Noel Fielding just finished his first US Tour, with the show, An Evening With Noel Fielding, and by all accounts, it was a gigantic success. I caught the show in New York City- it was my first time seeing Noel live- and was intrigued, enlightened, enchanted, and utterly converted by Noel and his conceptual whirlwind of a comedy show. It was a unique experience to see Fielding’s performance, which incorporates his own surrealistic version of stand up (at one point he talks at length about a dream he had that he was a tea bag), wildly fantastical sketch and improv, some of the most absurd characters you’ll see on stage anywhere (like Wimbeldon’s Hawk Eye or an adulterous Triangle, for example), animation, audience participation, a kidnapping and a journey into a world of plasticine, that’s Play-doh for us, but doesn’t plasticine sound so much more interesting? The crowd was fully engaged, not only rabidly applauding for Neil, but giving roars of excitement for improv phenomenon Rich Fulcher, who plays multiple characters in the show, as well as Mike Fielding, Noel’s brother.
Surprisingly, one of the first things Noel shared with me was that he thought the New York shows were just “alright,” at least by comparison to the other cities on the tour- Boston, Toronto, and Chicago. “Boston was amazing, Toronto was amazing and Chicago were amazing. New York, maybe, that venue wasn’t amazing but it was alright. It just wasn’t quite enough people or maybe they were too far away,” he said. “That venue it was fine it was all fine but it wasn’t knock the roof off. We smashed the roof off in Boston and Toronto and in Chicago.”
For the record, New York seemed pretty spectacular to me, so I can only imagine how raucous things got in the other cities. Chicago, he said, “was mental. Everyone dressed up. It was so ridiculous when we came on. They clapped and screamed for so long that– if you’re English that’s slightly embarrassing,” he said pausing to laugh at the craziness of it all. He recalled telling the audience, “It’s alright to stop now, I haven’t done anything yet.” They also went mad when Fulcher came out on stage, and he said they went mad again when Mike made his first entrance, and standing ovations all around. “We couldn’t have been happier really, we were like wow this is nuts.”
For those of you already familiar with Noel, either through the smash hit series and touring show, the Mighty Boosh or any other number of projects, it seems self-evident that Fielding’s US tour would be a smash. Noel’s unique style is a colorful encapsulation of a rich palate of artistic influences hailing from all genres of creativity- comedy, fine art, and music just for openers. Bowie, Miles Davis, Robin Williams, Jonathan Winters, Dali, and Billy Connolly are just a few of the names that will come up if you ask Fielding to list his influencers. The list of names who adore Fielding is pretty impressive too. Bobcat Goldthwait loves him, he told me that Jack Black had plans to come out to see the show, as did the Portlandia team, the Strokes, and Adam Green. And so did Billy Connolly- genuine comedy royalty. Connolly visited the show during it’s New York run- on the first night in fact, and although Fielding said he doesn’t normally get rattled by celebrity, having Connolly in the audience definitely affected him.
“He’s so legendary that basically, when I was a little kid– now, stand up is so prevalent, there’s so much stand up you know what it is as a young person. But when you were younger. . .they were quite few and far between. There were a lot of tv shows that did sketch comedy or sitcoms but there weren’t that many stand ups when I was a kid. There was Bill Cosby, Robin Williams, I remember watching that with my mom and dad, and then there was Billy Connolly.” Billy was one of the first comedians Noel was exposed to growing up. “It was quite amazing, a lot like having the queen come to your gig. And because I was doing stand up in the show I was quite nervous because I knew that would be the bit that he focused on and he did.” Fielding described being on stage with Connolly in the audience. “I could see him as I came out. I could see him like a big sort of white lion with his big head, like comedy royalty. He had a light around him that just was glowing and I thought FUCK. It did slightly put me off for about two, three minutes. So then I thought nope, just do it and see. And he was very lovely afterwards. He was a gentleman. It was a real treat actually.” And he’s not exaggerating. I briefly got to meet Connolly backstage, and he was indeed, glowing. (Connolly, by the way is about to embark on a three city tour in the US, more on that later this week.) After the show, Connolly told Fielding he thought it was excellent. “I just thought, that’s it I’m done! He said, you were quite excellent. You were excellent. And I was like that’s it. I can have that on my gravestone and I can move on. What a lovely man, charming man.”
The American leg of the tour he said is going “really well.” He was quick to add, “that’s the most you’ll get out of me cause I’m English. Cause when we go home its like ‘yes, they were quite good.’ But in America people are like its amazing! Everything’s amazing! We go, yeah it was alright. It was fine.” So when Fielding says”really well” I translate that to amazing. “We’ve done the show 100 times or so, so we know it works, and I think the thing that’s surprising to people here is that I can do stand up. They didn’t really know that,” he said. “So people have been quite, ‘oh wow he can do stand up.'”
Fielding feels the show has really hit its mark, during the tour in the U.S. “When we did our first English tour we were ‘getting there.’ It was good but it was a bit lumpy and in places it was a bit baggy, and the few things that didn’t work we had to take them out. That was a big tour as well. But then by the time we had done Australia and then New Zealand and then anther British Tour, we had the show. We’d nailed it. It’s like a racing car, you just tinker with the engine the whole time to get it exactly running perfectly well and anything that isn’t right, you cut it out. But we knew we had a good little show, it’s just then, trying to get people in. And see what the response is like.”
The tinkering is down to almost a science, even for a surrealist jazz inspired artist like Fielding. The show has a lot of moving parts brought about by characters, audience involvement, transitioning to other worlds, animations, and his signature talking moon. But he knows how to keep his material tighter to accommodate some of the looser more improvisational components of the show, and the show is designed to change up the pacing to keep the audience engaged. The first half he says is a bit more dense, and the stand up requires a bit more thought on the audiences’ part. The second half, he described as more of a game, with audience participation where fans can be swept up in the momentum. “You don’t have to think as much, you can be a bit more drunk and a bit more just in it,” he explained.
The other element that is so intertwined with everything Noel does, is the concept of Lo-Fi. His shows are high tech, but purposefully look a bit handmade. He’s careful not to be insulting to his animator, who he calls “brilliant,” “a bit of a genius” and a “mini Jim Henson”, but describes his visuals as purposefully lo tech. “He doesn’t like things when they look too slick,” he said. “It turns him off and also doesn’t suit what I do, cause i do sort of quiet, jazzy stuff. I think he wants the animation to reflect that.” Rather than compete with the costly CGI that advertisers use with their big budgets, the concept is to let the audience see your fingerprints, and that extends to costuming and other visuals as well. “It makes it more charming for comedy. If something’s too slick people kind of go errrr or they think that you haven’t done it yourself or something. That’s kind of the philosophy– that he wants it to look like I’ve made it myself, rather than that I’ve hired a troupe of animators who’ve made brilliant for me.”
With the mechanics of the show well in hand, the main concern for the tour in the United States, Fielding said, was to see if Americans would laugh at all the same things that English people do. “They get everything, really smart crowds. Not that I didn’t think they wouldn’t be, but culturally you’re never really quit sure. What I do is quite absurdist and surreal so I guess it doesn’t really matter where you’re from. I think there was a lot of talk of, oh are you going to change it for Americans? And I was like not really, I think Americans are pretty smart.”
The only real difference for Noel about touring the US was playing some smaller houses, something he said he enjoyed quite a bit. In England, when he toured with the Mighty Boosh, the venues got bigger and bigger, which is great, but it also means being further removed from the audience. Likewise, his gigs in Australia were exciting, but gigantic. “Australia went absolutely insane and those gigs were massive so that was kind of knock your socks off.” But the smaller theaters have their own rewards. ” This has been quite amazing I’ve not done gigs like this- its the smallest gig I’ve done in ten years. . .so it was quite scary because I suddenly realized, because even in England in the small ones they would feel distant– 2000 seaters, in Australia they were all like 3,000. I’ve not done a 500 seater in a long time- other than just stand up when I was getting my stand up together but that was in clubs.” He described it as weird the first couple of days, but said the smaller theaters allowed him to do more subtle comedy on stage. “The bigger you get, you have to work in much broader strokes. Much more- make sure that the back row knows what you’re doing. Where I think you can play around with the concepts in smaller rooms and do a lot more subtle stuff and just jazz around a bit around the concepts a bit.”
With the tour a resounding success, hopefully America will be seeing more from Fielding. “I’d love to keep coming back and doing more and more. I’d love to do something out here if I could. If I had one thing that I could do out here, tv, radio or live, I’d be out like a shot because I just think its such a- there’s a lot of positive sort of- attitude that I really like. You can get stuff done and achieve stuff. You can have a crazy dream and people will go ‘yeah lets do that!!'”
This is great news not only for Fielding’s fans, but also for the large part of America who haven’t yet had the chance to take the journey. It’s quite trippy, and anyone who loves comedy and weirdness, and checking out something completely different, should take at least one ride.