Mighty Boosh star Noel Fielding explains himself
It is a serious question, and Noel Fielding takes his time to contemplate it. Would he rather be chased by a duck the size of a horse, or 100 horses the size of ducks?
There is a long silence.
"Lots of little horses... that's quite a nice thought, isn't it?," he says thoughtfully. "Much less frightening than a duck the size of a horse. You've probably got those in New Zealand, haven't you?"
We used to have moa, I say. They were at least pony-sized.
"I think the biggest thing we've got is swans," says Fielding. "You're not allowed to kill swans because they belong to the Queen. It's like treason or something. I wouldn't mind tasting a swan. It could taste like some kind of refined chocolate, but then again it might not and you're not allowed to eat them to find out.
"There's a little pond near my house and I see two swans there all the time who are obviously in love," he adds. "But they look like the same bird so I don't know if they're male or female but they're definitely in love. Two gay swans. Isn't that beautiful?"
It's 10 minutes into our conversation, and I'm sort of regretting having asked Fielding the most whimsical question I could muster up. He's really taken the bait; next he'll be asking if I like to drink Baileys from a shoe, or showing me his watercolours and asking could I ever really love him?
That's the kind of rabbit hole most of Fielding's comedic characters fall down, anyway.
One minute you're taking a pleasure cruise on a placid lake, the next you've been trapped in a cave by a hermaphroditic merman called Old Gregg who's offering you his webbed hand in marriage.
A fox with syringes for fingers, a psychotic green-skinned cockney with a Polo mint around his eye, a shaman named Naboo – it's all standard stuff for Britain's most modern surrealist.
Fielding, 41, is best-known for The Mighty Boosh, a comedy troupe led by himself and Julian Barratt. Initially a stand-up routine by the duo at the 1998 Edinburgh Festival – the same year Fielding won the Perrier Best Newcomer award – it became first a BBC radio show then an acclaimed three-season television series, the last pulling a viewership of one million people per episode.
With Phil Jupitus on Never Mind the Buzzcocks.
Since 2009, the pair have done little as The Mighty Boosh. Fielding's solo career since has included two seasons of his own show Luxury Comedy, regular appearances on BBC Two's music/comedy panel show Never Mind the Buzzcocks, and now a world tour.
His plans for the evening I call have been ruined by a night of publicity commitments.
He was planning to attend a friend's exhibition opening, but has instead been forced to stay home and talk to a reporter about horse-sized ducks. It's okay, he says when I apologise. He actually has his own artwork to complete: canvases for his show, He Wore Dreams Around Unkind Faces, at London's Royal Albert Hall. The paintings are vivid and dream-like, with imagined characters poking out lurid red tongues (and more private appendages), or tap-dancing on chequered floors.
Educated at Croyden Art College before going on to study for a BA in graphic design and advertising, born and bred Londoner Fielding says he has always walked the line between comedian and artist.
"I was quite a shy kid, but I was quite funny at school and I was really into art. In our class there were two of us who were good at drawing, and my teacher was like, 'He's going to make a wonderful artist one day, and Noel can make everyone laugh.' I remember I was devastated, because when you're a kid and you're funny, you don't think there's any currency in that. At the time that meant nothing to me."
But as the years ticked by and he found his niche in stand-up comedy, Fielding realised there was a skill in being able to make people laugh – especially adults.
"When you're a kid, you spend a lot of time laughing at things. I remember laughing a lot as a teenager in a way that I don't laugh now, in a way that you'd need now to be stoned or drunk. When you're 14 and you're with your friends, you laugh about really stupid stuff, but as you get older the laughter inside you dies. When you're older you need a bit of help."
Watching Fielding on television, there are times when you feel like he's holding his breath, just bursting to break out of character and crack up. "I did used to laugh a lot on stage when I did The Mighty Boosh, because I found the situation quite ridiculous and I thought, 'This is quite a weird thing to do in a job.' I mean, in my new show I spend 20 minutes on stage in a chicken suit," he says.
"It's so ridiculous, and I'm like 40... it's sort of like, 'What am I doing?'" Fielding barrels on, answering his own question. "I still feel about 22. I don't understand actually. I mean, as I got older, I thought there would be things like, 'I need a house now', 'I need kids', 'I need a licence to drive', but I have never really had that happen. I guess that forms part of my appeal, for the people who like the stuff I do: I'm not a real person, I'm a gypsy. Real people my age don't do the stuff I do. They don't dress up like chickens."
Noel Fielding (as Vince Noir), Julian Barratt (Howard Moon) and Michael Fielding (Naboo the Enigma) in The Mighty Boosh.
But maybe they want to. At the Edinburgh Festival one year, Fielding relates, the same middle-aged man in a suit turned up to all of his shows. At the end, Fielding went over and asked him why. "He was this 50-year-old banker, and he just said: 'I love surrealism. I want to be taken out of my life. I hate observational comedy.' He was like a junkie – a fantasy junkie."
So too is Fielding, whose favourite character to play is a silver-clad dreamer called Fantasy Man. "He thinks he's really noble and doing something amazing, which is actually quite insane, and he lives in a fantasy world, which is maybe a metaphor for myself."
Not every Fielding concoction hits a mark with his audience. The first season of his solo television show Luxury Comedy drew fierce criticism. The Guardian called it a "tedious Human Centipede of rudderless whimsy", while Fielding has said in several interviews – including this one – that he once heard it likened to the second 9/11.
"I did it a little bit purposefully, trying to make it a weird show," he says today. "People either absolutely loved it or absolutely hated it, and people who hated it really did. But if you're doing something everybody likes, that's not necessarily a good thing either.
"You'd have to be doing something quite mainstream for everyone to like it. I think Frank Zappa once said something like, 'I make very specific music for the people who like my music, and the people who don't like it, I don't care.' When you have some success, people look at you like, 'Why are you doing that?' It's a weird position to be in. The best time is when you're just starting, and people don't really know who you are."
The success of The Mighty Boosh, which features Fielding and Barratt as friends Vince Noir and Howard Moon, came sort of unexpectedly, he says.
"We weren't really playing characters – we were [being] who we are, really. A bit exaggerated. It was a weird show, like an art installation. All the extras were our friends – it was like everything from our real lives went into that show. When I watch it now it's like going through a photo album."
Despite its low-fi feel, the series became a hit. "It got really massive here in the UK, and that was strange. We had what they call a 'cult following' in other places, like America, but the thing about America is if you have a cult following there it ends up being quite a lot of people.
"We went and it was just insane. People were dressing up as our characters. It was like the Beatles. They just screamed the whole time – it was so weird. They were chasing us around and stuff. I sort of embraced it and went to 1000 parties and did that whole thing for a bit, but Julian didn't like it at all."
Fielding recalls running into Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement in the States and talking to them about their own new-found fame around the same time. (He's a huge fan; and nearly appeared as David Bowie on a Flight of the Conchords episode, before his schedule interfered.) "I remember seeing them after the Conchords and they were like, 'We don't really like it. We don't like LA. We just want to go home,'" he says.
Will he and Barratt collaborate again?
"I mean, we're still friends, and we always talk about doing something else. I think we just did it so long together, it was like we just needed a break. We did like 10 years solid where he looks at my face and I look at his face every day. But there isn't a day goes by [without someone saying], 'Will you do some more Boosh?'"
Before that though, there's this tour: An Evening with Noel Fielding. Fielding and his team have already taken it on a test run around the United Kingdom, and are now 40 shows in.
"We worked really hard to make the show good last year and now it's there, the work is done," he says. "I love comedy but it's quite hard, you know? I think it's quite hard to keep making it. I can see why people do it for a while and then start acting. It takes up all your time and energy, and to write one joke is hard and when you write a show it's like 300 jokes. You don't have time for anything else. I think it becomes quite annoying for everyone else around me."
Fielding's brother Michael will also be coming to New Zealand – a "naturally funny", laidback guy, Fielding and Barratt began writing him into their shows in the late 90s. "He's just got this weird deadpan thing that whatever character he's playing, he just plays himself. It just sort of works. I write shows and put him in them, but I don't know if he'd do comedy if it wasn't for me."
In fact, during the height of Boosh fame, says Fielding, his brother kept working a part-time job at the London Eye, taking photos of tourists. "I'm a bit jealous of that. I'm quite driven; I don't know why. I'm always like, 'I've got to do this. I've got to do the next thing.' I'm always working. I don't know what's wrong with me. But this year, hopefully it will be different. This is my year of LOL."
An Evening With Noel Fielding is touring Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch this May. See abpresents.com.au for details.
- Sunday Magazine