it was. I was going out with someone at the time so it was very strange. At the time it was going on it felt way too personal to blog about, but now time has passed I’ve added that in there.
It’s a very interesting period that the book covers, just in terms of where my career was. I was a bit crazy through a lot of that three or four years. When I broke up with my girlfriend I couldn’t understand why it had happened. It’s good to be able to read it, and think back.
It’s odd because your blog is a diary but it’s also public, so you’re conscious of your audience.
That’s what’s quite nice about doing it publicly. Whatever you’re putting out there you want to be out there. I do occasionally write a diary but usually when I am really fucking depressed or angry. I wouldn’t like that to be published; when I read back where I have slagged someone off and I didn’t mean it, or I was angry and took it out on them. But I don’t think I’d have got as much stand-up material without doing the blog. Having put the book together has made me think I should be more honest in the blog. It’s weird because I would be more honest in my stand-up and the podcast than in the blog. The only worry is the kind of mental people, who become a bit overly obsessed about you, in the wrong way. The blog gives them the idea that they are your friend and they are in your life. If you give them too much information then that kind of just spurs them on.
You’re more in control when you do stand-up as well, you’re controlling the mood of the room and the context – you get that feedback from them. But when you’re just firing a blog out…
I get emails from people who read between the lines in everything I write and make various decisions about what kind of person I am. Some of them are actually quite accurate, but (laughter) a lot of them aren’t. They’re obviously a bit unbalanced and send me furious emails about how I hate women or blah, blah, blah. They’ll send me an email every now and again, which just demonstrates that they’ve got massive problems in their own life and they’re using me as a way of venting their own frustration. They’ve picked on me for some reason and you can’t really work with that.
photo © Andy Hollingworth 2009
In stand-up there are things where I think ‘Can I talk about this?’ It’s taken months to build up the courage to do it, but with the blog you have to make that decision – am I going to write about this? – right away. I think that’s why in stand-up you can say ‘Well I will tell that story about the girl sucking me off and saying I’ve got an average-sized cock,’ but I would never have blogged about it at the time. It doesn’t seem right. The blog just feels, due to the immediacy of it, more intimate than writing a book. Most people appreciate it, get it, and will join in with it in the right way. It's a really helpful thing for me to have done. If I hadn’t done it then my life and my career would have turned out a lot differently.
In what way?
Well I don’t think I’d have gone back to doing stand-up. The blog is a great way of generating ideas. Even if you forget them, you can go back and go ‘Oh fuck yeah, that might work as a bit of stand-up.' It kept me writing and made me much better as a writer, and it reminds people you exist as well. I was at a point where Talking Cock had gone quite well and I’d just come off writing Al Murray’s sitcom, Time Gentleman Please, which was going quite well, but there was this kind of gaping chasm.
Time Gentleman Please came so quickly after the end of This Morning With Richard Not Judy that I hadn’t had time to think about that having ended, and me and Stu's double act having essentially ended. Stu and I both went through wilderness periods for a couple of years where we tried to come to terms with the shift in our position, and also what we were going to do next. It was easier for him because he’d been doing stand-up all the time, and his character in the double act was the same character he does with stand-up. I had to sort of reinvent myself, so I think this helped me to re-find who I wanted to be on stage.
I made a lot of money doing what I did with Al. I bought a big house and that sort of gives you the freedom not to work, which was strange because up to that point we’d just been working so hard, and really caring about what we did. Suddenly part of me was going ‘Well, why am I working so hard when nothing I am doing is gaining me any kind of recognition? Bollocks to it, I’m going to go out and get drunk and chase girls and whatever, and not work’. I was quite bitter.
How do you feel now?
I’ve got it much more in perspective. And a lot of comedy people and fans appreciate what I am doing, which is great. In the end that’s better than anything. Going around the comedy circuit, a lot of younger comedians tell me that they have been inspired by me and Stu, which is really lovely. But it just took me a little while. It’s interesting, because Stu’s now had that critical acclaim that Lee and Herring never got. But the people who liked us were really interested in comedy, so we’ve got this ten year delay where some of those people are now in charge of stuff, and are giving us work, giving us kudos.
Do you watch Stu's live shows?
I don't, just to make sure we do keep stuff as different as possible, though we actually end up doing the same stuff! His latest show is about failing to get a TV series, and now he’s got a TV series! That success just kind of slightly fucks it up for Stu!
I think you’re both much better stand-ups now.
Yeah, I think we are. Occasionally people go 'You're not as good as you were back then'. We're lucky - we've been really successful and we probably wouldn't have been able to get to this place where we've been experimenting, and also to have gone through knowing what it feels like to have failed and be kicked out of the door. It makes you better as a comedian and writer. I have been through this period of angst and of soul searching, not really knowing where I was going. It makes for much better comedy – failure is much funnier than success.
It’s sometimes good to be the underdog.
Yeah, it's kind of nice to be in that undercurrent and I think at the time that I was doing this and the first couple of years off doing the blog, it was really worrying about would I have a career, what would I do if the work dried up. Whereas now I feel in the position where there's always work. I’ve been very lucky that there have been very few jobs that were just to pay the bills; nearly everything I chose was because I thought it was great.
The pay doesn't really make much difference to me - some things pay a lot, some don't. I have taken three or four jobs where, like the beginning of last year, I was a bit worried about my big tax bill and didn't have any money, so I took on a few little jobs here and there to get me through. On the whole, you find every now again that one of the things you really like will do well and that will fund the other stuff.
I was very lucky all the way through this period where I wasn't working hard... well, working hard by the standard of most comedians! I was putting out a show most years, I was writing scripts. I wasn't working as hard as I used to, but I had lots of repeat fees from Time Gentlemen Please and Talking Cock; they kept me going for a couple of years.
When I think about The 12 Tasks of Hercules Terrace I was hardly doing anything else apart from that show for about 6 or 7 months. The thing where I date 50 women in 50 days cost me £5k, but also I had 50 days in a row where I wasn’t doing anything else – I can’t imagine that now. Right in the middle I went to a wedding in Scotland, so I just made that one of the dates. All to do a 12th of a 1-hour show, which I ended up not really using much anyway; there wasn’t time and I didn’t want to talk about any of the girls. That was 50 straight days of getting drunk, organising stuff, sleeping, getting up going out… it was a terrible, brilliant idea – a bit like heaven and hell.
It’ll be interesting, when I get back to reviewing that time in the blog book, to see what I remember and what I can reveal. It was my least successful Edinburgh show – it didn’t really fit into an hour, it got the worst reviews, people were coming but not by any means as many as usual. It felt like a big step backwards, but it made me pull myself together. I did these 12 stupid tasks and thought a) what I’m doing is essentially stand-up and b) why am I scared of doing stand-up?
It was a very fecund and interesting period, when I started Warming Up – you couldn’t pick a better time to start writing about yourself. It would have been much harder when we were so busy. It was more fun that I was struggling to come to terms with myself.
The comedy industry hasn’t got the mechanism to cope with people’s careers ascending and then stalling.
If Stu and I’d been really successful, we could have coasted on that. A lot of people have one massive hit early on in their career and will keep getting work for a long time after, even if what they’re producing is rubbish, because the industry think ‘We’ll make everything this famous person does.’ We never got to that level.
I still find it very frustrating that I’m writing scripts that are still getting turned down, when I know they are good scripts. I know more about comedy than most of the people who are commissioning comedy. The Warming Up sitcom would have been a great idea. I know why the BBC didn’t do it, because they thought they already had a comedian sitcom with Lead Balloon. But I feel we’re getting to the stage where, even in video TV sitcom terms, people will soon be able to quite cheaply make their own stuff and put it on the internet. Whether I’ll be too old to understand how to do that… (laughs)
I’m doing a lot right now; the DVDs, the book, the podcast, the blog – essentially, all free work – stuff I like to do that does lead on to other things. But also to keep it existing. A couple of thousand people will buy every DVD I do, or every book. And that is actually sustainable. That can sustain doing a show every year, doing a book every year. I’m still pursuing other areas, but it’s nice to get it out; to get the podcast out every week and talk about what we want to talk about – nobody’s telling us what we can or can’t do. Something we’ve mooted, but haven’t got round to doing is a weekly radio sketch/stand-up show that we could charge people to come and see, to pay for the costs, then put out on the internet.
My last Radio 2 show, ‘That Was Then, This Is Now’ was all right, but you don’t get paid much to do radio shows and you have to put with people telling you what you can or can’t say. Look at the podcast the week Ross & Brand were being kicked off TV – Frankie Boyle’s being criticised for saying ‘the Queen’s pussy’ but that same day I talked about “Princess Anne coming out of the Queen’s ravaged cunt”. To know that you can do exactly what you want, artistically, is fantastic.
You need to keep people coming to see you. The live show is the most important thing to me now.
What do you get out of the live shows?
I’m a stand-up comedian now, which I wouldn’t have said 5 years ago. That is my job. I’m a writer as well, but stand-up’s what I really want to do. It’s building very slowly, based on doing good shows, people coming back, bringing friends. You need to keep that audience there, and without TV it’s hard to do that. I’m lucky to have that base of fans from 10 years ago. It’s a struggle, compared to being, say, Alan Carr on Ch4 all the time, or the Mock the Week guys.
I’m quite happy – if I could get a 500 audience everywhere, I’d be happy with that. And if I could play the Hammersmith Apollo once in my life – 3000 people… (chuckles)
There’s a narrative to your shows, it’s not just stand-up...
I was doing themed Edinburgh shows in the 90s, when everyone else was just doing stand up. Someone Likes Yoghurt was the least constructed show – in hindsight I never realised how ridiculously brave and revolutionary it was! It really confused and fucked people up, especially the critics – the Daily Telegraph said it was the worst comic experience of that year. It divided people. It was about questioning stuff and annoying people. Taking a received piece of wisdom and pedantically deconstructing it to see what that meant. I think it’s still the most successful DVD in terms of sales.
I made that yoghurt-story routine last for an hour sometimes, 40 mins at its shortest. It built up like that was because I was doing it in clubs as a 20-minute routine, and it became a 40-minute routine because of the anger some people felt towards it and the love other people felt. It’s not that I thought ‘I’ll do this kind of wanky show in Edinburgh.’ It’s because I was out on the road doing those things to ordinary people. They either got it or they didn’t and sometimes it went brilliantly and sometimes I got lynched. I was very combative. I was really scared, so I was much too confrontational in the first year or so.
I had an experience when I was with The Oxford Revue when all the stand-ups turned on us and heckled us. I think I had this psychological problem with stand-up comedians. I was a sketch-writing student. I sometimes still feel that the Oxbridge thing is a tag on top of you. But I did start the stand-up a little too confrontational. Normally the audience will like you unless you fuck up, but I was trying to wind people up and then going for them if they did. It doesn’t happen like that anymore.
Your new show, The Headmasters Son has had great reviews...
I never really got 5-star reviews before. Ironically The 12 Tasks of Hercules got 5-stars from The Metro; I think they saw it later in the run when it was better. But apart from that, outside of the less reputable websites, I never had a 5-star review until The Headmasters Son on Chortle. That review is a big, big thing for me because I respect Steve Bennet’s opinion – he doesn’t throw away those 5 stars.
Reviews come in the first few days, so it’s a lot to do with whether you’ve got the show bang on from the first. On the Sunday and Monday I got a raft of 4 star reviews, and it was all sold out. The show was good right from the beginning because I’d done about 50 previews and I really had it nailed. Often it’s just not ready when you first get to Edinburgh and it takes a few days to get it really slick.
I’d been pushing the mid life crisis thing so it was good to go in a different direction with this show. My Dad was my headmaster at school and the show looks at whether that’s why I’ve turned out to be this unmarried, 40 year old man who’s a bit immature and a bit socially awkward. Was it because of the unusual situation growing up? I look back at my schooldays, my diary, and take the piss out of what it’s like to be a teenager. I was a hard working, quite swotty schoolchild who didn’t lose their virginity until university. I think I held a psychological grudge against my Dad about it, and thought it explained some things about my personality. But looking back at it, I realised I was holding on to things that weren’t really anything to do with that. It’s easy to blame something in your past for the way you are... as I’m probably doing now with that experience of being heckled by all the comedians in Edinburgh (laughs).
Has your Dad seen the show?
There isn’t that much about my Dad in it – it’s much more about me being a bit of a ridiculous teenager. But, yeah, he saw a pretty early version of it that I did in my home town. It was nice when, at the end when I say how great my Dad is, everyone applauded. It was quite moving. He’s well loved in the area.
There’s a 20-minute section in the show when I just read stuff out of the diary. That’s the big set piece. When I tour it I think I’ll do a little bit more of that. You can pretty much read out any page of it and it’s funny. In Edinburgh I’d ask the audience to name a date, then I’d read out the entry. I don’t know it well enough to know what’s coming up and there’s some horrible stuff in there – really embarrassing. It’s all about looking for the flaws in myself rather than anyone else. You start to realise how comic your own life is.
I’m writing a new book about being a 40 year old who’s immature. When I was 20 and I wanted to be a writer I thought: "There's nothing interesting in my life. They say write about yourself, but what is there to write about". 20 years on, I can look at every single thing I was doing and say that is fucking brilliant… Hindsight gives you insight into what makes you interesting – the ordinary things.
photo © Steve Brown 2008
I’ve been reading the diaries from my year off and thinking about doing a show about it – so many extraordinary things happened in that year – I was in a summer camp and on the last day there was a massive fire – if you had to write a novel about a year off that would be the end of it. People killed in road accidents – just packed with incidents and there’s a show or a book in that. But at the time I was saying there’s nothing interesting in my life. They say write about yourself but what is there to write about?
The start of this book is me looking back at the fight I had when I was 40 then I look at all the fights I’ve had in my life and they’re just all really funny. But only because I’m useless at fighting and the fights are all ridiculous. If I was the sort of person who went out beating the shit out of people and was good at it, it wouldn’t be funny. It’s because I’m the person who accidentally falls into these fights…. You see your weakness and slightly exaggerate or play it up – that’s where a lot of good humour comes from it.
I’ve just read Frank Skinner’s book and – whatever you think of it – the honesty of it – some of its great, some of its weird but it’s so honest you just think that’s great. That’s what stand-up has to be about. He was the first stand up to do those very frank, sexual confessions and not worry about people thinking you’re a dick. You need that to be a comedian and as a young comedian it’s really hard. I really struggled. I had no idea what to do. And now it’s having perspective on yourself and what’s interesting and funny about yourself. For me it’s about mocking myself above everyone else.
A lot of English humour is about self-depreciation...
I always look at Lee & Herring compared to and Lucas & Williams; we were contemporaries, or maybe we were slightly ahead of them. We were doing very similar stuff. Another series of This Morning would... it would never have been Little Britain, but we could have been over the parapet and coasting down the hill. And if we’d had that, it wouldn’t have suited me or Stu very well: Stu might have gone insane with the attention and I might have gone the other way.
But now… if I was David Walliams talking about what I did every day, people would want to read it, but it wouldn’t be funny, interesting or personal. What’s nice about the blog is that you feel you’re part of a little gang who know about this – cos I’m not getting mobbed by people. There are patches of time I get recognised, but most of the time people don’t know who I am.
Surely that’s preferable to the Russell Brand level of fame…
Yeah, I really like it. In many ways I think ‘thank God it didn’t happen to us’. Although, it would have been nice to have got some recognition for the work we did. These days we’re discussed as if we were a massive thing. But we weren’t.
You seemed to be important to people at the time.
We were important to a lot of 10-12 year olds when we did Fist of Fun. Even when we did This Morning With Richard Not Judy. When we were touring there weren’t that many people coming, because they didn’t have any money and weren’t allowed out! Now I’m getting letters from 20-25 year olds saying I used to run home from Sunday school to watch This Morning… and it made me an atheist! (laughter).
It’s quite cool. Probably youth culture wasn’t big enough to boost something in those days, and we just fell down the cracks a little bit. We were last in the door in a lot of things and were very lucky to get our own Thursday night sketch show with a proper budget. That was amazing, but we were also just a generation before everything, regardless of whether they were any good, came out on videos and DVDs. Part of the mystique of the show is because you can’t really get a copy. You can only get really blurry copies from the Internet. I think a lot of it holds up, and it’s nice to see it on YouTube – a lot of it’s really funny. But if it was more accessible it wouldn’t have that mystique. This way, people are saying, ‘Was that good? I remember it being a great show.’ And maybe if you could get it you’d find out it wasn’t.
Tell us a bit about writing On The Hour with Alan Partridge
On The Hour was one of the first jobs Stu and I got. We’d been writing for Week Ending where we did very straight down the line news-reviewy, kind of obvious political parody. Then Armando came in and tried to make Week Ending a bit more relevant and interesting. So we were in the team of writers for the new show.
There was this amazing team of people: Chris, Steve Coogan, Patrick. Stu and I were writing about a third of the series. We’d create a character or some lines, ideas for set ups and the actors would go away and adlib around the ideas. It was a very collaborative effort, and all down to Armando putting together a great team of people.
With Alan Partridge, there were layers of jokes within the creation of that. We decided they needed a sports bit and Steve came up with the character. Me and Stu probably wrote about 70-80% of the early gags, but we didn’t create the character. But now Stu likes to say he’s “the creator of Alan Partridge” because Patrick once said to a journalist, “I bet Lee and Herring go on about how they created Alan Partridge…” and the guy said well no, they’ve never said that. So now Stu says it as a joke (laughter).
It all went into meltdown when On The Hour went to TV to become The Day Today (by which time we were long gone); there were arguments over who owned what. Our management were very insistent that we retained rights over characters we’d helped create, but they didn’t want to give us that. Armando was so keen to get it on TV, he wasn’t bothered about any of that stuff. Our manager could see that it was going to be a massive hit and the BBC would make a lot of money, so he wanted us to have our share, but it was difficult to do that; it was hard to say who created what. So we just pulled out, which led to all the On The Hour stuff being edited down.
It was all a bit embarrassing. It was really only Patrick that was delighted we were gone. We’d done a sketch show with Simon Munnery and Patrick, and Patrick was very ambitious. There was a big power struggle and it was a bit uneven because we were writers and they were performers. That was the root of what went wrong with it. Patrick came in as a writer in the second series and just wasn’t very good. It was a bit of a joke situation. But you know, it was a long time ago.
Was writing a sitcom, Time Gentlemen Please, difficult after writing sketches?
Well, I’d written three or four plays for Edinburgh, and I’d a couple of sitcom scripts. I’d always been quite good at that story through-line. And a sketch is just a quick sitcom… it’s harder to do, really. I’d always been good with characters and structure and a lot of our sketches were quite long, as well. To go to writing a 20-25 minute episode isn’t way beyond that, and I had the advantage of the main character already being fully formed. I liked writing the show, but it was hard and it burnt me out completely. I wrote 22 episodes, about 90% of the entire run. Stu wrote a couple of the first series episodes, which I had to rewrite, and I wrote about 12 of the second series’ 15 episodes.
Me and Al Murray were writing it together to begin with, but he was busy starring in it. Lots of his lines were in there, but he needed someone to structure it. The main memory I have about it, is that the first series was 13 episodes but halfway through writing it they gave us another 9 episodes. So I had to write 10 episodes in 9 weeks!
We recorded on a Thursday. I’d finish the script on the Tuesday, then work on the next one on Wednesday and Thursday. On Friday there’d be a read through of where I’d got to, then I’d write over the weekend, read and re-write what I had on the Monday, and on Tuesday we’d nail it down. Then it would start again, over and over again for 9 or 10 shows in a row. It took over my life. I was going out with one of the actresses in the show too, so it was my whole life. It burnt me out.
I was getting paid quite a lot per episode, and a bit extra for being a producer, so that became my weekly wage. What really should have been an incredible month’s wages I got in a week; I bought a brand new car for less than one week’s wage. But I was working ludicrously hard. I basically wrote an American-style sitcom pretty much on my own. I came up with all the plots and ideas, most of the peripheral characters were mine. I think that’s part of the reason it took me 3 or 4 years to get over it.
The second series was a bit easier, we were a bit more prepared. I really liked the read-throughs: you can spend 3 or 4 months writing a script but it’s not until you get it in front of actors, when you hear people read it, that you immediately know what you have to do to it. So it’s great to have that as you’re going along.
The show had a star, but it was also an ensemble thing with at least 10 major characters, more coming in, and you had to get most of them in every episode as well as getting the plots going, all in 22 minutes. It was really difficult. I’ve seen some of them on Sky recently and been so impressed. I am so proud of the scripts, the density of callbacks... I can’t quite believe I had anything to do with it. It’s mostly really beautifully put together.
It’s a bit like The IT Crowd. We didn’t want to do a trendy, joke-free Office thing. We wanted to do a traditional sitcom, so that every joke in it would work in 10 years time. There’s not really many jokes about celebrities… it’s quite broad, a bit rude, but it still had edge. If it had been on a terrestrial channel it could have been quite a success.
Apparently Time Gentlemen Please is about to be released in full on DVD, though I have had no input into it, so there's no commentaries and probably no extras, which is a shame, I’d have loved to have put together a proper package.
It was a really intensive, weird couple of years. It got nominated for best broadcast non-terrestrial TV programme in 2002 – nominated! We got a certificate for that. (laughs). It was a nice little gem of a show that no one ever found. Maybe that’s my destiny – getting nearly there with stuff. There are loads of things that I’ve written that have never been made… you’ve got to get over that pride and self-pity feeling of being victimised.
I can complain about stuff, but I’m in the wonderful position of being paid to write scripts, even if they don’t get made. I’ve got a book deal. How many writers would love to be in this position? But you do think about that alternate universe where the shows got made. It is really random. I mean The Office was really lucky to get made. They deserved it, but they were really lucky. The way Ricky Gervais’ career has taken off is like a fairy tale. It could easily have not gone that way for him. Now he can do whatever he wants. He’s quite a good person to have that power, because he cares more than others. I like him, and I like a lot of his stuff. There are plenty of times they’ve just taken someone from The Office thinking that’s enough to make a good sitcom. But they’ve really misunderstood how to put together a sitcom. You’ve got to get a good script first. That’s the difficult thing.
It’s always annoyed me that the people who go on Jonathan Ross or whatever, it’s always the stars, whereas writers are there from the start – they have the ideas.
If you’re a writer you can control a little bit of the destiny, but with acting you’re in the hands of other people. But things go in and out of fashion. In Frank Skinner’s book he says he thinks of himself as a has-been. But we certainly wouldn’t think of him in that way. He’s so insecure in his performance. It’s interesting that someone on that level would feel like that, but he feels an element of failure - that he’s on that downward slope. But by having that happen a bit earlier you realise that’s just the way it is and essentially if you can keep doing that, that’s better than going bang and then dealing with the ups and downs. To see Stu getting a TV series and getting that recognition now, some people say ‘Oh, that must be awful for you,’ but actually it gives you hope that if you’re good you’ll come through.
You’ve had a very diverse career whereas Stu’s has been very linear….
I am doing a lot of things. I thought that about Stu though; that he was doing too many different things – rock journalism, wanting to DJ things. He’d given up stand-up – and I was like, ‘But you’re the best stand-up! You have to go back to it.’ Then two years later he reconsidered. I’m not responsible though, because he didn’t listen to me (laughs).
He was being a bit petulant, saying he was giving up, but I can completely understand it. I mean, he got much worse reviews then me – I’ve never really been massively slagged off, but Stu’s had years in Edinburgh when he’s gone up and been battered. I think in 1999 someone said “Leave Edinburgh and never come back, Stewart Lee. We’ve had enough of you” – you know, just some student, but those things get to you over time. But wouldn’t you like to find that person and say: “you told Stewart Lee, the King of Edinburgh… who’s essentially made loads of people’s fucking careers... too give up!” (laughs).
You learn as you go about how to overcome those things and keep going. The last year or so feels like it’s on the way up again, but I appreciate how lucky and fortunate I am.
My ultimate ambition is to keep working till I die. I’m not really interested in retiring. I look at Barry Cryer, and that’s who I’d like to be: “Wow, you wrote That Was the Week That Was ! And you’re still churning it out and having fun.” The good thing about Barry Cryer is that he loves comedy.
With Little Britain, they’d been doing those characters for so long, and they kind of knocked corners off till it fitted a mainstream show...
Yeah, actually I did script edit the third series of Little Britain – which involved doing almost nothing. I gave them a few pointers… about two things I said got into scripts, but they knew what they were doing by then. Rock Profiles was one of the funniest things that's ever been on TV and the first series of Little Britain was terrific. But it’s the law of diminishing returns – they were in a really difficult position in the third series, trying to please the people who wanted to see the same thing over and over again and to bring in new stuff. But they do seem like a different act to the act that brought us Rock Profiles.
And with the American series… why are we doing this? If I was in that position, and had so much money, I’d just do the things I wanted to do rather than keep on churning out the thing that made me successful. I suppose, if hundreds of people’s careers depend on you, and you’re being told you have to just do this and then you’ll be able to do what you want. It would be lovely to know that everything you did got made. But maybe if you’re in that position, you lose. I hope I’d still work and try and make something really good, but you’ve also got to be allowed to fail. That’s why I’m lucky! (laughs).
If I made the money Little Britain had made I wouldn’t even go to the BBC any more. I’d make stuff myself, put it on the Internet and then sell it to the BBC.
If it all starts on the Internet, how do you build up an audience? You need to have one viral hit I guess. It’s really difficult without TV. It’s still possible though. Ross Noble essentially just toured until everyone knew who he was. He doesn’t really do TV, Kitson doesn’t do TV. If the live thing is the most important thing to you, you can do it but you’ve got to really fucking work. When I first did stand-up, I always wanted to be on TV and radio, and it’s only in the last 10 years I’ve come anywhere near thinking the live stuff is what I’m interested in doing.
So you’re happy doing stand up now?
Yeah, yeah. I’ve just had a month off and it took me 4 nights to feel comfortable on stage again. I was nervous. The last couple of years I’ve been doing the same 20 minutes – the same routines over and over again. I do the ‘give me head till I’m dead’ routine pretty much every time I do a gig. By doing something 400 times you find a new place where you’re just in control.
That’s why I find stand-up so fascinating. You keep learning all the time. When you’re really on it, it’s like spinning plates – there’s so many things to think about; the material, how you’re dealing with the audience, the pace, your facial expression, the speed you’re going… tone, pauses, everything. When you get it all exactly right it’s an amazing, amazing thing.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Richard Herring is currently on tour with The Headmaster's Son.
Read Richard's daily blog Warming Up at www.richardherring.com/warmingup.
His DVDs and books are available from all good retailers and direct from www.gofasterstripe.com.