Lee & Herring Press

Lee & Herring Interview

Via a crappy phone in a dingy office, these verbal exchanges happened with comedy minions Stewart Lee and Richard Herring sometime around the weekend of the wedding of a founder-brasser.

Stewart Lee

Are you pleased with the way This Morning With Richard, Not Judy worked out?
Yeah, I am. I didn’t think it would work as well as it has. We got offered live Sunday lunchtimes and I didn’t think it would work but Rich did and he’s been shown to be right. It’s been good fun to do it live.

Was the Sunday lunchtime "graveyard" slot a scary place to be?
Yeah, I thought so, but there are pros and cons. When we were on Friday nights, that kind of counts to the BBC. We were in competition with Roseanne or whatever was on on the other side, so they used to interfere with what we were doing, but this series we’ve been left alone to do what we’ve wanted and I think it’s worked better because of that. I think there’s a coherence and stylistic and thematic unity to it that I doubt we would have achieved if we’d been in a more pressurised slot. I’d be quite happy to do another one.

When you do Friday nights in the primetime slots, right wing moral pressure groups and Christians watch shows like that looking for something to complain about. But because our show’s in what is an untested slot for comedy, the kind of people that watch TV programmes purely to complain about them, who are organised and have newsletters and know the number of the complaints desk, aren’t really watching. So we’ve had fewer complaints even though it’s probably been a show that’s more likely to cause offense than Fist Of Fun.

What are you planning to do in the future?
I’m script editing for the new Harry Hill series, and doing something for Channel 4 with Alan Parker Urban Warrior.

Would you work with the On The Hour Team again?
I want to work with Peter [Baynham] again but I wouldn’t work with that lot because I don’t really trust them as much as I like them. I’d like to work with Chris Morris again if the right thing came along. The thing is though, we’re more happy writing for things that we’re in control of now because we’ve been going for so long. It’s often difficult to fit into someone else’s idea. Plus I don’t think any of those people need us, and I don’t think we need any of them. Everyone’s doing different things now.

Would you write for Blue Jam?
No. The thing is you have to fit in with Chris’s tone of voice, and I think we’re better off keeping away from those people. Somebody wrote an email saying ‘a lot of your stuff reminds me of On The Hour, you’ve copied that.’ Whilst we actually originated a lot of the tone of voice for On The Hour. And then in Observer on Sunday there was an interview with Patrick Marber saying what a genius he was for coming up with the Brian O’hanra’ha’hanra’han character, which again is something that we made up that he stole off us and then took the credit for even though we actually wrote it. He was kind enough to tell journalists and the media in general of the idea that he single-handedly created Alan Partridge and stuff like that, even though the character existed before he started working on the programme. We seem to get pulled into the gravitational orbit of more famous people and our contributions tend to get eclipsed. We’ve always said that – we got offered the Sunday Show when it started but we turned it down because we didn’t want to step into an existing format. But when you’re 23 and get offers for things like On The Hour and The Day Today you see the figures turning round and it’s quite hard to resist such a lot of money. If we’d done an advert five years ago we’d have got our hundred thousand pounds and given up working.

Would you go back to the radio?
We’d never go back to the radio together because it’s just not worth it. We could use the time more productively writing a sitcom for TV or something. I am trying to do a radio show with some other people. It’s a good place to do new things. I don’t think it’s a good place to go back and do things that you’ve already done.

You have said yourself that you are the hardest working comedians in Britain…
[laughs] Self styled hardest working… go on.

Do you ever stop?
We get offered such interesting stuff. We do turn down a lot of things. I turned down a script-editing job today. We turned down a new Radio 4 show we were offered about a week ago. I turned down being one of the team captains of that rubbish science fiction quiz show. We just turned down hosting ITV coverage of the Montreal Comedy Festival this summer because it didn’t look like it would feel right.

There are just so many ideas on the verge of taking off, and if one of them would it would be so great so you don’t want to let any of them slip away.

Is there any chance of the rest of On The Hour getting a full cassette release?
No. At the time it got a cassette release they were doing The Day Today and they wanted to cut us in on a weekly salary for a certain amount of material, and what we wanted was an ownership of the show. Not completely but a 10% ownership, because we felt that although we were brought onto the show as writers we felt we’d help set the tone of programme. They wouldn’t go with that so they had to make a point that we weren’t essential to it, which was why all the stuff we’d written was either reedited or chopped out of the commercial release. Even to the point where Armando actually reedited individual sentences which if you were really obsessed with it you could probably notice where he’s condensed a surname and an address to make a new name for a character rather than using the name that we made up.

It sounds a bit bitchy.
It wasn’t really; we didn’t really get involved. It was all done through management. You’ve also got to remember that all those blokes were about 30 and they thought that it was their ticket to the future. We were the youngest people involved in it so the first to be crapped on.

Chris and Armando had registered it as their format and we were chancing our arm, but in a fair society – well I would certainly cut writers in. It was hypocritical of Marber because he always maintained that it was somebody else’s existing format and the writers shouldn’t be cut in on and was delighted when we went missing. Marber has a 60% ownership in Steve Coogan’s character Paul Calf, and gets a 60% fee from Paul Calf related merchandising. Which is so funny that he actually took it to that point and then got more of the ownership of things that Steve did, yet got annoyed with us trying to establish an ownership of ideas of ours which he later just copied anyway.

Chris wasn’t anything to do with it. He more or less did his own bits for On The Hour, edited them, and then gave them to Armando to put them in the show. He wasn’t really part of the collaborated process. Most of the voices were Chris’s sped up or slowed down, treating them himself in a Studio.

I remember seeing an interview with Chris when the Chris Morris Show was going out where they said that this idea was excellent and that this idea was excellent, but they were all Pete’s, but he was the co-writer and not the face on it.

I saw an article in the Melody Maker, "Five Great Chris Morris Ideas", and one of them was an idea that we’d had, and it was strange seeing it attributed to him. It’s not the first time it’s happened in history; it’s always involved in the creative process.

Do you think the Internet could ever be a feasible medium for comedy?
Well, I didn’t. But then about a week ago I went to see a show at the Webshed café in London that Dave Green and Danny O’Brien do, and they did this live comedy review of new software. There were about 250 people in there and it was going out live on the Internet so it was really good. I’ve heard for ages that the Internet was going to take over entertainment and I didn’t think this was possible, but then seeing this happening and having an audience I thought that it was really interesting. I hadn’t realised how sophisticated it was. I wanted to know how it paid for itself and found out that advertising and encrypting were immoral on the Net. I think what the problem is, is that there are all these optimistic and idealistic people working on the Internet doing really interesting things, but all it needs is for one of these people to sell out to a Rupert Murdoch like bloke and they’ll all be fucked.

It’s a bit like all the snow-boarders and skate-boarders think that they are independent of commerce and they won’t sell out, and then someone offers them five grand to wear a particular brands T-shirt and they do it.

We had a meeting with some American people who had this fantastically sophisticated idea for a live, once-a-week music-biz based comedy programme where they were going to script dialogue for every room of this massive corporation office where you could go anywhere and follow a story. A lot of the characters were really stereotyped and crap so we didn’t get involved. But when you look at it like that, it’s a new way of telling stories that avoid linear narratives. The possibilities for websites that are literature rather than just information I don’t think have been explored yet. Hopefully they won’t end up like those awful dungeons and dragon things, now turn to page nine.

Richard Herring

Hello. Hello, it’s Richard Herring speaking. Are you John Walker?

I am yes. I’ve used up all my questions on Stew. What are you doing now?
I’m trying to write a play for Edinburgh called Playing Hide-And-Seek With Jesus, but I don’t know anything more about it than it’s called that. It’s about religion and love and delusion. I’m trying to write a sitcom about some British comedians going to Australia. And a sitcom about Cheddar caves. I’ve been script editing for Al Murray. And hopefully working towards a new series.

Do you think that sitcoms are a dangerous risky format?

They’re generally only a risky format when they’re written by people who aren’t very funny, people who don’t know how to put them together. But if you treat them as drama that’s funny, and put jokes in them, the sitcoms are hopefully not going to be "Oo vicar, I’ve come in and you look like you’re having sex with a dog but your not." Hopefully they’re going to be more comedy-drama. The problem I’m having is trying to sell people the ideas that I have, they say "Well, it’s a bit comedy-dramary" or "It’s a bit sit-commy", they don’t say "Oh, it’s about half way between the two."

If writing sitcoms meant I could never do live stuff again, or doing live stuff meant I couldn’t write sitcoms or plays, I wouldn’t do it all. If it was a case of doing only Richard, Not Judy or another job, I’d do another job because it would become too monotonous. The reason I’m doing this job is because I have freedom and variety.

Are there any people who you have worked with in the past who you would like to work with again?
I’d like to work with Chris Morris… Well we never really worked with Chris, we wrote for the others and he did his own thing. I'd like to work with him; I think he’s brilliant. I’m not that keen to work with Armando Iannucci again because I don’t think he acted very honorably with On The Hour when it went to The Day Today. I don’t think he’s as good as people think he is. I don’t really have any interest to work with him again. I’d like to work with Peter Baynham again. I’d like to write something for Steve Coogan, I would never like to work with Patrick Marber ever again.

Say something nasty about Patrick Marber.
Um, no.

Ah, go on.
No, you know, I just have no interest in him. I feel quite sorry for him. I think he is overrated.

Do you think that Steve Coogan can write for himself?
I think he could do. He’s better with a bit of help. I think he’s much funnier than Patrick Marber or Armando Iannucci. Pete Baynham is a really good person to write for him, for my money the best bits of I’m Alan Partridge were clearly written by him. But Steve Coogan is actually far more talented as a comedian than I think he realises himself, and a bit in or of the kind of Oxbridge thing. Ironically, he desperately wanted to be accepted by Armando and Patrick when I think those two men have both made their careers flying on his coattails.

Are there any definite plans to work with Pete Baynham?
There aren’t any definite plans to work with Pete, he’s very hard to tie down, and he’s very unreliable. So it’s very hard to work with him. I very much doubt that it will happen in the short term. It would be nice because we always have a really good laugh; we have tremendous fun with him.

We always ring him up leaving messages on his ansaphone. We have a game to try and leave the sickest ansaphone message, which is always good fun. Perhaps one day we’ll release those as a record, except we haven’t recorded any of them, and they are much to offensive to ever go out for public broadcast or even for me to tell you them.

What do you think of Tom Binns?
He’s a lovely boy. He’s much funnier than Tim Clark ever was on Under And Moon.

And you see his cock in a sketch we did on Fist of Fun. He was in a shower and accidentally you see his cock so it’s worth getting out, he’s got quite a big cock. And he’s got such a big cock that when the bloke who was in charge of checking stuff saw it he said he thought the might have an erection. So the film had to be sent to Manchester to a special place where they measure the angle of blokes cocks. So they had to measure the angle to check it wasn’t erect and it wasn’t erect. Tom Binns has a big cock. We don’t know because it wasn’t erect, maybe when it gets erect it gets smaller.

Do you think that the Internet could ever be a feasible forum for comedy?
Yeah, I think it will. I think it will take over the world above all in entertainment. As soon as it becomes more sophisticated it will be very popular. I don’t think it will ever take over live comedy though.

But who can predict the future? A hundred years ago, who could have predicted there’d be television and films and stuff like that. No one. Well, they could have predicted films because they just about were but… Imagine.

Would you do more live stuff on the Net?
Yeah. We just don’t understand… anything. We don’t understand computers or that, but if we are just told to do something we can do it. I really like the Net in terms of getting reactions from fans and communicating with fans, so we are more into it than anyone else in comedy terms.

Do you have anything really nice to say about Chris Morris that I can quote you on?
Um. Chris Morris is, ur, one of the greatest comedy performers of the late Twentieth Century and he must be always be allowed to carry on working or the world will be a worse place.

Is satire dead?
No. It’s just changing a bit, and in a good way. And even old bad satire is certainly still with us unfortunately, clanking satire. As if you see the film Wag The Dog, or if you watch Rory Bremner you will see. I don’t like Friday Night Armistice, which I think, is old satire and is a bit clanking, but what we’re doing is silly but still satirical, as satirical as the most heavy handed impression of John Majors by Rory Bremner ever will be. I think things are turning from political satire to social satire. Things like Spitting Image and Rory Bremner aren’t really satires anyway, there just kind of – ‘a politician has this one aspect, I’ve noticed he has a large arse and I’m going to do jokes about that’ and to me that isn’t satire. I think there always will be stuff like Henry Fielding and Swift who do stuff and that’s great.

I think Chris Morris is subtle and clever because you’re coming at it from a different angle, and actually getting involved in the event itself, which is the really beautiful thing about Chris Morris. Which Mark Thomas occasionally manages to understand but on the whole doesn’t. Morris isn’t commentating on the stuff he does, the problem with people like Mark Thomas and Rory Bremner for me is that they are partly commentating in their own voice. Even when Rory Bremner is doing an impression, you can see Rory Bremner’s smug face behind it going, "Yes. You see what I’m doing." But you never get that with Chris Morris. I think the style of comedy will always change.

I think that people will always do comedy about things, and that’s what satire is.

Interview and transcription by John Walker. Source - "Glebe's Thrift Funnel.