The stars of the BBC3 show have found themselves exposed to the true hardcore of their fanbase on a recent tour. Eli Capitani talks to Julian Barratt and finds out why he’s an uncomfortable comedy icon
For a duo responsible for the original and wacky ‘The Mighty Boosh’ TV, radio and theatre show, rolling down the hill around Clifford’s Tower doesn’t seem the most original activity to pursue on a visit to York, but Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding (also known as Howard Moon and Vince Noir, respectively) found time in their busy touring schedule to partake in the tradition beloved by York students. Currently taking a stage version around the country (and with a live DVD about to be released) the true extent of The Boosh’s fanbase has come to light with hardcore fans turning out in their droves to pay homage to the pretentious jazz fan, Moon, and the impeccably coiffured Noir.
Transferring a TV show onto the stage can often be a daunting process, but The Mighty Boosh appeared to feel no trepidation. “We knew it was like a hidden weapon that we had,” said Julian Barratt, “because everyone who got into The Boosh via the TV show hadn’t any idea what we did on stage. However, we knew we were good live and therefore it was like having a hidden skill you can get out and have some fun with.” In fact it was in the theatres and clubs that the duo first created their alter-egos, both separately starting out as stand-up comedians before Fielding paid a visit to one of Barratt’s shows and “sort of accosted me afterwards.
“It was instantly a good pairing as we both come from very different worlds. Noel’s a sort of South London cockney whilst I came from a North English jazz background, but we instantly seemed to understand each other.”
The Boosh is just born out of stuff that makes us laugh, we’re not fans of weird stuff just for the sake of being weird.
The difference between the two does seem to come from more than just the characters they play. Like his persona, Vince Noir, Fielding appears to enjoy the adulation of the fans more than his partner. “We did a lot of signings whilst on the tour, and I found the response from some of the fans quite unsettling. I like to write stuff and I don’t mind acting, but I prefer to be behind the scenes really. The idea of being a star is not something I particularly want to get into, so to be mobbed was nice as an idea but I don’t really trust anyone who thinks that…”
He trails off, but it’s quite clear that he’s bemused by the adulation the duo receives. “I’m a bit like, ‘well why do they like us so much, what’s going on here, what do they think I am?’ People were trying to take photos of you or grab a bit of your hair. But you only ever meet the really full-on fans when you do the tour, and I was just a bit taken aback by it all. Noel is a lot more at home with that sort of thing, with being adored. He tells me to stop thinking about it too much and just enjoy it. I understand what he’s talking about but I’m not really made for that kind of thing.”
We’d been used to performing live where you get a very immediate response and you know if what you’re doing is right straight away. We just didn’t understand how it worked when we went to TV and got really depressed by the reaction.
Despite its recent critical success and recognition, The Mighty Boosh has always been a show for the fans rather than the comedy ‘experts’. When it first premiered on BBC3 it was either panned or ignored by the critics, and by Barratt’s own admission, “the figures were crap, no one watched it and no one rang me up the night it went out on TV… apart from my mum of course.” Though the show had worked well on the radio and stage, and much effort had been made to transfer it successfully onto the TV, there were times when the duo doubted its quality. “When Victor Lewis-Smith (York-educated critic and satirist who had a long running spat with Chris Morris) reviewed us in the London Evening Standard and said it was a pile of shit, then we thought ‘Oh my God, we have made an absolute disaster!’ As the series carried on no one really paid any attention to it, apart from Time Out who completely slagged us off every week. You get this very close-up view of your whole vision dying and you go through it all in your head thinking, ‘well maybe we made a mistake here or we should have done this bit like this’.”
Mixed reviews followed the second series as well, but behind the critics there was a core fanbase steadily developing. “We’d been used to performing live where you get a very immediate response and you know if what you’re doing is right straight away. We just didn’t understand how it worked when we went to TV and got really depressed by the reaction. However what BBC3 are really good at is letting things grow and letting the audience find us. Then when we did the tour all these Boosh fans suddenly all came out of the woodwork! But it’s just a long learning curve trying not to get knocked back by the way TV works.”
The Boosh were helped by the fact that they were picked up by Steve Coogan’s production company, Baby Cow, and Coogan himself acted as executive producer on both series. “Steve is brilliant as an actor and he saw us and thought we were good and that counted for a lot in the industry at the time. He went to the BBC, and when it’s Coogan saying, ‘Oh, these guys are great’ everyone did go, ‘wow they must be’, so he was very useful in that way. He didn’t do too much hands-on stuff as at the time he was concentrating on his film career, but he does come in and read through stuff and lets us know what he thinks, and that can sometimes be really useful.” The writing process starts off as improvisation between the two, although the freedom offered by the alternate reality in which the show is based can be a curse as much as a blessing.
“You can stare at a blank piece of paper for ages, and it’s not a sketch show, so we’re not able to say ‘we need the man-who-has-a-funny-walk sketch and then the woman-who-pukes-on-herself sketch.’ We can’t do that, all we have is me and Noel and then we have to invent an entire world around these two characters which is hard but also very exciting.
“It’s something we take very seriously, so you have as much fun as you do with anything that you work hard at. The idea is just for it to look like effortless nonsense but that’s always quite a hard thing to achieve. It’s like stand-up. There is a hidden agreement between the audience and the comedian that it’s made for them that night, which is obviously not true because if you only spent two seconds thinking about your act before you came on stage it would be completely impossible. But people let themselves believe it’s unique for them, there is a suspension of disbelief.”
Viewers of the series have certainly had their suspension of disbelief stretched to incredulity, at least compared to many of the bog-standard Britcoms on our screens. Included in the cast of characters are Bollo (the “oldest ape in captivity”, whose press age is 29), Naboo the Enigma (mysterious yet very short shaman who worked as a kiosk operator in the zoo where the first series was set) and Bob Fossill (owner of the aforementioned zoo despite his limited knowledge of animals, demonstrated by calling the zoo’s bear “the hairy Russian carpet-guy”). As a result they have, quite understandably, been labelled surreal, although this is a tag Barratt doesn’t agree with.
“The show’s not set in reality and it is in a parallel universe, but it’s no more surreal than shows like Sinbad, which was written thousands of years ago. The Boosh is just born out of stuff that makes us laugh and we’re not a fan of weird stuff just for the sake of being weird.
I mean there is logic to a hermaphrodite mermaid; why wouldn’t a mermaid be a sea transsexual? Sea creatures are hermaphroditic.
“Our weirdness actually often comes out of things, such as the merman who is confused because he’s got a mangina. I mean there is logic to a hermaphrodite mermaid; why wouldn’t a mermaid be a sea transsexual? Sea creatures are hermaphroditic. What we are doing has been done before with Python, Time Bandits, Terry Gilliam and all the stuff that inspired us. This idea of creating a world and having magical things and giving them humanity is not all that different, but we are doing it in a way that’s modern, with modern visuals, modern music and a modern dialogue style. Basically we’re just trying to create stories that grab you.”
An aim that they have seemingly appeared to have achieved, and, as with a rock band, the next obvious step appears to be America where the show’s gaining a following. “It’s not big or anything over there, but there are just a few types of people who seem to love it. We received an email from Frank Zappa’s widow saying that their whole family love it and have been watching it all the time, and you hear stuff like that and go, ‘really?!’” With a third series set for the Spring, and even a feature film in the pipeline, the members of The Mighty Boosh look set to expand their fanbase, gaining them yet more attention, wanted or otherwise.
The Mighty Boosh: Live
The transition from TV show to stage show is something that The Mighty Boosh have found easier than most, for the simple reason that they’ve already done it the other way round.
Whereas other comedy shows such as Little Britain and Mitchell and Webb that have attempted to transfer their talents to the stage have had to self-consciously adapt their TV sketches for the stage, mostly word for word, The Boosh are more relaxed in their approach to adaptation, taking various characters and situations from their show (the live show is loosely based around the ‘Tundra Radio’ episode of the TV series) and mixing it all together with the confidence and fluidity that comes from being seasoned Edinburgh Festival veterans.
The live show starts with what is basically stand-up, and although this section is a tad overlong it does do a good job of introducing the main Mighty Boosh characters to any newcomers in the audience whilst providing fresh gags for the veteran fans.
The rest of the show is taken up with an ‘adventure’, similar to those of the second TV series, in which Howard Moon and Vince Noir seek the elusive and mysterious ‘Ruby of Kukundu’ through various adverse terrains and via several fantastical characters.
Naturally the intrepid duo are joined by Bollo, Naboo and Bob Fossill, who seems to take childish delight in the ad-libbing nature of the performance, at one point spitting into the face of a shocked Noel Fielding.
It’s this element of exuberant spontaneity that the live show provides, whilst maintaining The Mighty’s Boosh’s characteristic comic timing, that elevates this DVD above that of the average comedy live show.
The Mighty Boosh Live is released November 13, RRP £21.99.