Bob’s Burgers will go down in history as one of the great animated series of the last decade, even though for much of its runtime the show consistently felt like it was flying under a lot of radars. But as time has gone by and the cult of Bob has become well established, and with a feature film (and Season 10!) both on the horizon, it’s become clear that the legacy of Bob’s Burgers is more than secure as a good-hearted, family centric sitcom that combined the humor of peak-era Simpsons with the down-to-earth character building of King of the Hill. But did you know Bob’s Burgers has some serious roots in a film that most fans of the series have likely never seen?
Being a food geek and a cinephile, it was inevitable that I eventually get around to watching Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott’s well-loved 1996 dramedy Big Night. It was a case of one of those films I’d been aware of for years, but never made the time to watch. Still, as it routinely appeared in lists I’d read with titles like “the best films about food,” or had recipes reenacted by the likes of Binging with Babish, I eventually decided that I’d waited long enough. It was time to check out this film. Little did I know that I’d be watching the foundations of Bob’s Burgers at the same time.
As my fiancé and I watched Big Night, we slowly became aware of the seeming connection. There are elements of this film that seem incredibly pertinent to the situation of Bob, his family, and his struggling restaurant. Around the halfway point, another element is introduced that hammers the point home: Big Night is a prototype for Bob and the Belchers. Wondering if I was the only one who’d made this connection, I went searching online for references to the two series together, which were mostly inconsequential—save for one. In an interview way back in 2013, series creator Loren Bouchard does specifically discuss the similarities between the two series, and how he was inspired in part by Tucci’s film. And so, my suspicions were confirmed—but now I need to share this connection with the world, because it’s too neat to stay under wraps.
Big Night is the story of two Italian brothers, Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secondo (Tucci), who are operating a troubled restaurant called Paradise in 1950s New Jersey. The trouble is by no means the quality of their offerings, as Chef Primo’s authentic, history-steeped Italian delights are deeply satisfying to all who go out of their way to sample them. Rather, the restaurant is failing due to the unwillingness of Primo to simplify his food and serve the basic “pasta and red sauce” expected by the dim-witted American masses who dine in the area, unfamiliar as they are with classical Italian cooking. Although Primo’s risotto and other dishes are divine, diners are confused and repelled by them, instead asking him if they can get “a side of spaghetti and meatballs,” much to Shaloub’s consternation. Nonetheless, even when business manager Secondo tries to gently nudge his brother in the direction of compromising his purity as a chef—such as taking expensive risotto off the menu—Primo is unwilling to back down an inch. He would rather make spectacular food and fail, than make lesser food and be a success.
Primo, as if we needed to say it, is the model for none other than Bob Belcher. Bob, like Primo, makes truly exceptional food within his own sphere. The quality of Bob’s burger creations is acknowledged by everyone who tries them. Where the business struggles is in getting people through the door, not the least because Bob’s wacky family has a tendency to drive away potential customers.
Like Primo, Bob is a perfectionist, a person who is willing to go above and beyond for his craft. Creating food isn’t just something he does to make a living; it’s how he expresses himself as a person, as seen in his love of cooking elaborate Thanksgiving dinners for his family. At the same time, the restaurant’s lack of success is frustrating and embarrassing for him, and there’s a constant temptation to take the easier route to greater financial stability. Bob could skimp on the quality of his ingredients, or add items or promotions that would appeal to the lowest common denominator, but like Primo, he has too much integrity to do it. The two also share other similarities as well: They’re both dour personalities who can be a bit on the gruff side, aren’t very good with customers, and don’t seem to be very good with managing money. They even share the same mustache!
In other, funnier, words (as expressed by none other than Kevin Cline’s Mr. Fischoeder), Bob isn’t a businessman at all: He’s an artist! A beef artist. A BEEFARTIST! And as such, he plays by a different set of rules, even if he doesn’t realize it: those of an artistically inclined eccentric. Note: This whole “Big Night as an inspiration” angle doesn’t work quite as well when we consider that Loren Bouchard’s original vision for the show involved the Belchers being actual cannibals as is joked about in the pilot episode, “Human Flesh,” but considering he turned away from that idea, we’re sticking with it.
Stanley Tucci’s character of Secondo, on the other hand, represents the rest of Bob’s family and the entire outside world, gently nudging him in the direction of practicality when he would prefer to function purely as a burger maestro. Whenever Bob gets too far out of line in his quest for artistic purity, they’re on hand to bring him back to what is more or less reality. So in this case, Secondo is Linda and the kids all rolled into one.
The thing that really crystallizes the Big Night/Bob’s Burgers comparison, though, is the character of Pascal, who operates a thriving Italian restaurant across the street and is detested by Primo. Or in other words: Primo has his own Jimmy Pesto in Big Night as well!
Yes, it truly fits perfectly—Pascal is the detestable Jimmy Pesto. His self-named (of course) Italian restaurant is situated across the street from Paradise, and is always overflowing with diners—not because their food is better, but because Pascal understands the art of loud, amiable schmoozing. His restaurant is bright, full of tacky music and over-the-top presentation, if not great dishes. Likewise, Pascal is the consummate presenter and showman, always with a smile on his face as he’s ringing up free drinks for patrons and generally winning fans and admirers. He understands how the business side of the game is played, unlike Primo, who has no desire to understand. And like Pesto, Pascal on some level knows he’s a hack—but he’s able to shove those thoughts down and focus on the business. His ultimate goal is to somehow poach Primo and Secondo away from their own restaurant to work for him, because he knows that if he was able to combine Primo’s cooking talents with his own skill in marketing, he’d be unstoppable. But it’s never to be—just like Bob would never deign to work for Jimmy, Primo will never bow to Pascal, even though Pascal makes more surface-level attempts to befriend him than Pesto ever would.
Ultimately, it’s fascinating to watch so many disparate elements of Bob’s Burgers on display in Big Night, released in cinemas some 15 years before the pilot of Bob’s Burgers would first air on Fox. For superfans of the series, it’s a spiritual connection that is very much worth investigating, and an emotionally resonant film in its own right. Like Bob’s Burgers, it’s a story that will make you want to support the underdog; the beefartist in your life who might need a helping hand in achieving the recognition they deserve. As we approach the premiere of the 10th season of a now long-running series in Bob’s Burgers, it makes particular sense to keep these humble origins in mind.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer who has always wanted to try one of Bob’s burgers. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.