Noel Fielding on why he keeps shouting out his age: The Mighty Boosh man hits Belfast next month
He may be a big name thanks to the lovably surreal BBC show, but will the Belfast audience warm to Noel Fielding's zany antics when he hits the stage next month? He certainly hopes so, discovers Edwin Gilson
In the world of Noel Fielding, weird is very much synonymous with wonderful. His career resembles a one-man mission to highlight the sheer breadth of the human imagination, and less than 10 minutes into our conversation he's already lamenting "how conservative young people have got".
"I grew up in the Seventies, and everything was completely mental. TV shows, music, colours - all pretty insane. I don't think kids are exposed to that kind of weirdness nowadays. Those things permeated me - they had a big impact."
The surreal television programme The Mighty Boosh was, for some, the first taste of Fielding's left-field approach to comedy. In the show, Fielding's "magical fairy" of a character, Vince Noir, shared a flat with a gorilla. Because … well, why not? Since the initially cult Boosh went mainstream, and the comedian's profile was raised astronomically, his alternative stylings have found outlets via regular stints on the panel TV show Never Mind the Buzzcocks, the garish sketch programme Noel Fielding's Luxury Comedy and now a live tour that is every bit as freaky as his work to date.
He brings his show, An Evening with Noel Fielding, to Belfast's Ulster Hall on December 14. Fielding cheekily bills the set as "bleak confessional stand-up", but anyone who has ever witnessed any of his TV work can probably tell this description is as far from reality as some of his madcap, improbable sketches.
"Don't get me wrong, I love observational comedy too - if it's funny, it's funny," says Fielding. "But my writing's always had a fantastical edge. It's about escapism. I've always gravitated towards comedians who present different worlds."
In the live set, Fielding's penchant for fantasy manifests itself in his kidnapping and deportation to a parallel universe made of plasticine (among other unlikely occurrences).
"The show goes all over the place," laughs the comic, not for the first time during our chat. He's a very generous chuckler. "Some of it is improvised. I have a rough idea of where I'm going, and it seems to be working."
Some reviews of the show have pointed out Fielding's tendency to sheepishly mention his age (41), after particularly manic moments in the set. Surely he isn't genuinely embarrassed about it?
"Ha, no I don't really mind being 41. I consider myself somewhat of a Peter Pan figure anyway! It just goes down well when I say my age directly after doing something really childlike and ridiculous."
Like all comedians, it's Fielding's desire to make a room crease up that is the primary motivation behind all his output, and one of the reasons why he "missed the stage so much" after five years away from the circuit doing television work. Though he clearly relishes performing in front of a camera, the routine of scripting and filming a programme can feel like a "virtual life," according to Fielding. "I did two TV shows back to back; Never Mind the Buzzcocks and Luxury Comedy, which took up about four years of my life. You don't really get to see an audience when making a TV show, and it's weird not to have that instant reaction and laughter. It can make you a bit fed-up. It was the same with The Mighty Boosh. We were just in a room writing, then in a studio filming, then it went out on TV. You don't know if anybody is actually watching it.
"Sometimes TV can make you feel like you're doing something that isn't worthwhile. Like 'Does anyone actually like this?'"
Another crackle of laughter from Fielding, perhaps resulting from the gratification of knowing that he needn't have worried about the success of the Boosh. After three television series, Fielding and his Boosh partner Julian Barrett took their creation on the road, including huge dates at the O2 and Wembley Arenas in London. Fielding couldn't quite believe the size of the audiences they were performing to, particularly given the original niche status of The Mighty Boosh, and its small but devoted group of fans.
"Julian and I made Boosh in private but then it became very public," he says. "I still think the amazing achievement of the Boosh, though, was that everyone thought it was their own personal thing. Bob Mortimer said watching the Boosh was like eavesdropping on a private conversation, and I really like that. Even when we played the O2 Arena, I'm sure every single person there thought it was just them and their friends who liked the Boosh. It's like a club - you can join in if you want, and if not you can leave. That's really cool nowadays when everyone's like 'Hey, look at me!"'
Half a decade after those "mental" arena shows with the Boosh, Fielding reveals he harboured doubts about returning to the stand-up scene. "After all that time, I was definitely a bit anxious about it, praying it would work," he says. "I was thinking: 'I'm not sure I can do this on my own'."
His logical solution was to enlist the help of his younger brother, Mike, and comedian Tom Meeton, both of whom appeared in The Mighty Boosh. Fielding adopts a humorous tone of faux-jealousy when discussing audience reaction to Mike, who, in another odd twist, plays Noel's wife for a portion of the set.
"He gets a huge response every night! Tom and I are working our a***s off to get a good crowd response, then Mike is just really deadpan and everyone goes mad for him. All he has to do is walk on stage!"
Though his comedy is sometimes designed to shock, Fielding is fully aware that the absurdist elements to his show - the sibling spouse, the time-travel - must be countered by the familiar, the everyday, in order for it to work. What impresses me in our conversation is Fielding's willingness to probe into his art, to analyse what exactly tickles an audience. To him, that balance between the fantastical and the realistic is vital.
"You have to have that element of the real so people can grip onto it," he ponders. "Weird on weird is where things start to go bad! We had a good mix with the Boosh - even though it was set in weird places, it was still very much real life. Everybody could relate to the fact that Julian and I were both very different but that we needed and loved each other. We had to help each other to get out of the situations we found ourselves in. Saying that, we never really got anywhere! We thought we were going to be famous, but it always ended up with us back in a flat and back to square one. People can empathise with that. I'd love to set future work in a really gritty, urban environment."
Noel Fielding's Luxury Comedy, the second season of which aired this summer, was set in a coffee shop. So far, so real. The coffee shop is also located on the edge of a volcano in Hawaii, and Andy Warhol waits tables. It all seems standard Noel Fielding, but the comedian is concerned he may have gone too far with the second season of the show, leading to viewer estrangement. The show is scattershot and challenging, and its creator compares it to a "difficult album - you have to give it a few listens".
The comedian admits that the "experimental elements" of Luxury Comedy were partly a reaction to the "furore around the Boosh".
"The Boosh had gotten so big and I basically got sucked into it all, being treated like a celebrity everywhere I went. I hated all that, so I wanted to make something that would push against it."
He adds: "The problem with Luxury Comedy is perhaps that it challenges people a bit too much. People freak out if there's something happening that they're not getting. As soon as people realise we're being silly, though, not taking it too seriously, they suddenly twig: 'Ah, I get it, they're just mucking around!"'
Evidently there is more to Fielding's comedy than just mucking around. As random as much of his work may appear, his complex routines are clearly sculpted to the nth degree. However much he likes to provoke and challenge, Fielding is too clever a comedian to ever stray into flippancy or true perverseness. He knows the limits of his art and himself - at least I think he does.
"You can have the crazy adventures, but you need to know where to get back to afterwards. Maybe I'm still trying to figure out how to get back to that place myself, though!"
An Evening with Noel Fielding is at Belfast's Ulster Hall on December 14. For details, visit www.ticketmaster.ie
Wacky partners in crime ...
When it comes to creating sheer on-stage lunacy, Noel is more than happy to share the wealth with his well-known cohorts
- Julian Barratt - Fielding's partner in The Mighty Boosh, as well as the show's music producer. In the programme, Barratt's character Howard Moon thinks of himself as a "jazz maverick" and an intellectual. However, his various pursuits usually end in failure. Has appeared in a number of other UK television productions
- Mike Fielding - nine years younger than Noel, brother Mike Fielding has played both Naboo the Shaman in The Mighty Boosh and Smooth, a butler, in Luxury Comedy. The Mighty Boosh name came from a Spanish friend of Mike's, who referred to his haircut as a "mighty bush".
- Tom Meeton - the comedian has appeared in television programmes such as How Not to Live Your Life, The IT Crowd and Skins, as well as playing Lance Noir in The Mighty Boosh. He plays Andy Warhol in Luxury Comedy
The Belfast Telegraph is offering readers the chance to win one of two pairs of tickets to see Noel Fielding's show in Belfast on December 14. To be in with a chance of winning answer the following question:
Q: What was the name of the main character played by Noel in The Mighty Boosh?
Email answers to firstname.lastname@example.org by no later than Friday, December 5. Please include full name, address and daytime telephone number and clearly state 'Noel Fielding Competition' in the subject line of your email. Winners will be notified directly. Standard INM terms and conditions apply.