Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer are clearly enjoying themselves in their new sitcom and the audience at the recording are having a lot of fun, but something seems to be lost in the transfer from studio to TV. Watching it, I feel like I’m stood outside a pub with my face pressed up against the window, trying to laugh along with the ecstatic people having a great time inside. It’s not bad, House of Fools, but it provokes semi-regular chuckles rather than constant hilarity, and despite some genuine inventiveness, it’s not a million miles away from the low-brow comedy of BBC Three sitcoms, or, incongruously, from the safe and mainstream hits of BBC One.
Vic and Bob play a co-habiting odd couple with a weird collection of friends, family and neighbours. This first episode was ostensibly about Bob preparing for a date but spiralled into increasing absurdity.
The show feels a lot like an extended sketch from Shooting Stars, with lots of improv and corpsing. There’s structure to it though; you can’t have a successful farce without a structure, and House of Fools probably has a more comprehensive script than it appears.
The humour in the show taps the same vein Vic and Bob have been exploiting their whole careers: absurdity, anarchy, heavy usage of bizarre props, and wordplay. Some of it is quite inventive, little puppetry segments for instance – although they didn’t do much with them this episode – or characters breaking into song. Many of the jokes though are of that annoying variety were they are purposefully bad, as if acknowledging them as bad makes them good. That might work for your funny uncle but not for a televised comedy. And there was way too much toilet humour. There are only so many scatological jokes a comedy can make in 30 minutes before its sense of humour regresses to that of a ten-year-old.
While much of the comedy might be old Vic and Bob staples, the duo have been smart enough to bring along some modern comedians they think might work well with their style. So Matt Berry – whose own shows similarly focus on the absurd – plays here a foppish lothario. He didn’t really add anything to the episode though, and hung around with nothing to do. Morgana Robinson had a little more screen time as a cougarish neighbour, and Norwegian comic Daniel Simonsen made it a trinity of underused talent as Bob’s son.
Bottom would be the obvious comparison to make with this show, but it’s actually a lot safer than that. It clearly wants to be seen as a sort of subversion of old British sitcoms but it doesn’t really have the same edge of a show like Bottom or The Young Ones. Even if it did, they are kind of late to this particular game, sending up 1970s sitcoms in the second decade of the 21st century.
A lot of the show’s comedy is actually quite mainstream. Call me a cynic, but I wonder if a BBC executive or two might have whispered some words in Vic and Bob’s ear about the huge success of slapstick and innuendo based shows like Mrs Brown’s Boys or Miranda. House of Fools felt really old-fashioned at times. The audience whooped and hollered when Matt Berry’s drop-in character entered and exited the set, like a throwback to the 1970s. Tone down the scatological humour a little, and the BBC could have a crossover hit that pleases both the Shooting Stars enthusiasts and the fans of tall women falling over while looking at the camera.
House of Fools is going to get a lot of leeway from both critics and viewers because of its two writers and stars. People are going to be reluctant, for instance, to see the similarities between this show and the universally panned Badults, or the fact that it heavily uses the innuendo-based wordplay featured so much in the looked-down-upon Mrs Brown’s Boys. I include myself in this category of people though. I find myself wanting to like this show more than I do those others.
I think maybe Vic and Bob’s infectious enthusiasm for the absurd might be the reason for this, and it, along with their slightly edged and inventive comedy, might be enough to carry the show despite its flaws. It won’t go down in history though, like some of the anarchic comedies it seeks to replicate. If House of Fools really wanted to be as subversive as its predecessors, it should have taken aim at modern day massive sitcoms like Miranda, rather than four decades old shows like The Good Life.
- ‘This place is not Colditz, Vic; I don’t need an extensive tunnel network under the premises.’
- ‘What were you in for?’ ‘Eh, crime.’ ‘Well obviously crime. What kind of crime?’ ‘Mainly racial.’ ‘Racial? That’s a bit heavy, isn’t it?’ ‘Not racial, Rachel…She grassed me up for burglary, receiving stolen goods and sodomy.’ ‘Sodomy?’ ‘No, not sodomy, eh, robbery.’