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Richard Herring: Stand-up brings podcast show to Sheffield

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Photo by Steve Brown

Richard Herring's Leicester Square Theatre Podcast is the biggest comedy interview podcast in the UK. It's won numerous awards and features all the big names in British comedy engaged in interviews which are invariably funny, candid or both. RHLSTP, as it's known, made national news when Stephen Fry used it to discuss his recent suicide attempts in 2012.

On 1 December Richard Herring brings his live podcast tour to Sheffield City Hall, so we chatted with him to find out more.

How did you find the transition from doing stand-up comedy into the more subordinate role of an interviewer?

To begin with I didn't really think of it as an interview. I thought of it as a chat between two comedians with the hope that we'd both be funny and on an equal level. Some of them are me being the funny man and some are me being the straight man, so I'm quite good at judging with whoever I've got on stage which way I need to go. I used to interview people for a show we did in Canada. Me and Stewart Lee developed quite an interesting interview technique, where he'd ask sensible questions and I'd ask stupid ones.

But I don't need Stew. I can just ask sensible questions and then ask stupid ones. So I still see this as a comedian job and the job is still to be funny, so I'm slightly surprised by how some of them have become proper interviews.

I like it because I'm interested in people. I want to know what makes people tick. I have people on that I like, which I think is unusual for interview shows, in that I'm selecting the guests and only booking people that I think are good. So there's an element of respect there from the start which means I can be a bit cheekier.

The best [questions] open up a little doorway into more guarded territory

What do you think are the qualities of a good interview?

It's hard to say because lots of them are good in different ways. The main thing is to take chances and that's what makes it exciting. There's an element where you've got to say that there's a possibility that this might fuck everything up or it might make this brilliant. Sometimes you're winding people up a little bit to see what happens, not too much, although there are episodes where I thought I'd been bantering and then suddenly the guest has been a little bit upset by something.

Those incidents are rarer now. But I'll take a chance and chuck stuff in because often I don't know these people at all. I've just met them backstage and then they come on. So if you're doing a joke with someone, you're taking a chance. Even if it's someone you know, if their status has risen, if they're now a film star, their attitude can change. You're taking a risk with jokes and seeing where that leads you, sometimes digging yourself into a hole to dig yourself out again.

I want the guest to have a good time. I'm not trying to trick them or elicit personal information from them. I think what's good about my podcast is that the audience creates a lovely atmosphere. They're a good audience and they're a trustworthy audience.

Last year you published a book of Emergency Questions, which are the unusual questions you turn to in an interview when you're not sure what to say. Were these questions created to solve a genuine problem you encountered while interviewing?

They came from a genuine need, but also I realised by asking people weird questions you got answers they'd never given before. If I answer a question I've never answered before I will move off the script I create for myself from being asked the same questions all the time, and later, when I'm asked a question I'm more familiar with, I may answer that in a different way. If you ask someone a difficult question you can get an actual spontaneous bit of comedy and hopefully a funny story and sometimes a very revealing story. The best ones open up a little doorway into more guarded territory.

I asked someone who the most evil person they ever met was and they told the story of this headteacher at school who'd been really unpleasant to them and you think, 'Wow, I never would have got anywhere near that!' Those questions can elicit a response you would never have heard if you tried to get to it any other way.

Do you have any red lines with your booking policy? Are there any guests or types of guest that you'd never consider for the podcast?

I don't want it to just be an echo chamber of people I like and agree with. I've had comedians on that I like but who I don't agree with on politics. I've had a few politicians but they've all been left-leaning. I have asked David Cameron if he'd want to come on in Oxford. He won't do it and he's correct not to do it, because obviously I'll be rude to him. Well, I wouldn't be rude to him, but it'd be a mess for someone like him to come onto something like this.

the role of comedians is more reflecting culture than making culture adapt

I don't want to have Katie Hopkins or Nigel Farage on, but I'd have David Cameron on because I think there's something interesting in there. I'd like to get the centre of what he is as a human being, which I think would be quite hard to do. I don't feel like he projects who he is. But when I had Ed Milliband recently, after he was leader of the Labour Party, you got the real Ed Milliband. It was amazing. He was incredible and you think, 'Why wasn't he like this during the campaign?!'

Through speaking to so many comedians, what is your perception of conversations about shifts in what is acceptable or unacceptable in comedy?

That's what comedy's always been like. In the seventies people were doing awful racist comedy and it took a cultural shift to stop that. You very quickly find something else to be funny about or the correct way to be funny about that subject. There's no subject that's out of bounds. It's just the way you do it.

I think the role of comedians is more reflecting culture than making culture adapt, because you've always got to make the audience in front of you laugh. All the comedians complaining about it are still all multi-millionaires who perform to millions of people a year, so I don't think it's that big a deal.

The thing with Twitter is that it takes a lot of things out of context. Say you've done a 90-minute show and there are two lines in the middle that are there to demonstrate your own stupidity, or demonstrate the stupidity of a position, then someone takes those two lines out of context. You could look like a bad person. J.D. Salinger didn't know when he wrote Catcher In The Rye that it would lead to John Lennon being shot, but you can't blame J.D. Salinger for the death of John Lennon.

Sean Morley

RHLSTP comes to Sheffield City Hall on 1 December.

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