Surreal one-liners and juvenile humour abound in this look at the early, anarchic days of Stewart Lee and Richard Herring
The Guardian, Friday 3 February 2012
"It's not as good as I remember it," says the Stewart Lee quote on the front of this box set, no doubt prompting shops up and down the country to reinforce their doors for fear of being crushed by marauding punters blinded by such giddy hype. The quote, however, sums up Fist of Fun's appeal perfectly not in the sense that it's no good, but that it trades on exactly this kind of cynical, studenty humour.
Fist of Fun was Stewart Lee and Richard Herring's first TV outing, airing on BBC2 in 1995 and sometimes notching up 3 million viewers a week, according to the reams of added commentary included here. Yet it's never had a DVD release before and has gained something of a cult reputation, largely down to the standing of its creators: Lee in particular, who went on to co-write Jerry Springer: The Opera before reinventing himself as one of the best modern standups around.
For many, the appeal of the show, which combined sketches and standup, will be largely of the nostalgia trip variety. Lee and Herring arrived at a time when comedy was dubbed "the new rock'n'roll" (unlike now, when Mumford and Son's success is proving that rock'n'roll is the new comedy) and Fist of Fun traded on this notion while simultaneously mocking it. So you'd get the obligatory loud shirts, dizzying camera angles and apologies flashing up onscreen explaining that Bill Oddie wasn't in any way sexually excited by birds, but you'd also get Herring revealing to the live audience that Lee's entire idea for the show was to "just copy Newman and Baddiel".
This art of being more knowing, yet ultimately less successful made Lee and Herring a sort of Blur to Newman and Baddiel's Oasis. And that ropey metaphor just about holds up to their fondness for variety and invention. Series one contains a mix of surreal one-liners ("I like my women like I like my coffee ... in a cup"), double-act banter and filmed sketches. There's also much juvenile humour and your enjoyment will rely partly on how much you laugh at jokes about gnats' chuffs. Sadly, as a 31-year-old man, I still laugh at jokes about gnat's chuffs.
Lee's True Fables, which seem to provide the most direct link between the chaotic nature of Fist of Fun and his standup, are especially enjoyable. His retelling of the tale of the hare and the tortoise (as the tortoise and the man) involves the man getting bladdered but still winning the race, because "the tortoise had failed to grasp the man or the race even existed being only a reptile it had little or no concept of competitive sports."
The show helped propel the careers of a long list of future comics and writers, including Rebecca Front and Al Murray. However, the claim in the sleeve notes that the price of the box set is alone justified by a previously unseen clip of Lee slapping Alistair McGowan dressed as Jesus might be stretching it somewhat. Nice as it is to see McGowan get slapped whatever he's wearing, I'm not sure the box set is worth £25. The bounty of extra material thrown in here to justify the price (scripts, a pilot episode, even incredibly boring press releases) adds new depths to the term "for completists only". But then Fist Of Fun spawned an obsessive, geeky kind of fan. And even though Lee and Herring have both progressed towards more thoughtful comedy, it's fascinating to trace their roots back to these early, anarchic days.