© Interview with Richard Herring at Leicester Square Theatre 18.1.2011

Promo shot for Richard Herring's 'Christ on a Bike' tour

LW: Yesterday you were at a comedy convention: ‘What’s so Funny? The languages of Laughter’. What was that all about?

RH: It was an academic conference organised by the University of Brighton looking at various aspects of comedy. Me, and a panel of critics and another comedian Shazia Mirza and producer Bill Dare were discussing whether it’s possible to go too far. As a comedian I think you are meant to be pushing back boundaries and discussing subjects and I don’t think there’s any subject that you shouldn’t do – and I obviously do a fair amount of controversial comedy myself. But I think you’ve got a duty to yourself: unless you just want to be a dick, and unless you want to attract the kind of audience that love to laugh at anything, there’s got to be a motivation behind it. I think censorship is a bad thing and people should be allowed to say what they want, but it’s sort of weird recently with the Frankie Boyle stuff. [E.g. FB’s joke about Katie Price’s disabled son on his Channel 4 Show: “I have a theory about the reason Jordan married a cage fighter – she needed a man strong enough to stop Harvey from fucking her”]

It feels odd that a millionaire would be essentially bullying an actual 8 year old child who is disabled – and it’s irrelevant whether they’re disabled or not really. And he did a couple of jokes about disability that I found just pointless. One of the jokes is “My uncle’s so funny he can make reading out the phone book funny: he’s a spastic”. I think that’s equivalent to saying “he can make reading out the phone book funny: he’s a ni**er”. Thirty years ago you would have probably done that joke saying oh black people don’t talk like I do therefore they’re different – and obviously you wouldn’t do that now. Frankie did some race jokes, but when he used the racial language it was all quite couched in ways that was acceptable because he was playing the part of a racist. With his disabled jokes, if he really wanted to offend people it would be a better joke to pick on a group that have power and have a voice. Obviously disabled people are weak in terms of their voice in society, and physically weak as well in some cases, so it’s very odd for me to see him do that. I can understand why he’s doing it, he’s just being angry and he’s trying to do jokes about whatever, but you could pick on Harvey for being black and say he’s raping his mother because he’s black. If he did that there would be an outcry, but because he did it about a disabled child there’s a bit of an outcry, but it’s more about the individual than the issues around disability.

I think comedy did so much to help shape people’s attitudes towards gender and sexuality and race, and make the country a slightly nicer place, that it’s a shame there aren’t many comedians – certainly not many non-disabled comedians – who are addressing it. I think you can raise a lot of comedy out of disability. It’s a lot harder if you’re not disabled I suppose cos it’s sort of a bit weird. For me, if I’m doing a joke I’d want to be on the side of the weak punching the strong, rather than the strong bullying the weak. Though Jerry Sadowitz, who’s on in this theatre at the weekend, manages to just be offensive to everyone so you’d be kinda crazy to take any kind of offence at it. Ultimately the victim is him. He uses the word spastic a lot of times but with him you sort of don’t mind it cos he’s so angry and so pent up against the world and does it to everyone, he doesn’t have any taboos. It’s that little voice inside that most people have that is thinking and saying horrible things. Jerry Sadowitz is a character that’s so low status that actually for him to have a go at disabled people they’re actually higher status than he is really. You feel sorry for him. So you can expose people’s attitudes towards all of these subjects, and people’s hypocrisy, and I think that’s good.

LW: I recently interviewed Sharon Smith the woman in the audience at a Frankie Boyle live show, who was upset by his jokes about people with Down’s Syndrome, as her daughter has Down’s Syndrome. At the same time she was a Frankie Boyle fan and that’s why she’d booked front row seats. I was asking her if it was the fact that he was making jokes about people with DS at all that upset her, and she said no it was that the jokes he was making were reinforcing the stereotypes about people with DS.

It’s an odd situation to be in and I wasn’t at that gig – whereas I can talk about the things I’ve seen on TV cos I’ve seen the context. The difference is that the Harvey joke was on TV so someone at Harvey’s school could possibly see that, and certainly 10 year old kids could be watching and be influenced by the portrayal of disabled people. I know they shouldn’t be watching but they probably will be, so you do have to think a little bit about that. But if you’re actually going to pay to see Frankie Boyle and know what he does, its odd to me that someone would be laughing heartily at any of the other stuff he’s doing and then going ‘oh no hold on this thing affects me’. I think there’s a difference. I think there’s still no reason why you can’t pick someone up on it or complain about it – freedom of speech works two ways – so if someone says something you find offensive you should be able to discuss it. I’ve found that with my shows – that sometimes you’ll be doing a whole load of different jokes about all sorts of things and then someone will go “how can you joke about this subject?”

LW: I think Frankie Boyle dug his own hole there in a way because Sharon was sat in the audience, quietly getting upset at one point, and her husband turned to her to say “Are you ok?”, and then because they were in the front row ..

RH: He saw them

LW: Frankie pounced, and said: “Why are you talking in my show?”

RH: The thing is you have those gig nights as a comedian when it goes a bit out go out of your control. And a lot of comedians do jokes that I think aren’t funny enough to justify what they are about, and there’s plenty of ways you can be offensive without ‘punching downwards’. When FB does jokes about Palestine or black people there’s much more of a point behind it really. But it’s difficult because that’s his job, that’s how he sees himself – as this comedian who’ll say anything and make jokes about anything. And we all do that in the privacy of our own home. And you choose to go and see him, and you choose to even turn on your TV. I actually think it’s Channel 4’s call and up to them to make a decision about what goes out on their TV channel rather than him. I think he should be allowed to do whatever he wants, and in his live show he should be able to say whatever he wants, and you’re allowed to come back and question it.

Obviously cos I’ve had some dealings with SCOPE (disability charity) this is something that’s a bit closer to my heart, so I’m being the same as the woman in the audience a little bit I suppose. But whilst there’s quite a lot of comedians who do casual ‘retard’ or ‘mong’ jokes or Down’s Syndrome jokes, I don’t think they think as carefully about those as they would with ethnic jokes or things that would get them into trouble. They wouldn’t joke about gay people in that way. On that [conference] panel there was a journalist who was saying she didn’t care about the Harvey jokes but she’d heard someone else do a joke about homosexuals with AIDS and she was really offended by that.

I did material about race in my last show in which I used quite a lot of the words you’re not allowed to say, but it’s about discussing why you’re not allowed to use them. So whereas I prefer people not to just blithely throw the word ‘spastic’ around I think there’s humour to be got out of disability and our attitudes towards it if we’re not disabled. Like when we were kids and Joey Deacon was on Blue Peter, when it was meant to make everyone aware of cerebral palsy and just made a generation of schoolchildren call each other “Joey” and do impressions. There’s a kind of dark humour in that because that’s the way kids are: you laugh at it cos you realise how awful you were when you used to do it. So I think there’s humour to be got out of it and its important not to get po-faced, but it is also interesting that disabled people don’t have that same kind of equality that other people are beginning to get. It’s not as if women and gay people and black people are on a level playing field and there’s still jokes about those things and there’s jokes about women being raped, and what’s the point of that apart from just to be shocking?

LW: I know that you’ve tweeted about comedienne Morgana Robinson’s character Gilbert, and said in one of your blog entries that you think this is more offensive.

RH: Yes I do think it’s more offensive because I think Frankie Boyle is trying to be offensive and that is the joke. Whereas with The Morgana Show I can’t even begin to see what the point of that character is – apart from she can do an excellent impression of someone with whatever that is, but it’s clearly an impression of a disabled person.  She claims it’s not, but they did a show called TNT in which she did the same character and he was disabled.

Gilbert from The Morgana Show

LW: The first time I saw Gilbert was on The Morgana Show. But then I did a bit more digging and found the TNT show, where Gilbert was doing Ali-G style interviews  …

RH: I haven’t seen it but I’ve heard people talk about it

LW: And they’re actually really funny.

RH: Well, there was a point to them, or possibly a point to them, in that they were saying how will people react with disabled characters?

LW: Cos that was the joke

RH: Yeah, there was an element of ‘we’re being satirical here’

LW: So the joke was on the celebrity

RH: Yeah. Possibly. I think again it’s still a little bit of a blurred line where you’re going we’ve got an excuse to do it. But then [in The Morgana Show] they’ve taken all that element away, and they’re saying that it’s not a disabled person when it clearly is a person with some kind of disability. It’s not just a geeky kid!

LW: Gilbert’s character is described as “socially inept”, but that’s just a euphemism

RH: But even if it was just socially inept I think it’s still not a nice character to do. It doesn’t make much difference, it’s picking on the idea of a child who is socially inept if that’s what it is – which it isn’t. It’s someone doing an impression of a disabled person, for no point. Even if their point was to make you discuss it then I’d at least think there was a reason for it, but I think she’s thought oh I’ve got that character I did that was really good and I was really good at it – but that’s the whole of The Morgana Show, the scripts just aren’t as good as the performances.

LW: Her Fearne Cotton is scarily accurate!

RH: Yeah. They’ve been given a show, and they’re not as experienced as other comedians would be, and I think you have to be really experienced to be able to cover these controversial subjects and find an interesting way of doing them, and a point. It’s lazy comedy, and you just sort of think what is the point of it, and isn’t this just what we did when we were 12 years old in the back of minibus when we would do spastic impressions out of the window and think we were hilarious and now go ‘Oh my God what was I thinking’? So I think it’s worrying that it’s just being let go, and that people are more upset by Frankie Boyle’s race material which actually isn’t that bad, and by the attack on a personality, rather than about disability issues.

LW: You see it as an attack on the identity of a disabled person?

RH: With the Morgana one I just don’t get it at all, but I feel that quite a lot about the show: I don’t get why she’s doing the stuff.  It’s like in the new Little Britain Come Fly With Me series they black up as characters and you just think if you’re gonna do that have a really good reason to do it, or at least make a clever point about it. Just to do something for the effect and not really think about what message it’s sending out is just a bit lazy as comedy.

LW: Coming back to that. I wanted to ask whether you feel it is important for comedians to have a sense of social responsibility, or that they should educate themselves? People with learning disabilities – and I know that you are aware of these things – are ridiculed and taunted on a daily basis: that’s the reality of their lives. And then the other point you made about power: it’s one thing to take the piss out of a group that’s able to stand up and have a say back, but a lot of people with learning disabilities are not going to be able to compete with the likes of Frankie Boyle …

RH: I think it’s a really difficult issue because as a comedian you don’t want to get into a position where you’re not allowed to say stuff.

LW: So you’re a firm believer in freedom of speech?

RH: I think everyone should be able to say whatever they want, and that includes everything, so that includes Nick Griffin [leader of the British National Party) saying stuff I really don’t like. I think he should be allowed to say it. I don’t think he should be allowed to say it and no-one’s allowed to say “hold on a minute I think that’s wrong”! If you’re going around saying you mustn’t say this, you mustn’t say that I’m not sure that’s the right way to go about it. If you watch South Park and the way that the disabled characters are treated in that, it’s not like with massive reverence, which is the other problem if you go too far. They are different, but they’re not weak or weak characters, and they are treated on a level playing field. And they’re getting a little bit of a laugh about disability.

I think it’s a fear. When I said to someone “what do you call people who aren’t disabled? You can’t call them abled” and they said “Call them not-yet-disabled”, when you think about it in a light like that it’s an amazing way of thinking about it. Because we’re all probably gonna be mentally ill or physically disabled at some point, or we’re going to die before that happens, so we’re all gonna get there. These things are a fear. I think we have to confront death, obviously death isn’t very funny but you confront death in comedy and you confront cancer and illness in comedy. Certainly mental illness is something everyone can get and so I think it’s important to face that fear, and sometimes you have to do that in unpleasant ways or ways that might seem bad. I think comedians should want to have a responsibility to make sure that what they’re doing is doing some good rather than doing some bad. But you can’t talk for everyone. What’s interesting is that the jokes people make about disabled people, they wouldn’t make about black people and that’s nearly across the board.

LW: Maybe they wouldn’t make them if they knew about the reality of people’s lives?

RH: Yeah. A lot of it’s not mean spirited. Someone like Gary Delaney who’s a very, very fine comedian who does lots of one-line gags and few of his are about disability and they’re not mean-spirited. I think a few of them do border into that area of do we actually want to think about it, but if you are just doing gags it’s not like you’re trying to educate your audience and make them think. So I think it’s a complicated issue and I’d like to see a world where we joke a lot more about disability, in order to open up. I do jokes about paedophilia because I think as a society there’s a very knee jerk reaction to that and we don’t really think it through. I do jokes about paedophilia being a bad thing, I don’t think paedophilia is a good thing, but some people say you shouldn’t even joke about the subject. But I think by not talking about a subject like that you’re actually making it worse. Simon Munnery does a joke where he says “Most paedophiles were abused themselves as children so obviously the way to stop this process is to kill any child who’s been abused”. I think that’s a funny joke, but it highlights the problem that actually paedophiles aren’t just these monsters, they’ve grown out of probably being abused themselves and that’s a joke that makes you think about it.

And I think we can do jokes about disability that similarly make you think. People are fearful of it, and it is a difficult thing to cope with, I think, on a day-to-day basis. When anyone has a child they say “oh as long as he’s got all his fingers and toes and arms and legs” so it’s a thing that people fear, which makes it ripe for really intelligent comedy. Having been to Ingfield Manor, one of SCOPE’s schools, you do realise when you’re allowed to see it – cos it is hidden away – when you meet the people, and talk to them, and see their lives, you realise how ridiculous those prejudices are even more so. So comedians could open up a path, and there are a lot of good disabled comedians doing that and increasingly more so. Discussing it and putting a public face on it is important, and I think it’s something people should talk about. If Frankie Boyle gets us all talking about it and discussing whether it’s right or wrong then you can take a positive out of it.

LW: Somebody wrote a blog – and I think they mentioned you actually – saying there’s a danger of edgy comedy or controversial comedy being stifled by the debate around Frankie Boyle going too far.

RH: There is a danger. Comedy should go too far sometimes, it should overstep a line – and then you find out what happens. There’s no clear answer, that’s the problem with these kind of discussions about edgy comedy. I’ll say these things, but then I’ll think I’ve done exactly that myself, and I’m sure if you trawl back through probably anything before I started working with SCOPE I’m sure you could find some jokes where you go: I don’t like that joke you did there.

LW: How did you come to work with SCOPE?

It was just coincidence really. I was running the marathon, and then someone was doing it for SCOPE and so I did it for SCOPE – there wasn’t any personal connection really. I mean I’ve got a couple of friends who are disabled but it wasn’t out of any great altruism, I just wanted to run the marathon and that made it easier! Over the years I’ve become more involved in it and the issues behind it, so I probably think about it more than most comedians do. But it’s absolutely possible to be edgy and know which way to punch with your jokes. I think you can do jokes that are horrible and I think Jerry Sadowitz is a really good example, if you get it. He is someone who is managing to do those kind of jokes but it’s not as offensive as someone else doing it. And I think a lot of comedy is about how much respect you have for the person doing the jokes and whether you understand where they’re coming from. So with Jimmy Carr’s jokes, a lot of them the tongue in cheek is so firmly in cheek that you kind of get where he’s coming from, but then again he also does some that you kinda think …?

It’s a release valve and it’s better to be in room laughing at someone doing that and then go out and forget about it. It’s when you have people in a room laughing and going ‘this is alright’ and then they go out of the room and carry on. I can imagine in the 1970s that someone would do jokes about black people, and then people would go out in the street or to the Indian restaurant and do the jokes to the people, their faces, and it would encourage racism. Making jokes without any actual thought will affect the attitude of the audience so I think a good comedian should be making the audience change their mind about something, or make them think about why they’re laughing, or what they’re scared about, so hopefully more comedians will start addressing that. I’ve half thought about doing a show about disability – off the back of the Frankie Boyle stuff – in Edinburgh this year, although it’ll seem a bit like a long time ago by then. But also it’s a bit of a weird thing as non or not-yet-disabled person to be talking about that subject. I worry about it becoming too po-faced.

LW: But then you’re not religious are you?

RH: No

LW: And you’re currently doing a show about religion [Christ on a Bike]

RH: But I was brought up as a Christian, so it is personal, and it’s about my relationship with religion. So I could do a show about my relationship with disability as a non-disabled person, it’s possible, but the points are more effectively made by people like Francesca Martinez. She does that brilliant routine when she gets someone up to cut his hair out of the audience and they’ll come up thinking they’re game and having a laugh and fooling around and it’s a pretty girl, and then she will actually cut their hair – a bit – and it’s really interesting to see the look of discomfort as they realise oh fuck they thought they were being nice. I think Laurence Llewellyn Bowen almost gave up being a patron of SCOPE as a result of it or something. Which is just pathetic – but it shows a really great hypocrisy in people’s attitudes towards disabled people, so a disabled comedian can also play on that slight pity and talking down kind of stuff. I think there are a lot of disabled comedians doing good work, and you know you’re never going to change everyone. Even if disablism became equal with racism and sexism there would still be people doing disabled jokes, even if it was just people in their houses doing them to each other. Sometimes, there’s an opportunity … when it’s so wrong that it’s funny with the right people. If you can get that with an audience that’s an amazing thing! If you can get an audience who trust you and you trust them and you can take them to places you’re not meant to go that’s amazing … but the danger is the ones who don’t get that it’s a joke I suppose.

LW: I’m working with a talented guy with a learning disability who’s got potential as a stand up, has great comic timing and knows how to crack jokes, and I wondered if you had any words of advice for him?

RH: Confidence is the main thing I suppose. With any comedian I would say just try and do it as much as possible and do it in increasingly more dangerous environments.

LW: Like exposure therapy?

RH: Yeah. Comedy is about you, it’s about who you are inside, and it’s just about the confidence in getting up there and doing it I suppose. A lot of people who are crippled by nerves still manage to do stand up, and people who are disabled manage to get up there and do it. It’s about building up your own confidence and understanding why you’re funny, and working out what you’re trying to say on stage. So if he’s going to cover his learning disability that’s one thing, but if he’s not that’s another thing, whether he has to address it at the beginning, or whether he’s just going to do a set that’s just about something else. But I think what’s interesting, certainly to start with, is finding stuff that’s individual to you and personal to you, and making it work for other people. I think you can do a lot through comedy in explaining your situation and explaining through humour, you’ve just gotta be funny. So much of comedy is about you commanding the stage and feeling comfortable and knowing what you’re doing, I think there’s absolutely no reason why he shouldn’t give it a crack.

© Louise Wallis

An edited version of this interview appeared in Community Living magazine