In the weeks leading up to last spring’s U.S. debut of the British cult comedy The Mighty Boosh on Adult Swim — more than a decade after the original stage show and five years after the premiere of the television series — the buzz has surpassed the confines of the Internet and entered L.A. nightclub chat. Those who had access to region-free DVD players spread the word: If you like Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace or Look Around You, two other strange British comedies that had aired on the Cartoon Network’s night shift, then you’ll love this.
Known to fans simply as The Boosh, the show and its related media projects are the brainchild of British comedians Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding. The two, respectively, portray Howard Moon and Vince Noir, two eccentrics with rock-star ambitions, who escape the drudgery of zoo-keeping, flat life and retail work by indulging in fantastic adventures, often accompanied by the stoned shaman Naboo (played by Noel’s brother, Michael Fielding) and talking-ape Bollo (Dave Brown). But it isn’t just the psychedelic wonderland of The Boosh that has fans talking, it’s the music, original songs that manage to both parody and reverently re-create the sound of the British and American underground at the moment it was created.
“People like that aspect of it, but we never really thought of it as an angle to hook people in,” says Barratt, on the phone from England. “We wrote that way. People would come up to us afterward and say, ‘we like the way the music works,’ or ‘we like the way you do music,’ or ‘we like the songs.’ We sort of realized that it’s a powerful way into it.”
Despite their substantial careers in comedy, throughout the years the partners have both crossed over into the music realm. Barratt was a jazz musician prior to finding his comedic calling, and Fielding, though he claims not to be much of a musician, has toured with the Kills in the States. Both of The Boosh founders have done time playing bass for IAMX, the electro-rock sensation helmed by Sneaker Pimp’s founder, Chris Corner. The show itself is peppered with cameo appearances from rock and electronic luminaries, from Roger Daltrey and Gary Numan to hip, young groups like Robots in Disguise, Razorlight and the Horrors. The Mighty Boosh has even spawned its own minicraze with crimping, a scat-influenced style of group singing that has launched hundreds of YouTube clips, and a festival that took place in the U.K. last year.
Yet everything you need to know about music and The Mighty Boosh is wrapped into one scene at the beginning of the “Electro” episode, from the series’ first season. Howard Moon is in a “jazz trance,” a precarious state wherein he scrunches his face and dances with strange, herky-jerky moves. His best friend and fellow zookeeper Vince Noir slaps him out of said trance and pops a Human League cassette into the tape player.
“That’s electro nonsense,” Moon says.
“They’re electro pioneers,” Noir argues. “They invented music.”
“Invented music?” Moon asks. “What happened before them, then?”
“It was just tuning up before then.”
The heroes of The Boosh universe are music-obsessed archetypes. Moon is the serious jazz fan and occasional proponent of jazz funk, a musician who claims to be “the best” in the land, though his performances often end badly. He can never catch a break with the ladies, although he does attract the eye of crazed merman Old Gregg, and is generally down on his luck in all matters. Conversely, Noir is the perfectly coiffed, flamboyantly fashionable type who flits from electro to mod to punk to new rave. Vince takes his trends seriously; he doesn’t just go mod but becomes “King of the Mods,” a title he emphasizes by striking poses worthy of Daltrey in 1965 or Paul Weller in 1977, and unknowingly influences a pack of wolves to follow his lead. He’s the charmed one with a knack for skating through life without suffering quite as many humiliations as Moon, who causes much of the show’s tension.
That Barratt and Fielding have created a show as absurd as it is relevant is an accomplishment, but that they do this without ever mocking their characters, without resorting to misplaced irony or snarkiness, is what makes it a true success. Barratt and Fielding haven’t simply hit the cultural Zeitgeist, but they’ve imbued it with a sense of intelligence and imagination that many might have thought lost in the midst of pop culture noise before The Boosh hit the U.S.
“It’s not very flippant in a way, it has its own logic,” says Barratt of the show. “Our characters have to have a journey and an emotional sort of reality. The reality of the characters, the emotional reality has to be believable.”
As for the glut of music trends that have appeared on the show, that’s just the byproduct of the writers’ own interests.
“Noel will be into a certain type of music or I’ll be into a certain type of music and we’ll bring that in — ‘What if this character is into this or does this?’ ” Barratt continues. “We’re not trying to make a show that appeals to everyone. It’s just our own interests.”
Consider The Mighty Boosh required viewing for music freaks who dream of journeying down the rabbit hole. Like all good Absurdist fantasies, the show makes sense because it doesn’t make sense, because underneath the layers of psychedelic characters and bizarre plot twists, there is a strangely logical explanation for everything (of course a ninja would deliver Noir’s magazines. How else could he stay at the height of fashion?). It’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland set to a postmillennial soundtrack.
“When I was a kid, I was more influenced by the drawings, actually — the original ones — John Tenniel,” says Fielding, who attended art school before becoming a comedian. “I always found them to be quite frightening because they were quite real but quite disturbing. The Mad Hatter and stuff, he looked like a real person. They were quite odd, those drawings.”
“I’ve always been interested in that stuff that’s on the borderline between making you laugh and making you scared,” Barratt adds. “We could go darker still, but there’s a fine line, you know. We like that sort of line, a bit weird and a bit scary, but makes you laugh at the same time.”
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It’s the Boosh’s knack for thoughtful weirdness that has made them the comedic counterpart to today’s underground music scene. “The basis of it is very simple,” Barratt explains. “It’s very old-fashioned really, like Laurel and Hardy or any of those things. We’re not trying to do anything crazier than that.”
“It’s not a narrow sort of concept,” Fielding notes. “We can go on adventures to other worlds, have different styles of music, different people, different characters. It’s sort of quite free in that way, but it’s almost that we’ve created a world that is bigger than the world, which is quite frightening. It took a long time. It took 10 years to create that.”
The Mighty Boosh will be part of a MySpace Secret Show on July 28 at the Roxy, and will include a full cast DJ set. Go to myspace.com/secretstandup.