I first encountered The Mighty Boosh, the highly original, surreal comedy double act of Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding, a decade ago, upstairs at a run-down pub in north London. They were plying their unique style of defiantly oddball yet still strangely lovable humour to the proverbial two Surrealists and a Dadaist dog. If memory serves, it was some inspired lunacy about two postmen – one sent to the Arctic, where he fell for a yeti, the other to Spain, where he encountered a spiritual guide with catfish tendrils, Polo mints for eyes, and a severe case of Tourette's syndrome. No, me neither.
The show was clearly as mad as a box of frogs. But even then, you could see there was something special about the Boosh. They just took such delight in being wilfully daft, and it was utterly contagious. It was an unmitigated pleasure to spend time in the "Boosh-iverse".
Soon after, their captivating, ground-breaking humour began to gain a cult following, underlined by graffiti artists on the walls of the men's toilets at the pub. One fan had scrawled, "The Mighty Boosh – Ha!", to which another had responded: "Do you mean 'Ha!' as in 'is it funny?', or 'Ha!' as in 'I've discovered a way of reflecting light under the sea'?". I can't think of another comedy act that could prompt such glorious – and unhinged – graffiti.
Since then, the Boosh's peerless brand of daftness has attracted aficionados who border on the fanatical. They have tapped into a generation of broadband-savvy hipsters, and now you can hardly move on the net for Boosh fansites glorying in such names as "Modwolves". Meanwhile, student-union bars up and down the land echo to the sound of chemistry undergraduates parroting scenes from the show. In addition, the comedians have recently picked up NME, Chortle and Loaded awards, and in March, BBC3 cleared its schedules for a Mighty Boosh Night.
And yet it was only earlier this summer that the pair realised that they had broken through from cult to mainstream. Bizarrely, it came when the US President was visiting Northern Ireland in June. Fielding takes up the story. "Some Northern Irish kids gave George W Bush a plant and they'd written 'The Mighty Bush' on it. Bush was holding up this plant and all the kids behind him were laughing because he didn't know what it meant. That picture was on the front page of your newspaper, and I just thought, 'Wow, we must have made it!'."
But it's not just American presidents who have been caught up in the rocketing popularity of the pair. All manner of stars, from Harry Enfield to Steve Coogan, have been queuing up to profess their adoration of the impossibly trendy comedy duo. The double act had a taste of their peers' esteem at the Mighty Boosh Festival, a poptastic "happening" that they organised at the Hop Farm in Kent in the summer. They promoted it as an excuse to "get dressed up for a day in the country", and tens of thousands of fans responded by turning up clad as their favourite characters from the show. The Boosh were most impressed by those who had made the effort to come as the character Tony Harrison, described by Fielding as "a pink testicle with eight tentacles".
For the Festival, Barratt and Fielding had assembled an eclectic line-up, featuring everyone from Gary Numan to The Charlatans – they reportedly had to turn down Bono because he had asked to take part too late. People on the street have been equally positive about the Boosh. Fielding, in particular, gets mobbed wherever he goes. "It's been amazing," says the exuberant Fielding. "It used to be just cool kids, but now it's cab drivers and chavs, which is great because it means we're appealing to more people."
Their popularity is understandable when you encounter them face to face. When we meet up at a hip north London photographic studio, they radiate charisma like a force field in an old episode of Star Trek. Barratt, who studied at Reading University, is quiet and reserved – legend has it that he once sat through a press interview with his iPod on. Unlike Fielding, an enthusiastic guest captain on Never Mind the Buzzcocks, Barratt eschews TV panel shows, saying he would he rather stay at home with a good book. He may not be as extrovert as his partner, but Barratt nevertheless possesses an enviable dry wit, is a deep thinker about comedy, and utterly crucial to the success of the act. The Boosh is fuelled by the friction between the lugubrious Barratt and the effervescent Fielding. Without Barratt, there would be no Mighty Boosh.
Fielding, by contrast, is one of nature's exhibitionists. A graduate of Croydon College of Art, he appears to view the world through an absurdist prism. Today he is "dressed down" in big sunglasses with green rims, a line of kohl under each eye, faded black skinny jeans, a T-shirt bearing the legend "Oui!", and a silver-skull pendant. He has brought along a huge bag overflowing with costumes. It is for a photo shoot, but you get the impression that the flamboyant comedian probably never leaves home without it. He gleefully unpacks it. "Here's an outrageous wrestler's costume that makes me look like David Lee Roth. And this is a glittery silver jumpsuit with a pair of white platform boots – I never go anywhere without them!"
Barratt isn't here yet, so with a mischievous glint in his eye, Fielding flourishes a truly naff army hat. "I've brought this along for Julian. He doesn't know it yet, but I'm secretly styling him. Otherwise, he'd turn up in stuff they wouldn't take at Oxfam." This sort of mickey-taking is testament to the bond between Barratt and Fielding – it would only be tolerated in the closest of relationships. The duo enjoy a rare chemistry on stage. Like Reeves and Mortimer or The Two Ronnies, the pair are considerably more than the sum of their constituent parts. They push each other to new heights and, at their best, spark off each other. Barratt confirms as much. "It's like Laurel and Hardy. You can't subvert the basic relationship. My character thinks he knows it all and it always goes wrong for him, while Noel's is more naive but usually ends up on top. You can't change that mythic double-act status. The funny thing is, the more we adhere to those basic rules, the more we can muck around with nonsense and weave in absurd dialogue."
Fielding adds that, "the core of the partnership is 'can't live with you, can't live without you'. The animation and stunts we do are great, but the best bits are always Julian and I just standing around chatting. I don't know why we waste time flying around visiting men made of cheese. The strongest stuff is always the bickering!
"People say to us, 'Oh, it must be great because you can write anything', but in fact, we can't. It has to be very specific to Julian and me. My brother Michael, who plays Naboo, and Dave Brown, who is Bollo, have been around the Boosh for years, and suggest lines for us, V C but they're never quite right. Comedically, Julian and I are totally in tune. I can not speak to Julian for a month, but the moment we walk on stage together, it's there."
This week, the pair are embarking on a major live tour, which stretches into next year and takes in one of the largest comedy gigs this country has ever seen, at the O2 Arena in London on 17 December. The show will feature the two central Boosh characters, Vince Noir (Fielding) – a hep cat who looks cool even when dressed from head to toe in sparkly silver – and Howard Moon (Barratt) – a geeky jazz buff with a weakness for fawn polo necks. They are figures so weird and wonderful, they can, quite unprompted, break into a song hymning the joys of the bouncy castle – and no one will bat an eyelid.
The live show will give Barratt and Fielding ample opportunity to indulge their love of rummaging through the dressing-up box. Vince and Howard will be getting into all sorts of nonsensical scrapes with the gallery of freak-show characters – including the aforementioned Tony Harrison, Bollo the talking ape, the mysterious shaman Naboo, the menacing Hitcher, the dim-witted Moon, the Crack Fox and the Mod Wolf – that viewers have come to know and love during the course of three series on BBC2 and BBC3. Barratt says he hopes audiences will relish "entering the crazy world of Boosh". I'm sure their legions of fans will need no second invitation.
The duo summarise the show in "Boosh-speak": "see Naboo the Enigma and his cape of wonder. Look on in wonder at Bollo, the ape that dreamt he was a man. Discover what mysteries lurk in the Hitcher's hat. Marvel at the Moon as he soothes with his idiot wisdom. Expect punks and yetis and monsters with elbow patches, in a psychedelic meteorite of music and mayhem." Get the idea?
But just what is it about the Boosh's deranged humour that chimes with audiences, above all youngsters? Barratt reckons that, "people can see that we are part of a tradition of absurd comedy, stretching from Spike Milligan and Peter Cook through to Monty Python and Vic Reeves. We're not like Ricky Gervais's hyper-real cringe comedy. We're at the other end of the scale, but there's room for the sillier stuff, too."
Fans also appear to like the fact that the Boosh's unpredictable genre of comedy takes them by surprise. Rather like the surreal paintings of Magritte, the comics revel in juxtaposing incongruous elements. "With us, you'll be waiting for Jean Cocteau, and suddenly you'll get Benny Hill," says Fielding, a 35-year-old Londoner. "We hope our show is a fusion of Frank Spencer and Max Ernst, or Ronnie Barker and Salvador Dali. It's about things that shouldn't go together. We like the idea of a man with catfish tendrils and Polo-mint eyes who shouts at people for no reason."
Some people simply don't get the bizarreness of the Boosh, but that doesn't concern them. The point is that there is no point. "The idea is that people will think, 'What is going on?'," explains Barratt, who is 40 and hails from Leeds. "It's good to give people a jolt. If they're expecting one thing, it's important to give them something else. If you do something startling, audiences might at first freak out, but then they start to think, 'This is not going to be conventional, I'm going to enjoy this'."
Fielding acknowledges that with material as deliberately idiosyncratic as the Boosh's, "there will always be a danger of cliquishness. Our stuff divides people down the middle. Cab drivers sometimes say to me, 'My wife loves it, but I don't get it'. But why tell someone you don't like their stuff? I don't say to cabbies, 'My girlfriend enjoyed that journey, but I thought it was rubbish'.
"At one gig early on, four people walked out muttering, 'This is the worst thing I've ever seen', but at the end we got a standing ovation. Some people think, 'It's a Dadaist trick – I'm not accepting it'. But we're not out to be provocative, angry young men saying, 'You don't understand it – good, we won'. We want to do something that is weird, but that people can still buy into. Otherwise, you're left doing an embarrassing, wanky performance-art piece."
But, the duo argue, critics should calm down. "In the end," Fielding carries on, "the show isn't supposed to be taken seriously. It's just two blokes messing around in stupid hats. People can get sucked into our world and think, 'Great, we're going to the zoo or the Arctic'. Somebody said it was like a cheap-drugs trip: you don't know what happened for an hour, but you quite enjoyed yourself."
The other criticism that is levelled at the Boosh is that surrealism is easy as there is no need to make sense. Fielding, though, contends that what they do is far more difficult than it looks. "Because our style is loose, people think we can just toss it off in a couple of afternoons. But we actually work on it for ages. I remember Terry Gilliam saying that people thought Michael Palin and John Cleese just strolled on and did it, but they had to work hard at being silly."
The duo, who picked up the Perrier Best Newcomer Award in 1998, are publishing their first book, The Mighty Book of Boosh, in October, and next year they are planning a movie. After the festival, the Boosh are branching out further into music, with an album next year. Barratt is a highly gifted musician, who composes all the Boosh songs. He was in Groove Solution during the early Nineties, and played guitar on Little Chief's last tour of Europe. Music will constitute "30 to 40 per cent" of the live show. The pair have even suggested writing an "acid rock gothic musical" with Alice Cooper – a proposal about which Cooper, an avowed Boosh-ophile, seems very enthusiastic.
"We've got all these songs we like from the festival," Fielding says. "So we might weave them into a pompous rock opera like Tommy or War of the Worlds. We'll smash up the traditional form – and put in a few jokes, of course. We're thinking about making the Moon the narrator, but the Moon's an idiot, so that might be a problem!"
Like Doctor Who, the duo have to keep regenerating themselves to stay fresh. Barratt muses: "This business is ephemeral, and you have to maintain a healthy cynicism about it. There's a 'flavour of the month' aspect to it, so you have to keep moving on and mutating."
But whatever the Boosh do next, you can be sure that it will live up to the old Monty Python dictum: And now for something completely different. According to Barratt, "When we started out 10 years ago, we didn't want to be like lots of other comedians, so what we're doing is a reaction. We're not crazy revolutionaries; we're just reacting against that general approach of, 'Hey, have you ever noticed...?'. Most stand-up is incredibly boring. It's time for people to do something else".
Fielding chips in that "in comedy clubs, it's all thirtysomething men talking about getting pissed. People want to hear about different things. There is more than one way to skin a cat. You owe it to people to give them something different from blokes in suits going on about their girlfriends.
"Our show is subversive, but it's a quiet kind of rebellion. We're coming at people with silly hats and costumes. We're a clown army."
And with that, the Mighty Boosh are off. They have an urgent appointment with a glittery silver jumpsuit and a naff army hat.
The Mighty Boosh are at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh (0131-529 6000), tonight; their tour continues to 17 January (www.themightyboosh.com)
How to talk boosh
Like two characters in a play by Samuel Beckett, the dude-like Vince and the self-deluded Howard have been buried up to their necks in sand and abandoned to die in the desert:
Vince Noir: Howard? You think it's going to be all right?
Howard Moon: No. We're going to die in the most horrific way known to man [sighs in resignation].
Vince Noir: [smiling] Had some good times, though, didn't we?
Howard Moon: Yeah...
Vince Noir: Huh... yeah...
Howard Moon: [wistfully] Remember the time we had that soup?
Vince Noir: That was brilliant.
[They start singing]
Howard Moon, Vince Noir: Soup! Soup! A tasty... Soup! Soup! A spicy, carrot and coriander...
Vince Noir: ...chilli chowder!
Howard Moon, Vince Noir: Crouton! Crouton! Crunchy friends in a liquid broth. I am gazpacho... OH! I am a summer soup... Mm! Miso! Miso! Fighting in the dojo. Miso! Miso! Oriental prince in the land of soup!
[They stop singing]
Vince Noir: Classic times.
Howard Moon: [shaking his head] Crazy days...