COMEDY

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The Independent Culture
Lee and Herring are at The Shepherd's Bush Empire (0181-740 7474) on 18 Dec

Compare comedians Stewart Lee and Richard Herring to just about anyone and you'll find yourself being given short shrift. They vehemently resist being labelled as New Lads. And they're utterly bored with the tag of the new Newman and Baddiel.

The pair, who first met at Oxford University 10 years ago, have been hitched up ever since Lee stumbled across Herring pogoing to the Sex Pistols. After university they shared a flat, fell into writing for Weekending and On the Hour, before arriving on BBC2 with Fist of Fun.

"I probably know Rich better than anyone I've ever been out with," Lee volunteers. "Although if you're going out with somebody and you have a bit of a row, there's always things you can do to make them see you really like them. Like sex things. But a lot of these options aren't open to us," he concludes in deadpan fashion. "We're hoping to explore them in the second decade of our relationship," Herring adds.

On-stage, they are effectively packaged as Mr Cool (Lee) and Mr Geek (Herring). Their act is reminiscent of the surreal ramblings of two blokes left propping up the student union bar. Not surprisingly, they're hugely popular with students.

From the outset, they have steadfastly refused to include certain types of standard comic material. Advertising or sitcom parodies together with political satire are all no-nos. "The jokes about John Major are based around three things. He's grey, he eats peas and he's got a funny voice," Herring explains. "It doesn't say anything."

Instead, with their mixture of the bizarre and blasphemous they have laid themselves open to accusations of puerility. "Just because we choose to treat things in a flippant way doesn't mean we're not clever," Herring insists.

"There are references to intellectual things because at the end of the day we are clever. I don't think people give us credit for how much work goes into the ideas. Anyone who says our material is stupid hasn't thought about it."

During their last TV series, one particular sketch centring on the Cubs, prompted several outraged calls. Their line on Christianity has also been perceived as disrespectful. On this tour they perform "All Things Bright and Beautiful" with the aid of Venn diagrams. "Any system of thought that says you're not allowed to question it needs to be questioned and made fun of," says Herring. Nevertheless, they do take time to respond to their critics. "We're not ignorant," Lee says. "If a Christian writes and says they don't like it, I always write back explaining I'm an atheist and telling them where they can get more literature on the subject."

Meanwhile, back to the thorny subject of labelling.

"If you're going to categorise us, I don't mind being compared to Morecambe and Wise," Herring declares. "We're a traditional double act with more swearing."

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