New York Times
New in Town, Talking Funny
By Dave Itzkoff
Published: June 10, 2007
The blessing of being a comedian from New Zealand is that your accent will make anything you say sound a little bit funny to American ears, whether you intend it or not. The curse is that your naturally laid-back attitude and innate stoicism will cause some people — say, television executives — to doubt your commitment to your art, and others to question your career choice altogether.
“People are always surprised to hear that I’m a comedian,” said Jemaine Clement, a shaggy, low-key New Zealander with ample sideburns and a pair of Elvis Costello glasses, who is one-half of the musical comedy duo Flight of the Conchords. “Like, people will say: ‘But you’re not funny. You don’t even talk.’ ”
By Nicole Rivelli
Over a recent lunch at a Thai restaurant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Mr. Clement and his performing partner, Bret McKenzie, affirmed that they were perhaps not the best representatives of how their countrymen really behave.
“Jemaine and I are both particularly understated,” said Mr. McKenzie, 30, a shaggier, lower-key Wellington native with a beard. “When we’re hanging out with other New Zealanders, we’re still two of the quieter ones.”
Mr. Clement, 33, who grew up near Wellington in the town of Masterton, said: “Sometimes people think we aren’t interested in things when we are. It’s just that we don’t express it. There’s a very different energy level between the average New Zealander and the average American.”
That hasn’t discouraged HBO from giving Mr. McKenzie and Mr. Clement their own half-hour comedy series. Titled “Flight of the Conchords” and making its debut on June 17, the show follows the adventures of two New Zealanders named Bret and Jemaine, recently relocated to downtown New York, who play in a band called Flight of the Conchords, endure mundane indignities, compete over women and sometimes break into song.
If the autobiographical premise itself seems vaguely modest and unambitious — especially in an era when scripted television comedy has become more precious than petroleum — that’s sort of the point of the show.
“Whatever this aspires to do, it does, and I know I’m making absolutely no sense,” said Stu Smiley, an executive producer on “Flight of the Conchords” and an industry veteran whose development and production credits range from “Kids in the Hall” to “Everybody Loves Raymond.” “It doesn’t feel like it aspires to be anything, and that’s what makes it so funny and so honest.”
Beneath their relaxed demeanors, Mr. Clement and Mr. McKenzie are both motivated, determined performers. In the mid-1990s, while they were still students at Victoria University of Wellington, they were already touring New Zealand and Australia with a five-member comedy act called “So You’re a Man.” At a time when their island nation was still largely served by just three television channels, and homegrown production was scarce, they found their comedic influences in offbeat British and American imports like “Blackadder” and “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show.”
But when they set their sights on goals beyond the Southern Hemisphere, the two were discouraged in their pursuits. “It’s tall-poppy syndrome,” said Taika Waititi, a film director who performed with Mr. Clement and Mr. McKenzie in “So You’re a Man.” “If there’s a poppy taller than all the others, the other poppies want to cut it down. You experience that quite a lot in New Zealand, and it affects our art. That’s why our movies are so dark, and there’s always people dying in them.”
After rotating through comedy troupes with names like the Humourbeasts, Mr. McKenzie and Mr. Clement began performing under the name Flight of the Conchords, playing slyly satirical songs (often about their affections for the opposite sex) on acoustic guitars and bantering awkwardly between numbers. And though they ironically billed themselves as a folk duo, their music paid more obvious homage to the eclectic funk and rock artists they had grown up listening to, including James Brown, Prince, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen.
“It was always going to be a strange band,” said Mr. McKenzie, who originally envisioned an act resembling experimental musicians like Beck and Ween. “It might have been a very different story if we ended up playing rock venues. We just ended up playing comedy clubs.”
In 2002 the Conchords played their first Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and they returned there twice more to increasing interest from the American and British comedy industries. “After three years,” Mr. McKenzie said, “we achieved what would normally take people four years.” (Mr. Clement added triumphantly, “We bypassed a year.”)
Though they were approached by American networks, including NBC and Fox, no one offered them a series (perhaps because they were too naïve about the television industry to know how much was at stake in these meetings). But after performing at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen in 2005, the Conchords came to the attention of HBO, which was looking to develop more low-cost comedy pilots around relatively unknown talents, in the vein of such limber 1990s series as “Tenacious D” and “Mr. Show With Bob and David.”
Rather than subdividing itself into distinct comedic sketches and musical numbers, the “Flight of the Conchords” pilot (shot in four days by Troy Miller, a longtime “Mr. Show” and “Tenacious D” director) blurred the line between the two formats, telling a single, self-contained narrative that occasionally segues into short music videos that seem to take place only in Mr. Clement’s and Mr. McKenzie’s imaginations.
Of the four low-budget pilots that HBO approved last year, only “Flight of the Conchords” has made it to the air. “I didn’t think any of them would, so the fact that we got one out was, I thought, a miracle,” said Carolyn Strauss, the president of HBO Entertainment. “There’s something so charming and fresh about these guys that we just had to do it.”
Over the course of 12 episodes “Flight of the Conchords” has continued to hone its voice in additional music segments inspired by the videos of David Bowie, the Pet Shop Boys and Patti LaBelle, and even Steven Bochco’s ill-fated musical series “Cop Rock.” (“I feel like if they put ‘Cop Rock’ on now, it might do quite well,” Mr. Clement said, one of several potentially sarcastic comments that this reporter may have mistaken for sincerity.)
The look of the show is also distinguished by its use of lovingly grungy Lower East Side and Brooklyn locations, evoking an idealized New York where one might be able to escape a mugging by performing a spontaneous hip-hop song.
“Of all the shows I’ve seen set in New York, it reminds me the most of when I first started living here and really had no money,” said Paul Simms, the “NewsRadio” creator, who serves as a consulting producer on “Flight of the Conchords. “ I mean, I liked ‘Friends,’ but I can’t think of another show that’s shown what it’s like to really be young, when an expensive dinner is $15.” But ultimately “Flight of the Conchords” takes its cues directly from Mr. Clement and Mr. McKenzie, two faintly out-of-place foreigners who would probably be shopping at hip downtown music and clothing stores and living in the East Village even if such activities didn’t provide ideal grist for a late-night comedy series.
“I think there’s been a great homogenization of culture, and that’s helped comedy a lot, because we now have the same cultural references,” said James Bobin, an executive producer on “Flight of the Conchords,” who has also served as a writer and director on “Da Ali G Show.” “We all have the same haircuts, wear the same sneakers and listen to the same music. We don’t deliberately force Jemaine and Bret into that milieu. They just happen to be there because that’s the way they are.”
As they finish work on an album for the independent label Sub Pop and prepare for a short summer tour, the two are almost able to feign enthusiasm about their career prospects in the United States.
“We joke about using the money we earned to build a school for New Zealand children to learn musical comedy,” Mr. McKenzie said.
Mr. Clement, who may or may not have been joking, said, “A friend of my girlfriend’s was telling her to tell me off, for all the bad musical comedy duos that have started after we became successful.”
Mr. McKenzie added, “It’s now seen as a guaranteed way to get out of the country.” He didn’t sound like he was kidding at all.
Taken from the New York Times
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