Lee & Herring Press
GUARDIAN INTERVIEWIf you've ever had the suspicion that television was increasingly staring up its own fundament, you should have been at Mel and Sue's Light Lunch on Tuesday. Mel and Sue - to explain for those who have jobs - are two Oxbridge-educated comedians who do an increasingly impressive day-time comic chat-show on Channel 4.
Stewart Lee and Richard Herring are two Oxbridge-educated comedians appearing on Mel and Sue's show to advertise their own parody chat show.
Got that? Now Lee and Herring's show is vaguely inspired by the Rolls-Royce of daytime chat-shows, ITV's This Morning with Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan.
And This Morning is filmed not a stone's throw away, in the Studio next to Light Lunch on London's South Bank. "Post-modern or what?" says one of the backstage hangers-on.
In the hospitality room, after the show, everyone's in a good mood. Mel and Sue are old friends of Lee and Herring, and there are lots of smackety-smack kisses. There's also been a little gentle mischief to be made. Today's other guests are two of the Ice Warriors (otherwise known as Gladiators on skates). Herring has met Dragar the Merciless in full costume in the men's toilets, and interrogated him at length about the practicalities of wearing a Darth Vader-style codpiece and cloak while having a pee.
Lee is asking Dragar's companion po-faced questions about Ice World's position in the space-time continuum, and receiving absurdly earnest replies.
Puerile teasing? A little. But then childishness is integral to what Lee (29) and Herring (30) are about.
Their 11-year partnership has all the dynamics of a classic double-act. Their slacker wit appeals largely - though not exclusively - to schoolkids and students. Herring plays the pudgy-faced naif from Somerset. Lee, by contrast, is the acerbic narcissist and arch-rationalist. In reality; Herring is a lot sharper, Lee much gentler.
Now, after two series of their Fist Of Fun show on Friday nights, the pair's new vehicle goes out in the Sunday lunchtime slot previously occupied by the leaden Sunday Show and (tough act to follow) The Simpsons: the so-called hangover slot.
The show is called This Morning With Richard Not Judy, and its publicity photo flies pleasingly close to the wind. Herring sits on a white leatherette sofa, clipboard on lap, wearing a smart suit and a smug grin. Opposite him sits Lee, in a clinging top, tights and blonde women's wig. Behind them is a supermarket trolley brimming with empty bottles of wine, beer and spirits. As publishers' disclaimers like to say: "The characters and situations in this story are imaginary and bear no relation to any real person or happening".
Fifteen minutes after Light Lunch has ended, we're sandwiched into the back-seat of a cab heading for BBC Television Centre, and Stewart Lee is explaining that the Richard and Judy thing is only a tiny part of what the show's about. They don't even dress up, except in the title sequence; and the fact that the real Judy Finnigan has been absent sick from the real This Morning is, he stresses, an unfortunate coincidence, despite what the tabloids might try to make out.
"At our press launch, the bloke from the Daily Mirror said, 'Isn't the title a little bit sick in the light of Judy being away with a hysterectomy?' I said, 'Look, you work in the media. You know as well as I do that names are decided on months in advance. For you to suggest we've done it to cause controversy would be cynical and dishonest. I hope that answers your question.' Then everyone laughed at him."
In fact, the title This Morning With Richard Not Judy was first used as long ago as 1994, when Herring decided to stage a ramshackle daily chat-show at the Edinburgh Festival, the chief gimmick of which was giving away money to the audience. At last year's festival, Lee and Herring revived the show. The audience was asked to put sealed cash bids in brown envelopes. Whoever put the most money in at any one performance would get double their money back and be named "King" of the show. Whoever put the least money in was declared the Fool, and was required to serve the King from a refreshments trolley full of alcohol, cereals and Pot Noodles. Sometimes, the chat between Lee and Herring and whatever minor celebrity was guesting that day would break down entirely.
The audience had no idea what was going to happen; nor, you suspected, did the performers. The result was anarchic, irreverent and streets ahead of most of the stand-ups playing the festival.
The question is whether that spontaneity can survive a transfer to TV - even live TV. For a start, there's the pre-watershed scheduling to contend with. "The only problem so far has been a sketch in which we wanted to use the word penis, which the BBC insisted we change to either 'winkie' or 'genitals'." They've turned the fact that it's going out on the Sabbath to comic advantage. "We sing a hymn every week at the end of the show. Properly. If you do it properly they can't complain," says Lee.
This Morning With Richard Not Judy is family viewing, they both say, unless yours happens to be a Christian family. Filmed items include a children's cartoon called The Organ Gang (like the Munch Bunch, but with human organs as characters), a fly-on-the-wall documentary about a magazine called The Ironic Review, and a weekly phone-in poll (this Sunday's question will be: "Do you think profit-making 0891 numbers on TV shows are a rip-off?").
"The real reason for us using a daytime TV format," Lee says, "is that you can literally introduce anything into it. On the real This Morning, they can play in Johnny Ball talking about the paranormal dressed as a ghost - and they have done. That's a great advantage for a comedy show. If Richard and Judy saw it, I honestly don't think they'd think it was a parody of them."
If Lee and Herring did want to parody This Morning, however, they do have behind-the-scenes knowledge, having appeared on the show in 1995. "They played a clip from our TV show Then Judy made a face and said, 'Your comedy's about nothing really,'" says Lee. "It was strange. Like they really hated us, and yet they'd had us on."
They seem to like presenting themselves as Cinderellas of comedy. If this series fails, they've probably had their shot at being TV stars, Herring says. But that won't bother them too much. They both do as much writing and script-editing as performing. Lee was script consultant on Harry Hill's TV series. Herring is doing something similar for Boothby Graffoe's new Channel 4 series.
The BBC, they say, has never really liked them. If Paul Jackson hadn't arrived from Carlton to run BBC comedy they'd probably have been dropped. "He gave me a bag of rotten fruit last night which leaked all over my bag," says Lee. "That's the level of contempt we're held in by the BBC: even the bloke who likes us has given us a bag of rotting fruit." As if on cue, Barry Norman ambles into the lobby and up to the reception desk. "It's the unfailing familiarity with which they greet him," Stewart Lee says, wistfully. "That's what I aim for. 'Ah, Mr Norman, your large dressing-room and plate of tangerines await you.'"
And not a rotten one among them.