Lee & Herring Press
"The Comedy Lounge" Feature
Rich - "We always used to find it ridiculous that we were
on telly and people were taking us seriously."
Stew - "And it was."
Rich - "And we still think it is."
Stewart Lee and Richard Herring have been working together for over ten years. In that time, they have been involved in some of the most influential comedy and radio programmes in British broadcasting. They have attracted a very loyal fan base - affectionately termed the "Lee and Herring child army" during their Radio 1 era - who have stuck with them throughout their career. They are arguably the most hard-working, but strangely underrated, double act in British comedy today.
When we arrived to interview them together last month, Stew is in the middle of an interview for a national paper about his novel, The Perfect Fool, which is being released at the beginning of July. Rich tells us that the pre-publicity for the novel is going very well, with the collection of testimonials to adorn the back of the novel will include his own tribute, describing the book as "Like High Fidelity. on acid!" Following the interview, Stew is very pleased to tell us that the journalist interviewing him was "the bloke who originally wrote that Lee Evans was like Norman Wisdom on acid." Lazy journalist scum.
Stew: "T4 is also the name for the Nazi programme for exterminating the mentally ill."
That particular quote took on a life of it's own during the second series of their Sunday afternoon BBC2 show, This Morning With Richard Not Judy. "When we suggested doing the Sunday morning thing," says Rich, "the scheduling on Channel 4 and BBC was very erratic, and that was why I said why don't we try to go for that Sunday morning slot, because it's quite a good slot actually." Channel 4 have certainly gone on to make that slot their own, with the scheduling of regular 'youth' programmes filling the channel between 9am and 2pm. "If [the BBC] had put the same stuff behind us as Channel 4 do behind that show, I think it would have been a success." "Although," Stew points out, "T4 is also the name for the Nazi programme for exterminating the mentally ill."
The erratic scheduling of, and lack of promotion for, the second series of TMWNRJ is something they still feel quite strongly about. "I find it upsetting that This Morning didn't get promoted and didn't get put on at the right time," says Rich. "If it had been, maybe it would have got another series." The movement of the programme through the schedules meant that a regular audience never got a chance to build. This was something they regularly addressed in the course of the show, with Rich comparing their success with that of The 70s Show, being moved around the schedules "because it was too popular."
At the end of one episode, Stew also announced that viewers should subscribe to Sky Television, because you knew what time the Simpsons would be on.
About five minutes before that episode went on air, Jon Plowman [the Executive Producer] went to Stew's dressing room and asked him if it was really necessary for them to do that particular bit. "I said yeah, because everything's been really badly scheduled, and it will make us laugh. And he went well, let's just say the series being re-commissioned would be looked on more favourably if you didn't do it. And I said well, then I'm definitely going to do it. But in retrospect, I think he liked the programme, he liked us and he was probably trying to help us actually, by not pissing off whoever was in charge." They remain relatively defiant about the whole episode. "I don't regret doing any of that stuff," Rich affirms, "I think it's quite funny, but I think we might have made a mistake in terms of getting wrapped up in stuff."
Stew: "Affluence is not a way that you tell people whether someone's got a good sense of humour or good taste. In fact, it's normally the opposite."
More recently, Stew has experienced the same problems with Attention Scum, the programme he produced and directed for Simon Munnery. The show was over ten years in the making, using up "pretty much everything he [Munnery] ever wrote". Although criminally broadcast in the Sunday night graveyard slot and ignored by the BBC, it was nominated for a Golden Rose of Montreux Award. But despite all the accolades it received from the press and public, it was de-commissioned before even being broadcast for "not fitting the profile" of Jane Root's brave new BBC2. Angered by the BBC's rejection, Stew wrote an article for the Guardian, thus well and truly burning his bridges with the BBC.
But enduring through all of this, the fact is that the series is a masterpiece of television. It managed to translate perfectly Munnery's highly unique style of humour, a feat which would have been impossible for anyone who didn't have Lee's obvious love and understanding for the material. It remains one of the most beautifully produced and realised pieces of television ever broadcast. However, it has also pretty much ended Munnery's television career, and used up all of his material for his stage shows. "So he has to come back with a lot of different stuff. He's made a new costume, but that's not really enough, is it? He's got an orange hat now. That distracts people initially, but then they realise that about half of it they've heard before."
"Normally something we're involved with gets made, and then the person changes and it gets dropped. Now they've kind of done that before it's even been on, to save time. Cut out the middle man."
Root has recently announced that the BBC is now for 'affluent sophisticated over 35 year olds', another policy decision that Stew strongly disagrees with. "Affluence is not a way that you tell people whether someone's got a good sense of humour or good taste. In fact, it's normally the opposite. I don't think BBC2 should be for affluent people. When I was a kid, when we couldn't afford to do anything or go anywhere, that was how you got a taste of the wider world.
But now I am affluent, I can afford to go out and buy the Sopranos on video rather than watch it." He brings this back again to Attention Scum. "Most people that worked on it were over 35. And apart from Simon, they were all affluent. And they obviously liked it because they were in it and they wrote it."
Following all of this, it would be understandable that he now approaches any television project he becomes involved in with trepidation. In a recent newspaper interview, he declared that "after twelve years I've found a profound attitude of indifference is the ideal attitude to have when working in television."
However, he has just produced and directed Head Farm, a pilot comedy show for Channel 4, staring some of the biggest names on the stand up circuit today. Among the impressive head count are Johnny Vegas, Garth Marenghi and the Boosh, with the show being presented by Jason Freeman. This was originally intended to fill the TFI Friday time slot, but is now planned to spear head the Channel 4 Friday night schedule. If picked up, the series should be appearing on our screens some time in 2002. Stew is not holding his breath, as since the programme was recorded Kevin Lygo, who commissioned the show, has resigned from Channel 4. "Normally something we're involved with gets made, and then the person changes and it gets dropped. Now they've kind of done that before it's even been on, to save time.
Cut out the middle man." He laughs. "He's gone now. Like the others. he was afraid of being associated with something that either of us were involved in, so he had to leave before he was tarred. With the bad brush." They both throw their heads back and laugh.
Rich - "I think the problem always with my stuff is, because it's got stupid jokes about sex and wee, people only see that, and think it's just stupid."
Rich, in the meantime, has been having more luck with his television projects. He spent most of last year writing and appearing in Time Gentlemen Please, the Sky TV sit com he co-wrote with Al Murray. When asked if he is pleased about how the show turned out, he is initially relatively defensive, which is a response to the luke-warm reception received from the press and many comedy fans. "It seems to have got a fairly mixed reaction, and I'm actually surprised. I thought people would really like it, actually.. I'm very pleased with it. I thought we all did a good job on it, and I'm glad we're doing more."
The response, he suggests, is probably down to the fact that "it's got stupid jokes about sex and wee. People only see that, and think it's just stupid." The programme was originally only intended for a twelve week run, but Sky TV soon recognised it's potential, and commissioned another ten episodes on top of that. This meant that, towards the end of the series, Rich and Al Murray were writing full episodes in just one week. "It was all a bit mental towards the end of last year, writing them in three days."
The strength of the show, he feels, lies in concentrating on the characters and their developments rather than throwing in strange camera angles and quirky gimmicks."I think people think it's unfashionable. It's deliberately got an old fashion feel to it, but with a modern angle. I'm interested in writing British sit coms. I think young people probably didn't get it as much. Because it seemed weird that fans of me and Stew were saying it was just terrible, and I couldn't really see that because it seemed to be almost the same jokes that me and him did."
Rich - "The Edinburgh show is only a bit of fun which will end up with me being killed by fundamentalist religious people"
His next project is writing a sit com vehicle for Frank Skinner and ITV, based on the story line of his 1999 Edinburgh Play 'It's not the end of the world'. Again, deadlines are proving to be a problem. "I should have done it last week," he laughs. "I couldn't be arsed. It was too hot." The story will centre around Skinner who, dumped by his girlfriend, has to move in with his younger brother. "They [ITV] really want to do a sit com with Frank," says Rich, "so I think if he likes it then there's quite a good chance." If the pilot is picked up, then the series should be appearing on our screens in the Autumn of 2002.
He is also bringing another show to the Edinburgh Festival this year, "because I miss performing." His new show, Christ on a Bike, is still very much work in progress. "I'm reading a lot about Jesus at the moment. I think by Edinburgh I might really think I'm Jesus. At this point, I'm just planning to pretend." As usual, he is gleefully ignoring the impending dead lines. "I don't know very much about it at the moment.
The Edinburgh show is only a bit of fun which will end up with me being killed by fundamentalist religious people." The origin of the idea was the realisation that he had reached thirty three, the same age as Christ was when crucified. "The start was me asking if I had achieved as much as Jesus did in his 33 years, and," he laughs, "that's arguable, I would say, as to whether I have." Although the show is very much still in it's infancy, he has some grand ideas. "I'm going to try and do my own sermon on the mount. I'm going to try and be a Messiah, and see if I can do it. And probably find out that I can't, is my guess, but you know. you never know."
Having been more or less out of the public eye since 1999, do they still get recognised? "It doesn't really happen very much," says Stew, "but it's always surprising when it does." "Usually it happens with a group of people that one of the people recognises you," says Rich, "and then tries to convince the others that you are somebody. And the others are going 'are you famous?' and you're going well, if you have to ask that question then obviously I'm not, am I?
There'll be somebody so excited about meeting you." ".and the other five people don't know who you are anyway," Stew continues, "so then they think he's a twat, and are resentful of the fact that you have sort of monopolised about 10 seconds of their lives." They both laugh. "And then," finishes Rich, "they do treat it as if it's you that's come up and gone 'It's me! Remember? Eh?! Remember me?!'"
Source - The Comedy Lounge