What if I told you there’s a TV show where the screenwriter of Borat is abused weekly while wearing a stained puce t-shirt, where BAFTA-winning Alistair McGowan pins down a man and repeatedly licks his face, where twenty-something-year-old Richard Herring swooned over magazine cutouts of Julia Sawalha several years before he was her boyfriend, and where the hosts were frightened while presenting after receiving bomb threats from Islamic fundamentalists? Hello, Fist of Fun season 1 DVD set!
In 1995, comedy writing duo Stewart Lee and Richard Herring created this bizarre sketch show that was both of its era and eerily revolutionary. Each episode began in front of a live studio audience (an audience which was largely spill-over of whoever couldn’t get into see other BBC tapings that day) where Lee and Herring popped out of crates, having just been delivered from storage, where they spent the week. Sometimes they were delivered to the wrong set or the wrong crates were delivered to theirs. (One time, Ant & Dec were delivered!) Herring played the happy-go-lucky funny one in obnoxiously loud shirts, while Lee played the straight man in a waistcoat, not unlike David Baddiel and Rob Newman. The two bantered on a stage designed to look like the basement of the BBC before they introduced a pre-recorded sketch that often included actors like Rebecca Front, Kevin Eldon, Ben Moor, or Al Murray. Ahead of the internet, but not unllike many 90s TV shows, they solicited letters from viewers, which resulted in a regular feature called The Gallery, where they’d show off some of their favorite items sent to them in the post. These days, Richard Herring is still ahead of the curve, connecting with fans on social media, podcasting, and Kickstarter, whereas Stewart Lee has gone in the other direction, avoiding all social media platforms and criticizing his fans for downloading his material illegally.
Content-wise, Lee and Herring were given more freedom than is customary, largely because, despite viewing figures of two and a half million, no one at the studio really cared about the show, and it’s possible not every episode was screened. They got away with saying “twat” more times than allowed, among other things, like a story where Lee criticizes Jesus for dressing up as sick people to trick him. (They did have to cut out the shot where Lee slaps Jesus across the face.) For this, Islamic fundamentalists sent a threat to blow up the BBC. If you watch episode three, you’ll see Herring is a little on edge.
Peter Baynham appears in each episode as Pete, the most unhygienic man alive. Although repulsive, Pete gets sympathy from his audience, largely because of the abuse he suffers from Lee and Herring who are always insulting him, throwing stuff at him, and allowing the stage hands to smash up his home. It’s shocking to realize that this is the man who went on to co-write Borat and is one of the most sought after script punch-uppers in Hollywood.
Another reoccurring character is Simon Quinlank, played by Kevin Eldon, who was also the show’s warm up act. Simon is a hobbyist and gives 101 courses on each of his off-beat hobbies, like doing pencil rubbings of priests’ bums. Another of Quinlank’s hobbies is smashing eggs, a sketch that begins in a grocery store and ends in a lab smashing human embryos. Lee feels squeemish about this sketch and wonders why they were able to get away with it. He also theorizes because Eldon chants Buddhist mantras each day, his memorization skills are extraordinarily good, allowing him to memorize long, fast-paced monologues. Although there are a few of these types of sketches that reoccur from episode to episode, they are not so regular as to become cult hits, like what you might see on Little Britain. There aren’t really catchphrases, though there are certainly recurring jokes. For example, Stew will often correct Rich by saying, “What you’ve done there is you’ve confused [A] with [B].”
The most surreal element of this show is that Herring had a crush on Ab Fab actress Julia Sawalha. In one episode, for
some reason, Herring’s father is played by a sinewy hunk of meat and eyeballs in a jar of vinegar, and he gives the jar a tour of the set. He approaches the board where he’s pinned up magazine clippings of Sawalha and introduces his father-in-a-jar to his “girlfriend” Julia Sawalha. A few years later, Herring and Sawalha were a couple, even though she had no idea he’d done these sketches about her. A friend later whispered it to her at a party, and when she visited Herring’s family, she asked if they had a copy of Fist of Fun. So, after Herring introduced his father to his girlfriend Julia Sawalha, they all sat down on the sofa and watched Herring introduce his father-in-a-jar to his “girlfriend” Julia Sawalha roughly six years previous. The relationship lasted eighteen months.
This article isn’t a proper review because this is more a look at the artifact that is the DVD, but if I had to recommend anything, I’d say the funniest piece of season 1 is Alistair McGowan as a vampire, pinning Herring to the floor and licking his face, even when the camera isn’t on him. You can see Herring’s genuine agony. To think, McGowan went on to lead BBC’s top comedy program for four years and receive an Olivier nomination. A sketch called “Urban Man” features a cast of five or six male comedians run around in their underpants outside like they’re animals. They told viewers that they could write in to claim the actual underpants used in the sketch and many of them did. There’s also the classic sketch starring Sally Phillips, “The Girl Who Smelt of Spam.”
The Fist of Fun season 1 DVD (region zero/PAL) is available on Go Faster Stripe and comes with not only the six episodes, but also nine commentary tracks, the Lee and Herring Live Show, a feature on 90s Nostalgia, the unbroadcast pilot, and studio rushes. You should feel lucky that Richard Herring is so obsessed with his own mythology that all of these documents exist: on the DVD-ROM that comes with the First of Fun season 1 set, there are pages and pages of fact sheets, flyers and advertisements, scripts, photos and cartoons, and much much much much more. If anyone wants to write a pop culture book on the history of Lee and Herring (and hell, if you don’t, I bloody well will), you’ve got your work cut out for you.