Comedy: Two men and some jokes
Stewart Lee and Richard Herring have done Edinburgh for more than 15 years, much of it as a double-act. As both launch solo stand-up shows there, they each tell tales on the other
Herring on Lee
The comedian Simon Munnery best summed up my erstwhile double-act partner thus: Â“Stewart Lee, who isnÂ’t as clever as he thinks he is Â— but then, who is that clever?Â” ThereÂ’s no doubt that Stewart has a keen and provocative intelligence, but, outwardly at least, he has an almost religious faith in the infallibility of his opinions Â— even when that opinion is about something like which type of music is best, which some might consider to be personal taste rather than discernible fact.
Annoying in real life (not least because he is so often proved right), he is hilarious on stage, where he maintains his air of superiority without being punched because he treats his audience as if they are (almost) as clever as him. He refuses to dumb down and fastidiously avoids the crowd-pleasing clichĂ©s favoured by lesser comics. Crucially, beneath the bravado, he has an endearing, almost accidental fragility, probably because he is the ultimate victim of his own rigorous intellect.
For him, ethical consistency is more important than anything. Thus he argues that Osama Bin Laden is preferable to Ben Elton, because at least he has stayed constant in his beliefs. Anyone who has witnessed the transformation of Elton from spangly suited socialist to Andrew-Lloyd-Webber-collaborating culture whore must surely agree. Yet the routine also reveals StewartÂ’s own Achilles heel: the fear that he might be considered a sellout himself. It is as if he believes that everything he does will be judged by some anonymous, ethereal jury comprising his coolest peers. Thus, the mainstream success of his own foray into musical theatre, Jerry Springer Â— The Opera, is more of a concern than a delight to him.
He neednÂ’t fret. While We Will Rock You was cynically commercial (and would have succeeded had it starred a mute man who did nothing but defecate on stage, provided that every five minutes they played a Queen song), Jerry Springer is a hilarious, shocking satire of modern-day culture and is life-affirming to all but the most blinkered of Christian fanatics.
In pursuit of integrity, Stewart is a man who seems prepared to cut off his face to spite his nose. Justly indignant when clueless executives cancelled our television series, he openly declared that he would never work for the BBC again. Even though they hadnÂ’t recognised his greatness, he punished them by withdrawing the services that they didnÂ’t want Â— a pyrrhic victory of some magnitude that can only increase your admiration for this perfect fool. Ultimately, he went back on his word, but with a televised version of Springer that not only proved that his self-belief was justified, but that also led to death threats against those hated BBC fat cats (not the same ones who had slighted him, but, in a way, that makes it more satisfying).
Stewart is at his happiest (and best) in the autonomous world of stand-up. After a couple of years in the wilderness, he has returned with increased vigour and an appealing new playfulness (which is much truer to the real Stewart, whom I so clearly love and hate). He is now actually as good as he believed himself to be 10 years ago. In another 10 years, he might be as good as he thinks he is now. Alas, then only Stephen Hawking will be clever enough to understand him.
When he is on his deathbed, I am convinced that the ethereal jury will appear before him, throw back their hoods and reveal that all 12 of them have the Stewart Lee face (though possibly only the noses will remain), and he will expire saying: Â“Ah, no wonder you were never satisfied.Â”
Lee on Herring
More than any performer I have known, Richard Herring needed to perform Â— or, as his mother might call it, show off. He is an attention-seeker, and has assiduously cultivated a sinister band of loyal readers via his compulsively readable weblog, while at the same time trying to give off an air of nonchalant indifference to his professional status.
Despite RichardÂ’s claims not to be interested in fame, he will do almost anything to get noticed, and is now friends with Jonathan Aitken as a result of appearing on a poor- quality reality-television rowing show with him. But you must not judge Richard by the company he keeps. In fact, you must not judge Richard at all. You do not know him. Neither do I, really, I now realise, writing this. He seems nice. He gave me a bootleg of the band Television for my birthday in 1987.
I think we first met as students in a cricket pavilion in late 1986, but Richard says it was in a Wimpy. We wrote comedy sketch shows together for the next 10 years, on and off. As a teenager, Richard would do or say anything for a laugh, irrespective of social consequences, physical risk or artistic value, and this was often very funny. We moved to London together in 1989 to try and write stand-up. I quickly did well on the live circuit. Richard got ground down and quit after six months. The world wasnÂ’t ready for a shouting Somerset Weeble.
Richard seemed to go too far, too fast, for audiences to accommodate, although many of the apparently unpalatable and bewilderingly stupid things that he did on stage at the time are now standard moves.
A prophet is without honour in the pubs of south London, and so Richard made his living for the next decade as a hugely prolific and hard-working scriptwriter and as half of BBC2Â’s largely forgotten, mid-1990s double act Lee & Herring.
In the past few years, Richard has been doing thoroughly researched and exactingly written theatrical monologues, although these prevented him from dev-eloping the distinct on-stage persona that is forged in the white heat of stand-up. Others from his immediate circle Â— such as me and Al Murray Â— had already utilised many of the little riffs that circled our collective consciousness, and so, rather unfairly, Richard sometimes sounded derivative and never really found the way to express those aspects of his personality that genuinely make him hilarious Â— namely, his gift for inappropriate behaviour.
When we were joined at the hip in the mid-1990s, I found this trait embarrassing. But last year, we were watching Desmond Dekker while standing next to the bassist from Primal Scream. Â“This is what you want to play,Â” Richard told him, Â“proper music, not stupid noise like you do.Â” I found his audacity as funny as I did when we were young and stupid.
When I first saw Richard doing proper stand-up this year, his extended routine about yoghurt was the purest distillation of Richard Herring I have encountered Â— irritating, relentless, pathetic, petty, pedantic, arrogant, embarrassing, pointless and endlessly funny. Freed from the constraints of his more structured shows, he is allowed by stand-up to move towards the comic persona that he should always have had: that of an unselfconscious, joyfully annoying idiot. In a world full of cool stand-up hipsters, Richard reminds us that comedians are also allowed to be ridiculous.
Stewart Lee Â— 90s Comedian is at Smirnoff Underbelly, Edinburgh, until August 29
Richard Herring Â— Someone Likes Yoghurt! is at the Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh, until August 29