Vic and Bob, Soho Revue Bar, London

This really is no laughing matter
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The Independent Culture

Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer are the latest in a clutch of household comedy names to play the monthly night BBC Comedy Presents, following appearances by French and Saunders and Noel Fielding of The Mighty Boosh. Tonight's return to their live roots saw the pair hosting a show that included a wide variety of acts encompassing stand-up, character comedy, musical comedy and the lately resurgent fusion of comedy and magic.

If the acts thought they had hit the jackpot in terms of the choice of MC, then to a less than fanatical observer, such as myself (who always thought the duo less comedy dynamite, more comedy Marmite), this was the best way to see Vic and Bob – in small doses and sandwiched between acts that, in turn, took the burden of laughter away from them or made you want them back on stage. It's possible to argue that there was no time for the pair to get into their stride but their rhythm has never been about building, more lurching from one mania to the next.

Three years ago, when they played a small one-off gig to promote their DVD, Vic and Bob paraded characters from their hit early Nineties television show Big Night Out. Tonight, the main raiding of the character cupboard was a reprisal for the odd folk duo Mulligan and O'Hare from The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer.

The croonsome twosome had taken over editorial duties at Heat magazine, and their particular spin on celebrity obsession was to spot celebrities shopping at hardware or furniture stores, and so seeing "Jennifer Aniston outside Carpet (Tick) Right" was high on their news agenda. The speculation on whom she might be buying the carpet for was their ludicrous take on celebrity obsession and it was as close to social comment as it gets from a pair rightly accused of heralding the de-politicisation of comedy in the Nineties and signalling catchphrase culture for scores of apolitical students to hide behind.

The plus side of Vic and Bob was the idea that they had somehow re-invented the tradition of British variety. Of course, they had to kill it first, and Bob Mortimer's joke tonight: "Do you remember those two terrible Winters we had? Mike and Bernie" is a suitable admission of guilt and, ironically, a rare moment of actual material. It's not that they can't write gags (Vic Reeves, after all, is the owner of "bird flu, man walk"), but when they do use them they are like get-out-of-jail-free cards to vindicate the vacuum that has gone before rather than added value to a sketch.

Amid the rest of the goofing around is a sketch about Bob bringing his letter-box contraption to heat up cold mail to Dragons' Den and trying to convince Vic's pipe-smoking Duncan Bannatyne of its virtues, and a riff on plastic surgery using potatoes and cakes: "I learnt it from the Nip/Tuck manual," says Vic, now a qualified surgeon.

It's all nonsense, of course, and what's wrong with that, you might wonder – this is comedy, after all? But laughs can't live off lunacy alone; they can feed on timing and delivery but they have to strike some kind of chord, a gag, an aside, an observation that gets to the heart of something. Double acts, in particular, live and die on charm; but charm alone cannot sustain them and all too often Vic and Bob, and more latterly The Mighty Boosh, have lived on the basis of riffing close to the wind and flying by the seat of their pants. There might be a joke along in a minute; then again, there might not.