Rhys' book "This Way to Spaceship" is out now.
'I just say yes to everything'Last updated 10:36 16/04/2012
ROCKET MAN: Rhys Darby has had more international success than most Kiwi comics would dare hope for.
Fame of the kind that gets you stopped in the street? It waxes and wanes, says Rhys Darby.
He's living with his family in a hotel in Los Angeles at present, and when he popped out for a pizza the other day, the security guard tried to stop him taking it back in, mistaking him for a pizza delivery boy.
Fame at the level where you get stalkers? Well, the hotel is used by lots of celebrities, says Darby.
Even as he speaks, there are 20 or so young girls outside waiting for someone, but "it's not me, because I keep on walking about and waving to them and I get nothing!"
That's OK, though. "I quite like the level I'm at now, where I'm still king of the underground, very much a cult figure."
He gives a roaring, wheezy sort of laugh to make it clear that he's kidding, kind of.
For the past few years, Darby has been unavoidable - his role as idiotic band manager Murray in two series of the Flight of the Conchords television series from 2007 onwards led to a flurry of highly paid, badly paid or unpaid activity around the world, from his twin bases of Auckland and Los Angeles.
There were film roles in English comedy The Boat that Rocked, the Jim Carrey comedy Yes Man, and the big by New Zealand standards romantic comedy Lovebirds (as well as a small United States independent film, Coming and Going, of which he says, "It's come and it's gone").
He appeared in TV advertisements for local telco 2 Degrees, for Hewlett-Packard, where he hung out with Dr Dre and Annie Leibovitz, or for Nike, where he played tennis with Roger Federer. He popped up on 7 Days and The Jaquie Brown Diaries and Intrepid Journeys and on a student radio show about monsters.
There was celebrity activism in support of Greenpeace's Sign On climate-change campaign and Auckland Zoo's anti-palm-oil campaign, and he persisted with the standup - the job he'd been working towards since he was 6 and some girls in the playground observed his antics and said "You should be a comedian".
Part of the secret of his success, he reckons, is "I just say yes to everything, because what have you got to lose?"
HE ALSO said yes when Auckland-based publisher PQ Blackwell suggested he write a book. It's a kind of autobiography - chucklesome anecdotes from his childhood, from his time in the army and as a Body Shop trainee manager, and from his runaway comedy career.
There are random comic musings and schoolboy doodles of jetpacks, Hawaiian-shirt designs and his dance moves, and there's a rather sweet page by his wife, Rosie, in which she reveals that when compared with his character, Murray, her husband has the same unbounded ambition and hair, but a deeper voice and better dress sense.
The book is called This Way to Spaceship, and bracketing the memoir are several chapters of nonsense built on the idea that the world is going to end in 2012, with advice on how to locate and board the secret rocket ship that is going to take the world's VIPs into space to escape Armageddon.
So Darby is doing interviews to drum up some excitement about his book. It's over the phone, so Darby helps out with the observational stuff. He says he's pretty scruffy today: his famously thick hair looking "pretty lush", and he's wearing a Gap T-shirt and "cool-looking" grey pants.
He's living on the 15th floor of the hotel, which is quite fancy, "the sort of place where the artworks on the walls are twigs".
Rosie and Theodore, 2, are roaming about in the background, and Finn, 6, is at school.
Darby's career is at a curious in- between stage. Last year, CBS paid for the family to relocate to Los Angeles, because Darby had a central role in a new sitcom called How to Be a Gentleman.
The Darbys took a 12-month lease on a "lovely big pad with a pool", and Rhys started writing the book between shoots. But after a few months, the show was canned. "So there we were, living in Beverly Hills, unemployed."
They wrapped up the lease and moved into the hotel, and Darby finished the book. Then he wrote a complementary standup show, "because I can tour the world with that and sell the books at the same time".
The tour starts in New Zealand this week, goes to Britain in July and then to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August.
So where does that leave the US acting career that was looking so meteoric?
"I've had a few auditions. I've had a few scripts come by. I've turned a lot of stuff down because there's a lot of bollocks coming through Hollywood."
There have been roles Darby wanted but missed out on, and then the movie has come out "and it's been s...", and he's thought, "Oh God, that was a bullet dodged!"
Can he name one of those dodged bullets?
He tries. "What was it called? It was set in the Middle Ages and it had Danny McBride in it and they all smoke marijuana. It had that woman who won the Oscar for Black Swan. What's her name? Used to be in Star Wars."
He gets the giggles and gives up. "I'm not really part of the game here. I don't really know anyone. I don't care."
He means Natalie Portman. The movie was Your Highness. It was a bomb.
There have been small TV roles on offer, but many have fallen through. "I'd do an audition and get the part, and then because it was shooting in a couple of weeks, they'd say 'It's going to take longer than that to get your visa'. It's a pain in the bum."
He turned down a big role he was offered - in the Steve Carell comedy Dinner for Schmucks - because Theodore was being born "at the exact time that I was meant to be filming".
"But the guy that took my role from me, Chris O'Dowd, then went on to get lots of parts straight after that. He ended up being in Bridesmaids. They essentially stole my career. I see him around town. I go, 'I know what you're up to'. "
He's joking again, kind of.
"It's a difficult game. You've got to roll with the punches, take the roles you can and hope that they're good. I've realised after writing the book that if I really want things to go my way, I've got to do it myself, so I'm going to write a screenplay this year. I've got the idea and I'm going to get stuck into it straight after the tour.
"Hopefully, I'll be one of these guys that'll write it and direct it and stand in front of it."
He isn't too sad that the CBS sitcom died, despite the fabulous salary. After the improvising and wry humour of Flight of the Conchords, How to Be a Gentleman was a straitjacket.
"It was multi-camera, laugh track, set-up punchline. It felt so awkward for me. I was worried that I could get stuck in a mediocre sitcom for six years. Now I'm free to kind of wait.
"You've got to be patient. I think the second half of this year, something big is going to land. Possibly a spaceship."
Ah yes, the book. The memoir stuff is great fun, but the coda about boarding spaceships before the end of the world. What on earth was he thinking?
To Darby, it's perfectly reasonable. About the time Blackwell asked him to write a funny book "the world started to fall apart, with respect to Christchurch and then the tsunami in Japan".
"It was a very weird time. I started thinking about it being 2012 and the end of the world, and I thought I'd tie everything together."
IN PRINT and in person, Darby displays unquenchable self- confidence, usually with a redeeming note of gentle self- mockery, but I think he's being straight up when he says, with puppyish enthusiasm, that the anecdotes in the book are "wonderful to read" or "I don't think people expected that I could write."
Darby, at 38, has had more international success than most Kiwi comics would dare to hope for. Was he just very lucky or has he some comedic X-factor?
It's hard, says Darby, to go back in time, change your route and see if things end differently, "but I can say with a lot of confidence that my type of material has always had universal appeal".
A decade ago, the British comics at New Zealand comedy festivals advised him to get his act to Britain, because no-one was telling physical stories with mime and sound effects like he did. His strong accent and "slightly odd voice" were bonuses.
Darby had ambition and drive. He could perform, he had material, and the stars lined up.
"The Conchords and I were in the same place at the same time at Edinburgh. Jemaine asked me to do the radio series with him. I had nothing on - well, I had clothes on, but I had no activities booked - and I did it. I just say yes to everything."
Amid the jolly japes and science-fiction surreality of Darby's book, there are some darker notes. He tells of a miserable few months in London, just before the Conchords took off, when he was desperately short of cash and stricken with a weird fungal infection, and seriously considered fleeing back to New Zealand. He also writes briefly, if cryptically, about a Kiwi tall- poppy syndrome, "orchestrated by the media".
What's that about? Which media outlet's been lopping the Darby poppy?
Darby gets vague, but it's just "the odd person who has a go at me, but knows nothing about me and will just have a jab or because of who I am and of what I've achieved".
He's referring to online comments suggesting he was selling out with all those ads, or that he wasn't funny on sketch show Radiradirah, or that he was overexposed.
He means the flurry of complaints from righteous bloggers after he fronted a campaign warning schoolkids about internet piracy.
He probably means a blog by Stuff.co.nz's Chris Philpott claiming Darby was up to 14:32 of his 15 minutes of fame. But he doesn't want to dwell on it.
"It's only little niggles here and there by chaps who are basically blogging in their underwear."
Fame and fortune have been largely delightful, so he's not going to complain too much about the small downsides. He will keep on trying to make people laugh whether they like it or not.
"I enjoy it. I enjoy the awkward looks my wife always gives me when I'm saying the wrong things in a restaurant, so I just do it.
"But if I'm tired, or I'm not in the right mood, I'll be a boring guy who's hanging out with a woman who's nagging him all the time."
There's a kind of clattering noise down the line.
"Argh! She can hear me."
He chortles, entertained once more by the fact that he's being a bit of a dick, and in doing so has made somebody laugh.
Rhys Darby's standup show, based around This Way to the Spaceship, is at Wellington's Opera House, May 3-5; Auckland's SkyCity Theatre, May 8-12; and he is in other events around the country.
Details comedyfestival. co.nz.
- © Fairfax NZ News
I must have missed the fact that Rhys was offered a role in Dinner For Schmucks.