ARTS The men who know

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The Independent Culture
REN & STIMPY, Callard & Bowser, Captain & Tennille: the importance of the double act in our cultural history is already hard to overstate. Stewart Lee and Richard Herring are determined to make it even more difficult. If you don't listen to the radio, you probably won't have heard of them, but the TV dbut of their bed- situationist comedy show, Fist of Fun, is about to bring Lee and Herring's unique brand of cerebral juvenilia to a wider audience.

In the best double-act tradition, they make an odd couple. Chain-smoking Lee has the sort of dangerous good looks most college common-room existentialists can only dream about. Twinkly Herring on the other hand is a self-confessed "small, fat, middle-class white bloke from Cheddar in Somerset". He may idolise Ice-T but - as his comedy partner is quick to remind him - Ice- T's dad was not a caravan-owning headmaster called Keith.

Lee and Herring ought to know each other pretty well by now. They've been working together for nine years - climbing onto the satirical conveyor belt straight from college to write for Weekending, Spitting Image, On the Hour, and then their own shows: Lionel Nimrod's Inexplicable World for Radio 4, and three series of Fist of Fun, one of the few success stories of Radio 1's new regime. The unique participatory approach of this last show involves mobilising listeners en masse to scour the UK for the charity event that raises the least money. "The Lee & Herring child army" - Fist of Fun's core audience of young people with time on their hands - are also encouraged to deluge unsuspecting local radio personalities with sacks of motiveless fan mail.

So how does this deadly teenage guerilla force feel about its 27-year- old generals? "We've got some stalwart fans who are impressed by us," Herring says, "but not many. We send them stuff we've got lying around in the office and they write back in a slightly ironic way and say, `Oh thanks - I've got a piece of rubbish that you've touched'. Of the 70 letters they claim to receive each week during the radio series, Herring continues, "one would be crap, and the rest would understand where we were coming from and do the sort of stuff that we would do, a lot of it better actually". A portrait of Queen guitarist Brian May made entirely from sweets is singled out for particular praise.

The publicity for the TV version of Fist of Fun boasts: "Anyone over 14 years old will have to set their video and watch it a second time in slow motion." This sounds rather ominous. In fact the look of the show is post-Wayne's World ramshackle, rather than MTV hi-tech, and Lee insists that "There aren't any jokes you have to read the Melody Maker to understand". Fist of Fun will be worth videoing though; first because it's funnier second time round; second because that's the only way to read the anti-social blip-verts ("Cut your father out of family photographs") and freeze the occasional flash-frames of Richard and Stewart photographed naked in the latter's garden.

The roots of Lee and Herring's comedy lie in gentle mockery - "Today in Somerset electricity arouses only suspicion, not fear" - though a high degree of linguistic self-awareness is another vital element: "You've misunderstood the art of simile, haven't you?" They chide each other. "What you've done is mix up being like something with being what it actually is." Beneath their jovial pranksterism lurks a keen moral sense, most controversially displayed in Lee's indignant assaults on "the hypocrisy of Christ". Other Lee and Herring comedy staples include "saying something and then looking a bit embarrassed", and "saying yes but obviously meaning no - we're really good at that".

Transferring a finely balanced show like Fist of Fun from radio to TV does raise a number of problems. A sense of community is an easy thing to lose, and - as Danny Baker has learnt - what sounded like a bit of harmless fun on the radio can look like mindless generational triumphalism on TV. But Lee and Herring have a disarming ability to anticipate criticism, appreciating the irony of working 16 hours a day for months on end to perfect a slacker TV show. "The first series is already slightly dishonest," Herring admits, "in that when we first thought of the radio show we were 23 to 24 and didn't really see a way out of living in semi-employment in shared houses in south London. People who were with us from the start will be annoyed if we go on pretending to live like that . . . if our lives change, hopefully our material will change with it."

"We don't want to be like Ben Elton," Herring insists, "doing stuff about how the chocolate machines on the Tube don't work, and you know he hasn't been on the Underground for years because they all do work now."

For the moment, the thrill of watching their warped imaginings take three-dimensional shape - "all these people sitting round a table seriously discussing how we're going to get an ant to act" - is as fresh as it can be. "It's like being God," Herring beams, "you write something down and it happens, even if that means 30 people getting up at six o'clock in the morning to go to Richmond Park and hiring stuntmen, horses and a milkfloat."

Ben Thompson

! `Fist of Fun' is at 9pm on Tuesdays from 11 April, BBC2.