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Boosh in The Sunday Times

Comedy: A class menagerie
Fairy tales meet David Lynch in the surreal world of The Mighty Boosh, says Stephen Armstrong

A boxing lesson in the world of The Mighty Boosh: Julian Barratt is in full flow, jiving his floored opponent like a lanky white Ali: “I’m Howard Moon. I rain down the pain. I’m Monsoon Moon, comin’ atcha like a beam, like a ray, like a laser. Don’t try and stop me. I’m quick like lightning. I’m frightening.” His opponent lies unconscious in the centre of the ring: an eight-year-old boy with fake kangaroo ears. Switch to the big fight, and Barratt’s Moon is getting plastered by a fighting roo whose vast gloves are delivering his face a ferocious battering. He staggers into his corner, where his number two, Vince Noir (Noel Fielding), has bad news. “I’m not a boxing trainer,” he explains awkwardly. “I’m a French duke. That’s my uncle over there.” The camera pans to a pre-Revolutionary fop waving his handkerchief in polite acknowledgment.

Barratt and Fielding, The Mighty Boosh, are the latest team to sport British comedy’s glorious mantle of surreal tomfoolery. In the shadow of the Goons and Python, they have taken the silly, the beautiful and the strange and mixed them up for television viewers, kicking off on BBC3 on Tuesday, with a BBC2 transfer likely in the autumn. For the Boosh’s base of hip young fans, it’s about time.

The path to television seemed to start so well. Leeds-born Julian Barratt, 36, moved to London to become a comic in 1994. He met south Londoner Fielding, 30, after the latter started stalking his gigs in 1997. “My mate Liz said, ‘You’ve got to come and see this bloke,’” Fielding recalls. “She worded it quite nicely, ‘He talks absolute sh** like you do.’ I’d done a couple of gigs at college and was thinking, ‘What I’m doing, could it be anything?’ And I saw him and thought, ‘If he’s getting paid for that, I certainly can.’”

After spotting Fielding’s impressive barnet lurking at the back once too often, Barratt dared him to take the open-mike slot at his next gig. In true Hollywood fashion, Fielding’s act went down a storm, and Barratt, realising he had spawned a monster, promptly asked him if he wanted to write “the new Goodies”. “I gave him a lift home and asked to come in for a coffee,” Barratt recalls, “and he said, ‘You do know if you come in, you can never leave?’ I went, ‘Yeah, that’s fine.’ And he said, ‘No, you can never leave.’ It turns out he was telling the truth.”

They picked up a Perrier best newcomer award for their first stage show in 1998, titled The Mighty Boosh, and a grown-up nomination the following year for Arctic Boosh. Then they returned to the Smoke after 2000’s Auto Boosh and vanished. They had entered development hell.

“It was a bumpy old mess to get here,” Fielding says cheerfully when we meet in the cafe of an east London studio during filming. “Post-Edinburgh, we gigged around — Melbourne, Montreal, lots of talk of TV, but nothing ever materialised. So we had a wonky patch. Julian did a bit of acting and I played bass in IMX and did a solo show in Edinburgh, but we were waiting for the TV people to give us the go-ahead. It all just dragged on.”

Even once the show was commissioned, the world of television found itself unsure about their oeuvre. The duo shatter television’s fourth wall as often as they did in their live show, breaking off and chatting to the audience at home. TV-land didn’t approve. “People see you on stage, say we’d like to put it on TV and then go off and interview a load of housewives about you,” grumbles Barratt. “Suddenly, you’re at the behest of focus groups who say middle-aged sailors like the word ‘coin’ more than they like the word ‘broccoli’, so you should try and do some coin stuff, but then bring in the broccoli later for the housewives. You spend all this time working things out, and then people don’t trust you to do your job.”

At last, however, the show is ready, and it’s genuinely delightful. Set in a bizarre zoo run by the insane Bob Fossil, it features Moon and Noir as zookeepers with a certain amount of frustrated ambition. Plots usually involve the boastful but hapless Moon embarking on misguided schemes — boxing a kangaroo, finding a mysterious stone in the Arctic, solving animal kidnaps — and having to be rescued by chirpy cockney Noir. While most surreal comedy comes from a dark place filled with the grotesque and unsettling (see The League of Gentlemen), The Mighty Boosh is like a fairy tale directed by David Lynch, and could almost pass muster for 10-year-olds.

“Television these days is just endless houses filled with people I’ve never seen before, chatting on in really harshly lit kitchens,” says Fielding, an art-college graduate, explaining how this vision came about. “It makes me feel a bit ill. I want people to watch us and then feel the need to go off and do something. Painters that make you want to paint, they’re the best painters.”

The show is unlikely to achieve the status of The Office, but may be seen as more significant by those who care about such things. If this current glorious time of comedy creativity is a gag-based version of the 1960s, with The Office as the Beatles and Nighty Night as the Stones, the Boosh are early Pink Floyd, with their pastoral dandy charm and unusual choices.

This analogy doesn’t impress the boys, however. “I hate those comedy clichés,” says Barratt. “Someone said Lee Evans was like Norman Wisdom on acid, but if you actually watched Norman Wisdom on acid, it would just be watching a man slowly turning in on himself.”

“It’s hard to say what we’re like, because we’re not like anything,” Fielding adds. “That’s what I’m most proud of. At least it’s its own thing. If we did do a sitcom about an office, it wouldn’t be like The Office. They’d find a hole in the back of a cupboard that would take them all to another land.” Then they have to leave. Today’s project is releasing Moon from Monkey Hell, where he went to be punished for unnatural relations with a fox after Mr Death took him by accident. Welcome to the world of the Boosh.

The Mighty Boosh, BBC3, Tuesdays at 10.30pm