COMEDY / Trivia junkies: Are young funsters Herring and Lee the new Newman and Baddiel? Please God, spare them that, says James Rampton

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The Independent Culture
It had to happen. Barely a month after they were rumoured to have split, the phrase 'the new Newman and Baddiel' is being bandied about. Stewart Lee and Richard Herring - the afflicted duo - may be a young, male, Oxbridge double act, but the similarities with Newman and Baddiel end there.

Where Newman and Baddiel are broody and moody, Lee and Herring are skittish, silly even. Fist of Fun, their Radio 1 show, featured appearances by Dale Winton from Supermarket Sweep and Raj Patel, their local newsagent, as well as a petition to get Geoffrey reinstated to Rainbow. On their Radio 4 comedy, Lionel Nimrod's Inexplicable World, they pondered such philosophical conundrums as 'Whatever happened to The Likely Lads?'. Caricatures of Norris McWhirter, Heinz Wolf and Peter Fenn and his Hammond organ appeared. Ra-Ra-Rasputin, Herring's Edinburgh show, extolled the joys of Boney M.

Lee and Herring mainline TV trivia. 'We take any subject from Rainbow to Nietzsche and treat it with equal respect,' says Herring. 'We don't take the piss, we celebrate. We take Geoffrey from Rainbow very seriously indeed.' With the timing that comes naturally to a double act, Lee chips in, 'We don't want to be like John Sessions, whose audience are laughing at their own cleverness.'

All of which necessarily makes them popular with students. They are a big noise on the college-based National Comedy Network. Sitting in a suitably dingy, undergrad-friendly caff, the duo are wary of transient success. 'We don't want to get to the Newman and Baddiel level of being dismissed as the Take That of comedy, as a purely youth phenomenon,' Lee insists.

It's hard not to be seen as a youth phenomenon when you're only 25 (Herring) and 26 (Lee) and are scarcely out of college boots. A year after graduating, in 1989, they were writing enough gags for Weekending and Spitting Image to chuck in their jobs (Lee was researching the history of gardening at Kew and Herring was finding lost invoices for a lighthouse manufacturing company in Brentford). They received a British Comedy Award for their work on the radio news spoof, On the Hour, before getting their own shows, Lionel Nimrod and Fist of Fun - a title whose risque-ness has only penetrated the consciousness in the wake of the Julian Clary furore.

Over the years, they have evolved into 'a natural double act', according to Herring. 'It's not traditional in that there's no straight man or funny man - we're both funny men. It's more about the comedy of relationship rather than twanging each other's braces.' 'But we'll stop before it gets too much,' Lee warns. 'We used to have a motto pinned above the mantelpiece in a house we shared - 'familiarity breeds contempt'.' For the moment, they are working together on a television pilot for Fist of Fun. In Herring's words, it will be 'packed, the sort of show you have to video to get the full implications. Like Airplane, there will be four jokes per frame.'

Lee and Herring are original. Without resorting to commonplace comic observations - 'Isn't it irritating when . . . ?' - they locate humour in the humdrum. 'Monty Python would use funny names like Ethel Spunkrag,' Lee asserts. 'We find the name 'Ian' funny. If you concentrate on ordinary things long enough, they become funny. We know absolutely no jokes.'

Their act may be joke-less, but it still makes you laugh out loud. Perhaps in time it will even stop people saying, 'See that young male, Oxbridge double act. That's you, that is.'

Lee and Herring are appearing throughout this university term on the National Comedy Network: see below for details

(Photograph omitted)

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