A Celebration of Mediocrity

Steve Williams on Lee and Herring

First published September 2000

When Lee and Herring were once asked where they got all their crazy ideas from, they answered “We stole them off The Goodies“. This seems a characteristically flippant remark, but in fact they have a lot in common with the Tandem-riding trio. Both were part of groups that influenced most of the following decade’s comic output, and both played no part in that group’s “flagship” programme, instead going their own ways. And both found themselves dismissed by critics as “kid’s comedy”.

In both cases, these descriptions are totally wrong. Bill, Tim and Graeme played a large part in programmes like At Last the 1948 Show and Narrow Your Mind – series that paved the way for Python. Lee and Herring wrote a great deal of the material for On the Hour, the radio programme that became The Day Today, but they didn’t appear, nor did they contribute to the TV version, so most Morris/Iannucci fans are unaware of how much impact they had. Indeed, many of the sketches that On the Hour fans cite as “classic Morris” were written by Lee and Herring.

Like The Goodies, Stewart and Richard then wrote and performed their own television series which were brilliantly scripted, thoughtful and hilarious, but seem to have become forgotten classics – they are never repeated or included in any retrospectives, and their omission is shameful. The two series of Fist of Fun contain some of the most inspired comedy of the 1990s.

As is common, the duo had a radio background. Lionel Nimrod’s Inexplicable World on Radio 4 (1992) saw their first starring roles, as presenters of a spoof paranormal series – predating the mid-’90s sci-fi boom by a few years. They then transferred to Radio 1 and the Fist of Fun series (1993) which was the first to feature the duo in their familiar TV roles – Stewart the intelligent, artistic cynic, Richard the innocent, cheerful optimist – and many of the sketches and routines that were later performed on television.

However, their finest radio work came with Lee and Herring, which spanned three series in 1994 and 1995. This came about following the new format for all comedy series on Radio 1 – programmes would be an hour long, and would all include music as well as speech. Many Radio 1 comedy shows suffered, being unable to fill an hour, with the music interrupting the flow or being poorly chosen. Some programmes, however, flourished – Chris Morris managed to successfully come up with the persona of a demented DJ which worked, and Lee and Herring were able to use their charm to produce some fantastic radio.

As the previous format of sketches and routines in front of an audience would have struggled over an hour-long music-based show, a new format was pioneered – Stewart and Richard did the programme as a DJ show, live from Radio 1′s studios, linking sketches, in-studio banter and records. The records were chosen by the duo themselves, and this, coupled with the live, unscripted format and the large amount of material that was generated (there were 18 hour-long programmes), means that we were able to relate to the duo more. Indeed, most Lee and Herring fans became fans thanks to these programmes.

So the translation to television in 1995 may have been rather sticky. The material was certainly there, but there had to be a more rigid format (as opposed to the looser, shambolic format in the later radio shows) and it clearly had to appeal to a wider audience on BBC2 than on Radio 1. But in fact, the first television series was very good indeed. The sketches were particularly effective – unlike practically every other comedy show they made interesting points whilst still being packed with laughs.

The sketch that best sums up the series was a biblical epic which saw Stew being informed by Jesus Christ that he would arrive at his house that evening, and that he was to prepare a feast for him. That evening, many people turn up at his door asking for food, and he turns them away because he’s waiting for Jesus. Even TV’s Annabel Giles fails to sway him. Jesus never turns up, until the following morning, where he announces that he was in fact all the people who had arrived the previous evening, as a test of his Christian compassion. Stewart takes issue with Jesus messing him about, and eventually a fight ensues.

Alright, many comedy shows used religion as a topic for humour, but none before had discussed it in such depth as this, and none with as much intelligence. The series also included the now-celebrated “Jesus Behind You” sketch, where Stewart gives a lecture on why there cannot be a Christ, while Christ is leaping round behind him, making V-signs. This is a world away from the so-called “political incorrectness” of South Park or The 11 O’clock Show, basically because they knew what they were talking about and the idea was not to be as shocking as possible, but to be as funny as possible.

After this, the duo returned to the radio for another series, and then came back for a second TV run of Fist of Fun in 1996. The BBC were a bit half-hearted about the programme’s return – it was only given the go-ahead a few months before transmission, the budget was cut, and changes to the set and title music were ordered to make it appear less like a youth programme. Yet despite these upheavals the series turned out to be even better than before. By now, the duo had dropped all pretences of being completely opposite to each other (although they performed a routine later in the series about their alleged “differences” – “that’s not a viable argument, you’ve just taken what I’ve said and rephrased it”) and were just two guys chatting amongst themselves.

The programme was now recorded the day before transmission, giving the duo the chance to refer to topical news events; but they didn’t rely on them. In one programme, when asked by Stewart what news stories had caught his eye last week, Rich came up with “Well, Stew, this week I noticed it was Pancake Day!” This meant that a show could go out in the week of the Dunblane massacre without straining for enough flippant stuff to mention (unlike, say, the episode of The 11 O’clock Show the day after Jill Dando’s death, which made a mockery of its image as a “no-holds-barred comedy news show” by not mentioning it at all).

The duo’s skill in improvising meant that running jokes and ideas for sketches could come out of brief ad-libs. In the final radio series, a sketch compared the social lives of Stewart and Richard, and as Stewart was out in nightclubs with supermodels, Richard stayed in with a selection of Z-list celebrities. Picking a name at random, the sketch concluded with Richard eating jelly with Rod Hull. Kevin Eldon was asked to provide an impersonation, but had a cold and ended up with an impression hilarious in its poor quality. This amused them so much that it became a running gag, and Eldon was invited to portray Hull on television, which he did with much aplomb. The best moments in the Hull sketches often involve Lee and Herring attempting to remember their lines while corpsing at Eldon’s voice/costume/wig/ad-libs.

After this, everything seemed to go quite quiet. The BBC declined to make another series, and the change in Radio 1′s schedules meant that there were no longer any slots for comedy on the network. Instead, they continued working live and writing, and Paramount got them to link Festival of Fun (1997), a series of clips from the Montreal Comedy Festival – which was later repeated on Channel 5. This was actually a bit of a treat – despite the contrived format, Lee and Herring found interesting ways to front a clip show, often improvising new routines around the (many poor quality) clips that were shown. Stewart’s final words in the last episode were priceless – “That’s the end of our coverage of the Montreal Comedy Festival. I think what we’ve discovered is that there are too many comedians in the world, and rather than holding a festival to celebrate them, we should instead consider an internationally approved cull.”

They returned to BBC2 to front This Morning With Richard Not Judy (1998 – 9). The series went out live on Sunday afternoons, and lasted 45 minutes, so some of us were hopeful that it would be the best yet – a return to the live, improvised, loose format that made the radio programmes such a joy. There were some great bits, but the first few episodes were a little disappointing – the duo struggling with technical problems and what seemed to be an over-reliance on filmed sketches, with one of the regular features, a spoof arts programme, being hastily rewritten as a docusoap parody at the last minute – and it showed. Yet the later programmes of the first series, and most of the second series, ironed out these problems and came up with some more inspired comedy, the duo becoming noticeably more relaxed. A programme sponsored by The Cress Marketing Board was probably a high point.

There isn’t going to be another series, however, and the duo have returned to writing, directing and the odd guest appearance. Iain Lee, the Bruiser team, et al are poor substitutes, no matter how much of Lee and Herring material they rip off. The regular Bruiser sketch where two TV producers pitch programme ideas to an executive will never reach the inspired heights of Lee and Herring’s similar routine which came up with the concept “The Bent Coppers – two policeman live together, one’s gay, one’s corrupt, and they both suffer from curvature of the spine – and are made of copper”.

For those who think that Lee and Herring were all catchphrases and aimed at children, the Introduction to their live show illustrates how they got a nation of 12 year olds to consider dadaist cabaret – Stewart Lee saying that “a show without an audience still has some sort of artistic merit, whereas an audience without a show is just a bunch of people staring at nothing – your presence is not essential. But thanks for coming”.

If you don’t find that funny, you want the moon on a stick.