Sunday, May 10, 2009

A comedy lesson


It being March, Richard Herring is living the curious double life of the professional stand-up. By day hard at work on his show for this year's Edinburgh Festival, Hitler Moustache, by night he's still touring last year's show The Headmaster's Son for those who didn't get to see it at the Underbelly in August.

The show was conceived when he suddenly realised the considerable comic mileage he could get from the fact that in his formative years his dad was also his headmaster. Herring has always been a stand-up who scours his own life, both past and present, for self-deprecating material, so - as he admits - it's surprising the idea hadn't occurred to him before.

The focus on nature vs nurture - would he have become the person (the comedian?) he is today if his father and headmaster hadn't been one and the same person? - means that, as he notes in the programme, the show isn't simply "an excuse to do a lot of nostalgic 'Who remembers Spangles?' style material": "Though it is an admirable skill to be able to remind people about things from childhood that they thought they'd forgotten, but that they haven't actually forgotten, it's not something I want to do ... Peter Kay's position in the comic firmament is secure"...

After an initial flight of fancy inspired by mention of Ascension Day, during which we're encouraged to imagine Jesus flying off to heaven with smoke billowing out of his holy anus writing messages in the sky, Herring gets stuck into his subject matter: the boy who, with his briefcase, trumpet and family connections, couldn't have been much more of a magnet for bullies.

Characteristically, bad taste humour is never far from the surface: at one point he compares himself enviously to Elizabeth Fritzl, who at least has a fucked-up childhood as an excuse for any socially inappropriate behaviour, and later refers in passing to Jade Goody as "a candle in the wind - a racist, blowjob-under-the-duvet-giving candle in the wind". When, recalling his teenage embarrassment at having small hands, he elaborates a scheme by which they could be put to public use wanking off paedophiles, we respond with a round of applause that he notes we'll struggle to explain to anyone who isn't at the show (believe me, it was brilliant).

Sex is a recurring theme, Herring openly admitting to an obsession that has persisted into his 40s. He confesses that his sexual awakening came at an early age with the groping scene in Un Chien Andalou, which explains a lot, and that as a hormone-fuelled teenager, he tried spying on his older sister's friend. His diary of the period reveals much the same story: masturbatory habits meticulously recorded for posterity and a pretentiously straight-faced review of the not one but two porn films with which he and his friends welcomed in one new year: "Poorly edited, with any excuse for sex taken up".

The diary is a rich source of laughs, Herring delighting in mocking the over-earnest know-it-all author of such pronouncements as "I am anti-war" and "I think the Royal Family are a waste of time" who claims "I'd love to have met Gandhi - I think I'd have had a lot to share". It's that lack of self-awareness that leads him to compare himself to Anne Frank, noting that the only differences are that she's a girl and dead and complaining that it was only circumstances that contrived to make her diary famous. Through it all runs the conviction that his scrawlings would be published - and they are, in a way, through their incorporation into the show.

The highlight of the second half is a long dialogue with his teenage self who, handed the chance to fight back against the cynicism and derision of the forty-something know-it-all he's become, strikes some telling blows and emerges as far more likeable than simply the brattish author of spiteful and intemperately angry diary entries. It's superbly constructed and performed, something of which most other stand-ups wouldn't even conceive let alone be able to carry off with such style.

The explicit message of a show that is ultimately a heartwarming exploration of youthfulness is that a sense of perspective and a measure of sympathetic understanding are key. The fact that The Headmaster's Son never strays towards the trite or away from the hilarious makes it Herring's best show since The Twelve Tasks Of Hercules Terrace, a stand-up masterclass from a comedian at the top of his game.

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