Rich Fulcher interview: The Mighty Boosh, Snuff Box and Eleanor

As he prepares to bring his latest creation, Eleanor, to the Edinburgh Comedy Festival, we caught up with surreal comedian Rich Fulcher…

Rich Fulcher is perhaps best known as a regular collaborator on The Mighty Boosh, first playing the hapless Bob Fossil in the first series, then taking on various roles throughout. Away from the Boosh, Fulcher has been playing on the live circuit for years, and is currently touring with his new show An Evening With Eleanor The Tour Whore.

We caught up with Rich to talk about his career so far.

So, Rich Fulcher, how’s it going?

Fine, yeah good. Jet lagged. One word. At a time.

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You’ve just flown in from LA. What had you done over there?

I was doing some Eleanor shows out there to get ready for London. Everything I’ve done is to prepare for these next few days.

Warming up in the States, do you find that audiences there are a good indicator of what to expect from a London crowd?

LA audiences are very strange. I don’t know exactly what they’re gonna laugh at. And I did it in an old silent movie theatre, which is a great venue.

Luckily, I invited some normal people ‘cus a lot of times you get industry types who don’t wanna laugh. They’re afraid they’ll embarrass themselves.

Being a transatlantic performer, do audiences in the US and UK laugh at the same parts or do they react differently?

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When I start to go on surreal rants in the US, it throws them off a little bit, but then they go with it if they’re into that sort of thing. Hopefully I get people that are, y’know, there’s a lot of fans of the Boosh in the US who just don’t know it. And so you put up a show and hope they come out of the woodwork.

Somebody came up to me after one of the LA shows and said “I love how you’re bringing British sensibilities into the US” and I really didn’t think of it that way, it’s just sort of what I do.

Let’s go right back to the start now. What made you decide to make people laugh for a living?

Oh this is tough. I mean, I always liked trying to make people laugh. When I was growing up, my dad was in the Air Force so you’d have to adjust whenever you moved somewhere or else get beaten up. I couldn’t really fight very well so I tried to make people laugh. There are a lot of performers who are military brats, we move on average every two years so you need to create a little world to protect yourself from evil.

So, that was always with me, but I wanted to be a lawyer. When I went to law school I realised right away that I hated it, it was all about reading cases. So after I graduated I thought, “Now’s the time to try something new.” I could always go back to law, so I thought I would try this comedy thing..

I had done this talent show at law school, it was called Law Revue. Ah, clever! It wasn’t like the ultimate moment but it was a nice segue. So, I signed up to these classes called Second City in Chicago, which is like a training ground for loads of people. They have Bill Murray, John Candy, John Belushi. George Wendt.

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Norm from Cheers is quoted as saying Second City is like the Harvard of comedy. It was one of those things, I knew nothing about how to get started, but I did know about enrolling in classes, so I thought, “I wanna do that.” And then I realised everyone wanted to do the same thing, wanted to go to Second City then on to Saturday Night Live.

When you were starting out, who were your earliest influences?

I loved to listen to and watch Steve Martin. I loved Monty Python too. I would quote everything with my friends. Everybody else would be, y’know, listening to Pink Floyd and we’d be doing Monty Python. Then there was Bill Murray. I loved Bill Murray and his Saturday Night Live stuff.

What was the circuit in Chicago like at the time?

Well it was weird, because in Chicago it was mostly improv comedy. Which is really exciting because you’d get on stage and perform almost every night. There’d be these schools of improv just like schools of actor. Like short form, long form, different types of medium form. People would watch them like, “Oh, did you hear what such-and-such is doing?”

And there would also be these weird camps like there’d be an improv person, a stand-up person or an acting person. They never really melded. But then if you went off to LA or New York, which you usually did, then it wouldn’t matter. But in Chicago, it mattered.

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There was a cliquey atmosphere then?

Yeah, I actually saw fights break out.

Did they all have matching jackets to show their allegiance?

Nonononononono! (laughing) Almost! Seriously! Like there would be theatres too. They would have parties and stuff and be like, “Oh shit, that other theatre’s here! Watch out for those guys.” Very tribal.

But it was exciting, because you had all the UCB guys, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey was in my touring company. Steve Carell was out there. All these people that are embedded in comedy now. It really was an exciting era back in the 90s. You can trace a lot of that back to Chicago.

There was a Vanity Fair article once that traced modern comedy, and I think they started with Beyond The Fringe. And Second City was right off of that, it’s one of the hearts of modern day comedy.

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And this was all in the early 90s?

Yeah. I was doing a lot of shows back then, and one of them was an improvised university lecture about modern science. You’d get a weird premise from the audience like “Can Czechoslovakia be mailed?” and you’d have to prove it as professors of whatever they gave us.

It was an hour long lecture and it really did well. Somebody suggested, “Why don’t you do the Edinburgh festival?” and we’d go, “OK!”

We were so excited, we got stickers, we did all the stuff you do. I think there’s something really translatable about doing a university lecture. Everybody’s been through it and it has that cleverness that they like over here, and we were starting to sell out at the end of the festival. So, as a result we got a manager out here who took us all over. To festivals like, y’know Australia and we did two more Edinburghs.

Our group disbanded soon after for different reasons. One of them went on to form a company, who’s like the CEO of Twitter now. One of them became a doctor. So, they had all their reasons, but I was still trying to do this. I said to my manager, “Do you want to take me on solo?” and she said, “Okay, sure,” so I was the experiment.

It was right at this point that I got this sketch show called Unnatural Acts which Noel [Fielding] and Julian [Barrett] were a part of.

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So that was how you all met?

Pretty much. I met Julian a little bit before when he was doing a TV series called Asylum. I thought, “Wow, he’s very… enigmatic.” Paramount burned those shows. There’s a documentary you should see called 1997, about how that year, there were so many things going on. Sacha Baron-Cohen started his Bruno character. Dom Joly and Mash & Peas, which I think is Lucas and Walliam’s best work. Unnatural Acts was part of that Paramount scene. They were commissioning all these great things, but they got scared and closed up.

Going back to the Boosh, were you in from the start or was it something you got drawn into?

Well the Boosh became the Boosh initially when Noel and Julian started to do a lot of double act stuff. And they had these ideas about being zookeepers because they were infatuated with all of this animal humour stuff. There were a couple of sketches in Unnatural Acts where they are zookeepers.

Unnatural Acts was the seed for the gestation of the Boosh?

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That was the seed. While we were doing the show we were all of like mind. And we decided, “Why don’t we do a show after this, an Edinburgh show?” Noel and Julian said that they were thinking of doing this thing about being in a zoo then going to the jungle and they have this idea for a general manager of the zoo and asked if I was interested.

Of course, the Boosh was a big hit and went on to become a radio then TV series. Did you have to change much during those transitions?

Luckily, when we were doing it on stage there was room for improv, and our director, Paul King, embraced that. Change things between takes or just keep on going so the energy was still there, which I think is really important.

You can’t be too restrictive because when we did the radio show, that was such a free flowing thing where you could just make stuff up. The TV show needed to embrace a lot of those qualities. That’s what makes it what it is.

Your other TV show Snuff Box with Matt Berry, how did that come about?

I met Matt during the Boosh. He was Dixon Bainbridge and he’d beat me. We were pitching other kinds of stuff. You don’t always think of sketch shows as a collaborative thing. We’d been around for a bit and that’s usually something you do at the start. But in Britain, it’s different. We were offered this show because they liked our ideas and were looking for a new sketch act.

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Little Britain had just jumped from BBC Three to BBC One and they were commissioning all these sketch shows. We thought up Snuff Box after that. We didn’t want to do the typical sketch thing.

Such as catchphrases, for instance?

Yeah, we didn’t want to do that. So many people had done that, we wanted to do our own little special thing. Definitely both of our collaborations had come together. I wanted to tie things together and Matt wanted to have this weird Victorian feel to it. We both brought something to it and it came out great.

Was the BBC open to such a show or did they try to clamp down on it?

It was an anomaly because, basically, we wrote the whole thing and they would put suggestions here and there but they were pretty much ignored. Or said we had done, but didn’t.

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There was only one person overseeing it, but that would never happen again. It didn’t get re-commissioned and it only went out at 11 o’clock.

It’s found a new life through a DVD release, though.

Yeah, which is always good because I hate it when a great show is on and it just disappears into the ether.

Now you’ve got a live show of your own. What made you go for it?

Well, I’ve always done stuff on my own and with other people simultaneously with the Boosh. I’ve done bits of stand up and other things but here I’m largely known for the Boosh. [The Boosh] were going to do a US tour but it didn’t work out. It was a case of work on the movie or do the tour and it was too much all at once.

So, I thought it was a good opportunity to put out something myself in the meantime and I thought Eleanor would be a great character to focus on.

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So Eleanor was already a fully formed character by then?

Noel and Julian really liked the character and put her in the Boosh for one episode. I’d started doing her during one of the tours when we were just joking around and Eleanor had kind of evolved from that. She had legs and I thought she had the most depth to her and she worked on many different levels.

Do you find that character-based comedy can give you a bit more freedom to play around and improvise?

Yeah, it kinda does in a way. It makes you lock in more to what you wanna say, as opposed to Rich Fulcher, who can say anything. Whereas, with Eleanor, you kind of know where she’s gonna go, so you have more of a sense of freedom that way. There are bits in the show where I can go on flights of fancy.

Where did Eleanor come from then? When did you think, “This could work”?

We were just riffing on the bus once and I just came up with this character who was coming on to Noel and Julian. And they said I should do that as a character. And after a while of hearing that, because initially I was thinking that much of it, I thought, “Yeah maybe I’ll give it a go.”

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So, I went onstage and I did a gig and it went really well. So, I thought, “Why not do that in the future at some point?” It just seemed right. I don’t like to think too much, but if something feels right then just do it.

Me and Julia Davis did a short film with me as Eleanor. We were like two little sisters who lived together and anybody who came by the house, like a delivery boy or a plumber, we’d kill then lock in the closet.

Regarding Eleanor, how does it compare to your previous work?

It’s totally character-based. I’ve done character bits before in my stand-up. It was a challenge too. We’ve got multimedia stuff going on so technically it was a haul to get it to work. It’s not just me on stage talking. I had a lot of people involved. It really came together when me and Dave Brown went to Australia.

Was it a case of you and Dave Brown throwing ideas at each other and seeing which ones stuck?

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Yeah, I came to him with this. There were so many elements in my head that I couldn’t do it all by myself. There was video, scheduling this and doing that and music. I really bit off more than I could chew.

Dave was amazing, he was able to put it all together, plus he already knew the character so he came with some ideas. My girlfriend helped with the show as well, doing some VT editing.

After this show, does Eleanor have any plans for the future?

I think after this show, she’s going to be interviewing people. I’m gonna try and get her a segment on the web and see where that takes us. She can expand outside of music in terms of who she can interview.

She can be a groupie to everybody!

Exactly, and if you see the show, you’ll find that out.

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Wrapping it up now, how do you see the current comedy scene?

On the one hand, there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on live, but it gets throttled when it comes to getting on TV. I think it’s going to do TV in, where all the interesting comedy is gonna go on the Internet.

TV may jump on it eventually, but it’s probably gonna be too late. I think the problem is you’re just not gonna find sitcoms that get 10 million viewers anymore. Comedy is such a subjective thing, but there will always be intense fans for shows.

Are there any acts you admire?

I like Paul Foot. I think he’s great. It’s his own style and he’ll be around for a while. The Pajama Men are really good. They’re working on something right now. I loved Kim Noble’s show, I hope he stays around.

What are your plans for the future after this show?

Well, of course, any future Boosh projects I’m gonna be involved with. I’d like to do some film stuff, but nothing’s set in stone yet.

Rich Fulcher, thank you for your time.

An Evening With Eleanor The Tour Whore will be playing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival from 21-30 August.