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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Mighty Boosh’s Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding

Illustration for article titled iThe Mighty Boosh/i’s Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding

The theme to Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding’s BBC series invites viewers to “journey… into the world of The Mighty Boosh,” and the global reference is no exaggeration. Beginning as a live show, first in alternative-performance venues and then three years running at the Edinburgh Comedy Festival, the Boosh welcomed its audience into the Zooniverse, a depopulated zoo run by the tyrannical Yank Bob Fossil (Rich Fulcher) and tended by two odd-sock zookeepers: self-styled “jazz maverick” Howard Moon (Barratt) and mod fashion victim Vince Noir (Fielding). The zoo, however, is merely a starting point from which the thick-witted duo might end up searching the Arctic for a fabled jewel, or seeking out the zoo’s long-lost former owner, whose cheese-heavy diet has left him with a head like a hunk of Swiss. Drawing on Barratt’s musical background and Fielding’s art-school training, the show incorporates ad hoc musical numbers and elaborate design, and its success in their native England has allowed the Boosh aesthetic to spread into other media, including a live rock festival and a book that’s more objet d’art than fan companion. In essence, The Mighty Boosh is a comic gesamtkunstwerk, a total artwork encompassing an ever-expanding range of forms.


Major stars in their home country, where they’ve played a show at London’s Wembley Arena, Barratt and Fielding recently got a toehold in the States with the DVD release of the show’s first three seasons. (A box set is due out October 13.) With two Blackberry-wielding publicists shuffling interviews and vetting guests lists in the background, Barratt and Fielding took a breather from their hectic schedule to sit down with The A.V. Club in Manhattan. Although the two habitually finish each others’ sentences and occasionally go off in different directions simultaneously, the transcript has been simplified for the purpose of clarity.

The A.V. Club: The show grew out of your collaboration, but when you watch it, the tone is so specific and idiosyncratic, it’s hard to believe that any two people could be on the same specialized wavelength. When you first started working together, was there an instant feeling of kinship?


Julian Barratt: We’ve both worked with other people, and still do, but looking at the show now, you realize quite how special it was, sort of—

Noel Fielding: How lucky.

JB: Lucky. You meet someone who you’re on the same—it’s quite rare, it happens a few times, maybe, in your life—

NF: It doesn’t happen. Never.

JB: —you meet someone. It’s like…

JB/NF: [In unison.] Falling in love.

NF: …with someone. It probably doesn’t happen that many times in your life. I think you can probably find people you can write with a few times.


JB: Luckily, you can sort of have a bit more of an open relationship, you know? But it’s quite a rare thing to get that and—

NF: What are you trying to say? You been seeing other writers?

JB: [Mock-defensive.] It’s just purely jokes. Just hard, cold jokes.

NF: Right, no setups.

JB: Nothing. Just punchlines. And yeah, it’s kind of a—

NF: It is luck.

JB: We weren’t doing anything else at the time, so we could come together and just throw ourselves into this work. We just worked on it, and that was all we did, for years and years and years and years, and developed a whole way of speaking, and a whole world of characters and people. And we were left alone. When you start out, you’re very protected. No one cares what you do, and you haven’t got families, and you haven’t got anything. You just live in this world of Boosh. That’s how we developed the thing.


NF: We did a show every year in Edinburgh for three years running, so that gave us three years of just writing Boosh stuff, and then we did a radio show for a year, and then we did touring for a couple years, then we did a TV show, then another TV show, then a live show, then another TV show, so we’ve been pretty much working solidly for 10 years.

JB: If the Boosh was a bit more of a specific thing, or less multi-limbed, we would probably have done it and moved on. But because—Noel, you do visual stuff, you paint, and there’s some visual stuff we put in the Boosh. And I do music as well, and I like to do acting, so we made it more that it encompasses a lot of the sort of things we like to do, so it kept us plugged into all parts of our brains, which was good.


NF: We mostly use it for everything we wanted to do, rather than it being just one aspect and then wanting to find those other aspects from other people and other relationships. I did carry on doing a bit of stand-up, doing a little bit of acting. There’s the music. What’s nice is, we can incorporate everything we sort of do or want to do into this world.

JB: A cooking program might be decent. We can explore that aspect of our relationship.


NF: There is a cooking show in our show.

NF: I’ve got one for that chef character. The French last-ditcher with a pepper-grinder for a nose.


JB: I’d like to do a book of menus.

NF: Really?

JB: Yeah, just weird, sort of… “Night-bruised onions.”

NF: Very funny. But made up?

JB: Yes. Or “wine-saddened potatoes.” Just sort of weird recipes. “Leave an orange in the shadow of a…”


NF: “Jealous pomegranate.”

JB: “Shadow of an angry man for four minutes.”

NF: [Laughs.] That’d be quite good.

JB: Yeah.

NF: The zest of a parsnip. The whimsical zest from a shaved parsnip. That’s good. We should do that. We should publish that.


AVC: When you write, do the two of you sit down together with a blank page?

JB: Well, because it’s two of us, we talk—

NF: There’s two of us.

JB: “There’s two of you.” We’re in it, and we’re the writers, so you can sit down and do the beginning scenes, the dialogues, and you’ve got everything you need right there to see if it’s working. We just chat and come at the characters and everything. So he’ll do a voice, and that voice’ll…


NF: [Laughs.] …be the one I use in the show.

JB: I’ll write some music for a character. We didn’t know how to write TV or anything like that when we started. Just had a wild stab in the dark.


NF: We realized, though, that by trying to do everything ourselves, we’d learned loads. And that once we got it right—well, you never clearly get it right, but once you get it to a state where people are liking it—it’s got quite a lot of facets to it. It’s big, it was quite hard to do, but when we got into a groove, it was more effective. It wasn’t narrow.

JB: We were kind of control freaks in the beginning, trying to do every department, every job that everyone was trying to do on the show. I have a slight thought of myself as a director, even though I’ve never directed anything, so I was telling the director what to do.


NF: I was cleaning the lenses for the camera.

JB: Asking, “What’s that? What you doing that for?” And being very intrusive. Eventually, after having done a series or two, you stood back and went, “Okay.” You build up a team of people surrounding you, with all the jobs they can do.


NF: We sort of develop shorthand, with the makeup or whatever. You get a sort of dialogue going.

JB: The writing of it was always such a particular kind of thing that we had. It’s a very particular kind of stupidness. It just comes from both our minds, and other people, it’s hard to join in on it. They can join in. Things like structure, narratives, you can help someone do that a bit more.


NF: The dialogue is very specific to our…

JB: All the little ideas and things, and the way of wrong-footing people, it’s all very particular to us, and it’s hard to have a big team of writers do that. Every show nearly kills us, you know? And then you just think, “I never want to do that again.” And then you think, “Well, why can’t we just get a team of writers, like Seinfeld?” But there’s people like the Team America guys, they write it all themselves.


NF: But they’re not in it, though.

JB: That’s true.

NF: We’re in it. And you’re doing a lot of the music, and I’m doing a lot of visual stuff. So we’re doing a lot of stuff, it’s quite difficult.


JB: What he’s trying to say is, what we do is really difficult.

NF: Really difficult.

JB: Much harder for us than it is for everyone else.

AVC: The show gets labeled as “surreal” a lot, which you’re not fond of, but it’s actually pretty tightly structured. A lot of elements that seem random at first end up coming back.


JB: Resurge.

NF: Reincorporate, yeah.

AVC: In “Jungle,” Vince talking about how he’s “king of the mods” just seems like vain nattering, but it ends up being critical to the plot when he’s able to subdue the Mod Wolves.


JB: Usually that comes from us writing and thinking about the idea for a long time and then eventually thinking, “How can we get through this?” and banging our heads against the wall. And eventually, you get through, don’t you?

NF: Sometimes you get a nice image quite quickly, and you think, “That’ll come back later,” and you’re quite pleased, because you know you’re heading toward somewhere. It’s quite useful.


JB: But you can’t really see that happen. Some people can plan out what they’re going to write and plan out the episode in a structural, very universal way—this happens, this happens, this happens—and then write it. But we can’t really do that. We write in a very sort of backward way, from microscopic detail, and then just move forward. It’s quite painful, because you have to then let go of things a lot, but you also get to places you can’t get to by planning it out.

NF: There’s no way you could get to it from trying.

JB: No. I think that’s what the Coen brothers do. They write themselves into a corner and put the script in a drawer. And then they figure it out later and come back to it.


NF: You couldn’t possibly get to those points. There’s no way you could, unless you just write in the wrong direction, and then you go, “Oh, but then there’s this, and this element, and you put them together and they’re disparate, but they sort of work.” But it’d be ridiculous to just go, “All right, well, we’ll fuse milk and a cyclops.” If you did it that way around, it’d be ridiculous. If there’s an episode about milk, then that cyclops actually had a calcium deficiency. But it would be weird, it would be too contrived that way around. But if you can try and do it the other way around, people can’t see it coming. It’s more like a magic trick.

Sometimes your brain does it. Say that I said “carrots” and not “milk,” and something to do with eyes, and being able to see. Sometimes your brain does subconsciously make these leaps and connections. These sparks come. Sometimes you’re lucky, is all. Coincidence. You go, “Oh, that’s good, because of that!”


AVC: There is a strange sort of innocence about the show, and certainly about the characters. They’re childlike in a certain way. Not the more pleasant kind of way, necessarily.

JB: Emotionally…

NF: Retarded.

JB: Like when we were, what, 14, maybe?

NF: Have you said that? Someone said that.

JB: Someone said all good comic characters, none of them are over 16.

NF: Really?

AVC: That sort of adult self-consciousness doesn’t lend itself to comedy.

JB: You learn to hide everything, don’t you, when you’re a bit older. Mechanisms kick in.


AVC: You just have to remove the superego.

JB: Yeah, I suppose there’s an innocence to it. [To Noel.] Your stand-up’s very innocent, and the way you write is very innocent. It’s like a child telling a grown-up story, the way you present your stuff. You’re all about juxtapositions and startling wrong turns of imagery, which is amazing. I really like that, but I don’t do that. I don’t do stand-up anymore. When we write together, there’s different aspects to our personalities and our way of writing things.


NF: It’s in a different vein. You are doing some weird imagery. Some of it is quite horror, or science fiction.

JB: What we do is take something startling and funny, and then think how it might be reincorporated, and then you weave it into the narrative, so it’s not just surreal, it’s not just non sequiturs. There’s a logic to it. You follow the logic of the story. It’s quite sane.


NF: We realized that if you do weird stuff, and the logic’s weird, it all goes everywhere and doesn’t work.

JB: I like that sort of stuff, but it’s not what the Boosh is. Your stuff on your own is more random, and maybe stuff I want to do on my own is a bit more serious. I write tragedies and things when I’m alone. Chekhovian dramas.


NF: [Laughs.] That’s not even a joke.

[pagebreak]AVC: Looking at the three series, you have a very solid framework for the first one: It’s the two of you at the zoo. And then the second series is essentially framework-less, except that you start in your apartment and then go on crazy adventures.


JB: Journeys, yeah.

AVC: And then the third is a little in-between. You’ve got the frame of you working in a magic shop, but the episodes go in all kinds of directions.


NF: It was more like a sitcom, in a weird way.

JB: We thought we’d try and make the world smaller and then develop the characters.


NF: We did an interesting place to be, then we did journeys, adventures. And then we did a more boring place.

JB: I like the second one.

NF: I like the second one best as well.

JB: It’s much more free. You could go anywhere. One is just a coconut on a desert island. We’re on a desert island for the whole episode.


NF: You don’t worry about the flat in the second one.

JB: Strangely, by getting out of there, you just concentrate on me and you more. But I’ve changed my mind a lot about it.


NF: Often, we realize we’ve changed our minds just to do something else. Just to push ourselves to do something different. And it’ll be because we’re sick of it. We do think it might be a bit much if we do another six adventures. How many monsters can we make the musical style of?

JB: The basic thing is, with our characters, they’re always the same. The relationship between the two characters is a similar kind of dynamic all the time. There are some key jokes for us. The joke of our characters.


NF: We realize people are way behind us as well. They’re enjoying that aspect. For 10 years.

JB: We’re really bored of it.

NF: We’re always trying to subvert that, and people are still trying to get their heads around what it is. They love the fact that I’m me, and the forest makes friends with him, and somehow he saves us. They love the fact that you get really uptight about that and can’t read maps, but you think you can. But we’re, “We aren’t gonna do that again, are we?” And then we realize that people are sort of not up where we are mentally. We’ve been doing it for so long live, and on the radio, and TV. We’ve been doing it forever, it feels like. But some people just get, “Oh, great, I love what you do.”


JB: You need to remember that.

NF: You have to respect your characters a bit and not try and change them up too much. Because you change what they are, in essence.


JB: Just because you’re bored.

NF: Because you feel you’ve done that joke six times. But that might not have been the perfect version of that joke.


AVC: You’re pretty big celebrities in England, but most people in the U.S. have never had a chance to look at your work. They haven’t had time to get sick of it.

NF: It’s great. It’s good getting out to other places. Australians seemed to get it straight away. It took a while in England, but we were slightly unfashionable in England—not unfashionable culturally, but unfashionable in terms of producers.


JB: It’d be nice to do the Conchords-type thing, because they’d been doing what they did, then they came here and sort of reinvented themselves—you know, they set it in New York, quite good. Not that we would do that, but it’d be nice to do something—don’t know what. We’d do some live stuff, definitely, but it’s whether there’s something to make over here—I always think of the Boosh as being on an island between England and America. Not an island, but somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic.

NF: Who knows where it’s set.

JB: I don’t know where it is. It’s not really in England.

NF: It’s not in London. It’s not at all.

JB: The third series is supposed to be in London.

NF: It’s in Shoreditch.

JB: But it never felt like that to me. I always imagined it was in some weird parallel universe.


NF: This little town in the middle of a desert.

JB: We originally wanted to set it in the middle of a forest.

NF: Call it Boys In The Wood.

JB: I don’t know. We’re just sort of muddling through.

NF: We change our minds a lot. But we usually make whatever we decide on. We usually make it work somehow. Sometimes we realize that it’s a lot easier to change the big idea rather than keep hammering away at an idea that doesn’t quite fit. Which we’ve done a lot.


JB: There is an ultimate story that we want to try and do. Maybe that’s what a film would be.

NF: A journey, yeah.

JB: We’d try to find the ultimate quest. The stupidest—one that sums our characters up and incorporates all the other monsters and music that we can throw at it. That’s the film we want to make, if you want to do that. That or another series.


NF: There’s also Rudi and Spider. Something more magical, a story with them that’s set in nowhere, and everyone’s weird in that.

JB: That’s more of a kung-fu-type story.

NF: Star Wars type. A strange Carlos Castaneda, Carlos Santana-type epic journey. Sort of get together some caravan of people that are going to defeat something, some sort of band. That could be more animated; it could be more weird-looking, maybe. There’s a few things we’d like to do, but it’s just choosing the right thing at the right time, because you’ve got to put quite a lot of work into it. It’s a film. It takes a long time, so you’re out of action for a couple of years. If you don’t get it right, it comes and goes. That’s what Seinfeld said. You put three years of your life in a film, and two weeks later, no one wants to see it. It’s like, “Shit, what was I doing?”


AVC: Julian, you come out of a music background, while Noel’s background is more in visual arts, both of which are big parts of the show. So do you each have dominion over those spheres on the show? How does it work?

JB: [Deep voice.] “Dominion.” I have dominion over you. Yeah, I don’t really know. We both do a bit of—


NF: There’s massive crossover, isn’t there?

JB: Noel’s good at coming up with melodies and lyrics.

NF: Yes, and Julian’s very good at visual stuff.

JB: Because I’ve spent a lot of time making music, and I know how to make it and make it sound right. A lot of production.


NF: I have a hard time getting involved in that.

JB: But you sing a melody, like, “Oh, right, I can translate that into something.” That’s the sort of stuff that takes the time.


NF: We know what each other can do quite well. Julian enjoys putting music together after we come up with a rough demo, so I let him get on with that. If I’ve got an idea for a costume or makeup or a monster…

JB: He does the drawing and that. I get excited when you start the idea of what these characters can be wearing, and then you get into the details of mixing it up a little bit. Making a mythical beast in sneakers, and all that idea of jumbling up mythical beasts and modern dress. It’s quite good.


NF: We get excited about specific things. When Julian played Bryan Ferry, we fought to give him blue eyebrows. I don’t know why, but it seemed to work.

JB: Bryan Ferry had blue eyes, and we said, “We could put in blue contact lenses,” but we didn’t have any. So we said, “Let’s cut some blue eyebrows.”


NF: “There’s a little blue in his face.”

JB: But actually, that was a painting that you’d done which had something blue on there. We were doing it from a painting. We had bits of painted cards.


NF: And you had a chin with a price tag on or something.

JB: Yeah. They were going to cut that off. I went, “No, leave that on.”

NF: That’s good, yeah.

NF: Yeah. [Laughs.] I mean, in a way, it’s just having freedom to find stuff. Not worrying too much. Sometimes the freedom, the looseness of everything coming together makes the style stronger than if you were really sort of Nazi-ish about it: “It has to look like this, this, and this.” But it can be anything in the Boosh. It’s quite frightening and daunting. Because the world is so big and vast, it could almost be anything. That scares the shit out of us when we’re writing. We get, “Oh my God. We could film an episode upside-down if we wanted to.” Because our show allows that. It wouldn’t work if you did that for Bilko. You’d just go, “Why are you upside-down?” But for us, people would go, “I’m sure there’s a way they can make that work. I don’t know how.”


JB: I don’t know, we’d have to try and get back the right away around.

NF: Sometimes limits are good, because always you’re just a bit frightened. It’s nice that we can do that.


JB: We could become horses in a show. I don’t think that would happen.

NF: We could actually turn into horses, or apes, and it’d be fine. Our audience wouldn’t mind that, you know?


NF: It does give us a lot of scope.

AVC: You mentioned the costumes, which are quite elaborate, but they always have a kind of ramshackle quality, as if they were—or perhaps in fact are—put together from random things out of the prop shop.


JB: This came from the live world, where you would just cobble stuff together, and it gives it a look, an aesthetic. The beginning way we began making the show was from gaffer tape. Gaffer tape features in a lot of our visuals. We would use Polos [mints], because that’s a quick way to make eyes or masks. We like deadpan sort of masks, and deadpan sort of creatures. For some reason, it’s quite important. When they were looking to make costumes for us, we suddenly found they were making them all goofy, with goofy eyes, and crazy, sort of Disney-fied creatures, and we went, “This is all wrong. We need to make them look really strange and blank and evil.” It’s a very specific aesthetic, so we wanted to retain it in the TV stuff. It doesn’t become any funnier if you use CGI. Like in Holy Grail, Terry Gilliam made the world and everyone so realistic, which was so brilliant. And then in the middle of that, to have the coconuts, the horses. Such a bizarre juxtaposition of low-fi and realism.

AVC: At what point do the songs come into the process? Do you build the story around the song, or the song around the story?


JB: We do the stories. We get the characters, and we sort of imagine that they might do a rap, or say with Old Gregg—

NF: He’d turned into Rick James at that point. And ODB and Little Richard.

JB: So it’s like this funky merman.

NF: Sometimes it’s just stuff we’re into, and want to do a song like that. But it usually comes out of the story—the characters, like the Hitcher.


JB: They don’t stand alone, these songs, particularly. We try to do them sometimes live.

NF: We tried to do a festival.

JB: Yeah. And we realized we’re not really a band. [Laughs.]

NF: We took them out of context, and they didn’t make any sense. Like the Hitcher rap, even though it’s him rapping and he’s my character, the first line is, “Trapped in a box by a Cockney nutjob, ’ave a cuppa tea.” And he has trapped Howard in a box, and that’s what he’s singing about. If you don’t trap Howard in a box, it’s just mad.


JB: We were very into Dennis Potter, the brilliant way his music came out of the narrative. It’s an old musical sort of way. It’s just very funny. Musicals are just funny to me.

NF: No one was really doing that in comedy when we first started doing it in Edinburgh.


JB: We sort of like the old-style Bing and Bob stuff, road movies, and things like that. We like that. They do a lot of songs.

NF: That’s because they’ve got Bing Crosby. But they’re funny.

JB: We were just doing tunes that were a bit more modern and using modern music we’re into, and rap. Like Morecambe and Wise with Beck music, is what we were doing at the beginning. Like vaudeville, but with quite good music.


NF: Music can be really funny, I think, in the right context, coming out of the narrative. When it works best, is if there’s a musical style, a monster, a narrative—when all those points get together, that’s when the Boosh is the best. Like when the Hitcher puts Julian in a box, and you go, “What the hell is happening here?” And you slide into that box. It’s all weird, dark, magical, then the song’s a bit like The Shamen, but it supports the narrative as well. You’ve got three things all coming together—the music, the look, and the narrative.

JB: We don’t question it too much. We try not to, because there isn’t a formula. Or if there is, I don’t really want to know it. If something starts making us laugh, we just want to go with it.


NF: You can usually feel it. That’s the fun of it. It’s all feel, it’s not thought. With Rich Fulcher as Tommy Cheese, and he was made of cheese, even though he’s a rockabilly, we couldn’t do a Dick Dale surf rockabilly tune. He just did a weird sort of rap. But it felt quite right. Him beatboxing, with his big head.

JB: He’s made of cheese, and he’s all deformed, and then he had little jeans on that were rolled up, so he’d obviously taken some time to roll up his jeans.


NF: He’s a bit like Marlon Brando.

JB: With the cigarette packet under his arm.

NF: But then he did this beatboxing. And that’s not how you thought that character—it’s not appropriate for that character to beatbox. But it felt right. It’s always if it feels right or it feels wrong. That’s why we can’t work with anyone else, and we have to write it all ourselves. Because no one else can ever get it. Even if they’re an inch out, we go [Skeptical look, sharp intake of breath.]. We have this horrible thing where somebody’s giving ideas to us, and we keep glancing at each other. Always at the same point in the conversation, they go, “And you could do this,” and we realize, we can’t. It always has to be me and him in a room, locked in there crying.


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