Series is Conchords’ flight from reality
The best thing to come out of New Zealand since the kiwi is back for another session of surreal merriment.
Yes, Flight of the Conchords, the series that dares to ask the question “How clueless can two musicians be?” starts its second season tonight at 10 p.m. on HBO Canada.
When it first appeared in June 2007, viewers were initially caught off-guard and then instantly pleased by the show’s desert-dry humour, endless self-mockery and deliciously tasteless music videos.
The saga of the feckless folk duo Flight of the Conchords and its inept attempts to make it in the Big Apple became a favourite of critics and viewers alike, winding up with four Emmy nominations in 2008.
There have probably never been two anti-heroes as decidedly anti-heroic as Jemaine and Bret, played ñ with marvellously coincidental symmetry ñ by Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie.
Clement’s the one with the black-framed glasses and unruly hair that make him seem like a Down-Under cousin of Garrison Keillor, while McKenzie’s wispy beard and waif-like physique would qualify him for a role as a slightly anorexic hobbit in Peter Jackson’s next movie (he was actually in two Lord of the Rings movies).
They’re on the phone from Los Angeles, cracking wise about the unlikely success of their determinedly quirky series.
“I think it’s due to my winning personality,” deadpans McKenzie.
“And to Bret’s not wearing any pants,” adds Clement.
McKenzie suggests he’s not worried about whether the audience will take to the second season, “but I’m nervous I won’t like it myself.”
The gents guard the details of the show’s minimal plot as though they were pictures of Jennifer Aniston’s Brangelina voodoo doll, but they still let some details slip out.
“There’s quite a few romantic moments,” offers Clement. “I get involved with a few different women.” Pause. “Nothing lasts, I’m afraid.”
“Ah, yes,” sighs McKenzie. “We tap into real pain all the time.”
“Especially for our songs,” adds Clement. “They’re all about our true life moments. Girls breaking up with us, awkward social situations.”
“When our feelings are being hurt,” continues McKenzie, enjoying the masochistic duet they’re improvising.
“Yeah, like when you don’t get invited to the birthday party,” Clement sighs.
That stops McKenzie short. “What birthday party?”
At moments like that it becomes clear these aren’t guys playing roles, but a tightly knit pair that has been working on this off-the-wall synergy for many years.
Clement is 35, McKenzie 32. They met at Victoria University of Wellington, while working on an educational production called Body Play, about body consciousness and image issues.
“It had a cast of 25,” remembers McKenzie, “and we were all dressed in black pants with Velcro-detachable penises.”
The guffaw that escapes from Clement at this point suggests that his partner might be embroidering the truth, an element at the heart of the Conchords’ comedy style.
They formed a comedy duo in 1998, but weren’t an instant success. Far from it.
“I did one of those real-life advertisements where I had to wear a suit that was really a boat to publicize a local ferry service in New Zealand,” McKenzie recalls. “I was walking up and down the street wearing it and I kept running into friends who were successful lawyers.”
“My low point was a gig at a cricket club in New Zealand,” offers Clement.
“Yeah,” remembers McKenzie with a shiver. “We weren’t playing any songs they knew and so they got angry. It was kind of a Blues Brothers moment.”
“Bret finally decided to humour them and play `The Gambler’ while I was packing,” Clement laughs.
“Yeah,” McKenzie concurs, “but I didn’t know the lyrics and I could only remember one chord.”
He then launches into a desperate, tuneless rendition of a man moaning, “You gotta know when to gamble, know when to ramble,” and it’s easy to see where the tacky songs that dot the Conchords’ TV show today had their origins.
One of the highlights of Season 1 was their take on every saccharine French love ballad that haunted the scene in the late 1960s. Their version was a bit of nonsense entitled “Foux du Fafa,” and it was accompanied by a video that was Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg at its very worst.
“I had just come back from a holiday in France, so I was moved to write it,” declares Clement with ersatz passion.
“And by then I had learned a second chord,” adds McKenzie, “so we were good to go.”
They started appearing on New Zealand TV in 2000, but it was their appearances at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2003 and 2004 that really jump-started their careers. “Antipodean comedy goes down well in the U.K.,” McKenzie says.
“They’re laughing at our accents,” suggests Clement.
“Yeah,” McKenzie agrees. “They already think we’re stupid.”
But, whether they wanted it or not, their star was in the ascendant.
An HBO special led to an appearance at the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin in 2006, which in turned spawned a mock documentary entitled Flight of the Conchords: A Texan Odyssey.
They next wound up on David Letterman’s show, where their antics prompted HBO execs to wonder if they could sustain a comedy series.
“We like some TV comedy series,” says McKenzie cautiously. “The Black Adder. Garry Shandling.”
“But we never saw ourselves doing one week after week,” Clement observes with horror. “We ran out of ideas after the first episode of Series 1. We just keep disguising the fact.”
They even enjoy the trappings of their cultish fame. “Groupies now show up at our concerts and seem quite determined,” Clement notes.
“And our fans give us home crafts that have our names on them,” preens McKenzie. But the ultimate secret is something Clement gives away at the end of the conversation.
“Every horrible experience in the show is something we’ve been through in our lives 10 or 15 years ago and we just dig it up and relive it on TV.”
Does this mean that the bad times are all over?
“Not at all,” insists McKenzie. “We go back every night and compare notes about the awful things that happened to us during the day and we use it as material.”
“And then,” chuckles Clement, “we turn the rest into songs.”
Series is Conchords’ flight from reality