Comedy: The men who like to say `Boosh'
Like you, James Rampton gets tired of the Edinburgh hype. But Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding just might be all they're cracked up to be
Sunday 09 August 1998
I don't think so. The main reason Barratt and Fielding are attracting attention is because they are like nothing you've ever seen before. The Mighty Boosh, their show, seems to have been conceived by a card-carrying Dadaist. It opens with two men dashing rapidly on and off stage to the sound of tinny Hammond-organ music. Grinning cheesily, they are wrapped in gold curtains, their faces caked with shaving-foam and their hair festooned with cotton-wool balls.
The plot - for what it's worth - revolves around two zoo keepers, tetchy Howard Moon (Barratt) and innocent abroad Vince Noir (Fielding), who crash- land in the middle of an enchanted forest. In various adventures and flashbacks, they encounter such deranged characters as Bob Fossil, the evil safari-suited zoo boss who trounces Moon in a fight and dresses him up as a small Latvian princess, and Mr Susan, a man whose fingers are bananas, which he donates to Smoothie Time, a cookery programme about milk shakes. Are you still with me?
At one stage, Moon gets Noir to don Russian peasant's garb to act out a drama he's written called Pies. "Last time you gave me a pie," chants Noir in a dirge, "I cut into it and birds flew out of it into my chin and eyes. I was confused. It was a trick pie." Later, they both fall in love with the same volunteer from the audience: "She's got Christmas eyes, like satsumas ... She's got chocolate ankles that all the villagers come out and lick." It's the sort of acquired-taste comedy that looks stupid in cold print and which you are obliged to justify with the phrase: "you had to be there."
The Mighty Boosh is Spike Milligan meets Harry Hill at Salvador Dali's house, which is located in Weird Street, just round the corner from Bizarre Boulevard ... Sorry, it's catching. But if you give yourself to it, it's oddly mesmerising. According to Cal McCrystal, the director, "We get drawn into their universe because they are, in the best sense of the word, charming. They're not smarmy, but when the audience see them, they think, I like them. It's that which makes this strange world so endearing."
Barratt, 30, and Fielding, 25, sit on a restaurant terrace sipping tea in shirts with matching trendy epaulettes. Like any good double act, they have contrasting looks: Barratt is tall and gangly, while Fielding is shorter, with the puckish good looks of a young Bryan Ferry. The stage act depends on contrasts, too. "We're both idiots," says Fielding, "but Julian is an idiot who thinks he's in control, and I'm a naive idiot who sometimes says something profound. It's a universal dynamic, like Laurel and Hardy."
In person, they genuinely seem to find each other funny, topping each other's jokes and egging each other on to ever more ludicrous comic conceits. When I ask them where they hope to take the act, Barratt replies with an admirably straight face: "All over France in a small van with weird paintings on the side. We'll have adventures and solve crime while we're there."
They've both had their periods of avant-garde artiness. After Reading University, Barratt was in an experimental acid-jazz band and, at Brunel University, Fielding developed a cabaret act as Jesus doing the can-can on the Cross. "We didn't want to be like lots of other comedians," says Barratt, "so what we're doing is a reaction. We're trying to subvert comedy. We're not crazy revolutionaries; we're just reacting against that general approach of, 'Hey, where are you from? Have you ever noticed?' Most stand- up is incredibly boring. It's time for people to do something else."
Fielding chips in. "At Jongleurs, it's all 35-year-old men in suits talking about getting pissed and their girlfriends. People want to hear about different things. There is more than one way to skin a cat. Someone called Peter Cook the last great British amateur comedian - he'd amble out and score a century. We want to be like that. We're not into to being tight; we like baggy. Our stuff comes from a long line of nonsense - Edward Lear, Alice in Wonderland, Spike Milligan, Cook. That has seeped into people's lives. People like nonsense."
That's not universally true. "Last year in Edinburgh, some people got angry with me," Fielding recalls, "not because the show is offensive, but because it's frivolous nonsense. One table made a big thing of walking out, and a couple of them waited for me outside. Security warned me not to go out there. People feel excluded - it even divides some friends. If people don't find it funny, they can't in their brains decide why not. They get confused and scared."
The Mighty Boosh has a cult following that threatens to grow to Rocky Horror proportions; regulars delight in shouting out things like "ginger biscuits!" Barratt reckons that the fans relish the unpredictability of the act. "Most comedy is about surprise. You put together two things that don't go together. It's disconnected. I like random."
"In surrealist films," Fielding adds, "they use absurd juxtapositions and you laugh. There's a reaction in your brain because you're expecting something else. In a Dali film, a man falls out of a window, and in the next shot he's got a donkey's head on. There's this Magritte painting we really like, which has a man standing on a balcony with wings coming out of his suit opposite a lion facing the other way. It's called Homesickness. That's incredibly funny, because your brain doesn't expect it.
"It sounds wanky, but Andre Breton said that a lot of the automatic writing in the Surrealist Manifesto was funny. They'd read it back and it was so strange, they'd laugh. We call it the 'snot-bubble laugh' because it's so unexpected. A lot of Vic and Bob is like that."
The young comedians both acknowledge the influence of Reeves and Mortimer on their act. But how do they feel about the tag of "the new Vic and Bob"? "I don't mind," says Fielding. "There are worse things, like being called 'the new Little and Large'."
! `Boosh': Edinburgh Pleasance Above (0131 556 6550), to 31 August.
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