Flight of the Conchords: fasten your seatbelts
Two years ago Flight of the Conchords was a tiny blip on the world comedy radar. Now the cult series about two New Zealand musicians trying to crack the big time in New York is going supersonic.
James Bobin is searching the internet for a boat and a goat. As he clicks through a gallery of images, an assistant notes down a description of the goat he would like to cast. 'That's the look,' he says, pointing to an attractive billy goat, 'but with slightly larger horns.'
Bobin is directing a music video for a Prince-style paean to unusual love-making entitled I Told You I Was Freaky. It contains the lyric: 'Let's take a photo of a goat in a boat and then we can float in the moat and be freaky.' Other props for the video include some money covered in honey, a 6ft squirrel costume and a naked woman painted to blend into a backdrop of 1970s patterned wallpaper. The men responsible for all this freakiness are the comedians Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie, better known as Flight of the Conchords.
Clement, 35, usually plays bass guitar; McKenzie, 32, acoustic guitar. Both sing. And despite describing themselves as New Zealand's 'fourth most popular guitar-based digi-bongo a cappella-rap-funk comedy folk duo' they are the hottest ticket in musical comedy. In 2007 their EP The Distant Future won a Grammy. Last year they entered the US charts at No 3 with an eponymous album, thereby making them the highest-charting New Zealand act ever in the US (Crowded House reached No 12 in 1986). The album has since gone platinum. On television, the first series of the Conchords' HBO sitcom, co-written and directed by Bobin, and which follows the duo's doomed attempts to crack the big time in New York, won four Emmy nominations. The second series has just aired in America to critical acclaim; it transfers to BBC Four in May.
Clement and McKenzie met in 1998 while studying film and theatre at Victoria University in Wellington. McKenzie grew up there; his father was a horse breeder, his mother a dance teacher. Clement, who describes himself as 'part Maori, part European', grew up in Wairarapa, an hour north of the capital. His father worked in a slaughterhouse, his mother in a cheese factory. The pair simultaneously dropped out of university to pursue careers in music, or comedy, or both. Briefly, and unsuccessfully, they took themselves seriously as musicians. But their audiences found it impossible to do the same and their comedy folk crossover act was born.
For several years, the Conchords went nowhere, slowly. Both did other jobs: Clement wrote radio ads and sketches for a 'terrible' New Zealand comedy series called Skits; McKenzie worked on solo comedy projects and toured with bona fide (non-comedy) bands. The pair were barely scraping a living as they hopped between continents and comedy festivals, sleeping on sofas, gigging where they could and honing their act.
The Conchords' oeuvre is difficult to define, bar the fact that their songs are usually a pastiche of one or more musical genres, from gangsta rap to children's television tunes, from David Bowie to Barry White. Although both Clement and McKenzie are accomplished musicians, it is their lyrics that set them apart. During Issues (Think About It), a parody of Marvin Gaye's What's Going On?, they sing: 'They're turning kids into slaves / Just to make cheaper sneakers / What's the real cost? / Cause the sneakers don't seem that much cheaper. / Ooh, why are we paying so much for sneakers when you get them made by little slave kids? / What are your overheads?'
The Conchords performed at the Edinburgh Comedy Festival for three consecutive years from 2002. In 2003 they were nominated for a Perrier Award. Despite their growing popularity, they were struggling financially. 'We were very poor,' Clement remembers. 'When we first went to Edinburgh I literally stayed in a cupboard which had just enough room for a mattress at an angle. Bret was in a room where wasps would come through the wall. Every night he'd be complaining that there were wasps in his sleeping bag. Fortunately I didn't have to deal with that because I was in the cupboard.'
One of the Conchords' ardent supporters at Edinburgh was the comedian Rob Brydon. He helped them get their own comedy series on Radio 2, which spliced together the songs with stories about the band's imaginary off-stage misadventures. Jimmy Carr played a devoted fan called Kipper. The Conchords had abortive discussions about a television series with various broadcasters including NBC and Channel 4. The main stumbling block was how the live act, and in particular the songs, could translate to television.
James Bobin, who had previously worked with Sacha Baron Cohen on Da Ali G Show, was struck by the same problem. 'As a director you go to Edinburgh to watch acts and, if you like them, work out how you could make a TV show,' he says. 'I first saw the Conchords in 2003 and remember thinking, "This is impossible. You can't do this." The atmosphere was so brilliant, and the involvement of the audience so integral to their performance that I couldn't imagine how you could turn them into a TV series.'
Then, in 2004 a scout from HBO, the American cable network that makes Curb Your Enthusiasm and co-produced Extras, saw Flight of the Conchords perform in Montreal. This led to one of their live performances being broadcast on HBO's stand-up comedy showcase One Night Stand. It was a hit and, with Bobin now on board, HBO signed up for a 12-episode sitcom, without quite knowing what format it would take. 'It seems easy now, but it only gradually dawned on us how the TV show could work,' Bobin says. 'We toyed with lots of ideas â€“ at one point Bret and Jemaine were going to be millionaires who live on a boat, write songs and make their own music videos.'
In 2007 the series aired on HBO, with Clement and McKenzie playing dopier, more hapless versions of themselves. McKenzie says he uses an especially rigorous form of method acting to inhabit the role: 'I think, "What would I do?" And then I do it.' Perpetually bumbling, broke and lovelorn, the fictional Conchords live in a poky, down-at-heel flat in Brooklyn, New York, trying and constantly failing to get a foot in the music industry door.
They have one friend, Dave (Arj Barker), who runs a pawn shop, and one infatuated fan, Mel (Kristen Schaal), who stalks them with a devotion bordering on the psychotic, despite the fact that her husband drives her to all their gigs. Many of the plots revolve around the failure of the band's sublimely incompetent manager Murray Hewitt (Rhys Darby) to secure them a proper gig or record deal. When he is not booking them to play public libraries, airport departure lounges or parks (Jemaine: 'This isn't Central Park. You said Central Park.' Murray: 'I said a central park'), Murray is the deputy cultural attachÃ© at the New Zealand consulate.
The songs spring organically (if sometimes tangentially) from the storylines without preface or explanation, as they would in a musical. McKenzie describes the series as 'Peep Show meets The Monkees'. In one episode, Jemaine spots a sexy girl across the room at a party. In a dream sequence-cum-music video, he serenades her: 'You're so beautiful / You could be a part-time model / But you'd probably still have to keep your normal job.'
The first series of Flight of the Conchords won solid if unspectacular ratings on HBO of about a million viewers an episode. But those who did watch the show loved it. Fans contributed to the Conchords' burgeoning cult status by posting clips of their songs on YouTube. A clip of Business Time, the Conchords' tale of midweek suburban sex ('Girl, tonight we're gonna make love. You know how I know, baby? Cos it's Wednesday'), has been viewed more than 16 million times.
Thanks to the peculiar genesis of their television show, one of the difficulties of interviewing the Conchords is working out where the fictional Jemaine and Bret end and the real Clement and McKenzie begin. When we meet in a Brooklyn diner during a break in filming for the second series, the Conchords have changed out of their characters' costumes and into their own clothes. The two sets of outfits are indistinguishable.
Clement, the more gregarious of the two, with broad shoulders, shaggy sideburns and thick-framed rectangular glasses, dressed in a maroon overcoat with big lapels, describes himself as an 'ogre who works in a library'. McKenzie, wearing a stripy blue sweater and blue jeans, is more self-effacing. 'I'm the polite cop to Jemaine's slightly less polite cop,' he says. McKenzie has the delicate features of an unshaven elf. In fact, he played an elf in the first and third films of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy. Various fansites, predominantly set up by women, have sprung up in his character's honour, describing him as 'the thinking woman's Legolas'.
Both Conchords are now inadvertent sex symbols. And their legion of female admirers sound every bit as fanatical as Mel, the band's lone stalker on the show, even though both have recently married their long-term girlfriends from New Zealand. 'We do get girls coming up to us and saying, "I'm the real Mel," ' McKenzie says. 'They mean it as a joke, but they are quite creepy. We also get a lot of hand-drawn portraits of ourselves. They're really cool but something you're not sure what to do with. You can't put them all up on your wall. That would be weird.'
'We were thinking of having an exhibition of them in Wellington,' Clement says. 'A permanent one at the National Gallery, in the Flight of the Conchords section.'
Much of the comedy in Flight of the Conchords springs from the contrast between the band's Kiwi sense of humour, which is wry, muted and self-deprecating, and their brash New York surroundings. The personification of the show's small-town New Zealand sensibility is the endearingly hopeless Murray Hewitt. A sticker on the door of his office in the consulate reads in case of emergency, call wellington 7469. There are four labelled clocks on the wall, One telling the time in New York, the other three telling the same time in Wellington, Hamilton and Auckland.
This self-mockery has gone down a storm back home, where Clement and McKenzie were crowned the 2007 Wellingtonians of the Year. 'It's a dream
I never had,' Clement said after the ceremony, 'but now it's come true.' Murray Hewitt was proclaimed Man of the Year 2007 by the New Zealand Herald. He has managed to make one enemy, however. 'I was doing a stand-up gig in New York as myself,' Rhys Darby, who plays Murray, says, 'when a man in his fifties barged in at the back and started shouting, "I'm the real Rhys Darby! I'm the real Rhys Darby!" I started signalling to the bouncers because the man was quite drunk and I thought he might be mental. But it turned out he was a government official with the New Zealand consulate. He should really have been shouting, "I'm the real Murray Hewitt!" but that would probably have freaked me out more. Anyway, he had to be forcibly carted out, which was great because it's exactly the sort of thing Murray would do.'
Most American sitcoms are written collectively by a large pool of writers and therefore burst at the seams with clever-clever quips. By contrast, many of the funniest lines in Flight of the Conchords are improvised. Before the interview, Clement and McKenzie have been filming a scene set in a New York police station. Jemaine has been arrested for assault and Murray is trying to get him released on the grounds that Jemaine works for the New Zealand consulate, which he doesn't, and therefore has diplomatic immunity. Murray hands a policeman a business card as proof of identification.
'This looks like it was made in the machines you find at Kinko's,' the cop says, handing the card back to Murray. 'That's right â€“ Kinko's,' Murray replies breezily. 'That's where we get them done. We have an account.' Over subsequent takes, Darby riffs on the Kinko's theme. 'They're great,' he informs the cop on the eighth and final take, 'you can get 100 done for $10. Here's my one. [He hands over another card.] The prime minister of New Zealand has a laminated one.' Between takes, Darby, whom Clement and McKenzie credit as the show's most gifted improviser, even ad libs about his ad libs. 'I've started to warm up â€“ like a singer,' he beams. 'Like an opera singer?' Clement asks. 'No. Like a Singer sewing machine.'
The formula remains largely unchanged for the second series. The plots include Clement becoming a prostitute; McKenzie bankrupting the band by spending $2.79 on a new mug; and a visit by the New Zealand prime minister. The faltering, downbeat dialogue is just as funny. In the opening episode Jemaine reveals that his 'father was a women's rights activist.' Clement: 'Not your mum?' McKenzie: 'No. Dad wouldn't allow that. No way.'
One key difference is the songs. For the first series, the songs, whittled to perfection during years on the stand-up circuit, came first and the Conchords and Bobin wrote the storylines around them, frequently to bizarre but brilliant effect. For the second series, the songs were written to dovetail with the scripts, sometimes composed over a weekend during filming. Happily, there are still some superb pastiches: Sugar Lumps, a raunchy rip-off of Kelis's Milkshake, and Stay Cool, a West Side Story spoof, are spot on.
In any case, it is easy to forgive the Conchords their occasional failings and gloss over the jokes that don't quite work. Many recent sitcoms, such as The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm, are deliberately excruciating to watch. Clement and McKenzie's mishaps are so sweet and whimsical that the viewer is never forced to cringe or look away. It sounds a curiously old-fashioned boast, but Flight of the Conchords is the most charming comedy on television.
The duo, anxious to sign off on a high, say this will 'definitely' be the last series. (They said the same after the first.) There is flippant talk of a film. 'We should do an action movie,' McKenzie says. 'I could be New Zealand Man. My super power would be flying very long distances.'
In the meantime, the Conchords' fanbase continues to grow, one word-of-mouth recommendation at a time. On the plane back from New York, the in-flight entertainment system is playing an episode from Series 1. A man two rows in front is watching and chuckling contentedly. He leans across and places his headphones on his companion's head. By the time the plane is circling the skies above Heathrow, the entire row has tuned in.
It will be interesting to see if Flight of the Conchords' growing popularity destroys this sense of personal discovery and alienates the early adopters. The Conchords don't sound worried. 'The show's not big enough that people hate it just to hate it,' Clement says, 'and not everyone likes it yet, which is fortunate.' 'Besides,' McKenzie says, 'we're not really into our original fans any more.' 'Yeah,' Clement nods earnestly, 'we prefer our original fans' early stuff.'