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Why not watch Fist of Fun?

11 Oct 10 | Re: Influential double act

I was never into the pioneering comedy double act Lee and Herring the first time round. Maybe five years ago, though, I was lucky enough to see Lee’s live act, which was great, and then last year I watched and enjoyed all of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle on the BBC. I also saw Richard Herring in a book reading slot at the Latitude festival this year, and he was very good too.

I thought I’d go back and educate myself about their earlier work, and as luck would have it all the episodes of Fist of Fun are linked from Lee’s website.

Now, I’ve quite enjoyed what I’ve watched so far. As I expected, I can see bits that have clearly influenced a wide range of British comedy, and other bits that even now look surprisingly innovative - in particular, the bits that flash up too fast to read seem like an ingenious way to reward superfans for videoing and freeze-framing the show, while at the same time subtly inviting viewers to become those superfans by making clear that they’ll get added value for doing so (though of course in today’s world Sky+ would allow viewers to get the same value, at least superficially, with minimal extra effort). But I’m almost sorry to say that at the same time, the programme isn’t really my kind of thing.

To explain: I have always preferred comedy with a warm heart at the centre of it, which Fist of Fun doesn’t generally have. It’s a little too merciless in its mockery of certain subjects, which can tend to elicit sympathy rather than agreement even when the mockery has a good point behind it (which in Lee and Herring’s case, it usually does). It ought to be possible, in fact it is possible, to be edgy and clever and right but still keep a certain level of empathy and even affection for your targets; this makes the material easier to agree with and enjoy and avoids the cheapness of just saying ‘ha ha, these people are stupid, look at the stupid inferior people’. Lee and Herring’s treatment of Somerset is a good exception - because Herring is from there, they seem more able to make jokes about it while still putting it on an equal footing and recognising that it isn’t all bad.

Fist of Fun also has a tendency to use characters who make you feel sad rather than want to laugh. Peter Baynham’s loser lifestyle expert is a good example - the material is clever and inventive and quite funny, but I don’t really have the stomach for it. Plus the character is made obviously unbelievable by the conceit of having his bedsit actually in the studio, so Baynham has the rug pulled out from under him in that no matter how much conviction he gives the character, the audience know that it is beyond the point of absurdity and so can’t relate on a human level. Plus I believe there were people on The Word at about the same time doing comparably demeaning things for real, so the character is left looking tame by comparison as well as unbelievable.

Beside all that, there is a lot good about Fist of Fun and it is worth investigating if you haven’t seen it before. Particularly interesting is the way Lee and Herring’s interactions subvert the traditional double act formula. In their act, Lee is the straight man and Herring is the one who gets everything wrong and messes it up and goes off on tangents. However, while normally the laughs come from the messing up and the tangents, Herring is generous enough to hand most of the laughs back to Lee, the straight man in traditional terms, who repeatedly corrects, slaps down and belittles his partner’s antics instead of being undermined by them. Very clever.

Posted by NEIL PETARK at 13:00

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