The first episode of Snuff Box opens on two men walking down a long, white corridor devoid of decoration or context. “Sorry I’m late. Are we early?” one man asks. “No idea. I’ve lost my watch,” the other answers. With two lines, Snuff Box establishes itself as a work detached from normal space or time, and a viewer might conclude that the show is high-minded, avant-garde comedy.
That’s not wrong, but it’s not entirely right, either, which becomes evident moments later when the same conversation descends into puerility: “Not having cash? It sucks like a fuckety-suck!” complains the guy in the ill-fitting brown suit. Then they turn the corner into an execution chamber, where they hang someone. As it pivots from the existential to the profane to the grim, Snuff Box makes little effort to orient the viewer because disorientation is the point: The show has to overtly discard the expected rhythms of sketch comedy—the expected rhythms of life, really—before you can hear its own surreal song of death, vice, and horse piss.
A difficult-to-categorize blend of a sketch show and a pitch-black sitcom, Snuff Box’s six-episode run aired only once on BBC Three in 2006, with no promotion to speak of and a late Monday night time slot. That may seem like shabby treatment, and it was, but Box only existed because it filled in for another show that BBC executives liked even less. Snuff Box’s production company, Channel X, had previously created an animated series called Popetown for BBC Three, and the cartoon was withdrawn before it aired because of protests from Catholic groups. As a sort of make-good, the network offered Channel X a contract for another series, which became Snuff Box.
Since it was born as a way for BBC Three to close out the Popetown affair, Snuff Box ended up in a rare Xanadu of creative freedom: The show was practically guaranteed to reach the air, but network executives regarded it with indifference (when they regarded it at all). Creators and Mighty Boosh veterans Matt Berry and Rich Fulcher, who play characters by the same names in the show, used this institutional apathy to their advantage. They refused to follow a conventional sketch format—a procession of largely unrelated three-minute snippets.
Instead, they built Snuff Box around the continuing narrative of Matt and Rich, two hangmen who laze around at a club for gentleman in their morbid trade. It’s gallows humor taken to a literal extreme, made possible only because network suits had written off the show before it began. “Since they had given up on us, it was like, ‘Okay, go ahead. Have your hanging,’” Fulcher said in a 2011 interview.
Berry’s character is a sybaritic womanizer who views humanity with the casual contempt you’d expect given that, in his line of work, everybody is just one 10-foot drop from oblivion. Fulcher—the “assistant to the hangman” and Berry’s de facto protege—plays a foul-mouthed man-child who nonetheless coasts through life in London because he’s American, so everyone expects him to be loud and stupid. Matt and Rich constantly prey on each other, yet it’s clear that the two executioners couldn’t survive alone. A symbiosis between parasite and predator.
The stories at the hangman’s club are complemented by more typical sketches, at least to the extent that the word “typical” applies to this surreal world. In one recurring setup, Fulcher plays an idiot with a lust for inanimate objects. In another, Berry is pummeled by store clerks in his quest to purchase a pair of silver cowboy boots. After Snuff Box’s BBC Three run came and went with little notice, YouTube clips of sketches like these fomented a cult following for the defunct show.
But fans who encountered videos online were getting an incomplete picture. By chopping Snuff Box into small pieces, the Internet forced it into the box-of-chocolates format that Berry and Fulcher had purposely avoided. For one thing, short clips can’t capture the trippy way that segments seep into each other. In a full episode, you might see Fulcher’s pervert walk down the street, romancing a lollipop, only to have the camera linger on a woman perusing real-estate listings—and then the shot cuts to Berry and Fulcher in their hangman personas, observing the woman from afar. This sets up a minute-long bit that, in turn, melts into a scene with yet another Fulcher character, a pleasant-looking old man who only says the word “fuck.” YouTube clips can give a glimpse of the show’s sensibility, but they amputate its hypnotic flow, showcasing individual lines from a work that was crafted in stanzas.
Every episode incorporates musical numbers. These appear with little fanfare, emerging organically from scenes that don’t appear to be fit for song. The final scene of the third episode, for instance, begins with Fulcher’s prim “fuck” fellow sitting on a park bench and uttering his favorite word. In short order, other upper-crust-looking folks join him and shout their own profanities. Before you know it, they’ve settled into a ridiculous cadence: “Fuck, shit, horse piss, son of a two-balled bitch, motherfucker.” This catchy beat is the foundation for further silliness, as Matt and Rich then show up to reprise Snuff Box’s nonsensical theme song and close out the show. (The main theme comes up often on Snuff Box, its bizarre lyrics always sung with earnest enthusiasm.)
The profanity song is a microcosm of the show. Its elements are crude on their own, but with artful choreography, something marvelous results. That’s the marriage of the two stars’ strengths. Fulcher knows how to make the English language sound exquisitely stupid, bringing a confident bluster to lines like, “I don’t know whether to puke or piss, but I gotta piss!” And Berry has an uncanny ear for comic rhythm.
Snuff Box is an aurally experimental work beyond the musical bits, too. Dialogue is regularly distorted, dubbed, or otherwise molested. Sometimes the characters will dub their own voices over footage of themselves, deepening the dreamlike quality of the show. The Fulcher segment embedded above is built around a simple idea: an insane therapist. It’s a straightforward gag that Snuff Box refuses to execute in a straightforward way. The angry side of Dr. Fulcher’s split personality is overdubbed by Fulcher, giving the segment an itchy, not-quite-right quality that echoes the patient’s own discomfort.
The more you watch Snuff Box, the more you can perceive subtle patterns, like the boys’ frequent yet barely noticeable invocation of the word “rabbit”—a joke that never pays off, which is itself the payoff. Paying no heed to comedy’s “rule of threes,” it’s common for Snuff Box to repeat a joke just once. In one episode, for instance, this dialogue takes place:
Matt: I’m as happy as a man with tits in his hat.
Rich: Is that good?
Matt: Very good.
And then the next episode has this exchange:
Matt: You look like a dog with two dicks.
Rich: Is that good?
Matt: Very good.
Snuff Box is rife with dadaist pairs like that one, subtle and ridiculous dualities that lend an intricate substructure to the six-episode composition. With time, a viewer’s initial dizziness fades, replaced by an awareness of this larger comedic fugue. Berry and Fulcher don’t use repetition to bludgeon an audience like, say, The Spoils Of Babylon might. Snuff Box applies its absurdity with more craft, threading minuscule motifs through the action with a sense of both the immediate moment and the symphony as a whole.
Because they took this holistic approach, Berry and Fulcher pushed for Snuff Box to be issued on DVD rather than living on exclusively in YouTube fragments. They saw the show belatedly building an audience, but they also knew that audience was seeing a fraction of the show’s genius. Against all odds, the Snuff Box creators succeeded in securing a disc release both in the U.K. and, later, in the United States.
Berry and Fulcher did a U.S. comedy tour in 2011 to promote the debut of the American DVD—which includes commentary, special features, and a soundtrack CD, all worthwhile bonuses. Prior to one of their shows, they sat down for an interview with online talk show host Richard Metzger. (I quoted it briefly above, but I’ll link it again here.) It’s an awkward, meandering chat, as Berry is characteristically hungover and makes no effort to conceal it. But he perks up when Metzger says, “You should be damned proud of this.” Berry immediately insists, “I am.” He goes on to say that the show is “pretty much 95 percent what we…” and then he points to his head, drifts off, and resumes hating life.
In that moment of lucidity, Berry identifies the enduring appeal of Snuff Box: It feels as if you’re entering the minds of its creators. It’s hard to think of another comedy show with a voice this distinctive and self-assured, one that doesn’t speak to viewers so much as it envelops them. There’s an occasional two-second bumper between segments that pulls viewers down that long white corridor at high speed, with Berry and Fulcher looming over the shot. That’s what Snuff Box does. It transports you to another realm where the creators’ will is the only logic that applies.
So whenever I watch the final episode and hear that “can’t be in love if it’s plastic” refrain ramp up for the last time, I get a little teary. I wouldn’t expect to be so sentimental for a show as bleak and harsh as this one, but while Snuff Box is dark, it’s also ineffably joyful. Over six episodes, you get to experience the exhilaration of inhabiting a strange psyche. It’s less of a show than a horrible, wonderful place to visit again and again, noticing another perfect detail every time.
One-season wonder, weirdo, or wannabe? Wondrous weirdo.