Interview: Noel Fielding of Mighty Boosh on new sketch show Luxury Comedy
New sketch show explores the comedian's surreal subconscious
Noel Fielding arrives at the Groucho Club in Soho wearing his favourite cape. It’s black with red details – very Ripper chic – and when he sits down, it balloons over the sides of his armchair. By the time the comedian and Never Mind the Buzzcocks regular starts telling me about his newfound mouse problem, he looks like a decapitated head in a cheap stage trick.
The combination is classically Fielding: a surreal, fantastical creature and a mundane monologue. It’s a little bit dark and a little bit docile, but totally absurd.
Similarly bizarre bores populate the world of the Mighty Boosh, the absurdist double-act Fielding formed with Julian Barratt in 1998. Early Edinburgh Fringe shows yielded two Perrier nominations. Radio followed, then television. Over three series for the BBC, the Boosh gained a huge cult following.
In it, Fielding mostly plays Vince Noir, a fashion-forward zookeeper-turned-shopkeeper, but he also pops up in a number of vivid supporting roles and kooky cameos. These include a hermaphroditic merman with a penchant for Bailey’s Irish Cream and watercolour paintings, and The Moon, who waxes on about such banalities as spaghetti bolognese, dentistry and dry-cleaning.
For his latest project, Fielding has moved into sketch comedy. That means more room for his own breed of oddball. Amongst the recurrent characters in Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy, which starts on E4 in January, are a manta ray with his own sound studio and a chocolate finger former PE teacher who spent a week gigging with Status Quo in the 80s.
Working with animator Nigel Coan, who first designed The Moon for Fielding’s 2002 stand-up show Voodoo Hedgehog after they met at Art College, he’s been able to go further than the Boosh. ‘I’ve always wanted to write a character who’s a chocolate finger and I’ve never known anyone that can make that possible.’
The results look beautiful. Everything drips with colour. Even more than the Boosh, it genuinely feels like a dream world in which anything is possible. ‘The bits of the Boosh that I really enjoyed were making the weirder characters. It’s kind of a whole made from all of them; much more like my stand-up. It just goes really crazy and it doesn’t come back.’
Coan interjects: ‘With Noel’s stand-up, you laugh before you realise why you’re laughing and then it moves the posts, so you can’t really remember why you were laughing in the first place.’ Very much the more straight-laced of the two, Coan wears a blue gilet to Fielding’s cape. ‘It’s pure Noel,’ Coan says of the cape.
At a glance, ‘pure Noel’ can look like an all-purpose formula. Take some animal-mineral-vegetable or other and find it an odd job, an unusual obsession and a silly voice. That the ingredients seem interchangeable – a lisping jellyfish janitor who eats Turkish Delight; a Russian celery counsellor with amnesia – makes it seem easy. It looks like anything goes.
Is there good nonsense and bad nonsense? ‘You can’t just have weird stuff,’ he replies, pushing his so-black-it’s-almost-blue hair out of his face again. ‘You really, really, really have to believe it.’
Look beneath the dazzling surface of Fielding’s comedy and it’s a lot more complex than it lets on; far more than a collection of esoteric and eclectic mental flotsam.
If some tie to reality is key, it finds its anchor in reaction. ‘That’s what makes you laugh,’ he says. ‘If you have someone with a train coming out of their rucksack and no one reacts to it, it looks like surrealism and you’ve got a Luis Buñuel film. It’s always real conversations around the weirdness.’
The other crucial element is that his characters are fully fledged. In sketch shows like Big Train or Smack the Pony, characters are just costumes, symbols of a social type. Fielding’s are definite particulars. Roy Firkin, his chocolate finger, has a career and a relationship history: ‘After his wife’s died, he visits a prostitute and all he wants to do is cuddle. He takes his wedding photos with him. It’s so dark, but, at the same time, it’s a fucking chocolate finger. You have to suck people in with the reality of those emotions.’
Even so, Fielding has a unique ability to take an audience with him on these flights of fancy. Three phrases crop up repeatedly in both his everyday speech and his stand-up: ‘Imagine if’, ‘… and then …’ and ‘that would be genius’. These are his take-off, cruise and landing, but without his natural warmth, we’d never get on the plane. In the Boosh, he is the light to Barratt’s darkness, the childish wonder to his partner’s cynicism. His work sows delight before it reaps laughter, but he can disarm a joke-hungry audience with sheer, authentic enthusiasm.
This, he admits, is key: ‘I think you can go a long, long way in performance if you have charm. On Buzzcocks, if someone’s charming, they don’t have to be funny. If not, it never works. When Tinie Tempah hosted, he was so charming that, by the end, people were hysterical.’
Fielding is also blessed with a natural oxymoron. His appearance – colour-splashed Goth – and his voice, which has the hollowness of a teenage boy not yet accustomed to new low notes, are at odds with his perkiness. You expect surly moans, but get bubbly marvel. It’s not surprising that voice often comes first when he’s writing: ‘I can’t write unless I’ve got the voice for a character.’
Fielding’s writing comes out of playful improvisation. Barratt has said that Fielding’s ‘subconscious is very near the surface’, which perhaps explains why a third of his ideas filled a series in themselves. ‘We had to ask for an extra, seventh episode.’
It also explains his need to work. The sketch show began straight after a 100-date live Boosh tour. While everyone else was relieved to stop, Fielding needed something else. ‘After two days off, I just go mad if I don’t start painting or drawing or writing.’ He works, I suspect, to siphon off the excess of ideas bubbling in his head.
Fielding and Coan made the sketch show over a year in both of their London flats using basic green screen techniques. Much of the material came out of their throwing things together and improvising. ‘I’d be in the bath with my face covered in black make up, ice cubes for eyes and a blonde wig. Nigel’s son would come home and say, “Is that Noel being silly again?”’
They found the process freeing: ‘It was like being back at art school again. The best stuff comes out when you’re not making it for anything and you don’t really know what you’re making.’
This is in marked contrast to his picture of the Boosh, which Fielding suggests became frustratingly formulaic and increasingly commercial: ‘I love the Boosh, but there were so many people around us that it became a cash cow. Everyone’s going, “Do this. Do that. This is the answer.” That isn’t how it works. It has to be me and Julian, on our own, just making it.’
Nonetheless, he’s sure that the Boosh will be back, mightier than ever. They’ve written two film scripts – a musical halfway between Rocky Horror and 28 Days Later and an arctic adventure – in the past few years, but it’s a matter of picking the right time.
‘If you don’t leave it quite long enough, people go, “Oh, we’ve just got over you.” It’s got to be like seven or eight years.’
Reunions, however, are only possible with time apart and, for now, Fielding’s excited by the possibilities. ‘I feel like I was in a group that did really well and now I’m going solo. I just hope it’s like Lou Reed or Syd Barrett and people actually accept it.’
Luxury Comedy, E4, Thu 26 Jan.