Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Lee and Herring

One of the great mysteries of the British comedy circuit is the inexplicable failure of Stewart Lee and Richard Herring to become rich and famous. As a Britpop-era nineties double act, they had a massive cult following for a while. Lee's deadpan pedantry and Herring's childlike mock-idiocy, although designed as completely independent acts, meshed perfectly. They even had a show on BBC2 for a while, which for some reason never gets repeated. Here they are in their (televisual) heyday.

Television plus cult following plus talent plus critical acclaim ought to lead, you would think, to a successful long-term television career. In act, by the late nineties, they had split up and returned to solo work as stand-up comedians. And, despite continuing good reviews, they both vanished from television more or less completely.

In fairness, neither of them was ever going to be an entirely mainstream act. They were always a little too intellectual for the family entertainment slots, and their appeal was always primarily to people who enjoyed very abstract humour. A lot of their stuff is about dismantling and mocking lazy thinking, and a lot of the rest is about playing with structure. This isn't really what people are looking for on Saturday primetime. For a fair chunk of the population, it's not really what they're looking for, period. But that still leaves a fairly largely number of people who actually enjoy thinking.

Richard Herring is a very good stand-up comedian who has possibly been testing the limits of his audience a little bit over the last few years. His recent show Someone Likes Yoghurt was based largely on the joke of taking an essentially banal anecdote about yoghurt and stretching it out way beyond the bounds of rationality. Clearly this is not for everyone. This year's show is a lot more conventional than that; the notional theme is his fortieth birthday, which is a bit of a cliche. But as his persona was always based around his refusal to grow up, there's some actual material in there.

Questionable linking themes are a Fringe tradition because the show title has to be submitted in the spring (i.e., before most stand-up comedians have actually written any of the material), and there's a degree of that here. This isn't an all-time classic show, or necessarily the most interesting thing Herring's done, but it's still an hour of very good stand-up comedy.

Stewart Lee, meanwhile, is on one of the larger Underbelly stages - a tent in the form of an inverted cow which somebody no doubt thought was hilariously entertaining when E4 agreed to sponsor it. Much to his own surprise, Lee was declared the 41st best stand-up comedian of all time in a Channel 4 poll a few months back, decided by some bizarre and incomprehensible mechanism involving public votes, industry panellists, and the producers messing about with the results to reflect their own views. Recognising the sheer pointlessness of these lists, Lee has dutifully started billing himself as the 41st best stand-up comedian of all time, with a programme listing that helpfully points out that only four other acts at this year's Festival are officially better than him. And then names them, so that you can see them first.

Lee's meticulous, deliberate style isn't for everyone. He does a lot of comedy-about-comedy which might be too inside for audiences who aren't interested in the mechanics of stand-up. At two points in this show he spends up to ten minutes working a single joke, carefully dismantling every possible angle. It really shouldn't be possible to dissect the Del-Boy-falling-though-a-bar sketch at such inordinate length, and still be entertaining, but Lee can do it. He's an absolute master of pacing and exploring subtle variations on a simple idea. YouTube doesn't seem to have any excerpts from his recent shows that really illustrate what he can do with this sort of material, but here's an excerpt from last year's show, talking about the then-contemporary Joe Pasquale plagiarism story.

Not many stand-up comedians can get a laugh from the words "troubled by the possibility of duality of meaning." The man's a genius. See them both, but see Lee first. He's vital.