One of the most common refrains about Peak TV is that the sheer volume of television produced means there are more weird, interesting, niche shows getting made. If there’s more stuff getting greenlit, there’s a better chance of something outside of the box getting greenlit, not because the gatekeepers are more interested in broadcasting that kind of show, but because they have to cast a wider net to keep up with the demands of just how much original programming they’re pumping out despite previously being able to fill out their schedule with reruns of Rules of Engagement. This is true, up to a point. But for all the weird, interesting, outside-of-the-box shows being made in the last few years – Lady Dynamite, Legion, The Young Pope – none come close to Vic Reeves Big Night Out.
Vic Reeves Big Night Out – no apostrophe, no colon – aired two seasons on Channel 4 in 1990 and 1991. The first television outing for the double act of Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer, it’s a parody of light-entertainment variety shows, with Vic in the role of host and Bob playing a variety of characters. It might sound like Big Night Out could bend into some familiar shapes – that it would seem recognisably like a light-entertainment variety show, like if you were flicking through the stations it would take a minute or two to realise it’s not. But Big Night Out is one of the weirdest shows I’ve ever seen. It’s a masterpiece of surreal comedy that makes most surreal humour look mundane.
Every episode begins with Vic Reeves being introduced as Britain’s top light entertainer and singer. He sits at a desk piled with ever-increasing clutter and assorted nonsense (a bottle of alcohol marked “heroin”, a bowl of fruit, a dozen different kinds of microphone) and introduces various segments and guests. The character of Vic Reeves always seems like a bad guy – he’s self-aggrandising, quick to fly into fits of rage, and impossibly cruel to his mute assistant in a lab coat, Les (Fred Aylward) – and gradually reveals himself to be full-on monstrous. Everything that could be straightforward instead has an absurd inflection: Vic’s cruel treatment of Les typically centres on baiting him with spirit levels (which Les adores) and threatening him with chives (which he fears).
It’s an unabashedly silly show, that never feels dark even as it goes to some pretty dark places. In an episode of Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre Podcast, Bob Mortimer talks about how in those early days, he and Vic would try to make something funny out of every single aspect of a sketch: if a character comes through the door, they would come up with some way to get a joke out the character coming through the door. Nothing on Big Night Out is normal or boring or just there when it could be silly or surreal.
This kind of surreal silliness can seem like it must be easy to do, because it doesn’t show the seams of effort the way many other forms of comedy do: at its best, it can have a loose, making-it-up-as-you-go-along quality. But humans so naturally seek out patterns that bucking all patterns – rather than just subverting existing ones – is extremely hard. Doing that while finding those random combinations of ideas that are genuinely hilarious is truly skilful. Most comedy shows that can pull it off keep it as one tool in the toolbelt, sprinkled in among observational humour, farce, or comedy of manners. Big Night Out is wall-to-wall surrealism, with just a touch of slapstick to mix things up. It’s a very British kind of surreal humour, that has no ambition to satire or social commentary, instead being perfectly happy to have no higher goal that being silly. I mean, there’s a recurring segment where Vic and Bob wear masks made from carpet swatches.
Many of the show’s segments are bizarre twists on light entertainment formats: Novelty Island, a talent competition in which contestants perform “talents” like dropping lard onto a pile of salt from inside a small, fenced paddock, or That’s Justice, in which Bob as Judge Nutmeg doles out trumped-up charges and absurd punishments to audience members, or Vic’s frequent singing, whether it be an ode to punk rock or the show’s regular closing number. But even more segments are just plain bizarre: every episode features The Man With The Stick, who wears a paper helmet on which he has drawn the week’s events (e.g. “Spandau Ballet laughing at an orphan who has fallen off his bike”) and of course, carries a stick. The crowd shouts, “What’s on the end of the stick, Vic?” and the Man With The Stick usually refuses to reveal whatever it is.
Although not serialised in the sense that modern shows tend to be – you can watch any episode of Big Night Out on its own right now, one-and-done – Big Night Out loves gags building week to week, collapsing and colliding into one another in carefully orchestrated chaos. In the second season, it’s revealed that Vic has bought the Man With The Stick’s children and won’t give them back. The Man With The Stick jovially asks him for his kids back each week. A recurring bit in which Vic says, “You wouldn’t let it lie!” (which, I assure you, is really funny in Vic’s cadence) culminates in him saying about Bob’s damp shirt collar, “You wouldn’t let it dry!” A bunch of characters who have previously existed only in discrete segments, because they’re all played by Bob, are mic’d backstage talking to one another about how they all hate Vic.
In Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix stand-up special Nanette, she describes comedy as a process of building and releasing tension: expectation and subversion, set-up and punchline. Regardless of your opinion on Nanette in general, this analysis really only describes quite a narrow range of humour. It can feel like set-up-and-punchline is all comedy is because those are the most well-worn comedic rhythms, but the funniest part of Nanette, to me, was that Hannah Gadsby says “my people” in a funny way.
I love Vic Reeves Big Night Out because it doesn’t just copy and paste into an established comedic rhythm. Big Night Out isn’t a process of tension and release, it’s a stream of ridiculous nonsense. It feels like a strange dream, but it’s also intricately crafted. It remains so singular, yet I’m convinced that there would be no Eric Andre Show without it.
There are fifteen episodes of Big Night Out, total, all but one of which are 25 minutes. You’re gonna love it.