In the mid 1980s, long before the days where Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer became the well-known and much-loved surreal comedy duo they are today, Jim Moir was making a name for himself performing one man comedy stage shows in London. Such a name for himself, in fact, that he chose not to stick with his own. While Moir enjoyed varying his moniker frequently, he eventually settled on 'Vic Reeves', originally naming his show Vic Reeves Variety Palladium.
The show was a parody of the variety showcases so popular in prior decades, with Vic assuming the role of host (referring to himself as 'Britain's Top Light Entertainer'), introducing a variety of absurd characters (often also played by Reeves) and obscure performances. Reeves was often joined on stage by Fred Aylwood, playing his mute, eccentric, lab coat-wearing assistant, Les.
This stage show eventually evolved into Vic Reeves Big Night Out, which Reeves performed at The Goldsmiths Tavern in New Cross, south east London. It was here that he caught the imagination of a young Bob Mortimer, who was working as a solicitor at the time. It is told that Mortimer was transfixed by Reeves's high-octane character comedy, going to see the show every week, and eventually taking part in the action himself.
With the addition of Bob acting as Jim's budding young sidekick, the pair moved to The Albany (then called Albany Empire) in nearby Deptford in 1989. It was here that they attracted the attention of the likes of Jonathan Ross, Jools Holland, Charlie Higson and Paul Whitehouse.
The resultant word-of-mouth wildfire soon reached both Alan Yentob of the BBC and Michael Grade from Channel 4. Teaming up with Jonathan Ross's production company, Channel X, a deal with Channel 4 was made that same year, and an untelevised pilot recorded.
Executives at both C4 and the production company were evidently sufficiently pleased, as a first series - consisting of six half-hour programmes - of Vic Reeves Big Night Out was broadcast in May and June 1990, with a second series (of eight further episodes) airing the following year, as well as a New Year's Eve special.
The show continued to parody traditional variety programmes, albeit with its production values now dramatically heightened. As frontman, Reeves was suave with his slicked-back black hair and sharp suits; he sat at a large desk covered with miscellaneous items and trinkets - not unlike your average chat show (even those of today), but with a bit of added comedic prop weirdness. Performers enter and exit the stage via huge floor-to-ceiling doors in the middle of the set, for maximum impact.
Vic's assistant Les returns in the television series: a strange, mute man who is constantly pleased by spirit levels but afraid of chives, and Charlie Higson also features across the fifteen episodes as an assortment of characters.
Bob Mortimer, alongside Reeves, plays the majority of weird and wacky characters. This is for the best as the funniest interactions have always been those between Reeves and Mortimer, rather than involving supporting cast members. You just can't beat the chemistry between this pair, and throughout the two series we really see the double act blossom. Bob gradually becomes more pivotal to the show, joining him to deliver more segments from the desk alongside Vic in Series 2 than he had in Series 1.
One of the most loved elements of the show is Novelty Island, an obscure talent show where contestants stand in a penned-off area and attempt to impress Vic - and the studio audience - with their quirky, offbeat tricks. A cornerstone of this segment is Graham Lister; an uptight, antagonistic, yet surprisingly frequent contestant, played by Mortimer.
Dressed in a long brown mac, Lister is a busybody who thrives off starting arguments with Vic and always holds a grudge. He often enters Novelty Island under pseudonyms, only to be greeted by boos from the audience when his identity is revealed. His entries are peculiar: the most memorable being his pushing a block of lard through a cardboard cut-out of Mickey Rourke's face. Lister the closest Big Night Out gets to a villain, and as a viewer you can't help but love to hate him.
Amongst the most iconic characters across the two series, the Stotts are an undeniably memorable pair. A duo of high-pitched nitwits who enjoy experimenting with science and magic, Reeves & Mortimer don bald caps with dark frizzy hair sticking out at the sides, paired with thick caterpillar eyebrows and questionably Hitler-esque moustaches. Their tricks include feeding hot oil to a startled bird in a box and they enjoy beginning proceedings with a "little explosion".
The audience favourite, however, has to be The Man With the Stick (also played by Mortimer). Greeted on stage to cries of "What's on the end of the stick, Vic?", The Man With the Stick is a mild-mannered, friendly character who wears a large paper helmet that covers his face. Unusually for such a patently surreal comedy, there is something quite sweet about him, charming even. Upon closer inspection of the helmet each episode, the audience bears witness to many drawings and written phrases adorning the paper. These depict things the Man has seen during the week, including "two communists arguing about who has the worst gout" and "the feeling you get when Bullseye comes on the tele".
The duo's wacky sense of humour is perhaps epitomised best by The Living Carpets. Vic and Bob sit at a table wearing large carpet swatches on their faces whilst challenging each other to beat a series of outrageous claims and exclaiming, "you lying git!", and similar profanities.
Aside from the multitude of strange characters and surreal performances, Vic Reeves Big Night Out is a very musical affair. There is a live band on stage providing background music throughout the show, and various characters comically tell the band to shut up when they're trying to concentrate. The starring duo also perform musical impersonations of musicians such as Rick Astley, Peter Gabriel and David Bowie.
The series proved sufficiently popular to spin-off in turn into a number of national stage tours. The first, in October 1990, saw the duo calling at a string of universities across Britain, whilst the Vic Reeves Big Night Out "The Brown Tour Of 1591" took them to regular public venues in 1991, a performance of which was recorded at Newcastle City Hall and later televised.
These live shows were a scaling up of the original live format, adding elements of the TV show - such as the Novelty Island pen, Vic's desk and the live band. Of course, the nation's best loved Big Night Out characters were included in the proceedings, from the ever-lovable Man With the Stick and his descriptive helmet, to Morrisey the Consumer Monkey, and unsurprisingly, the irritable Graham Lister.
Aspects felt almost a caricature of the television show at times, as the pair's fame now brought with it an audience reliance on catchphrases and old call-backs, but this is something not easily avoided when you have cult characters as iconic as Les and The Stotts. Reviews praised the show's ability to present something that was more than simply surreal, but rather, something that made comment on the nature of celebrity and articulated the nuances of the mundane too.
After the tour, Reeves & Mortimer moved on to new projects, transferring to the BBC from Channel 4 with the comedy panel show Shooting Stars beginning in 1993, and The Smell Of Reeves And Mortimer launching in the same year.
Some 20 years since they had last hit the road as a double act, 2015 saw Reeves & Mortimer back on the road with the live show 25 Years Of Reeves And Mortimer: The Poignant Moments. An immersive look back on characters and sketches from the pair's joint comic career, it included the most popular elements of Big Night Out, and, following Mortimer's undergoing major heart surgery in October 2015, completed a national schedule that delighted fans old and new alike.
In 2017 Vic & Bob launched a reboot of Big Night Out, just ahead of their 25th anniversary with the BBC. The title of this revival-cum-sequel, Vic & Bob's Big Night Out, signified the shift in dynamic that had been seen over the course of its original Channel 4 incarnation, and cemented in the decades since. One of the most noticeable differences between this revamp and the original Big Night Out is that Bob is squarely positioned alongside Vic throughout. The pair are well and truly a team of equals, Bob no longer a sidekick or support in any possible interpretation.
Vic & Bob's Big Night Out, much like its predecessor, has run for two series (to date), in 2018 and 2019. The series were shorter, however, with just four episodes in each, following on from a one-off half-hour special that had been broadcast on 29th December 2017 to wide acclaim.
This new version of the series sees the duo joined by comic Vaun Earl Norman, (very) loosely impersonating the likes of Tom Cruise, George Clooney and Elton John, but mainly just hanging around commenting on Vic & Bob's 'jokes'. The two series also feature more genuine celebrity guests, rather than the impersonations that peppered the early-90s incarnation. Singer George Ezra, for example, proved himself to be a great sport.
In February 2020, Vic & Bob embarked on a further, limited, stage tour: An Evening With Vic & Bob. This time sharing their favourite anecdotes from their comedy careers rather than performing their surreal comedy sketches and routines, the show marked a shift in the duo's style, being far more reflective and chatty than any previous live shows.
However, the legacy of their iconic original comedy was certainly not lost, as the pair revisited a few Big Night Out highlights, notably being the return of The Man With the Stick, and Vic's challenging Bob to make the Man's paper helmet in the shortest possible time. Delighting audiences with reminiscences from their experience performing, writing and producing comedy, it was shortly after the tour's final scheduled date that the nation - and indeed, the world - was plunged into the coronavirus crisis; it seems certain that they will be back, and perhaps back on BBC Four with a third series of the new Vic & Bob's Big Night Out, as soon as circumstances allow.