Lee & Herring Press
LEE & HERRING - TWIN GEEKS - SKY MAGAZINE - MAY 1996Fist Of Fun's Lee & Herring care deeply about Bill Oddie, TV gameshows and Nicholas Parsons.
Sylvia Patterson talks to the nice guys behind the Campaign for the Legislation of Heterosexual Anal Sex.
"I'm not saying that. No, that's so vain!"
The big man called Stewart with the stupid hair and the indie clobber from 1981 sinks into the sofa mumbling to himself in appalled embarrassment. Comedians, eh? You ask them a simple question like "What's your best physical characteristic?" and they curl up & die on the spot.
Let's try a different tack - what's the bit that appalls you the least, then?
"This bit of hair," he eventually concedes, flapping the preposterous fringe which sprouts out of his forehead. "I can have the stupidest hair in the world because I don't have to go into an office. I like that. And it is incredibly stupid."
His mate Richard, possibly the cheeriest man in the world, looks on cheerily.
"I think I've got quite nice eyes," he decides. they are, in fact, huge and clear and blue and, well, rather cute. "So I reckon if I stare at girls right in the eyes at all times they won't notice the rest. They won't look down & go 'Aha!' I quite like the idea that I'm quite fat & spotty: it's a celebration of imperfection. And if you get off with someone who's really attractive they look even better compared to you. Then again, that means you could end up looking like Charles Bukowski."
We'll accept, then, that Stewart Lee & Richard Herring are in no way hideous gargoyles. They are, in real life, really rather handsome. No one as cheery as Richard could be anything else. Stewart is not the cheeriest man in the world - he emits a constant beam of deep suspicion and a profound intelligence, he has the angular face of a less-weasely Terry Christian (though this is to damn by association) and possesses what is best described as "something about him". Possibly, it's madness.
Definitely he is one half of the year's most revered British comedy duo, having secured two-and-a-half million viewers weekly for their BBC2 Fist Of Fun series, a Studio-based banter and sketch celebration of their own mediocrity and the ludicrousness of life, the world, themselves, Tipp-Exed teeth, till receipts, chicken ice lollies, sex, devil-grinned blokes on the front of Midland Bank pamphlets ("Have you spoken to Ian Humphreys?"), inventing a hobby out of terrorising Norris McWhirter at three in the morning, every morning, with the query "Which is the world's biggest leaf?" and everything else, all of which has been described as "a unique brand of cerebral juvenilia." Which means they're incredibly clever about everything that's stupid. And there's a lot of that about. They call themselves "over-educated & emotionally Stewnted," which will not stop them hovering on the end of your nose for the rest of the year via a live tour, the Lee and Herring Live video (released 16th October), Lee & Herring's Fist Of Fun book and Lee & Herring's Fist Of Fun 1FM tapes of radio material (both out now). They're determined not to rip off the public ("We fought to put original stuff in the book"), and you'll never see them in beer adverts on the telly because that's "immoral".
"We've never had any money," snorts Richard, "so we were used to not having any and actually didn't need any. Then again, we haven't got the wife, the kids, the mortgage & the cocaine habit. Maybe in five years' time."
They are, then, the people's comedy poets, and it's this humble, punk-rock spirit that's kept them off the telly these last few years until they could do precisely what they wanted. And they've had plenty of offers. Lee and Herring have been comedy writers since they first met at 19, nine years ago at Oxford University, when Richard was dancing to the Sex Pistols so Stewart thought he could be a potential chum. He was. They'd both written comedy at school and were part of the university comedy club, where Stewart was in the process of writing something about a ventriloquist act with a bloke who couldn't sing. "Which everyone else thought was terrible, but I thought it was quite good compared to someone standing up & going [Monty Python-esque parrot's squeak] 'Ooh Mr Faris! I'm in a shop!' which was the rest of student comedy right across the board."
Richard agreed. They set up an agenda of things not to do. No pretending to be Monty Python, no advert spoofs, no going on about Margaret Thatcher. Their act of esoteric idiocy was born and years of "semi-employment" loomed, writing for themselves, others, separately, together, traversing the stand-up circuit, doing the Edinburgh thing, writing for Radio 4, and finally their own Fist Of Fun series on Radio 1.
They wrote for The Day Today radio series and refused to be involved in the TV spin-off because, says Richard, "they wouldn't give us the credit for inventing the characters, which we'd done.". They turned down Saturday Zoo ("It was terrible"), other sketch shows ("all terrible"), The Word ("We'd look like idiots. Obviously."). Their credibility intact, quality control has always been their mission or, as Stewart would have it, "damage limitation.".
Much of Lee & Herring's world-view is born of the fact that when you've time on your hands, you become obsessed with a load of baloney. "When you come out of university" states Richard, "there's not really anything to do...That genuine feeling of not knowing what you're supposed to do with your life. So, especially on the radio, we gave those people ideas for things to do, ways to fill up the time so you don't notice you're not really achieving anything, which is what we always did."
"Spreading pointless confusion." beams Richard. "We abused our power as people who are listened to by teenagers with time on their hands - we'd get them to write to local radio DJs asking for their autographs and then have them sent to us. We now have the biggest collection of signed autographs of a Radio Cambridge DJ in the world. Then we'd write to TV celebrities ourselves& send them mad."
"About a year ago" grins Stewart, "when they brought down the age of homosexual consent to 18, we wrote to loads of TV celebrities saying we were a bloke called Ian Chartris and his wife fronting the Campaign for the Legislation of Heterosexual Anal Sex." Richard continues, "And would they like to make a speech to support it at a benefit. We got about 200 letters back!"
Stewart:"Nicholas Parsons wrote us a very intelligent letter back, saying 'You're right, it is wrong and ludicrous that it is against the law to express your sexuality through heterosexual anal sex, but by drawing attention to it you just may worsen the situation.' Which is actually spot-on! James Whale said he would do a speech at the benefit for his normal fee of £1,300. And then Woodrow Wyatt, the self-styled 'voice of reason' from the News Of The World wrote us a letter saying 'Congratulations on your campaign: it sounds like a first-class way to spread the AIDS virus.' So you got a really good idea of who's the tosser, who's the money grabber and who's got a sense of humour. Nicholas Parsons was fantastic."
Stewart and Richard have attempted to reply to every one of the thousands of fan letters they've ever received. Stewart knows what it feels like to be ignored. Two years ago he wrote a detailed analysis of each episode of an afternoon quiz show called Turnabout to the presenter "and he never wrote back, so I wrote him hate-mail."
Stewart is definitely mad. Then again, the zenith of his existence was they time they wrote "something about Bill Oddie having a sexual attraction to birds & that's why he liked bird-spotting. He wrote us this really funny letter back and said he really liked the show, and that's exactly what I would've done if I were him. A letter from Bill Oddie. Great." It is of course, deeply commendable to care this much.
Stewart and Richard are thoroughly enjoying their current kaleidoscope of fame, wealth & professional security. Every where they go, people tell them they love them. They've met a surf-rock band from Devon who named themselves after their first Fist Of Fun series. They appear to have no enemies: "I think it's because we haven't got a wanker's attitude," muses Stewart, "or we don't appear to be really pleased with ourselves. Because we're not." For the first time in five years, they're actually going out. Within the last year they've both ended fairly long-term relationships and discovered that women fancy them. They cannot believe it.
"My sexual charisma," confides Richard, "has upped by about 5,000 per cent." Stewart, being mad, isn't having any of it. "You see," he opines, "the very fact that you know that sexual attractiveness is conferred on famous people makes me more suspicious than ever. So I think my sexual charisma has gone down, I mean, you're only here because I'm on the telly."
"Stewart's quite pretty," declares Richard, "but I certainly am not used to having loads of teenage girls crowding round me pressing their bodies up against me - as I think most men aren't. But they're very young and you know they just want to be able to say, 'Oh, I snogged the bloke off the telly.' But there is an increased sense of confidence, and sexual success is all about confidence. Usually I'd see an attractive girl and think 'Never mind' but now I could at least talk to them, because they might be slightly interested in talking to a bloke off the telly. But we'd feel really bad about sleeping with fans - it'd be like sleeping with the daughters of family friends."
"Critics try to use it against you." says Stewart, "Like, 'Oh you've got all these young girls at your shows now.' like there's something not worthwhile about what young girls like, Young girls are generally much cleverer than young boys anyway. And young comedy fans generally are much cleverer than, say, young pop fans. And I know I had much better taste in everything when I was 16 than I have now."
Four years ago Stewart was so broke he had to hitch-hike to his own stand-up shows otherwise he'd have made minus profits for his pains. Now he can actually afford to go to clubs for a bit of fun. Gone are the days when they used to live together in a house in Acton on "baked potatoes and cheap beer and play hide and seek to amuse ourselves."
"I've been out to pubs and clubs," says Stewart, "where I'd never been for five years and there was this really strange atmosphere of euphoria, and I thought 'So this is what it's like!' Not that I've started dancing or anything, I hate dancing. Total embarrassment." There is, plainly, a deficiency of ego at work here...
"The day I see our video in the bargain bins of Woolworth's," guffaws Richard, "is the day I'll be overjoyed. That's as much 'arriving' as anything else. I can't wait. I'll see it as a cultural pointer."
As for Stewart, he greets the notion of success paranoia with an entirely genuine, "I just don't care." and the thing that delights him most about finally having money?
"We've got a bus with a CD player on it!" (He's an NME-reading indie boy with a healthy disregard for the popular. He likes Urge Overkill. He probably owns Half Man Half Biscuit's difficult third demo. He keeps his records in perfectly alphabetical, carefully categorised order. Obsessive trainspotter retention syndrome? "At least I know where my stuff is.")
So. How is the cocaine habit coming along, anyway?
Richard:"I've never even seen anyone taking cocaine."
Stewart:"I had Ecstasy once. I actually found it quite annoying, because I just thought 'Well, this is just stupidly good fun!' I think drugs should be accompanied by some form of insight other than 'Wah-hey!' Sixties drugs came with philosophical and moral questions attached, like acid makes you ask questions about your existence. Ecstasy just makes you have a really good time. I can't really approve."
Lee and Herring are the unfeasibly good guys of British light entertainment. Stewart apologises for having nicked one of my fags (he thought they were his own) like a man who has just sat on and killed your chihuahua. Richard apologises for the little time they've had (they have, infact, taken twice the time they were supposed to).
"Years ago," says Stewart, "a lot of what motivated me to do well was this 'I'll show you lot' attitude, and about two months ago I thought 'Why do I still feel like this? Doing it out of mad anger?' I realised I'd achieved more than I ever thought I would in my whole life. I'll be happy to be out of it by the time I'm 30 in two years time and write books and scripts or whatever, because it's already been a long, strange trip. I'm really, really happy at the moment [huge grin], I mean, I've got a flat on me own now! We could probably get the money to make a film now or whatever, and that's really really good fun. And y'know, you really could get run over by a bus tomorrow. So you've got to enjoy it while it lasts, haven't you? Or at least try."
Lee and Herring, the Number 29 notwithstanding, will get there.