Lee & Herring Press
THE HARDEST WORKING MEN IN COMEDY?Lee and Herring interviewed at 1997's Edinburgh fringe By Richard M. Whittaker.
Stewart Lee is concerned.
Sat on the grass outside of the Pleasance in Edinburgh, where he has just finished a performance, he has started to analyze the act.
Today's show of This Morning With Richard Not Judy may have crossed a line of good taste, affronting some members of the press by forcing them to wear hats saying 'I have no idea'.
"What did you think of today's show? Did you think it was too much. I think the Guardian guy left because he was annoyed."
It's up to longstanding partner in comedy Richard Herring to allay his fears.
"No, he left because it was 1-30. If he was annoyed, he would have left earlier.
Actually, I think he was annoyed, but I don't think it matters too much. I think he'll be OK about it, but it doesn't matter, does it?"
While most critics are constantly searching for 'the next big thing', Stewart Lee and Richard Herring have quietly and relentlessly hewn themselves an important place in comedy.
After years of writing for dozens of shows on Radios 1 and 4, these two Oxford graduates rose to prominence and national celebrity status for their Fist Of Fun series on BBC2. With a style that seems to find jokes almost anathema, they inhabit a peculiar intellectual twilight world, where re-runs of Going For Gold are anticipated as eagerly as a new Dostoevsky translation. Stewart Lee, ultra-cool and hip to the point of obscurantism, a man rumoured to have criticised John Zorn for going too commercial and Richard Herring, the idiot cousin from the cultural hinterlands of Cheddar, have turned boyish quibbling into a high art form.
Everything is a fair target for their analysis, not least of all themselves. As much as the rest of the world, from smug driving instructors to the inherent stupidity of fables and the more ludicrous aspects of religion, is held up to dry ridicule, it is as nothing when compared to the harshness with which they regard their own material.
Richard's attempts to introduce catchphrases are quickly stamped on by the disdainful Stewart, while Stew's pompous elevation of his concepts to a form of cultural dogma is sabotaged by Rich's predilection for nob gags and childish taunts. Yet, far from being the sources of constant, scathing vitriol that their performance personas epitomise, offstage Lee and Herring are utterly approachable:
Stewart Lee is quieter, far more introspective than Fist Of Fun would lead one to believe. Still clad in black, he spends much of the interview checking and rechecking his change, concerned about bouncing cheques and having enough notes around. Every third sentence is a question, asking my opinion about how a show went, or whether the audience really understood what was going on.
For a man who has just come out of a show where half the time is spent insulting the audience and the other half filling their wallets, Stewart seems far from relaxed about the entire issue. His main fear is to be misunderstood, that the caustic humour may obscure the honest intention behind it. Richard Herring, as in their double act, provides a foil to him.
Physically, he is the complete antithesis of Lee's restrained aesthete look: having shed his plump schoolboy image for his new play, he sports a thick beard and greasy long hair. But rather than playing buffoon to Lee's philosopher, Richard is more laid back and less analytical.
Whereas Stewart remains a slightly nervy bundle of concerns all the way through the interview, Richard is chatty and supportive, cracking the odd joke and broaching new subjects. Stewart is more prone to long periods of silence, broken by sudden and determined explanations.
It's only officially day 4 of the Edinburgh Fringe, but already between them Lee and Herring had made more performances than most other acts will manage for the entire three weeks.
Since the preview shows on the previous wednesday, Stewart has been performing thrice daily, Richard twice. Contrary to most people's expectations, the majority of their work here is solo or with other groups. Only one collaborative effort, the lunchtime Parkinson-on-peyote This Morning With Richard Not Judy II, is up this year. Most of their time is spent on the other shows: Richard Herring with his newest play Excavating Rita, Stewart Lee on his solo show King Dong VS Moby Dick and the now legendary Cluub Zarathustra. To many people, it comes as a surprise that the two stars of Fist Of Fun aren't constantly on stage together.
There is a risk that they are seen like Morecambe and Wise: or even worse, Bert and Ernie, perpetually dwelling in each other's back pocket. Stewart Lee knows this problem well.
"Whenever I go anywhere, people always say 'where's your mate? where's Rich?' I'm just out on my own, just doing something: I don't know where he is. Probably at home."
Richard Herring grins. His solution to being asked this question is simple. "I never go out."
However, being written off as one half as a double act can become a problem. For Richard it can sometimes be difficult to be accepted in any other role, even if it's what he spends half the year doing.
"We always have done solo stuff: it's just we're not as well known for it, aside from Stew's stand-up. Because most people know us from the telly, out of the 2.5 million people that have seen us on the telly, probably 2,400,000 only know us from there. A few more know us from the radio, and maybe a few thousand people know about what we do here."
For both of them, Edinburgh is an unique opportunity to really push the boundaries of their material. After all, Richard Herring is known to most people as the chubby one from Fist Of Fun: only in the freer atmosphere of the Fringe can he hope to be accepted as a playwright. "It isn't just that we thought 'let's do loads and loads of shows, it'll be really good'. Edinburgh's a unique place for me: I couldn't do what I'm doing anywhere else. You could try doing a play in London, but no-one would come. Similarly, with Stew's stuff, he could book into comedy clubs as Stewart Lee, but he couldn't take his current show." But inevitably, the duo are teaming up for an hour a day. What draws them back together? For Richard, the attraction is in the variety.
"We do about six months of the year separately and six months together. It's a good way of operating: if we had to work together all the time, we'd stop working with each other. As is, when you haven't worked together for a while, it's really good fun. I'm really enjoying this show."
Of course, there are some perils in working so closely together for so much of the time. In conversation, while not actually able to finish each other's sentences, there is an undoubted silent communication between the two men. Neither accidentally interrupts the other's speech, or attempts to drown the other out. On stage, this lends itself to a stronger double act: but even on their own, they can end up thinking and creating a little bit like each other. It's not too great a risk, according to Richard.
"There's some little things: we've been working together for so long that, even when we do stuff separately, that bits slip in."
However, there will always be some fan out there to point out that some old material has re-emerged, whether deliberately or not. Richard accepts that it's going to occur.
"Sometimes real fans come up after a show and say 'you did that two years ago'. But I think it's a bit unreasonable: considering we've got three new shows and they're almost entirely new, all of them."
The problem can be that the more fanatical elements of their following can come to expect too much from the duo. Richard argues that they should consider the rest of the audience.
"Most of the audience haven't followed us all over the country and seen every gig we've done. If you've done that, I think it's unreasonable that you complain. The reason that we travel around the country is so that everyone, everywhere can see it, not so that people can follow us and get annoyed that we're doing the same stuff."
Yet no matter how fervent some of the fans can get, Richard remains amazed at their dedication and support.
"We still get letters and e-mails, and we've haven't been on telly for 2 years. I really like our fans. Some of them are really strange, but generally they're really good."
Richard accepts that this may be, in some small way, their own fault for encouraging them.
Their commitment to the fans has always been such that just about any communication is answered by the pair. This can lead to the lines between comedian and audience being blurred.
"Occasionally people do come a little too close. Because we always write back to people, they suddenly start to assume that you're their best friend and they write to you all the time. Suddenly you get people getting annoyed with you for something that isn't your fault and then they're usually alright, and they write back and say sorry."
Of course, no matter how scary and obsessive the fanbase can become, people that hate you will always be far worse.
"A bloke rang up the BBC during the first season of Fist Of Fun and said that he'd blow up the BBC if the third show was broadcast. I think after that, Jesus came knocking."
For Stewart Lee, life as a comedian is a cushy number, even with three shows on the go.
"It's still not a lot of work, compared to having a proper job. If you've ever worked, you have to get up and get in: a comedian's idea of work is getting up in the afternoon and doing a twenty minute stand-up set at night. I don't think that even three shows a day is a lot of work, particularly after next week, when rehearsals finish and I'll get to just go see shows."
Yet for all this modesty, there is a degree of reasonable pride in the amount of work they do here. Many acts regard a one-hour slot and a three-week Scottish holiday as hard work. According to Stewart, Lee and Herring have always taken the Fringe as an opportunity to experiment, perform and entertain.
"We've done at least three shows between us for the last four years. I've done twenty shows here since 1987." Again, another show of self-deprecation.
"One of those was playing a waiter in Death of Salesman." He pauses for a moment and adds "but that still counts", as much to himself as anyone else. Richard bolsters his claim for him.
"I've written for 13 new shows in seven years, so we're approaching two Edinburghs a year."
But for Lee and Herring, over-committed and occasionally critical fans and a greater than average number of performances are far from a major concern to them. Stewart thanks them for providing him with a career less arduous than what he calls "a real job". In fact, far from being the hyper-critical creatures of irony that their material would suggest, both Lee and Herring can be highly effusive about performers they really love and respect. That day's main guest on This Morning With Richard Not Judy, Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy, had accidentally double-booked an appearance at Radio Scotland.
Rather breathlessly and a bit shame-faced, he'd sprinted in to perform a low-key rendition of Something In The Wood Shed that cut through his well-manicured and over-smug image to reveal a performer of humility and real talent. The result? He would probably have blushed at the praise being heaped on him by Stewart.
"Beautiful. I'd never really thought about it before, but he can really sing." Soon, with equal generosity, the talk turns to other comedians at this year's Fringe. "Ben Moor, Johnny Vegas" Stewart lists his favourite performers. "Al Murray, John Hegley, Jason Freeman" Richard continues.
It seems that part of the appeal of Lee and Herring is that they have never lost their passion for comedy. Indeed, they appear a bit fannish themselves, revealing that it's not some professional spirit of bon homie to their fellow comedians (and free tickets) that would find them at these shows. Richard causes more blushes in his praise.
"Out of all our friends we've been coming up here for years, all their shows have jumped a real stage further."
"They're the kind of shows I'd love to have seen ten years ago, all the slightly unusual shows", Stewart interjects.
"It's nice when the people you know have become the people you'd like to see." But, true to their reputation as combative and confrontational, the conversation turns to targets of loathing.
Yet none of them are attacked for some personal or imagined slight: rather, for idleness, either professional or intellectual. Has this record of public aggression ever caused any response from the target?
Inevitably, the conversation turns to one of the longest running and best remembered celebrity feuds, that between Lee and Herring and one-time collaborator on Radio 4's On The Hour, Patrick Marber.
Stewart, while not attempting to hide the famous split, tries to gloss over it, downplaying Marber's role in the rift. "I don't think he's ever actually criticised us." Richard again redresses the balance.
"Actually, he has. Remember, there's that bloke in his play that said he wanted to chin you."
Immortalised in a play over a public brawl over creative differences. That's got to be some kind claim to fame: after all, everyone remembers Shakespeare for being called "an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers" by a fellow playwright.
But who can name the playwright in question?
Richard's honesty comes through again. "We do slag off people." Stewart, ever the diplomat. "Only him, really" Richard corrects him. "No, and Smith and Jones. Sean Hughes." All this after revelations in the show about self-proclaimed leading Left-wing comedian and his career as class bully at the public school he attended.
But it's not just pointless celebrity in-fighting. Stewart's serious side re-appears. Just as he hopes that he repays his audience by a commitment to providing a good show, there seems to be no bigger crime in his book than a performer idly churning out sub-standard material. "If people let me down who I thought were good comedians, I think I should slag them off: because we have a responsibility, especially to the public, to not rip them off and become a money-grabbing bastard."
To Stewart, such idleness is the ultimate crime against an audience, and epitomised by one particular sub-section of the circuit: improvised comedy.
"I wouldn't recommend that anyone goes to see improv, not when there's things that people have taken a little time and trouble over." Richard concurs. "All comedy's improvised at some point. It just seems rude point it out".
Idleness is at the heart of their antagonism towards the media. Rather than a blanket dislike of anyone with a pen, Richard's target's are very specific: bad and lazy critics. One recent review of Excavating Rita had, to Richard's mind, been unnecessarily cruel and inaccurate. "If he came to one of the first four shows, I could have seen why he wouldn't have liked it. But if he came to the last show, it would have been hard to walk out of that and say 'well, that's rubbish', because people obviously enjoyed it in the audience."
Yet again, as has been the case for Lee and Herring for many years, it's not the opinion of the press, but of the punters that really counts. "It doesn't matter. We sold out the other day and had a really good show." Their duty to entertain has been fulfilled. It seems that they intend to continue this task well into the future.
A version of This Morning With Richard Not Judy will be televised in February, although Richard, ever the perfectionist, plans that it will be "more scripted and polished, hopefully." Similarly, Channel 4 has commissioned scripts for a small-screen Cluub Zarathustra, while both men have ideas for films, together and separately. And what if the bomb-threat guy has plans about them spreading their works further afield?
Richard lies back in the grass. "He didn't blow up the BBC. Not yet. Maybe he's just biding his time, waiting for his moment to strike."
But with the speed Lee and Herring work at, he might find it's already too late.