IN PASSIONATE debates about the future of comedy and those exciting, breakthrough acts who might shape it over the next decade, Richard Herring and Marc Maron occasionally get overlooked.
• The future of comedy, Marc Maron, left, and Richard Herring have notched up quite a bit of past comedy experience between them and are now reaping the benefits of performing free. Pictures: Complimentary
At 42, Herring is still probably best known for his 1990s partnership with Stewart Lee. Next month, he'll publish How Not To Grow Up, the memoir of a perpetually single comedian, shunned by award panels and denied the "rewards of fame, wealth and orgies on my yacht". Four years his senior, New Yorker Maron is a
Yet despite their struggles, these otherwise widely admired comics are blazing a trail by sharing their comedy for free and reaping the benefits of that freedom. Although many comedians, especially those specialising in topical gags, personal anecdotes, or lacking television exposure, have embraced podcasting as a cost-effective means of raising their profile, Herring and Maron exploit it to a rare degree – creating huge swathes of material beyond editorial control and the demands for slick, mainstream content.
"It reminds me of punk rock," chuckles Herring. "It seems funny to me that I'm one of the main exponents of podcast comedy when it should be 18-year-olds."
Since 2007, he and the journalist Andrew Collins have recorded more than 100 Collings and Herrin podcasts in his attic, an hour of unscripted, light-hearted discussion shared free over the internet every week, frequently appearing near the top of the iTunes comedy charts.
In May, he resumes performing As It Occurs To Me, a mix of live stand-up and sketches recorded with Emma Kennedy and Dan Tetsell, and staged once a week for ten weeks at London's Leicester Square Theatre last year, with Herring charging a cost-covering 10 from what ultimately became sell-out crowds and uploading the recordings free and unedited on iTunes the following day.
Meanwhile, he has written a blog post every day since November 2002. Conceived as a cure for writer's block, the first six months of his Warming Up diary was recently published as the book Bye Bye Balham.
A recurring joke on the Collings and Herrin podcasts is that listeners donate a few pounds to their biscuit fund in exchange for having their names mentioned. The friends are tentatively exploring sponsorship, "but it's really not about the money". Forsaking editing for reasons of budget, Herring maintains that "the bits that don't work make the best bits funnier", delights in his room with a view to be self-indulgently creative and points out that it's a chance for fans to follow his ideas from their conception. The idea for his current show, Hitler Moustache, was first raised in the podcast.
All the same, he admits, "it's certainly raised my profile and brought new people to my live gigs and my dvds. They find out I'm coming to their town, figure they've had 50 hours of free entertainment and then think, 'Maybe I should go and see the live show'."
Maron, likewise, prefers to develop routines by sharing them with an audience. He maintains that his weekly WTF podcast, for which he improvises material and chats to his fellow comedians at length, affords a rare insight into the stand-up's craft and lifestyle. He'll continue recording in Glasgow this weekend and claims that it's "changed my life".
"I've been doing comedy for 20-odd years and I'm starting to feel appreciated in a way that I haven't before," he explains. "I've always been a fairly honest, provocative comic, I'll push buttons and reveal a lot about myself. Most comics are socially awkward, or they wouldn't have made the decision to do this with their lives. But they've all got great stories, so if I can get them to be as candid as me, it makes for a great show. And the freedom of the format has enabled me to take my comedy to a different place."
For Herring, the sheer volume of personal observations he now shares across various media has coincided, necessarily, with greater honesty in his stand-up. Acting less of the romantic loser, more himself, he's consistently attracting the best reviews of his career. "I'd rather be reminding people I exist than sitting at home pretending, waiting to be asked to do this radio thing or that TV show," he says. "It's about trying to create things that are worthwhile and to get better at what I'm doing. I certainly think the podcasts have helped me and Andrew to develop a better broadcasting relationship."
His collaboration with Collins began on the latter's BBC Radio 4 comedy game show, Banter, while As It Occurs To Me owes much to the late Radio 2 show That Was Then, This Is Now. There's an irony in the fact that the pair were recently recruited to 6 Music to cover Adam and Joe's Saturday morning slot – doubtless in large part because of their podcast's success – shortly before the station was earmarked for closure.
Notwithstanding the erratic scheduling and lack of commissioning faith that effectively killed Lee and Herring's television partnership, he still "loves the BBC and fears for it, despite our ups and downs. It's a shame that they're self-censoring so much now, but if they're cutting back it will encourage people to do their own stuff. I think that as soon as comedians realise that there's an audience for them on the internet, TV and radio might begin to be irrelevant".
Already rebuked for unwittingly breaching 6 Music guidelines by exclaiming "nonce", as script editor for the third series of Little Britain, he's aware of the editorial compromises mainstream media can demand. Consequently, he doesn't understand why "comedians who've made it, and are making millions of pounds, don't simply go their own way. Pay for it yourself, put it out on dvd and then sell it to the BBC, or put it on the internet and charge people that way".
The pre-mediated act of downloading a podcast means "no other medium, not even radio, offers such a direct personal relationship with the listener", suggests Maron, whose broadcasting career began on the liberal talk radio of Air America in 2004, a rocky relationship that survived several different shows but was eventually terminated when the ailing, ultimately doomed station ceased financially backing Breakroom Live – a free video webcast he hosted with Sam Seder from the real coffee room of Air America's New York headquarters.
"There's an intimacy and beauty to audio, whereas I don't think people were quite ready for live visual streaming," he recalls wryly. "That's essentially reinventing television every day. If there's any liability in the podcast, it's that I enjoy reading the e-mails and responding to people too much, which can get emotionally exhausting, especially when they recall things about you that you might have forgotten."
He cites the global economic crisis as a factor in more people being drawn to his vitriolic vulnerability on WTF. "I'm trying to get past the idea of comedy as a defence mechanism and get to the more existential panic we all experience on a day-to-day basis."
With a 15 per cent audience from overseas, he recently received an e-mail from a 16-year-old Scottish girl "that literally made me cry".
"I have a lot of teenage listeners, which I'm not sure is a good thing," he muses. "Although I know if I'd had the option as a teenager to listen to adults talking how I'm talking, absolutely free, behind my parents back, I would have been thrilled.
"This girl felt awkward and alone. But after listening to me she felt she had the guts to get up and talk about her awkwardness with her class. By the end, everyone was laughing, she felt accepted and her classmates were coming up saying they'd felt the same thing. I tell you, that was moving, man."
&149 Richard Herring plays the Garage, Glasgow, on 13 March, as part of Glasgow International Comedy Festival; the Stand, Edinburgh, on 14 March; and Perth Theatre on 15 March. Marc Maron plays the Universal, Glasgow, on 13 March, also as part of the festival.