Picture the scene: it’s a gentle Sunday lunchtime in the late 1990s. Some dreary politics show has just finished on BBC One. The smell of roast potatoes wafts through the house. Grandma’s dozing in the armchair, a neighbour’s out washing their car, and the wholesome warbling of Radio 4 hangs in the air. Ahhh, Sunday.
Then you turn over to BBC Two, where a grown man wearing fake breasts is squirting milk into the face of a Prince William effigy. There’s also a quizzical human head-sized citrus fruit called the “Curious Orange”; a children’s cartoon about a gang of talking human organs; a Robbie Williams tattoo – actually a crude drawing of a face on a man’s gut – serenading an alien puppet with its belly button mouth; and more bestiality jokes than Grandma is generally used to hearing at Sunday lunchtime.
The programme was This Morning With Richard Not Judy, Stewart Lee and Richard Herring’s strange – but also strangely forgotten – live daytime TV-cum-sketch show, which debuted on 15 February 1998. The kind of material they slipped past the BBC at that time of day was unbelievable – and in these overly cautious, super-sensitive times, absolutely unthinkable – but they got away with it for the same reason that the show’s been largely forgotten. No one at the BBC was paying enough attention to care.
“We wanted everything to be a little bit warped,” Richard Herring tells me, “so if you were coming down from a hangover, or whatever you’d done the night before, it would freak you out. But I also thought no one would be looking out for bad language or subversive ideas at that time. We could sneak under the radar a bit. But I think it snuck under the radar so far that no one really knew about it.”
Lee and Herring had written for Chris Morris’ seminal radio show, On The Hour (which has led to a contentious point/running gag in the years since about their part in creating Alan Partridge), plus a number of their own radio shows. Their first TV break came with Radio 1-turned-BBC 2 show Fist of Fun, which ran for two series between 1995 to 1996.
It was originally Herring’s idea to do a skewed version of daytime TV; he’d even tried to schmooze light entertainment luminary Nick Owen into doing a show together. “I had to take him to the Ritz!” says Herring. “I’d always fancied that Sunday afternoon slot. I thought it was a great time to do comedy because people were hungover.
"I grew up on Tiswas and Banana Splits, these quite anarchic TV shows where you felt like anything could happen. I wanted to do an adult version of that – crazy stuff going on the studio, crazy characters, and then going to a cartoon. It was really my project, but we realised it was a good vehicle for Lee and Herring because Fist of Fun hadn’t been recommissioned. Stew kind of snuck in.”
This Morning With Richard Not Judy – or “TMWRNJ” as Herring called it – was performed at the 1994 Edinburgh festival, before it arrived on BBC Two in 1998, with a supporting cast that included musician and comedian Richard Thomas, comic performers Paul Putner, Trevor Lock, and Jo Unwin, and the actor Kevin Eldon. Emma Kennedy joined for Series 2, which aired in 1999.
As with Fist of Fun, it hung on the duo’s bantering, largely around Herring’s many sexual perversions – his “Corr Shrine” to Andrea Corr and proclivity for drinking the milk of unusual animals – and their sharp takedowns of whatever had been irritating them that week. Channel 5, panel show They Think It’s Over, Golden Grahams cereal, Chris Evans (“He’s a monster, Stew!”), Hale and Pace, Gail Porter, the National Lottery, and the BBC itself were all regular targets.
But the best bits were the show’s many regular features, most of which had their own (ludicrous) narrative arcs. They included “When Things Get Knocked Over, Spill, Or Fall Out Of Cupboards”, a twist on the low-rent US disaster shows that clogged up satellite channels, but also a tragic running gag about a divorced dad in the midst of a drunken, beetroot-flinging breakdown; a kids’ puppet show called Histor’s Eye, about a time-travelling crow and his egg pun-obsessed sidekick Plinny (“I loved Stewart as Plinny,” says Herring. “I think it’s the funniest thing he’s ever done.”); the “Unusual Priest”, whose eccentric sermons mocked stuffy religious programming; a recurring sketch about Jesus and his disciples; the “Organ Gang” cartoon; weekly appearances from Nostradamus, reimagined as a Welsh woman infatuated with Herring; and the Curious Orange, who became a flesh-eating, Tennent’s-swigging psycho-fruit.
Daytime TV had been ripe for lampooning, but while contemporaries such as The Friday Night Armistice and Brass Eye went for the jugular by sending up serious TV formats for a more aggressive style of satire, the perceived coziness of daytime TV allowed Lee and Herring to push boundaries unchecked.
“We were hiding behind the veneer of being silly,” says Herring. “But actually we were doing stuff that was quite subversive and satirical. Loads of people couldn’t believe what we were getting away with. We were saying things like ‘t___’, and making allusions to having sex with animals. There was all sorts of rude stuff in there. As long as you didn’t actually swear, then no one can really complain about it. But if you’re putting in subversive ideas, that’s a different thing.”
There is, of course, more to pushing comedic boundaries than slipping crafty swearwords and sexual innuendo onto daytime television; the show’s most progressive idea was to deconstruct the form of comedy itself, now the crux of Stewart Lee’s self-referential meta routines.
They broke character, toyed with and reversed the dynamic of their straight man/funny man partnership, and drew attention to their mistakes and rubbish props; they also attacked the comedy establishment with a series of skits parodying the 1980s alternative comedy circuit, and a recurring segment called “Lazy Comedy Slags”, ridiculing the tired pull back-and-reveal gags of weak stand-up comics.
“I remember going to shops with mum and needing a wee, but there were no toilets so I did it in the gutter,” said Lee, giving an example of the predictable set up. “28-years-old I was!”, only for them to dupe the viewer with the ultimate call-back, setting up the exact same joke themselves later in the show. And it worked, every time. (It’s also a line you’ll occasionally hear them both still use.)
“We were very rigorous in the way that Stew is acclaimed for being now,” says Herring. “We were obsessed with comedy and the format of comedy, and trying to turn things around to make them more interesting. It was with proviso that we’d also be funny. You can do comedy that takes the piss out of comedy, but you also have to be funny yourself.”
The writing process was down to the wire, but the schedule allowed them to quickly identify what the audience was responding to, and the gags – even ones that haven’t stood the test of time – have a fresh, straight-of-the-page sting.
“We’d finish recording at 1pm on a Sunday,” says Herring, “then go out and drink vodka and Red Bull for the rest of the day and get blottoed, start writing again on Tuesday, and rehearse Thursday and Friday… it was a treadmill that was hard to get off.”
The BBC gave them the creative freedom to get on with it – “We were sort of allowed to do whatever we wanted to do,” laughs Herring – but there was little support for the show. Promises about properly trailing the show never came through; the series was continually interrupted by sport (though there was better coverage on Sky Sports, as Stewart Lee would remind the viewers live on air); and the show’s Friday evening repeat, a more natural home for Lee and Herring’s comedy, was shifted around in the schedules.
“We’re not on again next week,” said Herring at the end of one episode, “because the BBC don’t want to upset Channel 4 by providing effective competition to Dawson’s Creek and TFI Friday.”
“Partly why we got away with it was because no one was remotely interested in it,” said Lee, speaking on Herring’s Leicester Square Podcast in 2015. “No even watched it to check what was going out. And when it stopped, no one noticed.”
Jane Root became controller of BBC Two, she didn’t rate TMWRNJ, even though it was starting to catch on, which, watching it now, is obvious from the audience reaction. There’s a sense of bewilderment about the first few episodes; by the end, the audience are fully on board.
The final episode aired in June 1999 – a raucous 45 minutes that ties up every running gag from the series, knowing full well this was TMWRNJ’s last hurrah – marking an end for both the show and Lee and Herring’s partnership.
“I feel like with a third series some of the characters could have had that Little Britain style resonance,” says Herring. “But if we’d had that success it would have destroyed both of us in different ways. I think Stew wouldn’t have coped with the spotlight, and I’d have gone nuts in a different way.”
Like Fist of Fun, TMWRNJ was never released by the BBC on VHS or DVD. The duo later released Fist of Fun on DVD themselves, after paying for the rights, but similar plans for TMWRNJ collapsed.
“It’ll have to live on through YouTube and in people’s minds,” says Herring (and he’s right, its survived in crackly, taped-off-TV videos posted on YouTube). “It’s a little secret thing, and that’s what’s good about it. You wouldn’t like it if it had become successful and no one would feel as fondly about it.”
In hindsight, it’s almost Young Ones-esque: an anarchic style of comedy that spoke directly to a young audience, but in the guise of a dusty, older generation’s TV format, influencing a generation of comedians-in-the-making.