Vic and Bob are bringing their Big Night Out back to the BBC. The Christmas special, which will be followed by a four-part series, includes a jaunty song about trousers, a skit on First Dates, a punch-up, Ed Sheeran, some “observation comedy” and a baker from Wisconsin selling “perfuffle” cakes. You should see the stuff that didn’t make the edit, says Vic. “There were some spectacular moments, like when we tried to get a horse on the stage.”
A horse? “We wanted to look under it and see what was going on,” says Bob, casually. “But the horse was a bit frisky. He wouldn’t go on.” He gestures at the BBC Comedy offices opposite. “You’d think there’d be someone out there who deals with horses.”
“We’ll say, ‘what shall we write a song about? Blackberries? Chinese parrots?’ Then Jim says ‘trousers’ and we both laugh our heads off”
It is 30 years – or thereabouts – since Vic Reeves (real name Jim Moir) and Bob Mortimer teamed up, so when the BBC asked them for a one-off special, they decided to go back to their roots. Their first television show, Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out, a surreal spoof of a variety show, debuted on Channel 4 in 1990. Moir was Vic Reeves, the flamboyantly controlling compere; Mortimer was his sidekick, playing all manner of roles from The Man with the Stick to Morrissey the consumer monkey.
Vic and Bob’s Big Night Out brings back some of that show’s key elements – grumpy Graham Lister, bizarro talent segment, Novelty Island and the closing song – and mixes it with a dash of The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer and a hint of Shooting Stars. Basically, it’s half an hour of peculiar sketches, wigs, bickering and unsettling props.
“Everyone’s a one-trick pony aren’t they?” says Mortimer.
“It always ends up being the same ballpark,” says Moir. “We’ve only ever done what we like. We do what we enjoy doing because then it looks like you’re enjoying yourself. We are enjoying ourselves.”
When they’re writing, Mortimer drives from his house in Tunbridge Wells to Moir’s near Ashford for 9.30am and they work through until 2pm. “Just talking and shouting,” says Mortimer. “We’ll say, ‘what shall we write a song about? Blackberries? Chinese parrots?’ Then Jim says ‘trousers’ and we both laugh our heads off.”
“Learn your lines, no autocue, no retakes. Just 3, 2, 1, go. It feels like a nice challenge. If you really, really are funny, you’ve got 30 minutes”
When they shot the original Big Night Out, their scripts were three pages long, they wouldn’t let the cameramen see them in advance and they’d film the whole show in 30 minutes. “We got into trouble for it,” says Mortimer.
“We’re not telly people. We didn’t know the rules and naively we wanted everyone – the cameramen and so on – to laugh when they heard it on the night. We genuinely didn’t want to give the jokes away.”
They wanted the new show to feel as immediate as the old days so they filmed it at the intimate Hospital Club in London and hired Mat Whitecross (known for music documentaries such as Oasis: Supersonic) “to shoot it live, like a pop concert.” It took 50 minutes from start to finish; most television comedy shows take hours.
“It’s dreary, innit,” says Mortimer. “We guess that we’re the only ones stupid enough, who have the balls? The balls, Jim?”
“The gusto”, corrects Moir.
“The gusto, to do an underwritten show – go out in front of an audience and just film it. Learn your lines, no autocue, no retakes. Just 3, 2, 1, go. It feels like a nice challenge. If you really, really are funny, you’ve got 30 minutes.”
It’s an ethos that’s served them well so far. Ever since Mortimer, then a lawyer, was one of seven audience members at a comedy night in the Goldsmiths Tavern in New Cross, where he watched Moir tap-dance in a Bryan Ferry mask with planks tied to his feet. A couple of weeks later, Moir got Mortimer up on stage and presented him with a giant cheque for £8m made out to “ill kids”. They started writing together the next day.
Their success was stellar – their audience doubling by the week. “If you were going to see Jim,” says Mortimer. “You were going back next week, and taking someone with you.” The show went from the room above the pub to the room downstairs, to the Albany Empire where they were spotted by Alan Yentob and Michael Grade who put them on Channel 4.
“The comedy circuit kind of resented us because they were slogging away,” says Moir. “We never fitted in anywhere – not by design, that’s just what we thought was funny. We’ve never copied anyone else. Originally from having a lack of knowledge about what comics do and then realising, we’re onto a winner here, because no-one’s doing anything like this.”
“Now there are a lot of young lasses and lads and they’re quite intense – there isn’t that joy. They want to get on telly and on panel shows. Our motivation came from having a laugh”
And they still aren’t. “We’re the only double act that is left,” says Moir. Ant and Dec? “They’re more like presenters. They just read off an autocue and someone writes it all.” Mitchell and Webb? “They’re just actors in some sketches,” says Moir. “We’ve written and learned it and then we veer off. There’s no-one at all doing that.”
The key to their success, says Mortimer, is that they got into comedy to have fun, rather than a career. “It was just a way of us having a nice night out. The route for two blokes in a pub in Deptford to being on telly didn’t exist – maybe for Oxbridge types, but that wasn’t the end game.
“It feels now that there are a lot of young lasses and lads and they’re quite intense – there isn’t that joy. They want to get on telly and on panel shows, they want to get an Edinburgh show together. Our motivation came from having a laugh.”
“What do modern comedians do?” asks Moir. “Do they just tell long, rambling stories? And you occasionally get a laugh?”
“It’s the weirdest thing, Vic. I’m seeing some famous comics now who want to be gurus,” marvels Mortimer.
They have absolutely zero interest in incorporating a message, or even a nod to current affairs, in their comedy. “I have never in my life met anyone as apolitical as Jim,” says Mortimer. “I seem to remember on the day of the Brexit vote you weren’t aware of it. I asked how you voted and you were like, ‘What for?’ It’s not a bad place to be, really.”
“We come from the school of if you’re going to do comedy, we want to cram as many laughs as we can. One every five minutes wouldn’t do me. We want one every five seconds”
“I’m only interested in fine art,” says Moir. “We would never put anything political in what we do because I don’t think it’s the right thing to do.
“We come from the school of if you’re going to do comedy, we want to cram as many laughs as we can. One every five minutes wouldn’t do me. We want one every five seconds.”
That was the rationale behind their bonkers BBC sitcom House of Fools which was axed after two seasons in 2015. “We thought it was fabulous”, says Mortimer.
“We thought it was the pinnacle,” says Moir. “We tried to get as many laughs in as possible. I think we probably would be in the Guinness Book of Records for the amount of laughs in a sitcom.”
“The BBC say, ‘It’s got to have warmth, there’s got to be a narrative’. We kind of ignored that and thought – surely five people can just say funny lines for 24 minutes”
“The BBC say, ‘It’s got to have warmth, there’s got to be a narrative, there’s got to be a character like this, an enemy’” says Mortimer. “We kind of ignored that and thought – surely five people can just say funny lines for 24 minutes. We had a bit of a story – there would be a big moth attacking the town, or something.”
“There aren’t any decent sitcoms on now. I can’t think of any,” says Moir.
In 2016 they went back on the road for the first time in almost two decades. The tour was postponed for three months when Mortimer went for a routine check-up and discovered that his arteries were 95% blocked. He was booked in for a triple heart bypass four days later. On the morning of the operation, he thought he might die and married his long-term partner, Lisa, with whom he has two sons, aged 19 and 20.
He is, he says, fine now and a lot less worried than he was straight after the operation when he lived off a diet of seeds. “Has your food regime changed?” asks Moir. “When we were on tour, he refused a pork pie from Melton Mowbray, which I thought was ridiculous. Would you have a pork pie now?”
“When we were on tour, Bob refused a pork pie from Melton Mowbray, which I thought was ridiculous. Would you have a pork pie now?”
“I eat all sorts of shit, Jim and you just feel bad,” says Mortimer. “For people who have had heart operations, it’s very difficult at the moment because half of science believes you shouldn’t eat any saturated fat and half of science believes you should eat as much as you can. So you eat a cake, then you eat a statin, and think, ‘that will work.’”
“You could do a modern stand-up routine about it,” says Moir.
“Yes, I’d go on at Edinburgh with me heart story,” says Mortimer. “It would all build up to me eating a pork pie on stage and everyone would be standing up, clapping, saying, ‘yes that’s rather clever’.”
Bob. Better now. pic.twitter.com/Ew5HXMajGC
— Jim Moir (@JamesMoir10) November 7, 2015
It was, says Moir, a shock to see his comedy partner so ill. He started getting chest pains in sympathy. He pats his chest. “It’s psychosomatic but you think, oh god. You get to a certain age…” This week he has been worried that he has emphysema. “I was a bit short of breath but then I found quite a lot of people have the same chest infection.”
He now swims half a mile every day, after dropping his daughters off at school. “I go early so there’s me and a lot of old ladies. Old ladies everywhere.”
At the age of 58, do they worry about doing what they do and getting older? “Physically, yes, but we’re still very spritely,” says Moir. “I notice it when we’re still writing things that would suggest we’re about 30. We should be writing about widows, not ‘ooh I’ve got a new girlfriend.’”
“Occasionally you just have to check yourself. We’re old men. It’s not right”
“Occasionally you just have to check yourself,” agrees Mortimer. “We’re old men. It’s not right.”
Their reunion tour was more sedate than their last one in the 1990s, when they would drink all night after a show – “And end up in some club in Liverpool and then some council estate in Manchester…”, says Mortimer. These days, they have a pint of the local real ale and go to bed.
They don’t socialise as much as they used to, either. They used to see each other every night, go on holiday together. “It’s that family thing, you retreat to your house,” says Mortimer.
“I like making dinner and watching the telly,” agrees Moir who has 11-year old twins with his second wife Nancy Sorrell and two older children from his first marriage.
In recent years, they’ve worked on solo projects. Mortimer’s surreal football podcast Athletico Mince has amassed over 7 million listens. Moir paints most days in the huge studio he has built at home – he is currently doing screenprints of the original Big Night Out paintings. “Noel Fielding bought two of my paintings the other day,” he says.
“They’re beautiful, Jim’s paintings,” says Mortimer, who has a painting Moir did of him on his hospital bed with a heart pinned to his chest, and another of a large fluffy elephant. “You can keep that one”, says Moir.
Thirty years on, their instinct is still – if it makes them laugh, it works. “If we make each other laugh then everyone else laughs,” says Moir.
“I went to a comedy show recently and it wasn’t particularly funny but he was very engaging. I had this terrible feeling that his end game was to make people feel, ‘He’s a thoughtful clever bloke isn’t he?’” says Mortimer. “My hope is that people leave saying, ‘that was funny, that was’”.
“Or ‘Those two are proper idiots. Pair of morons. Are they really that thick?’” agrees Moir.
“‘They’re complete fucking idiots,’” says Mortimer, happily. “That’s such a compliment.”
Vic and Bob’s Big Night Out is on BBC2 on 29 December at 9pm
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