An interview with Noel Fielding
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Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy is back. For those who haven’t seen it, it’s not easy to describe. How would you do so?
I suppose what happened was, the first series was quite experimental, with the emphasis on ‘mental’. The idea was that me and the guy I made it with, Nigel [Coan] who I went to art school with, who did all the animation for The Mighty Boosh, we’d make a show together, using mad techniques, and see what would come out. We didn’t really want to get involved in a narrative, because I’d done that for the Boosh, we just wanted to try lots of different stuff – different techniques and different characters. It was quite Marmite – you either loved it or hated it.
How does the show differ from the first series?
Channel 4 were great in letting me experiment on the TV. So for this series, I wanted to take all the elements that worked, and put it in a firm setting [a coffee shop], with a bit more of a narrative. So in this one, I’ve got a job, and we’ve made it a bit more ‘sitcommy’, in a weird way. It’s set in one place, we’ve brought back only the most successful characters and we’ve given it a story. So it’s still got the beautiful animation and the characters, but hopefully it’ll be more digestible and easier to understand. The first series was quite idiosyncratic!
So did you consciously decide to make something that viewers would be able to follow more easily?
It was more just that I missed not doing a story. I love narrative. I think maybe sketch-writing wasn’t my forte, in a way. I think also the first series had too much stuff in it. There were such strong visuals, and so many subtle links and threads and callbacks to stuff that had happened previously, you had to watch it a few times to get all the references. There was no way you could take it all in the first time, which was possibly a mistake for television. But for the kids that really liked it, who watch it over and over again, hopefully it was a sort of multi-faceted treat.
The gift that keeps on giving?
Yeah, exactly. On the second series we wrote for longer. We spent a year writing, and there’s only five episodes. I’m proud of them; I think we did a good job. And it’s an ongoing process. You’re learning all the time. You don’t want to stand still. We could have just kept doing The Mighty Boosh, but we’ve done that. We did three series of that, a radio show, three Edinburgh shows, two big tours, a festival, a book. We’d done it.
You’ve mentioned that some of the characters from series one have survived into this series. Fans will be keen to know which ones...
Fantasy Man seemed to be everyone’s favourite. Dondylion, New York Cop, they were the big ones, really. Joey Ramone, the plasticine children’s show aspect, we managed to get him back in, people seemed to like that. Roy Circles, the little chocolate finger, came back. Oh, and Tony Reason, the manta-ray, and Todd, played by Richard Ayoade, they came back. I’ve explored the main characters in a much more detailed way.
So tell us a bit more about where the show is set. What’s your job?
I’m working in a coffee shop, that’s in a sort of painted version of Hawaii. And the coffee shop is built on the edge of a volcano. I’m not covered in make-up and fashionable clothes now, I’m running a coffee shop. Dolly, my trendy ex-girlfriend, is in it. And then there’s Smooth, who’s mixed race – he’s a half-man, half-ant-eater. His mum was an ant eater and his dad was a man. He doesn’t like to talk about it much. And then there is Andy Warhol. So we’ve done a lot more with those four characters, hopefully they become the focal point of the show. All the stories revolve around them, and the other characters just come in and out. Some of the characters from the first series we only ever wanted to use for a single sketch. But others of them are much stronger, and you want to be able to develop them. Characters like Fantasy Man and New York Cop could have their own shows. It’s difficult to contain them in someone else’s narrative.
What are your inspirations for the show?
With the first series, I was trying to make something enigmatic. I was reading a lot of Edward Gorey at the time, and I liked how he left a lot of things unsaid, or showed glimpses of things. That was really the idea – that we would make a show that looked like a moving painting, where you didn’t quite know what was happening. I left a lot of things unsaid and thought that it wouldn’t matter. But I think ultimately, you have to obey the laws of general writing and comedy. Hopefully this one does. You need to explore the main characters and have a narrative and something to follow. I think the first series was sort of like madness in a way, which was sort of how I felt. I think fantastical comedy is autobiographical. I was feeling pretty mad, and I wanted to reflect that, and make something quite schizophrenic and dark. This series is a lot less dark, it’s a much happier show!
Do you have a favourite character to play?
New York Cop’s good to play live. Fantasy Man I like playing. He’s like a classic character – he’s a straight man, really, but he’s a sort of funny straight man. You can bear more of him, because he’s not too insane. Well, he is insane, he thinks he’s Don Quixote, but he’s not too grating, whereas New York Cop is a force of energy. The only character I had problems with in the first series, less so in this one, was myself. I didn’t want to do it like Vince [from The Mighty Boosh] but Vince was 60 per cent me anyway. So I was trying not to do Vince, except Vince is me. So in the second series I just went “Right, it’s me, but it’s me now, I’m running a coffee shop.” I’m much more sympathetic to the audience, so when something weird happens, I can say: “That’s a bit weird!”
So the show will certainly still have its distinctly weird bits.
Yeah, the show’s quite conceptual, so it’s always going to be a bit weird. In one episode I haven’t written an ending, because I’ve got a specific strain of writer’s block, which is ‘fantasy block’. So I can’t finish the ending. I have to visualise the fantasy block, and it turns up, like a giant monster, and we have to defeat it. It’s pretty conceptual! So you need someone quite normal to comment on that. If everyone’s weird, then it’s weird on weird. It’s just too much for people.
You write with Nigel Coan. How does the writing process work?
I have a lot of the initial ideas myself, just going about my daily life. And he has various visual ideas that he wants to do. So we meet up and go from there. We knew we were going to change things from the first series, and then we decided to set this one in a coffee shop on the edge of a volcano in painted Hawaii. And that was a starting point, and that led to our first episode, with the setting leading on to locals furious because we’d built on sacred land. You need a big idea for every episode. So in the last episode, the ratings aren’t good enough, so we have to change the ratings by the end of the show or it will get cancelled. There’s a lot of little self-deprecating in-jokes in there about how the first series was a bit weird, and we’ve only got one viewer etc!
The show’s got this incredible visual aspect to it. Do you and Nigel design all of the sets and costumes yourselves?
Yeah, in collaboration. We talk a lot about how we’re going to do certain things. Until Nigel can visualise how he’s going to do something we can’t move on with the writing. Sometimes that’s really quick, but sometimes it’s really difficult. Like we had an alien race of cucumbers who thought they were cool, because of the simile ‘cool as a cucumber’. Their whole society is built on that one simile, and we didn’t know how we were going to do the cucumbers. We didn’t want cucumber costumes with someone’s face sticking out, that would have looked a bit children’s TV. So Nige sat down to work out how he’d visualise it first. The make-up lady, Christine, is from the Boosh, and she’s a genius, so I work really closely with her. And the costume designer Ameena is brilliant. She’s very young, so we’ve only been working on this, but again it’s a collaboration. I do drawings and she goes away and does her stuff. And we’ve got loads of animators on the show. It’s all a big collaboration, really.
And you’ve got a few familiar faces popping up as cameos in the series as well, don’t you?
Yeah, I didn’t want to be in it as much, so I tried to get lots of other people to play characters. So Richard Ayoade is in it, Steve Oram from Sightseers is playing our only viewer, Terry. Simon Farnaby is in it, from Horrible Histories and The Mighty Boosh. There are a lot of other people playing the other characters, which allows my character to react to them a bit more. There’s only so many times you can watch me playing opposite a character who I’m being played by as well. It fucks with your head a bit.
Among those appearing, you’ve got your brother Michael playing Smooth, and you’ve got your mum and dad making an appearance as well. Do you enjoy having them being part of the whole process?
They’re so supportive. They’ve loved the Boosh, and come to all the shows, and we get on so well. We’re like mates, really, we hang out a lot. I always think it’s nice to have your friends and your family around you, and it’s nice to have them in the show as well. It becomes a record of your life at that time. In Boosh we didn’t use any extras, we just used all of our friends. Now when I watch it, I just go “wow”. It’s such an amazing document of that period of our lives. To have my parents, my brother and my friends in it, it sort of feels like some weird art project.
What did your folks make of the first series?
Well, my mum’s got quite a weird sense of humour, so she always laughs really loudly. She’s got the dirtiest laugh in the world, like Sid James or Barbara Windsor. She loves Roy Circles. My dad’s much more likely to watch it and think about it and then go “Yeah, I really liked this bit,” or “I liked that bit”. I think they thought it was quite an incredible piece of work. It’s a difficult show. I knew it was only going to appeal to a couple of people in ten. It’s comedy Marmite. But my mum loves that kind of stuff. And also it’s her boys in it, me and my brother. And it’s the sort of shit we talk around the table. She loves it really. My dad loves it too, but he’s much more sort of quiet and proud.
You used to live with Lee Mack. How did that work? What was he like to live with?
Great, actually. It was at Edinburgh. We had the same agent. Me and Julian Barratt [from Boosh], Lee Mack and Simon Evans, who’s a really good comedian, we all lived together two-years-running in Edinburgh. And we did a lot of the festivals together – Melbourne and Sydney and Edinburgh and Montreal – so we hung out a lot. We were really good friends – we played football a lot together. He’s hilarious. Rich Fulcher is probably the funniest person I’ve ever met, but Lee Mack’s got to be a close second. He’s pretty much joking all the time. He’s amazing, very funny, he’s just got funny bones. He’s so quick, I don’t think anyone in comedy is quicker than him. I loved sharing a flat with him, and I look back on those times with a lot of fondness. We were all starting out, doing shows, it was so exciting. I don’t get to see him much now, which is disappointing. Weirdly, in comedy, the more successful you get at it, the less you see people, because you don’t go on tour with other people so much.
The second series of Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy - ‘Tales From Painted Hawaii’ will be on E4 this July. It was commissioned for E4 by Acting Deputy Head of Comedy Fiona McDermott. It is exec produced by Derrin Schlesinger and produced by Imogen Cooper. It is directed and written by Noel Fielding and Nigel Coan. The Production Company is Secret Peter.