The Irish Times - Friday, April 30, 2010
Permission to land
The comedy was an accidental by-product of rock ambitions, the global fame was even more of a surprise and now they're sort of looking forward to it all ending so they can go back home. New Zealand's comic superstars Flight of the Conchords talk to BRIAN BOYD
â€˜WEâ€™RE PRETTY much doing the same show now that we used to perform in front of 50 people at the Edinburgh Festival in 2002,â€ says Bret McKenzie from Flight of the Conchords. That year in Edinburgh, the self-described â€œNew Zealandâ€™s fourth most popular guitar-based digi-bongo a capella-rap-funk-comedy folk duoâ€ appeared in an eerie venue called The Caves.
Their midnight show featured the two of them sitting down with acoustic guitars, some songs and a bit of banter. Through excited word-of-mouth exchanges and superlative reviews, those early shows saw the Conchords go from nobodies to cult attraction to â€œstanding room onlyâ€. From there, they have gone on to create one of the most acclaimed comedy programmes of the decade â€“ their eponymous HBO TV show.
â€œEdinburgh was good to us,â€ deadpans McKenzie. â€œAfter three years, we achieved what would normally take people four years.â€
When their two shows at Dublinâ€™s Olympia Theatre next week went on sale earlier this year, all tickets sold out in a record 12 seconds. Similar to The Mighty Boosh, the Conchords inspire a sense of loyalty and devotion among their fan base, while at the same time sidestepping the mainstream and avoiding the usual comedic pitfalls that come with widespread acclaim and popularity.
Who else in the fame-obsessed, perpetually insecure, cash-in-while-you-can world of stand-up would walk away from a major TV series that was viewed by this generation as their Fawlty Towers ? Despite multiple Emmy nominations (and a Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album), McKenzie and his on-stage partner Jemaine Clement, have decided there will be no third HBO series.
A statement late last year read: â€œWeâ€™ve noticed the less we say about the future of the show, the more people want to talk about it, so in an effort to reverse this trend, we are today announcing that we wonâ€™t be returning for a third season. Weâ€™re very proud of the two seasons we made and we like the way the show ended. While the characters Bret and Jemaine will no longer be around, the real Bret and Jemaine will continue to exist.â€
The show featured the duo trying to make it as an alt-folk art combo in New York. With their demented stalker fan Mel and a regular cast of supporting comics, McKenzie and Clement were unlikely lo-energy and frequently bored and distracted looking protagonists. Most of the action came from the songs and videos.
â€œWeâ€™re very understated people,â€ says McKenzie. â€œThereâ€™s a big difference in energy level between Americans and New Zealanders. It can take a bit of getting used to. The music in the show was influenced by acts such as Pet Shop Boys, Marvin Gaye, Eurythmics, David Bowie . . . and Flight of the Conchords. Weâ€™re a big influence on ourselves.â€
The comedy was somerthing of an accident for the Conchords. The duo first met at university in Wellington in the mid-1990s â€“ they were both studying film and theatre. They first performed together as part of the five-piece comedy troupe, â€œSo Youâ€™re A Manâ€, but they still harboured ambitions of becoming a band. With a common love of artists such as James Brown, Prince and Bob Dylan, they struck out as a duo. â€œWe were a very strange band,â€ says McKenzie. â€œIt might have been a different story if we ended up playing rock venues. We just ended up playing comedy clubs.â€
What impressed most early on was how they contrasted their shy on-stage selves with vivid musical vignettes. Early on, they patented their between-song banter â€“ mildly surreal ramblings with a self-deprecating core.
Five years ago, they began to make waves with a well-received BBC radio show â€“ which, like the subsequent TV show â€“ had them trying to make it as a folk duo in London. â€œThere are similarities, yes,â€ says McKenzie. â€œThe radio show was a stepping stone to the TV show. It helped us develop a way of telling stories, a way of creating a show. Radio is great because you are free to do whatever you want, but with the TV show, they can actually make things for you â€“ you donâ€™t have to pretend youâ€™re in a spaceship. You can actually be in one.â€
Not really the types to â€œpitch an idea for a TV show to a major networkâ€, they were surprised by the HBO offer. â€œWeâ€™re not out and out ambitious, which is a bit strange in the US TV world,â€ says McKenzie. â€œI think people knew from the beginning that we had a different approach. It was fine with HBO because they are a sort of alternative channel (we had tried something with NBC, but that didnâ€™t work). It was a worry trying to bring the stage show to TV, but we did want it to deal with surreal ideas in a very ordinary way, like the stage show. It was all driven by the songs, really.â€
The rigours of starring in a big TV show didnâ€™t sit well with them. â€œFrom the beginning, we couldnâ€™t believe that these people from America had rung us up and asked us to make a show,â€ says McKenzie. â€œIt was exciting that some Americans had even heard of us! When we began to make it in New York, we were very angst-ridden. It is really hard to do and you donâ€™t know if people are going to like it. You see the early cuts and you think â€˜Oh God, what have we done?â€™â€
Clearly nonplussed by the celebrity that came their way on the back of the show, the Conchords are perhaps even more put out by their decidedly un-alpha male â€œsex appealâ€.
The popular website salon.com has them on their â€œSexiest Men On TVâ€ list, writing: â€œA guy with a guitar is hot. A guy with an accent is hot. And a guy who can make us laugh is really, really hot. What, then, could be better than a man who embodies all of the above? Two men who do. Separately, theyâ€™re adorable, but together, they enter a pantheon of witty troubadours that includes Jonathan Richman, They Might Be Giants and Jonathan Coulton â€“ men who are a little bit Bruce, a little bit Groucho, and more than a little appealing.â€
â€œItâ€™s all just weird,â€ says McKenzie. But then he finds a lot of things â€œweirdâ€ about the Conchordsâ€™ success. â€œItâ€™s just not something you ever expect â€“ playing to 5,000 people and having people say weird things about you.â€
Not Cut Out For Fame And Celebrity may well be their motto. Clearly thereâ€™s a relief in the Conchords camp that the TV series has come to an end and they can pursue other interests (which may include film treatments). For now, thereâ€™s a major European and US tour which not only takes to them to the main centres, and also to places where you mightnâ€™t expect a Conchords a following (thereâ€™s a show in Bergen, Norway).
Before finishing up with a big show at Los Angelesâ€™s famed Hollywood Bowl venue thereâ€™s a show at The Greek Theatre in Berkley, California. They say on their website that they added in this Berkley gig because â€œthe last time we played in Berkeley, we forgot some of the chords and insulted the audienceâ€.
After that, it will be gladly back to Wellington, where they still live. â€œWe can stay there,â€ says McKenzie, â€œand become â€œthe guys who once had a TV show in Americaâ€.
Keepin' it surreal: six of the best Flight of the Conchords lyrics
Loretta broke it off in a letter,
she wrote that she was leaving
and that her life would be better.
Joan broke it off over the phone,
after the tone, she left me alone.
Jen said sheâ€™d never ever see me again.
When I saw her again, she said it again.
Anne met another man.
Lisa got amnesia, just forgot who I am.
Felicity said there was no electricity.
Emily, no chemistry. Beth left, Fran ran.
Flo had to go; I couldnâ€™t go with the flow.
Carol Brown just took a bus out of town.
But Im hoping that youâ€™ll stick around.
Bowieâ€™s in space
Whatcha doinâ€™ out there man?
Thatâ€™s pretty freaky, Bowie.
Whatâ€™s a rock musician doing out in space man?
Isnâ€™t it cold, quite cold out there Bowie?
Do you need my jumper Bowie?
Then in the bathroom brushing our teeth
Thatâ€™s all part of the foreplay, I love foreplay
Then you go sort out the recycling
That isnâ€™t part of the foreplay
but itâ€™s still very important
I remove my clothes
Very very clumsily
Trippin over my jeans
coz Iâ€™m still wearing my shoes
But itâ€™s okay because
I turn it all into a sexy dance
BRET YOU GOT IT GOING ON
Bret, you got it going on.
The ladies will get to know your sexuality when they get to know your personality.
I said, Bret, you got it going on.
Not in a gay way, just in a â€˜hey mate, I wanted
to say that youâ€™re looking okay, mateâ€™
Why canâ€™t a heterosexual guy,
Tell a heterosexual guy that he thinks
his booty is fly
A KISS IS NOT A CONTRACT
A kiss is not a contract
but itâ€™s very nice, yes itâ€™s very nice
Just because youâ€™ve been exploring my mouth
Doesnâ€™t mean you get to take an expedition
to the south
Just because weâ€™ve been playing tonsil hockey
Doesnâ€™t mean you get to score
the goal in my jockeys
Just because Iâ€™m in an
acoustic folk band,
It doesnâ€™t mean I only want poon-tang
I canâ€™t go around loving everyone
I just wouldnâ€™t get anything done
Have you ever been told
that your ass is too big?
Have you ever been asked
if your hair is a wig?
Have you ever been told
youâ€™re mediocre in bed?
Have you ever been told
youâ€™ve got a weird-shaped head?
Have you ever been made fun of
coz of where you were from?
Have you ever been dissed over the intercom?
Have you ever found a gift
youâ€™ve given thrown away?
Have you ever been told
that youâ€™re the wrong shape?
Have you ever been told
youâ€™re Miss New Zealand?
Have you ever had hurt feelings?
(All songs available on YouTube)
Flight of the Conchords are at The Olympia, Dublin on Wednesday May 5th and Thursday May 6th.