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The Mighty Boosh's Journey from Cool to Uncool

How one of the most celebrated shows of the 2000s was brought down by a unique combination of hype, cultural connection and "nonsense" exhaustion.

by Emma Garland
23 July 2019, 12:23pm

Howard Moon (Julian Barratt) and Vince Noir (Noel Fielding) in The Mighty Boosh. Photo ©BBC courtesy of the Everett Collection

There is nothing I loved more in 2006 than pairing a purple H&M hoodie with some crap leggings, smashing ‘play’ on an Ed Banger compilation and going to Fopp to purchase a DVD box set of The Mighty Boosh. In accordance with popular opinion at the time, I thought electro house was the best genre ever invented and an intersex merman loosely based on Rick James interrogating people about drinking Baileys from a shoe was the height of comedy.

Originally a stage show and then a radio series, The Mighty Boosh injected a dose of mischief into the classic odd couple format – Noel Fielding as whimsical metrosexual Vince Noir, Julian Barratt as cynical jazz enthusiast Howard Moon. Their bread and butter was improvisational banter: Noir’s new age optimism vs Barratt’s grizzled pseudo-intellectualism. But it was the world they constructed, one where the moon is sentient and Bryan Ferry lives in a house made of bus tickets in the woods, that gave it such a distinctive style. “Their childlike ability to pursue fantasies with unrestrained playfulness is really extraordinary,” one Telegraph journalist wrote about their 1999 Edinburgh Fringe show. “They are comedy's answer to improvised jazz.”

Adapted into a TV show, which ran from 2004 to 2007, The Mighty Boosh quickly went from subversive theatre to a BBC household name. Joined by a supporting cast of ‘quirky’ characters – Naboo the Enigma (Noel’s brother, Michael Fielding), zookeeper Bob Fossil (Rich Fulcher) and a gorilla called Bollo (Dave Brown) – its surrealism grabbed the attention of dads who grew up on The Goon Show, as well as purveyors of ‘random!’ online humour who mainly traded in Newgrounds references and listing ‘cheese’ as an interest on Myspace. More significantly, though, The Mighty Boosh was interwoven with British youth culture – so much so that it could never have existed at any other time, in any other place. Unfortunately this also means it went from supremely cool to supremely uncool in the space of about five years.

Essentially the de facto new rave show, The Mighty Boosh defined TV comedy at a time when The Klaxons beat Amy Winehouse to the Mercury Prize, and the biggest celebrity scandal was Russell Brand resigning from BBC Two after Jonathan Ross prank called Andrew Sachs on his radio show. With Barrett simultaneously starring in the London-centric new media satire Nathan Barley and Noel Fielding pictured knocking about Camden with a rotating cast of NME cover stars, there was a charming self-awareness to their unlikely rise. Usually, they were in on the joke – setting the second series at Naboo’s Dalston flat, casting The Horrors in an episode where Vince Noir’s attempts to front an indie band are thwarted by his drainpipe jeans being too tight – but the more established the show became, the more it struggled.

As soon as the hype felt greater than the product itself, The Mighty Boosh was confined to a time capsule alongside many cultural exports of the era: backcombed hair, V-necks and neon glasses as a valid ‘going out’ look, anti-folk. In retrospect it’s basically the dramatic equivalent to Adam Green’s Gemstones album – compelling in a totally unhinged sort of way – but novelty always has an expiry date.

In the end, The Mighty Boosh leaned too hard into its own legacy. Although rejecting ‘traditional’ joke formats was their entire modus operandi, Fielding and Barratt had become reliant on their own tried-and-tested formats. The patter was predictable, the live shows saw beloved characters flogged to death, and the esoteric comedy that attracted fans in the first place became the new normal as they devolved into self-parody. The final nail in the coffin was Simon Amstell eviscerating Noel Fielding on an episode of Nevermind the Buzzcocks in 2007: “And then some dragons going to fly in and put bubbles in my head? You just say funny words and it works, does it? Just throw out weird words – hippopotamus and juggling – is that what happens? Anyone can do that.”

Obviously it was meant in jest, but that doesn’t make it any less accurate. Through oversaturation, exhaustion, and perhaps a bit of complacency on their part, The Mighty Boosh became the last bastion of ‘nonsense’ humour that had run through the decade, from Bill Bailey’s stand-up career to Garth Marenghi's Darkplace. Still, in a certain light, it holds up.

Watching The Mighty Boosh in 2019 is a lot like looking at photos of yourself from the mid-00s: sure, using a ukulele as a prop looks ridiculous now, and no we probably shouldn’t have bought so many lightning bolt earrings and "vintage" cardigans off eBay – but was it not exciting at the time? Did we not have a massive laugh? This was a period before the hyper-aware vice grip of social media took hold; when Facebook was cool, adding "tronic" on the end of your name was a mark of great cultural awareness, and Dev Hynes looked like this.

All things considered, it really that difficult to imagine The Mighty Boosh being nominated for a BAFTA? For all its faults, there’s absolutely nothing like it, which is more than you can say for most British sitcoms of the last two decades. If its name is met with a wince today, it’s because we spent one too many years declaring it “genius, mate – I’m Old Gregg!!!! Soooooo jokes.” But perhaps now we’ve had enough distance from it to call it what it is: a decent comedy.

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@emmaggarland

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noel fielding
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the mighty boosh