"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
They used to say that comedy was the new rock ‘n’ roll, but I could never really see it. After all, how many comedians ever lived up to the rock star mantle? Standing in the dense crowd for the Mighty Boosh’s debut American performance at New York’s Bowery Ballroom, though, I changed my mind.
Behind me was a clutch of girls dressed in new-wave sailor outfits and, in front, a skinny boy dressed head to toe in silver sparkly lamé. The audience was ecstatic, singing along with clips and screaming with bloodcurdling fury at every word the comedy duo utters — surprising, considering that the Mighty Boosh, though huge stars in the U.K., have barely made any dent on America until now. Back in March, Adult Swim (the nighttime wing of Cartoon Network) started showing their freakadelic sketch comedy TV series “The Mighty Boosh” at 1 a.m., and it quickly built a viral cult following via YouTube; this week, all three seasons are being released on DVD.
Comedy is always tough to explain, but the magic of the Mighty Boosh is particularly elusive. The show’s opening sequence calls it a “journey through time and space,” but it’s more like a fantastical children’s show for pop culturally overloaded adult brains, a mash-up of fairy-tale plots, surreal humor, nimble dialogue, twisted musical numbers and homespun visuals and animation. (Its closest reference point might be “Flight of the Conchords,” but tonally it’s a galaxy away.) The series is the mutant brainchild of comedians Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt, who met in 1998 and started a shambolic live show that eventually grew into a British radio and TV phenomenon.
Noel is the genuine heartthrob of the duo, a scenester and intimate friend of Amy Winehouse, Russell Brand and Courtney Love. Impossibly charming, with a permanent grin of dazed glee on his face, Noel has a shag haircut and a penchant for dressing in glam-rock clothes: Imagine T-Rex singer Marc Bolan if he’d joined “Monty Python,” and you’ll start to get an idea. Julian acts as Noel’s more levelheaded foil, a perfect straight man with his mustache, his more settled personal life (he has two small children with comedian Julia Davis of the series “Nighty Night”) and his avowed love of jazz. In the series, they play exaggerated versions of themselves: Noel’s character is Vince Noir, a beguiling poseur in glam clothes who aspires to rock stardom, while Julian plays Howard Moon, a slightly dejected jazz fan with lofty artistic aspirations.
Over three seasons, the duo tumbles headfirst into dozens of wacky adventures: Howard is challenged to a boxing match with a kangaroo; Vince accidentally summons an evil demon disguised as a granny; Howard enters Vince’s bloodstream in order to rescue him from a rogue jazz cell that causes him to scat. Although they bicker hilariously, our two heroes are inseparable and usually end up saving each other from catastrophe, accompanied by a cast of characters that includes a shaman called Naboo (played by Noel’s brother Michael) and a talking gorilla.
Animals are everywhere in “The Mighty Boosh,” inserted blithely into plots as if it were normal for a London hipster to stumble across a crack-addicted fox or Mod-obsessed dancing wolves. Vince even claims that he was raised in a forest by Roxy Music singer Bryan Ferry: In a cartoon flashback, he explains that while Ferry was on tour, “he used to leave me with various different animals. I remember one time he left me with Jahooli the leopard. He used to take me out killing gazelles, knowing full well that Bryan was a strict vegetarian.”
Often Vince and Howard’s escapades force them to face down scary-but-comical beasts and villains, like the Hitcher — a green cockney boogeyman who has been known to break into a ravey tune on occasion, or Old Gregg, a lovesick hermaphrodite merman (like the Hitcher, played by Fielding) who emerges from the sea to dazzle Howard with the light that pours out of his “mangina.”
My favorite villains, though, are the dopplegängers in the third season who steal Vince and Howard’s style. When the copycats arrive at their shop dressed in a sparkly silver jumpsuit (à la Vince) and Hawaiian shirt with porkpie hat (à la Howard), the Boosh guys scramble to find a new look for their band’s concert that night. Vince digs through the dustbin of subcultural history, coming up with a “future sailor” look and then, “taking retro to its logical conclusion,” goes back even further to concoct a medieval theme, complete with lutes and codpieces. Eventually they vanquish the imposters in a “crimp off,” crimping being a wonderfully goofy yet oddly addictive form of rapping the Boosh invented, which has only added to their massive following.
“The Mighty Boosh” is a hodgepodge of stuff that Noel and Julian love (including ’80s synth-pop star Gary Numan, who makes repeated cameos, and their friends and their parents, who play bit parts). But the glue that holds it all together is their odd-couple affection for each other. As Howard remarks in one episode about their partnership, “I’ve got a dark, fractured, paranoid sort of side to me and he had the light, sunny, simpleton feel. Together we made one whole person.”
Salon spoke to Julian and Noel at their New York hotel as they prepared themselves for a week of American appearances — and the unknown.
Is this your first attack on American public consciousness?
Julian Barratt: It’s always so violent with the Americans, isn’t it?
Noel Fielding: Why is it always attacking and storming? We’re not Nazis!
Have any other English comedians who’ve done well here — Sasha Baron Cohen, Russell Brand, Steve Coogan — given you advice?
N.F.: No! We thought we should start with the standpoint that everyone would hate it.
J.B.: We’re not changing what we do. When we started out, it was a little bit in a reaction to what was going on in the comedy clubs that we went to at the time — men standing around in shirt and tie and white sneakers, talking about their dicks and their girlfriends. We wanted to do a weirder sort of comedy.
N.F.: Something that would talk about fashion and music. We just thought, all our mates who like to see bands and wear cool clothes, let’s do a show for them.
J.B.: I don’t have any friends with cool clothes.
N.F.: Yeah, you just like to talk about jazz. Julian needed an outlet to talk about jazz.
So that running joke in “The Mighty Boosh” that Noel is the ultimate hipster while Julian is this earnest jazzbo — that’s actually based on reality?
J.B.: Maybe it looks as though we have this strange, detailed writing process that created these characters, but it’s just us.
N.F.: We’ve always incorporated elements from our own lives. The show is quite fantastical and magical so we try to pepper it with stuff from the fashion and music we’re into, so that it’s anchored in some sort of reality.
Has music been part of the Boosh from the beginning?
N.F.: The first show we ever did, we had this idea of a zookeeper trapped in someone’s Afro. And we thought, “He’s gotta rap.” That was the first song we ever wrote.
J.B.: We were listening to a lot of Wu Tang Clan and Beastie Boys at the time.
N.F.: Then we realized you can’t really rap in an American accent if you’re English. It’s ridiculous. So we started doing more music that was English, like folk or glam rock or electro. And then eventually we figured out a kind of English rap, which is “crimping.” It’s sort of nursery rhyme rap, folk rap. I can’t imagine what the Yanks will make of it.
For Boosh freaks, the crimping segments are probably the most popular bits in the show. Have you ever checked out all the amateur crimpers on YouTube?
Both: [looking slightly aghast] No!
N.F.: I haven’t got a computer. There’s a lot of people on YouTube that … It’s terrifying. There are 40-year-old women dressed as the Moon [a recurring character in the show]. You just think, “What are you doing?” I hate computers. I find YouTube and MyFace and Google really boring.
J.B.: It’s a tool, Noel. It’s just like using a pencil. It’s all about what you do with it.
Are the crimps improvised, or is there a lot of work and advance preparation involved in crafting a crimp?
N.F.: It’s not spontaneous! It’s very complicated. It takes about nine years to write one.
J.B.: You have to find the exact right kind of nonsense. To find something that’s surprising, that has odd angles.
N.F.: There’s a pancake crimp and a soup crimp — that kind of crimp is a bit easier, when there’s a theme. But the ones that are just free-form — ooh! I wouldn’t recommend trying to write one of those bad boys.
J.B.: We were writing the shows and doing these raps and people started saying, What are those things? So we had to call them something. Which I think came from crumping, that clown-dancing thing in that David Lachapelle documentary.
When you mentioned earlier about the first Boosh performance and the zookeeper who gets trapped in someone’s Afro — it sounds like your entire act was there right from the start. Did you just meet and say, “Let’s do really psychedelic, animal-based comedy?”
J.B.: The weirdness, the dialogue, the music, the animal stuff, everything’s there already in the first gig. We should have retired. We had a tight nugget and now we have a big, loose poncho of stuff sprawled everywhere.
Is it all coming from childhood influences, that magical sensibility?
N.F.: Our parents were both quite into psychedelic music — Frank Zappa, Beefheart, Santana, all that.
J.B.: My dad listened to a load of jazz — Mahavishnu, Weather Report, Herbie Hancock.
N.F.: It is our parents, really, isn’t it? They were quite young, my parents — I don’t think they knew how to bring anyone up. They were 18 when they had me, so even by the time I was 10 they were still just running around in the garden having parties, quite irresponsible.
J.B.: And my dad wanted to be a musician, so when I started playing guitar, he was like, “Go for it.” That is what I did for ages, I was in bands. And then I went to university and got into comedy somehow.
N.F.: I went to art college. I did a cabaret act as Jesus there. Everyone else was doing serious performance art and mine was all jokes about lepers, and some Mick Jagger dancing as Christ. But I don’t think either of us went into this thinking, “We’re going to be comedians.”
When “The Mighty Boosh” started, the reigning style in British TV comedy was what I call “the comedy of cringe”: “Alan Partridge,” “The Office,” and over here, “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Ultra-realistic, and pretty mean. What you guys do seems like the complete opposite: fantastical and basically sweet-natured (if a little foul-mouthed).
N.F.: This is why it took us so long. We had a lot of affection for a lot of things we were taking the piss out of, like jazz.
J.B.: And the monsters and the villains were often quite sympathetic. Also, we wanted to create a world, a visual universe. If you come away from a show thinking of an image, that’s as good as remembering a joke. A lot of those shows, like “The Office,” they are brilliant but they’re not visually interesting.
N.F.: We want magic forests! Epic adventures! “Alice in Wonderland”-type stories and quests and voyages. It wasn’t very fashionable at the time. It took us a long time, because everyone was really into “The Office.” “The Office” changed everything in England. It made it very difficult to do anything different because it was such a success.
J.B.: And “The Office” was so cheap to make!
N.F.: Whereas we were trying to make things like a stylized forest that probably cost the same as doing half of a series like “The Office.”
You have all this stuff that relates to children’s storybook stuff, the marvelous and the grotesque. But there’s a whole other side of the Boosh that’s about witty, ultra-knowing pop culture references, like the dancing Mod Wolves or the retro-electro band Kraftwork Orange. How did Gary Numan end up being the patron saint of the Boosh?
N.F.: Numan was massive when we were kids, he’d be playing stadium shows in the U.K. My dad’s best friend did the sound engineering on “Cars” and I went with him to get his gold record award. I was only about 7 or 8, and that was the first pop star I’d seen in real life. I thought, “Oh my God, how can you dress like that as a man?” I thought it was the best thing ever. And then when I found out Julian was into him. So we thought we should get him in the show.
Recently there’s been all these diatribes in magazines and Web sites about hipsters as superficial trend-hopping poseurs, with strongholds in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and of course the Shoreditch area of East London [where the third season of "The Mighty Boosh" is actually set]. But you are pretty affectionate in the way you lampoon hipsters, aren’t you?
N.F.: Vince Noir, my character, is probably the ultimate scenester. He wants to be famous, he dresses up like he’s famous, and all his friends are really trendy. Howard Moon, Julian’s character, thinks Vince is absolutely ridiculous, but … it is pretty ridiculous. We went for that a lot in the third series of Boosh. We tried to make all the extras like they were our friends, so they wore all their own clothes.
Is there another series coming?
N.F.: We finished touring, we did six months of that. So we needed a break. There’s talk of a fourth series. Or an album. Or a film …
What would the film be about?
Both: [vague, blank faces]
Are you not excited about the prospect of doing a movie?
J.B.: I’m just trying to imagine what it could be. We always wanted to do a big epic, a Sinbad-type adventure. But then we went ahead and did it on the TV show. A big epic journey in a half-hour — that’s quite a stupid thing to try to pull off.
Joy Press is a former culture editor at Salon.More Joy Press.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)