Not just for lau ghs

The comedy festival in Montreal is the scene of some heavy-duty schmoozing, as comedians Lee and Herring discovered recently
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The Independent Culture
Richard Herring is late for our interview in the bar at the Delta Hotel in Montreal. Naturally enough, he has been delayed by having to change out of a hawk costume. He had been wearing this for a schoolboy-humour cut-away after his double-act partner, Stewart Lee, had just said: "Rich has been watching me like a hawk." Boom boom.

Festival of Fun, their new series of ironic reports from the Just For Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal, is chock-full of such wilful stupidity.

There is a running gag about them trying to sneak out of the hotel without paying their bill. In another episode, Herring alludes to "an incident" last year at the Montreal Insectorium when "the police became involved". To be allowed back into Canada this year, he moans, "I had to sign a declaration saying I wouldn't go within six feet of any insect. But it's hard, Stew. They come flirting at you with their colourful wings..." Later on, Herring claims that "it's particularly difficult for me to resist their insecty charms here in Montreal because they buzz around with a French accent and it's romantic."

In a knowing reference to Morecambe and Wise, a pyjama-clad Lee and Herring present a lot of the series from a double bed. Although obviously not in the same class, Lee and Herring have other similarities with the archetypal TV double act. "Our stuff is about the relationship between the two of us," says Herring. "Anyone can relate to that - everyone has someone they argue with."

In their live act and on shows such as BBC2's Fist of Fun and This Morning with Richard Not Judy, they have shown they can bicker for Britain. Herring mentions a sitcom about two hostages that the BBC has commissioned from them. "We want to set it in one room, where two men are trapped and talking rubbish. People say, how will you spin it out into a series?, but there are endless possibilities. In his book about being a hostage, Brian Keenan talks about looking at an orange for a whole day because it was so vivid. In the sitcom Stewart's character will say `That orange is amazing', and then wake up the next morning to find that I've eaten it. You don't need lots of action with a double act."

Lee and Herring's brand of sophisticated childishness goes down well with the audiences in Montreal - particularly when they take the mickey out of the bilingual locals. On stage at the downtown Comedy Works Club, Herring announces that "heroin is dangerous. That's [adopts Inspector Clouseau-esque French accent] `heroine est dangereux', just in case you didn't understand."

The pair try to eschew formulaic "have you ever noticed?" humour. "It's always original stuff that makes me laugh," says Herring, "which is why I don't like a lot of the American comedians here. They just talk about their girlfriends and the difference between cats and dogs."

And there is certainly a great deal of that at Just For Laughs. Belying that title, comedy here is strictly business, and originality is not encouraged. During the fortnight of the biggest comedy festival in the world, Montreal plays host to a veritable vipers' nest of Hollywood execs (is that the right collective noun?). They slither around the venues in the hope of sinking their teeth into one of the 500 or so comedians who have come to Canada from all corners of the globe to perform a seven-minute showcase. The Hollywood hit-rate is pretty impressive. Over the past 16 years, such US sitcom giants as Roseanne, Jerry Seinfeld, Kelsey Grammer, David Hyde-Pierce, Tim Allen and Michael Richards have been snapped up at Just for Laughs. The thought of becoming "the new Seinfeld" is quite alluring for any up-and-coming stand-up.

Despite being courted by Hollywood's finest themselves, Lee and Herring view what they call the "meat market" with a sense of amused detachment in their Festival of Fun series. "Comedians have been sent here to be discovered and they can't risk a set longer than seven minutes," says Lee. "That depresses me. This is the way-in to TV, but it's also a failing of the system that the execs imagine there is any correlation between doing seven minutes of good stand-up and being good at anything else. The people from Hollywood are looking for someone who does seven minutes of material that could fit into a sitcom with their name in the title."

"There is no other festival where each comedian only does seven minutes," Herring persists. "It's like doing an advert for yourself. At least at the Edinburgh Festival, you can try different stuff out. Here it's the cynical thing of everyone schmoozing at the Delta bar. I tend to get drunk and be abusive to important people. The whole thing is so shallow. On the night, they say `you're great'. But the next day, you're back to being a nobody. In the series, we have this surreal thing that the whole Festival sends me mad, and I start believing that we actually live in this bed together. Stewart has to explain to me that it's a comic premise."

Other British comedians are equally bewildered by the Festival schmooze- athon. "I've been overdosing on it," says Sean Meo. "There's always some guy at three in the morning buzzing round this bar like a wasp trying to clinch some deal. But after 84 margueritas is not the best time to do it. Sitting in a bar buying drinks for someone who says he's the head of NBC is not my idea of fun."

Tim Vine, another British stand-up at the Festival, has also found the experience baffling. "I've been approached by a few people who want money for a cup of coffee, and I've told them to go away. I hope they weren't Hollywood moguls."

`Festival of Fun' is on Paramount Comedy Channel at 11pm, Mon to Thur and will be shown on C5 in the New Year. `This Morning with Richard Not Judy' returns to BBC2 in the spring

James Rampton