Inside Jokes From Outsiders: The Immigrant Songs of Flight of the Conchords
by Patrick Strange, photos by Michael Muller | 09.03.2008
When Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie arrived at their favorite hometown video store in Wellington, New Zealand, earlier this year, the straight-faced musical comedy duo found it difficult to hide the feeling that something was terribly wrong. The longtime friendsâ€”known the world over as Flight of the Conchordsâ€”had arrived for an in-store performance supporting the first season DVD release of their hit HBO series, but what was supposed to have been a small gathering of store clerks and neighborhood friends had quickly turned into an unwelcome free-for-all. As Clement and McKenzie stepped from their car with acoustic guitars in hand, they were met by a throng of screaming fans and prying news reporters. Making a quick break for the door while slowing to answer the occasional journalist, it became abundantly clear that for this pair of wide-eyed Kiwis, the age of innocence was over.
Only a week before the video store fracasâ€”an event that saw more than 300 people clamoring for position in a space meant for only 30â€”Clement and McKenzie returned from the United States to their native New Zealand with the 2008 Grammy for Best Comedy Album, thus becoming the first non-North American artists to win the illustrious award. In capturing top honors for their EP, The Distant Future, Flight of the Conchords joined the ranks of such American comedic legends as Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, Bill Cosby, George Carlin and Eddie Murphyâ€”all the while playing to the beat of their own drum; or in this case, to the sound of indie-influenced, genre-specific pop melodies. Though the award undoubtedly contributed to the bandâ€™s over-zealous hometown reception, the pair seems to approach accolades and fame in the same casual manner as it does its humor. â€œI didnâ€™t even know there was an award for comedy,â€ says Clement, laughing. â€œWeâ€™d been up for things before, but we would never win them. Weâ€™re the perennial runners-up.â€ And when confronted with their new celebrity status, Clement quips, â€œI donâ€™t know too much about stardom, but what has increased is my annoyed-dom. I know that.â€
Although both are quick to point out that the characters they play on stage and television are nothing more than fictional personas, itâ€™s difficult to divorce the quirky, dry sensibilities of the Bret and Jemaine of make-believe from the Bret and Jemaine of real life. When McKenzie explains how heâ€™s been playing a corpse on a friendâ€™s low-budget horror flick, itâ€™s with the same good nature that his imaginary television character would announce his new job as a human billboard selling hot dogs on the streets of New York. And when Clement complains about the chaotic scene at the video store, it sounds strikingly similar to his stage characterâ€™s stories of snagging a quickie in between laundry loads and sorting the recyclables. In fact, Clement and McKenzie do the weâ€™re-funny-but-donâ€™t-realize-it bit so well, that you actually believe them when they say theyâ€™re surprised that people treat them like stars. No matter if itâ€™s a case of method acting gone awry or just classic delusion, what is certain is that the two men are undeniably endearing. And perhaps itâ€™s just this that hints at the reason for their Stateside popularityâ€”here are two lovable foreigners who seem to be just as naÃ¯ve as us Americans really are.
But before they were co-creators of a hit television show or pulling fast ones on Yanks with deadpan deliveries and off-kilter jokes, Clement and McKenzie were just another couple of buddies at Victoria University of Wellington; a college known just as much for its views of the South Pacific Ocean as it is for its academic programs. First meeting in drama class where they performed whimsical songs about male-body image and media obsessions, they soon became your typical college roommates, scrimping daily for the monthly rent and passing time with unchecked self-amusement. With little money and lots of restless energy, Clement and McKenzie would spend nights reaping the spoils of their education, hosting impromptu jam sessions and throwing co-ed get-togethers of varying success. In fact, the origin of Flight of the Conchords mostly owes itself to the very spirit of collegiate pursuit; that is, if goofing off with guitars and dreaming up surreal song lyrics can be considered academic.
Wanting to improve their skills because they were the â€œworst guitar players in class,â€ the pair promptly began to hold practice at home. â€œWe were trying to learn other peopleâ€™s songs,â€ says Clement, â€œbut found them to be too difficult to remember. So, we decided to make up our own.â€ â€œIt was a happy accident,â€ McKenzie adds. â€œI think at first we wanted to be a proper band, but all of our songs were just too kooky.â€
Regardless of method or intention, Clement and McKenzie were soon building a repertoire of playfully twisted songs chock-full of one-liners. Meeting together in their small, sparse Wellington flat furnished with thrift store couches and cheap movie postersâ€”one very much like the apartment that appears in the HBO seriesâ€”the two friends started to awkwardly manufacture the earliest Conchords tunes. However, depending on exactly who and when you might ask, designating the very first Flight of the Conchords creation is something of a chimera. Though both members have offered up several tunes which might warrant the coveted first-song statusâ€”including the ode to French pop and Parisian cuisine, â€œFoux du Fafa,â€ and a wayward song about people lost at sea who are then forced to eat each other for survivalâ€”on this day, McKenzie posits that the original song came in the form of rock and roll. â€œOur first song had only one chord and then a bridge of a second chord,â€ says McKenzie. â€œThen, it went straight back to the first chord. It was called â€˜Rock Beat.â€™â€ For now, his answer must suffice, but whether or not the song actually exists or if this is just another way in which McKenzie can poke fun at himself and at the rock genre in general is anybodyâ€™s guessâ€¦deadpanning is very much a deadly business.
It didnâ€™t take long until Clement and McKenzie moved beyond the two-chord song structure into slightly more varied musical stylings. Like the circumstances that brought the two together in drama class (a gathering that also included part-time Conchord collaborator and full-time director, Taika Cohen), how they became a bona fide musical comedy band is also one of chance opportunity. The pair had a college friend who booked a comedy night for a local Wellington clubâ€”the friend needed an opening act; the Conchords needed a gig. And through a shotgun marriage of supply and demand, a comedy legacy was born.
â€œLooking back, I think we could have become a really weird indie band just as much as a comedy band,â€ McKenzie says. â€œItâ€™s just that we started playing comedy venues. If we would have been playing hipster dive bars, I think we would have become some really bizarre rock bandâ€¦like Ween.â€
The twist of fate proved to be a lucky one. Soon, Flight of the Conchords was playing more and more shows in locations not only in New Zealand, but in North America and Britain as well. Dark barrooms and cribbage halls turned into outdoor festivals and two-night stands. What was previously a handful of two-chord ditties turned into a bucketful of smart, cleverly-executed comedy routines about topics as varied as an Albanian-hating racist dragon, killer robots from a post-apocalyptic future, and of course, a space-bound David Bowie. After releasing their debut album in 2002, the Conchords were eventually tapped by BBC for an episodic radio program showcasing the duoâ€™s songs, which were bolstered by sketch comedy co-written by the two New Zealanders and Da Ali-G Show director, James Bobin. Soon, Clement and McKenzie were traversing radio waves and invading living rooms, but by the time most of us finally took notice, the Conchords were already well in flight.
Last summerâ€™s award-winning The Distant Future was not so much a fluke by a couple of outsiders making good in America as it was the culmination of years of honing guitar skills and perfecting comedic timing. The six-track EP is a sampling of the duoâ€™s take on bended musical genres and dry lyrical witticisms. And depending on the tune, Flight of the Conchords plays mad-scientist with the likes of Pet Shop Boys, Hall and Oates, and Barry Whiteâ€”sowing new Oates for the yuppie crowd and bringing Barryâ€™s great big ego down to suburban size. Unlike other musical comedy groups, the Conchords seem to have a knack for keeping listeners interested for more than just one go-round; a testament to their ability to channel by-gone pop stars and then turn them on their ears. But the partners are quick to note that they are not capitalizing at the expense of those who came before, but are actually paying tribute. â€œWe started with this joke that we were a folk parody band,â€ says Clement, â€œbut it was only a joke. Most of our songs arenâ€™t really parodies at all; theyâ€™re just familiar songs with funny ideas. Weâ€™re really paying homage.â€
McKenzie seconds the notion. Musically trained and an accomplished instrumentalist in his own right, McKenzie is no stranger to the live circuit or to melodic execution. Roughly at the same time when the Conchords first started gigging, he joined the New Zealand reggae-funk eight-piece, The Black Seeds. Playing keyboards, McKenzie and the group reached the peak of popularity in New Zealand, eventually dishing out two platinum records and becoming one of the hottest party bands this side of Ibiza. McKenzieâ€™s involvement in The Black Seeds is more than notable, considering how the bandâ€™s image and success run contrary to what he and Clement mean to portray with Flight of the Conchords. On the one hand, McKenzie is a proven musician tested on a road filled with young groupies and college Rastafarians, and on the other, an actor-musician assuming the role of an unknown amateur. And the irony has not been lost on McKenzie. Before exiting The Black Seeds in order to focus on Flight of the Conchords, he had plenty of time to consider all types of music and musiciansâ€”no matter if they were funny or not.
â€œA lot of musicians are probably funnier to hang out with than comedians are,â€ McKenzie says. â€œMusicians think of me as a comedian and comedians think of me as a musician, but I think weâ€™re different than a lot of music comedians. Rather than ridiculing a genre, we have a lot of respect for it. Weâ€™re not trying to take the piss out of Bowie; weâ€™re just real big fans.â€
The bandâ€™s approach to songwriting is best exemplified through a story that Clement tells about a Conchords show several years ago. McKenzie and Clement were booked to perform during a folk night at a small club in rural New Zealand. When the pair entered the bar, they discovered a room filled with some serious folkies; singer-songwriters who took the acoustic craftâ€”and lovelorn lyricsâ€”very much to heart. While they awaited their turn, the Wellington duo casually listened to a series of performers bemoaning lifeâ€™s more lamentable aspects until one singer captured Clementâ€™s undivided attention. Dressed in leather and khakis and projecting a voice more folk than Guthrieâ€™s, the vocalist commanded the stage.
â€œHe had this song which was very tender,â€ recalls Clement. â€œAt the beginning of it, there was a list of all these things that he would do for this womanâ€”like how he would die for her. It was all very sweet, but there was something about how serious he was that made it seem too innocent for a man his age. It made it very funny to me.â€
After returning home late that night, Clement and McKenzie started to pen â€œIf Youâ€™re Into It,â€ a love song that features a devotee not only willing to â€œhang aroundâ€ with the object of his affection, but also buy her a couple of drinks, get naked for her, and depending on if sheâ€™s into it, set up a mÃ©nage Ã trois with her roommate. â€œI started with that ideaâ€”putting an unrealistic song in a somewhat more realistic context,â€ Clement says. â€œSo I just had my character sing a dirty line in response to the pretty things the other person is singing. Itâ€™s the best kind of male-male duet I can think of.â€
Skeptical humor interlaced with tried-and-true guitar riffs is a successful combination for the Conchords. And when HBO asked them in 2005 to appear on its comedy showcase, One Night Stand, and then later solicited from them a pilot for a potential primetime show, the once under-the-radar jokesters suddenly had the credentials of well-seasoned entertainers. Both fans and company execs alike gave praise to the projects, and by 2006, Clement and McKenzie were already working on what would become their calling card to most American audiences: the widely popular and unabashedly hip HBO series, Flight of the Conchords.
The premise for the television series is simple: Two New Zealanders, also named Bret and Jemaine, move to New York City in order to break into the music biz with their band called (you guessed it) Flight of the Conchords, while also trying their luck with oftentimes disinterested and unimpressed American women. The episodes stick closely to this basic tenet, effectually revealing two extremely lovable yet naÃ¯ve foreigners as they confront big city dangers such as muggings, sexually aggressive women, con-men, substandard housing, rude concert-goers and high cost of living, to name only a few. Anchored by original songs intermittingly performedâ€”or rather lip-synchedâ€”by Clement and McKenzie throughout the episodes, the television show is a refined, super-charged version of the Conchordsâ€™ live stage show complete with all the dramatic pauses, turns of phrases and dry counterattacks one could ever wish for. Though uncomplicated, the humor is intelligent, constantly playing with American cultural expectations and misinterpretations of the world beyond the borders. But Clement and McKenzie would never describe their comedy in such stuffy terms. To them, the show is drawn from, though not a documentation of, their own personal experiencesâ€”from the cramped apartments to the five-person audiences to the vintage shirts they wore when they â€œdidnâ€™t have the money to buy new ones.â€ And thus, the outsider/insider, real/unreal, deadpan/dead-honest tightrope dance continues.
â€œThe show is based on us 10 years ago when we were starving,â€ says McKenzie. â€œAnd no one still can ever understand us. A number of times, Jemaine would phone up one of those computerized taxi servicesâ€”the ones where you have to say your address to a computerâ€”and even it wouldnâ€™t understand him. We had to start using American accents just to get cabs.â€
The show also achieves hilarity due to its very talented and funny supporting cast, which provides countless opportunities for Clement and McKenzie to not only prove their acting skills but their unwavering willingness to make jokes at their own expense. Prominently featuring fellow New Zealand comic Rhys Darby as the Conchordsâ€™ inept band manager and Kristen Schaal as the bandâ€™s stalkishly obsessive and side-splitting lone fan, Flight of the Conchords is seemingly littered with characters from the New Zealandersâ€™ past. In fact, Schaalâ€™s character, â€œMel,â€ is the conglomerate of more than one female admirer who has crossed the boundaries of decency and tact. As the remarkable tale goes, it all started when McKenzie was cast as an extra in Peter Jacksonâ€™s first hobbit epic, The Fellowship of the Ring. Picked to appear as an elf because he was â€œtall and thin,â€ McKenzie was placed in the backgroundâ€”clad in a felt robe, long wig and pointy earsâ€”for nothing more than several seconds. However, the scene was enough to spawn an online cult phenomenon as female fans from different points of the globe created websites honoring McKenzieâ€™s handsome pixie looks. â€œA group really latched on to my â€˜elfâ€™ appearance,â€ he says. â€œIt was our first introduction to intense fans and it was magnified because they were obsessed over something as small as me being in the background of a shot. It was amusing, yet a highly surreal experience for me.â€
And thus, the obsession grew. Soon, Clement and McKenzie were playing gigs to not only regular music comedy fans, but card-carrying members of Tolkien Societies across Middle-earth. Periodically, groups of Frodo-loving aficionados would approach them before and after shows, showering them with flatteries and getting just a little too close for comfort. If one innuendo-spouting compulsive fan is scary enough, just imagine a whole roomful of marauding Mels. â€œSometimes people would come to the show and start shaking and all that stuff,â€ says Clement, smiling, â€œwhich I must say is totally unreasonable. You feel like youâ€™re inflicting harm on these poor people, but youâ€™re just a normal personâ€¦ We based Melâ€™s character on these types of situations.â€
As if the creation of such an entertaining character as Mel isnâ€™t worth a few awkward moments backstage, McKenzie soon became the envy of wannabe-sprites everywhere. While visiting Scotland for the Edinburgh Festival, McKenzie was actually invited to a luncheon held by the local Tolkien Societyâ€”an event he not only attended but where he also agreed to wear standard-issue prosthetic elf ears. Catching wind of the frenzy surrounding his character in the first film, which wasnâ€™t even cited in its credits, the powers that be gave McKenzie a follow-up role in the final film of the Lord of the Rings trilogyâ€”and this time, the elf had game. â€œDuring the part where the elves were escaping through the forest, I tell Liv Tyler, who plays Arwen, to hurry up,â€ says McKenzie. â€œBut, she wasnâ€™t even there on setâ€”I was talking to a ladder in front of a green screen. I guess sheâ€™s just a very busy person.â€
You donâ€™t have to be the princess of Aerosmith to maintain a demanding schedule. Already diligently working on the second season of the HBO series, the band is releasing yet another album of funny-pop hits this spring. Not even a year following their EP, Clement and McKenzie return with a self-titled album of 14 songs that all made cameos during the first season of the show. While the latest installment contains three tracks that appeared on the previous record, all the songs are expertly refined versions of those that graced the television show in all their quirky grandeur. Produced by Mickey Petralia, who helped fashion Beckâ€™s vibrant, light-hearted opus Midnight Vultures, and nurtured by the folks at major-indie label, Sub Pop, the latest record offers a fresh approach to musical comedy by delivering high production value and eclectic instrumentation. The new tunes are not only good for a chuckle, but for a serious listen as well. Tromping over genres and anecdotal humor with ease, Flight of the Conchords is everything you ever hoped for in a musical comedy album, but until now, always dismissed as the impossible. â€œWe strived desperately to make the recordings successful,â€ McKenzie says. â€œEarlier there was more attention to the comedy, but in the studio, a lot of time went into trying to play things well.â€
Making a comedy album that takes its music seriously is a considerable risk. Due to the effort to create a record that is much more than just an extended prank, absent from the LP are live recordings and the laughter that accompanies them. Without audible cues, such as the building mirth that follows a well-played joke or the applause of a pacified crowd, the listener is left alone to decide for him or herself what is funny or not. While surely expecting to encounter a fair share of jeers from Conchords-purists and dedicated fans of the live show, Clement and McKenzie seem to have taken into account the slippery slope of being funny and musically talented. Where one would usually hear the requisite whoops and hollers of audience members during the albumâ€™s 10-plus songs, instead theyâ€™re skillful retro melodies that are perfect counterpoints to the lyrics. In fact, Flight of the Conchordsâ€™ playful yet clever composition reminds us that when all is said and done, music itself can often be the funniest thing of all.
Considering the tremendous creative output from Clement and McKenzie in recent years, itâ€™s difficult to imagine something they canâ€™t do. Besides writing television shows and hit albums, McKenzie continues to work on several side projects while Clement is steadily making waves on the silver screen, starring in Taika Cohenâ€™s 2007 indie misfit-comedy Eagle vs Shark and the upcoming Gentlemen Broncos, directed by Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite). â€œBut I love making music,â€ Clement explains. â€œWhen I donâ€™t have my guitar, I miss it. Itâ€™s the way I can do what I want, using my own approach and my own way of thinking.â€
And so Flight of the Conchords presses on, working its way through hometown welcoming parties and courting international crowds that just canâ€™t resist that unassuming Kiwi charm. With the second season of their television series around the corner, a new album hitting the streets, and whatever else they have hidden up their very long sleeves, the two wonders from Wellington better get used to entering places full of uninvited guestsâ€”or at the very least, better equipped at feigning modest surprise when encountering large crowds. But the prospect of fame has never really frightened the Conchords; only the idea of not continuingly moving forward. â€œWe once did a show where everyone was singing along to â€˜Albi the Racist Dragon,â€™â€ McKenzie says. â€œI kept flashing forward 30 years and seeing me and Jemaineâ€”all grey haired and wrinkledâ€”playing a song about a dragon to a bunch of old people singing in unison. It was absolutely terrifying.â€