Flight of the Conchords feeling supersonic ahead of 2010 UK tour
They’re the low budget, deadpan New Zealand comedy duo who have taken musical comedy to a new high, now Flight of the Conchords (aka Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement) are touching down in Glasgow for two sell-out live dates. Guardian comedy critic Brian Logan remembers his first interview with the duo and charts their rise from Edinburgh festival outsiders to kings of the comedy world
When I interviewed Flight of the Conchords in 2003, they’d just returned from a fruitless trip to Hollywood. ‘We had these funny interviews with casting directors,’ said Bret McKenzie, one half of the then-obscure spoof folk duo. ‘They’d ask us, “So, what do you guys wanna do?” And we were like, “Oh, we’re not sure.” You need to have a clear idea. And we don’t have any idea at all.’
How times change. Back then, McKenzie and Jemaine Clement were unheralded Kiwi comics making an Edinburgh Fringe splash in a dingy grotto off the Cowgate. Now, they’re the hippest comedy act in the world, with a Grammy Award for best comic album, and an Emmy-nominated HBO series to their name. But, delightful though I find their slacker sitcom, it has never matched my memories of their live act, as first seen in those poky wee Niddry Street caves. Whether Clement and McKenzie’s onstage magic has survived mega-stardom, and can translate to an arena as vast as the SECC, Glasgow audiences will discover when the Conchords’ flight touches down in town this weekend.
It might never have come to this. No one made a fuss when the Conchords first arrived in Edinburgh. Two ex-flatmates from the University of Wellington, their late-night cabaret of acoustic musical comedy was the sleepiest of sleeper hits. It was (in McKenzie’s words) ‘a show for other comedians to see after their shows’. And what did these visiting standups clap eyes on? A pair of accidental comic songwriters, refugees from real bands at home in New Zealand – where they’d been repeatedly rebuffed by TV commissioners (ironic, now) for being ‘too Wellington’. Their greatest claim to fame was McKenzie’s cameo in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, as an unnamed elf later adopted by zealous fanboys and christened Figwit.
Inauspicious origins, then, for a double act who would soon (as I wrote rapturously of their second Fringe show, High on Folk) ‘take comedy song to a whole new level.’ Most of the tracks from that show are now familiar from the TV series, or the award-hogging CDs. But back then, they took everyone by surprise. Two lackadaisical men on acoustic guitars, plucking and twanging a gangsta’ anthem about animal-influenced rappers? (‘I’m the hiphopopotamus / My lyrics are bottomless / I’m not a large water-dwelling mammal / Where did you get that preposterous hypothesis?’) They called themselves folk parodists, so what was this electro-prog number about the robot takeover of the world? Where did ‘Albi the Racist Dragon’ fit in? And ‘if this is a fork in the road, how come it cuts like a knife?’
So, yes, the lyrics – that last one is from their ballad ‘I’m Not Crying (It’s Just Been Raining On My Face)’ – were hilarious. And their musicianship, remarkable. Like all the best musical comedians, the Conchords locate the joke as much in the music as in the words. The gag used to be the hilarious range of musical styles they conjured from just two guitars and the occasional glockenspiel. But the laughs haven’t abated now that their budget is (presumably) higher than half the acts they parody. And neither has the desire to sing along. Clement and McKenzie’s songs aren’t just clever, they’re catchy. Jemaine’s track from series two of the sitcom, Carol Brown (Emmy-nominated for Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics), isn’t just a mickey-take of Paul Simon’s ‘50 Ways to Leave Your Lover’, it’s an improvement on it.
But what really made those early Conchords gigs special was the pair’s (anti-)personality – the Death Valley-dry deadpan, the flat Kiwi vowels, the ruthlessly gormless ‘banter’ delivered in the voice of a man reading the gas meter. By projecting total innocence of their own ridiculousness, the Conchords ratchet up the ridiculousness tenfold. My favourite example? The routine in which they discuss the porous boundary between their stage personas and their real selves. ‘You’re in character... Now you’re out... Now you’re in,’ says Bret, observing Jemaine, who isn’t moving so much as an eyelid. And how do you decide what stage-Bret should do next, Jemaine asks Bret. ‘I just ask myself what I’d do,’ replies Bret, ‘then do it.’
On the pair’s Glasgow dates, they’re accompanied by Kristen Schaal, a popular Fringe veteran in her own right since starring in the Conchords’ TV series as their dorky fan Mel. There will be tens of thousands of fans, dorky and otherwise, to greet them on their return to Scotland – a curious turn of events for the so-called ‘fourth most popular folk parodist act in New Zealand’. ‘We’re aware that folk isn’t cool, but we’re trying to pretend it’s cool,’ is how McKenzie summed up Flight of the Conchords seven years ago. He and Clement are, for now, the two coolest comedians on the planet, having come a long, long way from the Caves on Niddry Street. But if I speculate that they’ll still be very funny in the SECC – well, who would dismiss that as a preposterous hypothesis?
Flight of the Conchords, SECC, Glasgow, Fri 14 & Sat 15 May.
Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement meet at Victoria University Wellington while performing a University Drama Club play about male body issues, wearing nothing but skin-coloured cycling shorts. They become flatmates. This leads to So, You’re a Man, a 5-man comedy troupe which includes FotC and Eagle vs Shark director Taika Waititi, and tours for several years.
Bret and Jemaine form a four-piece band called Moustache. Their first song is ‘Foux du FaFa’, which uses two of the three chords they know on the guitar. They perform this at the Wellington Fringe Festival, leaving members of the audience ‘mildly impressed’. Once they have learnt four chords, Jemaine gets them a gig at the Wellington Thursday night Comedy Club. Needing a new band name, Jemaine notices their flat toilet is called the Conchord. Bret’s suggestion of Flight of the Conchords is duly accepted.
They have written a dozen songs. They have their first televised performance on Channel 7, a short-lived local Wellington TV station, and take off to Canada to perform to audiences ranging from sell-out to non-existent.
They begin to win prizes. Playing in The Caves at the Edinburgh Fringe, they win the Mervyn Stutter Spirit of the Fringe Award. Returning in 2003, they are nominated for the Perrier Award. In the 2003 Melbourne International Comedy Festival they win Best Newcomer. Jemaine appears in low budget antipodean comedy Tongan Ninja.
Phones4U harness their advertising powers in a retail campaign. Flight of the Conchords also return to the Edinburgh Fringe, this time playing above ground, in a sell-out set that includes ‘Jenny’, ‘Business Time’, ‘Stana’ and an unfinished love song called ‘The Scientist and the French Teacher’.
Their Edinburgh success leads to a six-part BBC Two radio show. Bret and Jemaine move to London where they spend five months writing and recording a mockumentary about the lives of a fictional version of themselves. Flight of the Conchords are asked to film a half-hour comedy performance for the Friday night show One Night Stand.
The first episode of Flight of the Conchords airs on HBO. It is created with James Bobin, who also wrote and directed Ali G in the USAiii. The show centres on the fictionalised lives of shepherds-turned-musicians Brett and Jemaine, seeking fame in New York City. The show wins instant popularity. It is nominated for the 2007 Satellite Award for Best Television Series, Comedy or Musical. Bret and Jemaine are honoured by their home city as ‘Wellingtonians of the Year’.
More prizes. The show receives four Emmy Award nominations, and three Writer’s Guild of America nominations. In 2009 this success is followed by six more Emmy Award nominations.
2009 to present
A second series of Flight of the Conchords premieres in January 2009, and is equally well received. The duo announce, however, that it will be the last – Jemaine has previously commented on the length of time the series took to write. The duo appear in comedy-horror Diagnosis Death (2009) and are set to appear in an episode of The Simpsons in late 2010. Jermaine appears, and is due to appear, in several other comedy films, including Gentleman Broncos (2010).