Once one half of Lee & Herring, the comedy partnership behind TV shows such as Fist Of Fun (recently released on DVD), Richard Herring has spent the past decade writing and performing solo stand-up shows while also appearing on the TV panel-show circuit and launching hit podcasts such as As It Occurs To Me. In between, he maintains a gaming habit that began in the wilds of Cheddar in the early ’80s.
What’s the first videogame system you remember using?
My sister bought something that connected to the TV, which played tennis and maybe two other games, but the first thing I could play on properly was an Acorn Electron computer. My parents bought it thinking I would learn to program computers, but most of the time I just played Kevin Toms’ Football Manager, which is one of my favourite games ever. I haven’t really been able to get into [football management games since] – I keep on buying them and they’re too complicated. The original Football Manager was exactly what I needed – basically, you put very little input into picking your team, and then watched what happened. I played that for hours on end.
I also liked things like Defender, and I remember playing various adventure games, but they were very difficult because you would have to get the wording exactly right or the game wouldn’t go on to the next section. We didn’t have a proper games console until I bought one myself. I think it was a NES. I keep on buying [consoles] but as I get older I find games are getting increasingly bewildering to me – I play for five minutes and then get a bit bored. It’s rare that I’ll find a game on a system I’ll enjoy. I tend to play games on my DS or iPhone now, things like Yahtzee, Monopoly and Scrabble.
When you discovered videogames in the early ’80s, did it feel like there was a kind of revolution happening, or did it feel like just another distraction?
It was really exciting. I remember when I played Space Invaders with my friend Phil Fry at the Cliff Hotel in Cheddar Gorge, sneaking away after school with a pile of ten pence pieces without my mum and dad knowing, and thinking that was incredible. I liked pinball as much as videogames. I really loved any gadgets and games, and the idea of being able to play these things at home seemed revolutionary back then. It did feel like an important thing, a big step, although I don’t think anyone would have predicted to what extent it would evolve in the next 30 years. It’s incredible, really.
What is it about pinball that appeals to you?
I was just always quite good at it. And I’ve always loved arcades. I really got into the Addams Family pinball machine, which was very popular. Around that time, in the early ’90s, pinball machines were still fairly common, and I remember having a lot of time to kill; my girlfriend was working and I would be waiting for her so I’d go to pubs and play pinball all afternoon. I got good enough that I could do it fairly cheaply; I would be able to play and leave the machine with some credits in it. With pinball, it feels a bit more like you’re doing something real, compared to certain videogames; there’s a bit more hand-to-eye coordination. You’d go to the arcade and there would always be a selection of pinball machines, and I guess once you’ve mastered a pinball machine, even if there’s a new one, you’re going to be able to get a decent go at it, whereas often with videogames you’re going to have to spend £20 to get proficient at it.
Do you remember winning the GamesMaster Golden Joystick?
I do – it’s pretty much the only thing I’ve ever won in my life. [Laughs.] The challenge was to make a film using very primitive editing software. It’s on YouTube now, if you really want to watch it.
Going on games you’ve talked about in the past, you seem drawn to quick-fix things, such as Mario Kart and Rock Band.
Again, I’d get into some of these things and then I’d get bored of them. I got Guitar Hero and The Beatles: Rock Band and I’ve only played them about three times. It’s such an outlay, and then you’ve got to have it all set up and it’s got to all work, and if anything goes wrong… Also, with something like that, it’s only really fun if other people can play it with you. That’s why I’ve tended to go for games like Civilization II in the past. It really ate up a lot of my time, playing it on my own.
What was it that really grabbed you?
It was one of those things where you’d go, “Oh, I’ll just play until the end of the next turn,” and then eight hours later you’d still be playing, because there was always something going on – it was cerebral enough to keep you thinking about stuff. Then you’d just want to make sure your caravan got somewhere, or the war progressed in a certain way. I just liked all the different ways that the game could go – you’d play it and it’d be different every time.
As a comedian you sometimes don’t know what you’re going to be doing from one week to the next, and often I wouldn’t have arranged anything on the weekend and I’d be too embarrassed to ring up my friends and say I wasn’t doing anything. So I’d stay in all weekend and play Civilization. I think there were days – there were probably weekends – where I’d pretty much just play it for the entire time and just manage to get a little bit of sleep in between. It’s just got that real hook to it.
You’ve described your fans as being “nerdy” – why do you think you attract that sort of person?
I think because I’m honest about my own nerdiness and geekiness. I’m not someone who’s trying to be cool – I talk about that kind of thing, about being on my own and playing games against myself. There’s an element of myself that is the same as them, I suppose. I think they get that I’m sort of joking. With some comedians, you look out into the audience and there’ll be lots of cool young hipsters, but you come to my gigs and you look out and there’s lots of bearded men – computer geeks in Battlestar Galactica or Lee & Herring T-shirts. It’s kind of funny and interesting. I’m a sociable person, but I’m quite shy a lot of the time with new people, and I do spend – and have spent in the past – a lot of time my time on my own trying to pass time, and I think that appeals to people. I spend a lot of time doing stuff on the Internet, and also distributing work that way.
Because I’ve been on the Internet, with a Web site, since 1995, the kind of people who were heavily into computers early on know I’m there. Not every kind of person is going to know how to download podcasts or engage with blogs, but that sort of computer- and game-literate person is going to do it. This idea of a nerd army, we’ve always made it into a positive thing, going all the way back to Lee & Herring. It’s kind of interesting to admit your own geekiness, and I’ve never really made any effort to want to be cool – I’m very happy to appear uncool and mock myself, and I think that appeals to that kind of person. I guess a lot of my stand-up in the past has been about being a single man who likes playing computer games and being boring. You attract what you see in the mirror. [Laughs.]
Which games have been distracting you in recent months?
I’ve been playing a lot of Monopoly on my iPhone, but on holiday I started playing Mario Kart again on my DS, which I haven’t played for ages. I’m trying to get the point where I go to the gym and sit on an exercise bike, and that’s where I play these games. Mario Kart is actually good [for that] because you start to cycle harder when you’re losing. You think you’re controlling it. [Laughs.] You can sit on an exercise bike and play Monopoly or Mario Kart for 45 minutes and forget you’re exercising. I’m trying to find games that will keep me going in that way. Yahtzee is a perennial favourite – I’ve played thousands of games of Yahtzee. There is a way of getting better at that game – it’s quite mindless, but there’s a logic to it.
What’s your favourite game of all time?
It’s a tricky one – a toss-up, really, between Football Manager by Kevin Toms and Civilization by Sid Meier. I’ve tried various incarnations of Civilization and I think I just really understood the second one. Purely in terms of the number of hours I’ve played it, Scrabble might beat it, but I think Civilization II is my favourite game of all time.
Herring’s stand-up show What Is Love Anyway? is touring across the UK until May. Visit his Web site for tour dates, links to his podcast work, and his diary, containing nearly ten years’ worth of daily entries.