New Escapologist: Does it trouble you that the sun will explode one day and swallow up the evidence that humanity was ever here?
Richard Herring: In my latest show I discuss my hope that I will be fossilised. I want to become the last remnant of humanity and to be put in a museum by evolved cockroaches. I also hope the evolved cockroach museum will in turn be fossilised and discovered by an alien archaeologist who will take my fossilised fossil to a faraway planet where I’ll become the only surviving relic from our galaxy. So as long as that happens I don’t care.
I think by doing the death show I have realised the redundancy of trying to achieve immortality through work or life. All of us will be eventually forgotten—most of us within a half century of our life—but it doesn’t matter as we’ll be gone. Living your life as best you can and enjoying it as much as is possible in the ridiculous circumstances is all that matters. So I am glad that eventually humanity will be wiped from existence and forgotten. It makes being alive now all the more precious.
NE: Why does recognition of our place in the universe lead to comedy?
RH: I think there is much comedy to be made from the self-importance of humanity, as a species and as individuals, especially when placed against any understanding of our insignificance in terms of space and time. In Meaning of Life I discuss how ridiculous someone from UKIP talking about immigrants must appear to any god or alien who understands the scale of the Universe. Having allegiance to one tiny speck of a tiny planet—not even having the vision to be proud of being from the entire tiny planet—and being furious about immigrants even though his ancestors were living in Africa two seconds ago, and five seconds ago they were fish. Our pomposity is at the heart of much comedy. The human race has had to learn to accept that the earth is not the centre of the Universe, nor is our Sun, and we don’t have a God-given right to do what we want with the planet. We are an off shoot of evolution, not the end of it.
Of course if the Universe is infinite it turns out we really are the centre of the Universe, but so is every single point in the Universe.
NE: What do your visits to Pompeii make you think about in terms of life, death and legacy?
RH: I think we live our lives as if the basic structure of our civilisation is secure. Pompeii shows you how everything can be turned upside down in a matter of minutes. This is a lesson of history in general, but Pompeii is a great example. It also shows us how time changes the way we view an event. I often think how weird it would be for the people of Pompeii to know that their homes and their deaths would be turned into a tourist attraction. Once you start thinking like this, it’s hard not to stop looking at the modern world and wondering what will survive and how the people of the future will view it. What bits of my daily rubbish or possessions will end up in museums? What will be here in 2000 years’ time? It’s impossible to imagine but it’s fun to try, and once again it gives you a little window into your own insignificance in historical terms. Nothing is permanent and everything will fall. Our gods will not be the gods of the future. It seems odd to me that religious people can dismiss old religions without realising that their own will one day be similarly redundant. But it’s true of political ideologies and culture and everything. Our lives are both precious and worthless: insignificant in the long term but completely significant to us. I love these dichotomies.
NE: Do you have plans to ensure your own legacy?
RH: Well, there’s my fossil plan. I’m also trying to get the external meatus renamed in my honour. It’s the aperture at the end of the penis and given all my cock-based work it would seem a fitting testament to my life. Schoolboys used to call it the “Jap’s eye”, which is obviously inappropriate, so I am trying to encourage people to rename it the Herring’s Eye. If it takes off, every time one winks at you you’ll think of me.
NE: What can we expect from your new Meaning of Life shows?
RH: An over-ambitious man discovering his limitations. For me it’s like writing an Edinburgh show every month for six months in a row and then basically filming the first preview. But I’m hoping we can make it look as good as possible despite limitations of time and budget. As I do with my Fringe shows I will be looking at some big subjects with a mixture of childishness and erudition and trying to make people think about stuff that we take for granted or don’t think about at all. The first show is about creation and so I look at religious and scientific views about the birth of the Universe and point out the inadequacies of both. But each show is also going to have a guest who is an expert who will have to field my stupid questions, but also will be given a chance to impart some actual information. I also have a brilliant animator called Chay Hawes working on some opening titles and probably a sketch for each show. It’s as much about showing what’s possible to do alone, without broadcasters or any other interference, as it is about trying to put together a funny show. It is costing me a fair amount of money to put together, but I think that it’s worth it for the experiment alone. And I think there’s a good chance that the shows will be able to compete with TV output, in comedy terms if not quite in slickness and production values. It’s very hard to get an auteured show on TV these days and producers are more interested in creating their own formats and then casting the comics and actors. To be able to do exactly what I want—to spend ten minutes deconstructing the first page of the Bible or whatever—is a fantastic freedom.
I am trying to make them all new material, but this might prove impossible given how much I am trying to do in such a short time. I am touring at the same time and trying to write some scripts that I might get paid for.
Ultimately I hope to discover the meaning of life. You don’t get that with Paddy McGuinness.