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10 September 2008

What would Rasputin do?

Comedian Richard Herring on Lee Hurst, clashing with hecklers, how he smashed a ringing mobile phone

By Richard Herring

I am back in the news again. Just a casual mention in an Independent article about Lee Hurst breaking a punter’s phone.

The relevant bit reads “In 2005, the comedian Richard Herring smashed an audience member’s mobile. When the owner went on stage to demand £70 for the phone, Herring quipped: “I’m not giving you £70 for that. It’s broken.””

The story was picked up (and slightly twisted – surprise surprise) by The Daily Mail.

From my experience of the last couple of weeks I would suggest that most journalists are not getting out on the streets looking for a story, but just reading other papers and then slightly adapting it.

My guess is that the Daily Mail journalist knows no more about the phone smashing story than what they have read in the Independent, yet they editorialise and decide to report the story as if I had just gone mad and started breaking things by writing: “Comedian Richard Herring not only smashed an audience member’s mobile but capped it all by refusing to pay for the damage with the sarcastic words: ‘I’m not giving you £70 for that. It’s broken.'”

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The truth is that in my case I was provoked. It actually happened in 2001, during a performance of Christ On A Bike in Edinburgh. Just as I started my opening monologues a mobile had started ringing. I tried to ignore it, but it was still ringing 45 seconds later when I’d got through my opening gags. “Could you turn that off, do you think?” I asked the section of the audience where the noise was coming from.

“It’s not ours,” said a drunk woman. “We think it’s coming from back there.” She pointed at the curtain behind me. As this merely covered the back wall this seemed very unlikely. By this time my stage manager had come down from his lighting booth and discovered the phone was in the woman’s bag. “Give that to me!” I commanded.

I took the phone and threw it slightly forcefully on the ground. It rather spectacularly broke up on impact into three or four bits (it had just snapped open into its constituent parts, nothing was broken as such).

The audience gasped at this audacity, (and I remember this reaction very clearly as it seemed to spread through them like an audio version of a Mexican Wave), then after a beat they laughed, cheered and applauded.

We’ve all been irritated by some inconsiderate idiot’s phone and the fact that they hadn’t immediately turned it off and had, in fact, tried to pretend they weren’t responsible, made my judge, jury and executioner call the completely correct one.

It was a dazzling coup de theatre. The drunk woman howled. If I’d been on top of things I would have added, “What are you worried about? You said it wasn’t your phone.” But I wasn’t, so I just carried on with the show, a little shaken and thrown, worrying that I hadn’t just overstepped the mark, but poured petrol on it and set it on fire as I pole-vaulted over it.

The couple were complaining throughout the next twenty minutes. At which point she came up on stage. She was looking for the battery to the phone which I hadn’t returned to her. I wanted them out and offered them their money back if they would go. She said, “Fuck that. We want seventy pounds for the phone.” This time I was more on top of things, as I responded, “I’m not giving you seventy pounds for that. It’s broken.”

So, the Daily Mail, to take that last part of the story out of context is a little bit unfair, don’t you think? But then you didn’t know the rest of the story because you were just writing your article based on the one piece of information you had. So unlike the Daily Mail.

Then the Guardian got in touch with me asking if I could talk to them about how a comedian controls his emotions (or fails to) on stage. At least this reporter was bothering to interview me. I was, at least, able to tell the whole story, but am sure they will lead with the more lurid admissions that I once nearly had a fight with an audience member during a preview of Ra-Ra-Rasputin because he’d been heckling the dancing (and fair enough, he’d turned up at a club expecting stand up and had instead got a slapdash version of a play involving the music of Boney M) and I had thought “What would Rasputin do?” before rushing down into the audience to have a go at him face to face and threaten to fight him.

Once there I remembered I wasn’t Rasputin and couldn’t fight and had better back off a bit. Or the time in 1990 when I was a fledgling open spot and was getting some grief from a guy seated right by the stage, whose head was at about the height of my feet. I tried to get him to shut up by tapping him in the head with my foot, but did it a little bit harder than I meant to. Not so it really hurt him, just so it looked like a bit of a violent over-reaction.

A comedian is faced with a dichotomy. He or she really needs to stay in control, especially when faced with a drunken or difficult heckler and yet, some of the greatest moments of comedy come from the performer letting go and losing themselves in the moment.

There will be times when things go wrong. It’s a subject I covered two years ago (has it really been that long) in my first New Statesman blog.

It sounds like Lee Hurst over-reacted, but then everything I have heard so far comes from the newspapers and they haven’t been all that fair with my story, so who knows?

In any case I can empathise with him about the worry that people are filming your act all the time. What if you have a bad one and it ends up on on Youtube and 140,000 people see it?

Way more people have seen this seven minutes of material than have seen the rest of my live work put together. Luckily I do OKish in this case, but there have been plenty of other gigs I wouldn’t want to be filmed. Probably best to check a person is filming before you destroy their phone though.

But having your mobile phone on during any kind of performance, especially if you start using it, is very bad form and it would be good to get the word out to the world that if they are so rude as to be using their mobile during a performance that it will be smashed to bits. Then maybe they would check that it definitely wasn’t on during a show. My own experience of phone smashing, where the person had really done nothing to try and stop the interruption, was certainly greeted with delight by the rest of the audience, which suggests that most people are just as annoyed by this as comics.

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