Interviews

Richard Herring on Taskmaster, Podcasts and Sexism

Ten years ago – by his own admission – Richard Herring’s career was in decline. A highly successful comedian in the 1990s, he was getting less and less exposure and public attention. Fast-forward to today, however, and he is now the holder of several internet comedy awards, host of one the UK’s biggest comedy podcasts, and a contestant on one of the most popular TV programmes on British television, Taskmaster. Herring, a former Oxford student himself, spoke to The Oxford Blue to discuss the cause of his comeback, the release of his upcoming book, and his experiences with sexism in the comedy industry.

Despite being known among the British public as a stand-up comic of considerable repute, this is no longer how Herring sees himself; podcasts have, over the past decade, become his medium of choice. “I never thought this would be my main job – which it sort of is now – I thought it was a way of keeping people interested,” he says of his original decision to start his own podcast, “it probably rescued my career, in terms of me carrying on working as a stand-up; I wasn’t getting much TV work, and I wasn’t getting many people coming to see me, so doing those podcasts gave my career a new lease of life.” The podcasts in question include Collings and Herrin, Me1 Vs Me2 Snooker with Richard Herring, and Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre Podcast, with the latter having been something of a trendsetter in comedy podcasting, as one of the first British podcasts to feature in-depth interviews with high-profile comedic guests. The success of RHLSTP – as it is referred to by its fans – is evident from the four Chortle Awards it has won.

If Richard was lucky to stumble upon a platform that he happened to enjoy using once in the form of podcasts, the fact that he did it again must surely be testament to his judgement. While his exploits on the streaming service Twitch are somewhat different from his podcasts, in that he joined a platform which was already hugely successful, he is nonetheless a pioneer once again, being one of the first established comedians to stream on Twitch. “I talked to [Scottish comedian] Limmy about it, and thought he was insane,” he says of his streaming career, “in December last year he was saying, ‘I’ve given up everything and I’m just doing Twitch,’ and I thought he’d gone mad, especially because he’s playing video games for hours. But what he’s doing is very funny and inventive and interesting.” Unsurprisingly, what drew Richard to Twitch is not dissimilar from what attracted him to podcasting: “it’s like having your own TV studio,” he remarks happily, “what I’m doing on Twitch is just workshopping my ideas as I’m doing them, and seeing what comes. If you do something every week – if you play snooker against yourself for eleven years – you find out what’s funny about that.” Indeed, large numbers of people evidently agree with Richard about what is funny and interesting about his creations, given the impressive comeback he has staged in recent times. Whether or not this comeback was the result of his solo snooker podcast, the quality of which is not to be doubted – “it has featured in a festival of transgressive art, along with people doing horrible things to their genitals,” Richard tells me proudly – the extent of his comeback is admirable.

The most obvious sign of Richard’s return to mainstream prominence is the fact that he is a contestant on the currently-airing tenth series of the BAFTA-winning comedy panel show Taskmaster, the first series after the show’s move to Channel 4. The show has won praise from critics and viewers alike, and Richard is glowing with praise about his time recording the series: “recording in the studios, and certainly coming out of lockdown to go to a studio with some of the funniest people in the country,” he says, “the first day we recorded the first two shows, I cried laughing pretty much all day, and it was the most cathartic thing that I’ve ever experienced.” Of course, this was the only series of Taskmaster – which is usually filmed with a live studio audience – to be filmed during a pandemic. Many other TV shows have been drastically affected by this, causing many to delay filming, but, according to Richard, Taskmaster was able to overcome these problems. “Greg [Davies, the host] and Alex [Horne, Davies’ sidekick] are so funny and so good at the show,” he explains, “we did it without an audience, and everyone was a bit worried about how that would affect things, but it didn’t. If anything, it just gave us more freedom.”

As well as streaming on Twitch and filming Taskmaster, Richard has spent the bulk of 2020 writing a new book, The Problem With Men: When Is It International Men’s Day?, which will be released on the 5th of November. “I’ve been doing this thing for about ten years, where on International Women’s Day I find everyone who’s asking ‘when’s International Men’s Day?’ as if there would never be one – and they often say there would never be one – and then telling them that there is one and that it’s November the 19th,” he says, “and thousands of people do it every International Women’s Day.” The book, therefore, details Richard’s experiences with these people, and explores the concepts of International Men’s and Women’s Day, as well as male reactions to feminism in general. 

The amount of time Richard has dedicated to this exercise is impressive, and he is aware of this, remarking that “you make them look stupid by revealing that everyone has thought of the same joke, and they still can’t be bothered to Google it. But then I make myself look stupid because of my inability to let it go, like King Cnut trying to turn a tide that I can’t turn back.” Richard makes light of this phenomenon – it is a largely light-hearted book – but he does nonetheless become rather animated when talking about the men he spends International Women’s Day responding to. “Why do men only talk about it on International Women’s Day?” he asks pointedly, “if they put the effort that they put into International Women’s Day into International Men’s Day, it would be the biggest fucking day on the planet.” That Richard has contempt for these men is clear, but his contempt is fused with sympathy, as he notes that “all the men being upset about International Women’s Day don’t understand that International Women’s Day and International Men’s Day are doing the same job, which is trying to level the playing field. As it turns out I think women have more [to level] than men do, but there are things where men are badly affected. But men are also the only people in the world who have a negative stereotype that they perpetuate themselves and join in with.” It is, therefore, a complex phenomenon that Richard is dealing with, and one he does take seriously.

The reason why Richard spends so much time in this pursuit, and the reason why merely talking about it lights a spark behind his eyes, is clear: “it is a little seed of what I think has gone wrong with the world,” he warns, “which is this knee-jerk reaction to political correctness and things like this, and seeing injustice where the injustice is the other way. In the book I talk about this being the soft drug that leads to ‘all lives matter’.” These are serious and relevant social issues, and Richard was consciously aware of them when writing the book; “because I wrote it during lockdown, the black lives matter thing really came into it,” he says, “and the response to COVID – that the male leaders were very aggressive and treated it like a war, and the female leaders, generally speaking, treated it like a pandemic, as it needed to be addressed, and seem to have done better at controlling things.” That should not, however, give the impression that the book is a general commentary on all contemporary social issues, for Richard wrote it with a very clear purpose in mind. “It’s actually a way of trying to direct men towards International Men’s Day,” he tells me, “and make International Men’s Day stand for what it originally was put together for, which wasn’t as a reaction to women, and it wasn’t even as a reaction to mental illness and suicide; it was about trying to celebrate the good things men do.”

Some may be tempted to point out the irony of an established male comedian lecturing other men on sexism; Richard has made it big in a profession that many consider to be institutionally sexist. “The industry had a lot of problems within it that needed addressing, and a lot of sexism within it,” Richard acknowledges, “it was a very boys’ club-y atmosphere, the live circuit was a very sexist and sexually aggressive and unpleasant place for women to be. I think it is changing; of the newer comedians coming through, I would say it’s more than 50% of the good comedians who are women, but certainly there’s a big load of fantastic female comedians coming through. It takes a while to become a good comedian, and there are comedians in their 30s and 40s now who are getting to a point where they’re getting onto TV, but it’s much more balanced.” Not only is Richard optimistic about the future of women in comedy; he’s excited by it. “It’s good for us all,” he asserts, “writers’ rooms, I’ve noticed, used to be all men, and used to be all the same kind of men – and I’ve benefited from this throughout my career – and now, the last writers’ room that I was in was possibly one more woman than men, but certainly 50-50, and the show was better as a result. Because you want all the life experience you can get in.” Time will tell whether Richard’s optimism regarding sexism in the comedy world is justified, but regarding gender relations in general, he has one message, and it is clear: there is an International Men’s Day, and it’s on November the 19th.

You can watch Richard Herring’s full interview with The Oxford Blue on our YouTube channel here.

Richard Herring’s book, The Problem With Men: When Is It International Men’s Day? Is available to buy from the 5th of November. Taskmaster is currently airing on Channel 4 at 9PM on Thursday evenings. You can catch up on the current series at All4.

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Elliot Sturge

Elliot Sturge is Senior Interviews Editor at The Oxford Blue. He is reading Philosophy, Politics and Economics at St. John's College, and is entering his second year. Outside of term-time, he lives in Bristol, where he plays American football and argues about politics on the internet.