Tales of ordinary madness

'It's a very English thing to make an arse of yourself'
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The Independent Culture
This week Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer bring their unique

brand of humour back to BBC2.

"IN LAUGHTER all that is evil comes together, but is pronounced holy and absolved by its own bliss." When Friedrich Nietzsche wrote those words, he clearly had Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer in mind. The strangest and most mischievous entertainers ever to attain mass popularity in this (and possibly any other) country, they have warped the brain patterns of an entire generation - and in a time of media-saturated knowingness, they have managed to recapture the innocence of vaudeville.

Seated opposite Bob Mortimer, at a long, biscuit-laden table in a Groucho Club meeting room, Vic Reeves ponders that Nietszche quote. "I suppose it means that if someone has bug eyes or goofy teeth you can't laugh at them in the street, but you can do if they're on stage." Is it a performer's duty to play up the things about them which people would feel guilty about laughing at had they not paid good money? "You have to exaggerate, yes. If you put us on stage talking about something very mundane, we wouldn't get many laughs."

I'm not so sure. This is what Reeves & Mortimer sound like when they are talking about something very mundane - in this case, handwriting. "I was taught that Marion Richardson writing," says Bob, "which is partly joined and partly not, then I poo-pahed the joined bit and now I print like a child." "So Marion Richardson's claim," Vic muses, impressed, "was, 'I've thought of a new form of writing where you don't join up all the letters'." His partner's train of thought will not be derailed. "Girls who went to school in the late Seventies," Bob continues, "have been taught to write with very large letters. I think David Cassidy is responsible for that."

On TV, the oblique wit which fuels such conversational flights of fancy is filtered through production values worthy of D W Griffith, if not Roger Corman. Starting next Friday, the second series of BBC2's The Smell of Reeves & Mortimer (Vic and Bob's fourth multi-part TV excursion) begins thus: "August 1831. Bank Holiday Monday at the banqueting hall of King Henry VIII." The furious monarch curses the head waiter over the minute portion of cheese on which he is expected to dine, before a series of poignant historical tableaux outline the history of the dairy product in question. A pulsating calypso/ voodoo number then conclusively establishes "the link between cottage cheese and evil". "Edam," Vic adds, by way of an afterthought, "has long been associated with necromancy."

This archetypal Vic and Bob routine might no longer have the novelty value that made the duo teen idols, but its underlying thrust is as sharp as ever. Given that culture is a thing we consume with the same gluttonous appetite with which we might approach a tasty meat or cheese product, why not savour the two pleasures in the same language? The key to Reeves & Mortimer's appeal, now that the days of Number One singles are behind them, is knowing when to move on. "Nicholas Parsons, Jim Bowen, Bob Holness - they've gone into a strange, untouchable area now," Bob observes. "Fish you can't really mention any more," adds Vic, "but cucumbers and melons are coming back."

Now that they themselves are verging on institutional status, it is hard to remember how roughly Vic and Bob used to rub against the comic grain. When the Big Night Out first appeared - in a succession of "Hogarthian" south-east Lon-don pubs in the second half of the 1980s - the ideological tyranny of alternative comedy was at its height. "It just didn't interest me," Vic remembers. "I hate being preached to. I can make my own mind up, tell me something new."

In Vic's case, something new meant a potent blend of old-fashioned light entertainment and the pure spirit of anarchy. After several years in factories, overseeing the manufacture of aeroplane parts, Jim Moir (as he was then) had had enough of humdrum to last him a lifetime. Bob - then living the glamorous life of a Legal Aid solicitor in Peckham - saw Vic do his stuff early on, and was impressed enough to start helping him out. The same age (now 36), they also share North-Eastern home towns (Middlesbrough and Dar-lington respectively). By the time the Big Night Out began to attract the attention of Channel 4 bigwigs, Bob was an integral part of the act.

From Harry Hill's Pub Internationale (which they like) to Noel Edmonds' House Party (which they're not so sure about), the impact of Vic and Bob's first two TV series is still being felt. Are they proud to have fashioned a turning point in comedy history? "I don't know whether that's true," Bob says wistfully, "but it's a lovely thought. We enjoyed doing it and it would be nice if it wasn't just a forgotten moment. The one thing it has definitely done is make people be a bit daft again." Could there come a point where silliness would become as oppressive as rigour used to be? "Yes," Bob confirms, "I think it's on its way now."

Still, Reeves & Mortimer show no sign of having lost enthusiasm for the fray. Virtually unique among their peers in their reluctance to use other writers, Vic and Bob seem to draw energy from new characters (canny councillors Roy Cox and Ray Evans being current favourites). "It must be a very different experience when you just turn up to do other people's stuff," Bob insists. "It can't be quite as rewarding. In show two, we've got a big organ that's got a pub inside, and actually seeing that sort of thing realised is a joy." The duo are full of praise for the BBC props and costumes people who rise to the challenge of translating Vic's drawings (a one-year fine- art course can be a dangerous weapon in the wrong hands) into three dimensions.

"We've never really done mad for the sake of mad," Bob insists. "If we say something which might on the face of it appear completely insane, there's usually something at the tail end of it." What kind of something? "People always quote us saying, 'About this time of night I like to put a Caramac under a rabbit'," Vic says. "But that was a way of saying, 'This is how dreary my life is'."

As with all great double acts, Vic and Bob's relationship is the rock on which their best comedy is built: "You've got to have a bond," Reeves says. "You've got to know what the other person's thinking." In contrast to role models such as Laurel & Hardy and Morecambe & Wise, the comedic balance of power in Vic and Bob's act is constantly shifting. "It's smart to switch it round," Bob beams, "and from a selfish point of view, it keeps things interesting for us." And if the best way to mark these changes is by hitting each other over the head with giant saucepans, then so be it. Off screen, things are more constant: Bob calls Vic by his real name and, in flagrant contravention of the double-acts' charter, they seem to be the best of friends.

As with the Goons and Monty Python before them, the affection in which Reeves & Mortimer are held by those who find them funny is only rivalled by the bewilderment and irritation they inspire in those who don't. For all their attempts to "make things a bit easier for people" this will probably always be the case. They've never exported particularly well either. "There were 7,000 people," says Vic, remembering a Big Night Out in Montreal, "one of the biggest audiences we've ever had, and it was absolute silence for 12 minutes. We went out and we had the lucky carpet with us. The basic joke is Bob comes on and says, 'I've been having some bad luck.' And I say, 'Well, have you got a lucky charm?' And I turn out to have a lucky charm which is too big to carry. You could hear people in the audience saying, 'That carpet's too big': they couldn't accept someone having a 20ft roll of carpet for a lucky charm."

"It's a very English thing to make an arse of yourself," Vic adds. "American comics tend to say, 'We're the same as you'. Whereas with us, it's 'We're not the same as you - we wear bad shoes and we're completely thick'." They don't come much thicker than flatulent Jacques Tati cast-offs Le Corbusier et Papin. "Originally," Bob explains, "the noises were our way of appreciating our environment, but the director saw an opportunity for explosive gags with a fart connection, and we thought, 'Well, it's a cheap laugh . . . we'll have it'."

Vic and Bob's comedy is more tightly bound up with their bodily functions than even their sternest critics might have imagined. "When I laugh too much," Vic confesses matter-of-factly, "I start off with the hiccups, and if it gets really bad I'll vomit." "Whereas I," says Bob, pausing to let the previous bombshell sink in, "urinate freely. The eagle-eyed might have seen it happen when we were doing the Stotts (falsetto Scots brothers Donald and Davey) in the last series. I had to ask Jim whether he happened to have a car and he said yes he had a green sports car. I knew it was going to crack me and it did - you can see a great stain spreading down my legs." Vic sighs, "I suppose it is an accolade."

So do they agree with Sigmund Freud, that the highest purpose of jokes and laughter is to help us recapture "the mood of our childhood, when we had no need of humour to make us feel happy"? "I think anyone could see that that probably is a motto," Bob observes opaquely. "It's just turning things on their head really, isn't it?" Vic says, laughing. "My mother always tells me that when I was tiny we used to go shopping at Littlewoods in Leeds and I used to call it Bigwoods, and I used to think that was absolutely hilarious."

! 'Reeves & Mortimer': 9.30pm Fri BBC2.