COMMENT: The Boosh
First published May 2000
The Boosh
Comedy fads can be dangerous things, especially when what that fad is peddling purports to be innovative and eccentric.

Reeves and Mortimer were probably the last comedy act to actually turn things around and do something new with the medium. While everyone else was still grooving to the ageing Comic Strip, Vic Reeves was putting on a little show in a pub which consisted of silliness for silliness' sake. Forget all the stuff about how they mixed dada and surrealism into a hotch potch of accessible clowning around - this opinion was grafted onto it afterwards by pigeon-holing journalists. What they were actually doing was mixing up decades of comedy history in a pot and presenting it without too much recourse to whether people wanted it or not.

They found their foothold because the media craved something new. It took a while - those who championed Vic & Bob at the start of their TV careers were treated with contempt and disdain by the 'uninitiated' who couldn't see the joke, didn't understand why it was supposed to be funny and felt a bit threatened or excluded by it. The two main music press rivals were at loggerheads - the NME, ever keen to latch onto a fad, gave them an enormous build up, whereas Melody Maker, with their affected cynicism, slagged them off mercilessly.

Reeves and Mortimer became student cult heroes, then press-darlings, passed the point of critical no return and are now very much part of the mainstream. They produce the odd glimmer, every so often, of what initially made them stand out, but in the main the magic has gone. And so the media is ripe for another one of those, please. They all understand the form now...

Which brings us to The Boosh, Fielding and Barratt's attempt at creating a cult using the tried and tested Reeves and Mortimer rules. How can it fail?

All too easily. For whereas Reeves and Mortimer managed to mix together every bit of comedy they could find - a bit of sub-Python surrealism, an impenetrable yet easily-digestible shot of Milligan post-modernism, a cocoon of Vaudevillian slapstick and a basic human-level double-act - and fashioned a show which could easily be used as a school trip through the previous seven decades of comedy, Fielding and Barratt have seemingly only managed to mix together Eddie Izzard and... Reeves & Mortimer.

In psychoanalytical terms, they covet what they see every day. In comedy terms they're chancers of the worst kind.

Fielding's stand-up act consists of him delivering a fey sort of Izzard stream-of-consciousness monologue, skipping lightly over anecdotal nonsense about, well, anything - it doesn't really matter what he's actually talking about, there are no obvious laugh-lines or clever jokes - the patter never stops for breath and the audience end up laughing at mere punctuation points. The Danny Wallace generation of comedy fans used to declare that 'the great thing about Eddie Izzard is that he just goes on stage and talks bollocks!', a misapprehension that has blighted many a would-be stand-up who has attempted to do just that and failed miserably on the open spot. Fielding appears to be one of the few who managed to slip through the net, seemingly through the sheer verve of his delivery and his utter damned cheek.

Barratt, meanwhile, is laid back, cool and aloof. His delivery is almost the opposite of Fielding's manic campness but his material is pretty much identical on paper - anecdotes about nothing (or nonsensical bletherings about tiny mammoths and fridges, which amount to much the same thing). He also plays an electric guitar (with all the studenty subtext that this implies), singing songs which sound disdainful and unfinished enough to be improvised, but aren't.

When these two performers share a stage the atmosphere remains much the same. The double act interplay is yet another take on Vic & Bob in 'Big Night Out'. It's all there - Fielding's from-the-curtain interjections ('Is everything going okay - because I've just made a flan!') are pure, smug, badly-delivered Bob Mortimer; the reliance on cheap-looking home-made props is a Reeves & Mortimer tool which they carried well into the bigger budget BBC days; a general obsession with stuff and nonsense, albeit lacking any inner logic or substance which might hold it together. Those early Vic Reeves Channel 4 shows were notable for their roughness around the edges - under-rehearsed and nervy, yet bloody watchable with it as Reeves and Mortimer were obviously trying their utmost, diving headlong into the silly routines with enthusiasm and gusto. Fielding and Barratt appear to be doing it deliberately badly - carefully rehearsed under-rehearsedness if you will - in an attempt to look disinterested in what they're doing and detached from the act of performance itself. Perhaps to look cool? Perhaps to avoid having to do it properly should a commission ever actually come in? Perhaps.

The audience adores it. We're not sure exactly why. But, anthropologically-speaking, it's a mine of amusement which pisses over the cynical attempts at comedy onstage. There's a fair few of those odd parrot-people who feel the need to remind themselves of a comedy line by repeating it in earshot of their immediate neighbour. This behaviour is silly enough when there are actual jokes to repeat but when it's just Noel Fielding blethering on about 'a little lamb... with a pair of goggles on...' - ('Ha ha, a pair of goggles, ha ha') - then you really have to wonder what's going on. As Nick Hancock once observed, 'If that person ever saw 'Dad's Army' they'd have a coronary...'

Then there are the audience members who seem to be force-laughing to perpetuate the myth - usually friends of either Fielding and Barratt (or, more likely, the 'special guest performers'). The venue is just a little room above the Hen & Chickens in North London so their cackles reverberate all around, creating a false economy of chuckles. Given that Fielding & Barratt have gone on record as hating such behaviour (as they find it difficult to judge whether their material is actually funny if they're forced to play to a gallery of sycophancy) it's ironic that those members of the audience who are the most keen for their heroes to be seen to be appreciated are actually helping to impede their sense of comedy.

And there's the die-hards, right down the front there, who attend every single performance. Hardly a new phenomenon of course but if the Robettes and Vicophiles of the previous decade were equally infatuated then at least they had a better class of comedy to experience while swooning. But, hey, they love it all, sitting so close to the performers that they can pretend to be part of the show. And sometimes they are. Not too dissimilar to the acquired audiences of a cult like 'The Rocky Horror Show' in effect. It's a social thing. It's their clique - they own Fielding and Barratt. And the performers in question certainly deserve them.

The Boosh is often described as 'experimental comedy'. This is a good description, but the experiment is in media terms rather than the material that's presented. It's a carefully constructed exercise in creating a 'fad', a 'cult' or something which, on the surface at least, looks experimental and whimsically patchy when in reality the performers have drawn it all up on a flowchart and cynically constructed it as such. They hope that the media will react to it in a 'here's something new and weird that the kids will go for' manner and push it forward.

Under the closing credits of the excellent TV pilot for the never-made 'Cluub Zarathustra' Channel 4 series, the cast come out of character and start discussing whether C4 executives will like the show. Stewart Lee says "Well, they'll probably think it's, like, some kind of cult Vic Reeves type of thing, and that they'd better 'get it' just to be on the safe side...". This is an excellent description of what Avalon hope to do with Fielding and Barratt's Boosh and it seems odd, given his usual cynicism, that Stewart Lee has actually directed their work (at the 1999 Edinburgh Fringe). Surely he knows better? Lee has always been dismissive of his role in directing the show anyway, the subtext being 'how could anyone direct The Boosh - it's so mad and crazy!'.

Fielding and Barratt have described Lee and Herring as their 'comedy uncles'. To that end both are systematically importuning their views and observations. Fielding recently nicked their joke about journos describing acts as '(insert old comedian) ...on acid' during an interview in the NME, passing off the observation as his own. The interviewer, one Johnny Cigarettes, has championed Lee & Herring in the past and presumably knew where he'd nicked the joke from, yet didn't say anything. Barratt, meanwhile, in an interview with The Face, stole their viewpoint about comedians doing adverts and added that he feels his soul 'being sucked out' every time his Metz ad comes on TV. The obvious answer to this is 'What fucking soul?' Sadly, that ad probably constitutes his best work.

Lots of contemprary comedians appear to cite The Boosh as a personal favourite. Yet the underlying factor to their gushings appears to be 'yeah, go and see these young guys - they're great - they're our mates' which is hardly constructive comedy appreciation at its finest.

Melody Maker insists that they're 'Soon to be recognised as twin geniuses'. They were all too critical of Vic & Bob in those innocent bygone days, but now... well, they're not gonna be caught out like that again. Think of all the free advertising they'd miss from attributed quotes on the posters...

So far Fielding and Barratt's TV work has been limited to Channel 4's 'Gas' (with all the void that accompanies this) and Paramount's 'Festival Of Fun' for which they contributed some filmed inserts which bordered on the spitefully lazy. Meandering, and smug with it.

The duo claim to have adopted the name Boosh because 'Fielding & Barratt' would have made them sound 'like a firm of solicitors'. They remain oblivious to the fact that the 'solicitors' tag actually fits them rather well - being, as they are, cynically clinical, blandly business-minded and deeply, deeply dull.

The work-in-progress Boosh shows of early 2000 featured special guest performers of varying quality. Matt 'Mathew' Holness and Richard Ayoade, (two unbelievable shits whose break into TV we've been dreading ever since their Cambridge Footlights days), prat about with a sketch about a horror author (which is part Partridge, part League of Gentlemen) while another bloke (whom we can't quite place) sings a very pleasant but ineffectual song about being 'endowed in the trouser department' . The underlying notion that Fielding and Barratt are giving these people 'their big break' is something to laugh at - generally these guests boast acts which are far better realised than their hosts' own shambolic presentations.

There are a couple of unbelievably shit exceptions - at one gig, an American(?) performer, whose name we've conveniently forgotten, came onto the stage and proceeded to play with a toy plane and sheep for about a minute before delivering his act in a high nervous voice. All very 'experimental' of course, except that, once broken down, the material was just bog-standard American observational comedy cunningly disguised by a voice which was basically Emo Phillips without the daft haircut or restless limb-choreography.

'Wow', said Noel Fielding after the gentleman in question had departed, 'He makes me seem mainstream!'. It was at this point that the true ego behind The Boosh came screaming to the surface. This one throwaway quip spoke volumes. Fielding really does assume himself to be a gloriously eccentric innovator, a self-inflicted view kept firmly in place by stoned friends, uncritical reviews, and an audience which enjoys being safely part of this wonderful new fad. Noel Fielding is simply ersatz Izzard (himself one of the most mainstream acts that ever walked a stage). Barratt is, if anything, ersatz Julian Barratt , a self-replicating, well-practised dope-breathed patter in kitch clothing, in danger of falling into a deep dark stereotype.

The Boosh is artistically dead. It's distinctly lacking the 'what the fuck?' factor that could make it work, and yet Fielding and Barratt seem to believe they have something 'new' to offer, or are 'redefining' comedy for a new generation. If this means setting new lows in overhyped tedium then they're doing very well.

But they'll succeed. How can they fail - they've got the look; they've got the aloof coolness that still, after all this time, fools our pop culture society into thinking something is special; they've read all the right books; they listen to the right music. Maybe if they experienced a bit more comedy they might understand that, in the great unwritten bible of comedy history, they wouldn't even qualify for an apologetic footnote. At least not yet.

But then, most comedy isn't 'cool'...

As we left the first half of the show, the tannoy started playing an old Mothers of Invention song. An eclectic choice of music, certainly. Mothers leader, Frank Zappa, once described his band as being involved in 'a low-key war against apathy - designed to annoy people to such an extent that they begin to question their environment'. Did anyone wonder where Some Of The Corpses Are Amusing got its remit from? To that end, we finish here with an early version of a Zappa lyric which probably sums up The Boosh and its audience better than our moaning ever could. We do hope Noel and Julian are reading this - look guys, Uncle Frank's speaking to you...

We're so young and happy
And we know where it's at
(It's over there, over there, over there, over there,
And under here also)
We're never wrong about nothin'
And we look good
We never ever have to worry, we're always in a hurry
To convince ourselves that what we are
Is really very groovy
If we believe what's in the papers
And the magazines that define our folklore
We can never laugh at who or what we think we are
Or even what we think we sorta oughta be
We are totally empty
And our lives are really useless so what the fuck
We aint got no sense of humour
Now we got nothing to laugh about, including ourselves

Turn, Turn, Turn, Turn,
We're turning again

We're Turning Again - Frank Zappa
(live version)

[NOTE (1): The Guardian has since described Barratt and Fielding as resembling 'Frank Zappa's love children'. Now where did we put that Gattttling gun? Actually, that reminds us. We haven't seen the routine but apparently a mainstay of the Boosh shows features the pair pretending to piss on the front row of the audience. Frank Zappa's never-staged 1984 Broadway musical Thing-Fish also boasts such a scene. Cultural referencing or just a lack of imagination?]

[NOTE (2): True quote from a well-known comedy actress: 'The Boosh - just two pretty boys poncing around on stage for about an hour ... ']

[NOTE (3): This article has now been slightly updated following complaints from some of the die-hard fans mentioned who were, not unnaturally, annoyed by our lumping them in with comedy (sub) groupiedom. Or maybe it was the phrase 'letting their cunts rule their comedy' that did it. We also apologise for the implication that any of the Boosh's fans were impeding their heroes' progress in the comedy world. As one fan has pointed out, the die-hards were instrumental last year in getting The Boosh on the shortlist for the Perrier Award. So, a round of applause for the die-hards, not to mention their good mate Danny Wallace.]

[NOTE (4): Fielding and Barratt's new show Autoboosh will win the Perrier this year.]

[NOTE (5): We would have pasted in all the indignant defences of The Boosh here but nobody on the forum has even commented on the article. Apart from Richard Herring. And what's it got to do with him anyway? Julian Barratt was in the audience of the first recording of Time Gentlemen Please , the Al Murray/Richard Herring "sit"-"com" recently. We kept our heads firmly down... Well, we were fast asleep anyway. B'Boom.

Actually one die-hard fan did construct a very good (well, passionate at least) defence of The Boosh in a personal epistle to the editors but she also intimated that she'd sue us if we printed it anywhere. So, y'know, we haven't.]

[NOTE (6): Susan Turnbull's Boosh site is very nice. If you're offended or annoyed by this article, go there instead and experience sweetness and light.

[NOTE (7): Ross Noble will also win the Perrier - there'll be a sort of joint-win thing. So, one for your diaries there...]

[NOTE (8): A mate of ours recently asked Stewart Lee if he was pissed off about this article. Lee shouted that he 'couldn't really give a fuck' over some extremely loud and frightening music.]

[NOTE (9): Oh God, we've just thought... Do we really hate The Boosh? Or do we just hate... ourselves ?]

[NOTE (10): Hmmm, makes you think...]