Will Success Spoil Flight of the Conchords?

Their hit HBO series and a new album threaten to make New Zealand’s fourth most popular folk parody duo a hilariously unexpected triumph. Unless they can find a way to screw it up.

VIDEO: Bret and Jemaine run through their favorite (mustachioed) guitar faces.

Just because I’m in a two-man novelty band¿¿/¿¿Doesn’t mean it’s all about poontang.
—From Flight of the Conchords’ “A Kiss Is Not a Contract”

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It’s a Thursday night in January, and Le Petit Bistro, a pleasant, low-wattage French restaurant in West Hollywood is quietly empty­ing out when a hearty cheer erupts from the large party in the dining room. The group is there to celebrate the 34th birthday of Jemaine Clement, the bespectacled and heavily sideburned half of the HBO musical-comedy duo Flight of the Conchords, who are in town to promote their self-titled new CD. When Clement’s order of profiteroles comes out (with 15 spoons), the assembled—including director Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite) and screenwriter-actor Mike White (School of Rock)—launch into a rendition of “Happy Birthday.” But the cheer isn’t for him. That comes a few seconds later, when Clement rises to offer his toast:

“To Sir Edmund Hillary!”

So what does the first man to stand on the summit of Mount Everest have to do with a pair of hipster troubadours? Plenty. The Conchords, Clement and his partner, Bret McKenzie, 31, are, like Hillary, Kiwis—meaning they hail from New Zealand, an island nation halfway between  Australia and God-knows-where. As fate would have it, Sir Edmund has embarked on his last great expedition to the afterworld this very morning. Later, as Clement recounts Hillary’s exploits, it becomes clear that the explorer was beloved not so much for what he did as what he didn’t do: ever once brag about it. “Even after he climbed Everest, he always considered himself a simple beekeeper,” Clement explains. His delivery is so flat it’s hard to tell if he’s joking or not, but in this case he’s sincere.

That sort of humility is nearly a competitive sport in New Zealand, and the charm of Flight of the Conchords—Clement and McKenzie’s deadpan musical sitcom about a pair of Kiwi rockers trying and utterly failing to find fame and fortune on New York’s Lower East Side— is the tension between that low-key New Zealand approach to life and the flash American alternative. (Viewers catch glimpses of the characters’ more inflated inner selves in droll music video send-ups.) It’s become one of the funniest, most unlikely hits on TV—one of the few bright spots in a bleak HBO landscape—but the show’s success threatens to test the actors’ Kiwi sense of modesty.

“People from New Zealand have a reputation for being boring, which we definitely play up on the show,” says Clement. “But really, everyone just watches rugby and drinks beer and beats their wives.” On-screen the Conchords are aided in their quest for success by band manager Murray Hewitt (fellow Kiwi Rhys Darby), who rarely lets a day job as a deputy cultural attaché for the New Zealand consulate interfere with his attempts to book gigs (though generally not after dark, because, as Murray puts it, “You could be murdered. Or even just ridiculed.”) Despite his best efforts, the band has just one fan, the mousy if sexually turbo-charged Mel,  played by New York comedian Kristen Schaal.

Though Clement and McKenzie were until recently best known, respectively, as the sardonic pitchman for Outback Steakhouse and a mopey elf extra in the Lord of the Rings series, they’ve been performing comedy together since 1996: two slightly nerdy guitar-strumming buddies who seamlessly morph into Daft Punk–style techno-bots, Barry White–like lover men, or Dylanesque folkies. “They’ve raised the bar for musical parodies,” raves Daryl Hall, who made a cameo on one episode. “The songs are really intelligent, really advanced. It’s not like ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic. What he does is bullshit. What they do is music.”

The series, set to return this fall for a second season, aired Sunday nights after Entour­age, providing a hilariously sobering comedown after that show’s weekly bump of bad-boy euphoria. Basically, it’s the anti-Entourage: Whereas Vinnie Chase & Co. take on Hollywood with inflated self-regard and roguish swagger, Clement and McKenzie favor the defensive crouch. Wide-eyed, hapless, and utterly lost in a downtown New York full of strivers, they disarm our assumptions with a sort of comedic jujitsu. The pair share a bedroom in a shabby apartment, ineptly compete for female affection, and spontaneously break into song. It’s not for nothing that they bill themselves as “formerly New Zealand’s fourth most popular folk-parody duo.”

That relentless self-deprecation belies the pair’s critical role in the HBO lineup. An unexpected cult hit among hip young viewers, the show has quickly become ground zero for the New York underground comedy circuit (Aziz Ansari, Eugene Mirman, Demetri Martin, Will Forte, Judah Friedlander, John Hodgman, and Arj Barker have all guest-starred). This kind of appeal has gone a long way toward helping the network maintain its cache now that The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and The Wire are fading into watercooler memory. While the program averages just a million viewers—a third of the Entourage audience—it is the first HBO series since The Sopranos to build its viewership with each episode. The New York Times gushingly compared it to Charlie Chaplin and This Is Spin¨al Tap, while Time called it the best new comedy of the year. That’s high praise for a show that at times looks like a DIY student movie.

Of course, amateurism is a major part of the duo’s appeal and the danger is that success may dry up their inspiration. “I don’t know what’s going to happen now, because our lives are becoming quite weird,” says McKenzie. “We probably have enough material for another season, but maybe we’ll have to make it about still being a loser, but in a world of minor celebrity.”

The Conchords has brought the pair both unexpected and unwanted recognition. With the new album released this month on indie powerhouse Sub Pop (their EP, The Distant Future, just won a Grammy) and a series of gigs in support, Clement and McKenzie get to exorcise some of their rock demons in songs that meld Prince, Ween, and Beck. The album features favorite tracks including “Hiphopopotamus vs. Rhymenocerous,” and the synth-pop pastiche “Inner City Pressure,” but with refined lyrics and enhanced arrangements. Of course, writing songs like rock stars is easy. Playing the part is something else entirely.

When you’re unemployed, there’s no vacation¿¿/¿¿No one cares, no one sympathizes¿¿/¿¿You just stay home and play synthesizers.
—“Inner City Pressure”

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At the moment, the question for the Conchords is how to maintain their underdog appeal now that they’re bona fide stars. “Walking around with Bret and Jemaine is like walking around with Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp,” marvels comic Todd Barry, who plays the band’s aggressive new bongo player on one episode.

In person both band members—who split their time between New York, Wellington, and Los Angeles—are, much like their characters (though without the strangely homoerotic subtext that often shows up on-screen): extremely personable and understated, dressed in the same thift-store duds they wear on TV. “They’re exactly the same off-camera as they are on-camera,” says Hall. “Except they’re more talented and a whole lot smarter.”

The hysterical bit in which the Conchords embark on a tour of New Jersey and Murray scolds them for falling prey to the rock’n’roll lifestyle (splurging on a can of nuts from the mini-bar is treated as a gesture of punk defiance) sums up the duo’s off-screen demeanor. “Everyone thinks we do drugs ’cause we play music and do comedy!” says Clement, with a laugh. “We’re not really interested.”

Clement grew up in a small town outside Wellington. “My family were working-class,” he says. “My mom worked in a cheese factory, my dad worked in a slaughterhouse, my grandma worked in a clothes factory, and my granddad worked in a biscuit factory. So we always had biscuits and cheese and underpants.”

As for McKenzie, his experience as a heartthrob goes way back. Growing up in Wellington as one of three brothers, McKenzie’s dad was a horse trainer, his mom a ballet teacher. “We all had to do ballet so my mom wouldn’t need a baby- sitter,” he says. “It would be me and one other guy in a room full of girls. When I went to secon­dary school, ballet became very uncool.”

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Then on our next date¿/¿Well, you can bring your roommate¿/¿I don’t know if Stu is keen to¿/¿But if you want we could double team you.
—“If You’re Into It”

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Though both Clement and McKenzie are, by all accounts, highly devoted to their respective fiancées (Clement is engaged to playwright and theater director Miranda Manasiadis; McKen­zie to publicist Hannah Clarke), the pair have encountered their share of would-be groupies. Girls toss condoms onstage bearing phone numbers; breasts are bared for signings. And then there was the young lady who caught a performance at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and invited the guys over for a spit roast. Figuring on a bit of barbecue, Clement accepted. “And then she goes, ‘I wouldn’t usually ask because I’m a lesbian,’¿” he recalls, “and I thought, Hmm, that’s weird. And suddenly I got this image of Bret and me standing facing one another with this girl impaled between us, you know?” The comics begged off.

One of FOTC’s running gags is the way women throw themselves at the duo, who are usually too timid, clueless, or uncomfortable to respond. When one eager blonde puts the moves on Bret, he dissuades her with an ethereal ballad, singing, “Just because we’ve been playing tonsil hockey¿/¿Doesn’t mean you get to score the goal that’s in my Jockeys.”

“It’s unusual to find something so funny, and so meek,” notes White, an expert on the funny¿/¿meek thing. “It proves that comedy can be flaccid and hilarious at the same time.”

Another episode finds Bret facing “body issues” after a band photo. Jemaine tries to boost his ego with a song: “Why can’t a heterosexual guy tell a heterosexual guy that his booty’s fly?” Evidently, there’s more than a germ of truth to this particular conceit: McKenzie appeared equally tormented during Maxim’s photo shoot. “I don’t really like getting naked,” he later admits, “but the mustache helped.”

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Sometime it gets lonely¿/¿And I need a woman¿/¿And then I imagine you with some bosoms¿/¿In fact, one time when we were touring¿/¿And I was really lonely¿/¿And we were sharing that twin room in the hotel¿/¿I put a wig on you when you were sleeping¿/¿I put a wig on you¿/¿And I just laid there and spooned you.
—“Bret, You’ve Got It Goin’ On”

At the crowded Bar Marmont on Sunset, after the birthday dinner, Clement and McKenzie settle into a corner table to explain how success just might spoil the Conchords. Initially, as their fame grew in the States, they took heart in the fact they could always go home for a reality check. That plan fell apart when they wrapped the first season and returned home only to find that they’d won something called the Wellingtonian of the Year. “It’s run by the local paper (The Dominion Post), and people vote,” Clement explains, wincing at the memory. Ultimately, the Conchords beat out climatologist David Wratt (who did manage to snag a Nobel). “Somehow I don’t really feel that
deserving,” admits Clement. 

The big fear now is that celebrity could short-circuit their comedy. “A lot of the incidents on the show are based on a seed of real-life experience,” says McKenzie, citing those aggressive groupies, awkward sexual encounters, and amateurish gigs. “Being a band that was useless was great for generating material. Now that our lives are warping into this other thing, playing these fools is tricky.”

Still, they’re doing their best to maintain perspective. “We still haven’t really lived it up,” Clement says. “I don’t think sitcoms pay what they used to, and HBO doesn’t pay what NBC does, or even a fraction of it. But I don’t know how to live the high life anyway. I live in Wellington in a modest apartment, and Bret here is living with his mom.”

“I feel like I’m 18,” McKenzie says. “You think you’ve finally made it, and suddenly you’re like, ‘Mom, can I borrow the car?’¿”

Nonetheless, the show is the first truly steady gig for either one, and a considerable step up in security. The duo met at Victoria University, where McKenzie was studying music and engineering and Clement was majoring in theater and film. Eventually moving into an old Victorian house with a bunch of friends, they dropped out of school; the Conchords first took flight during casual living room jam sessions. “We’ve both got really broad musical tastes,” McKenzie says, “and we tended to write songs based on whatever we were listening to. The styles just cracked us up.”

After some local gigs, they took the act to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival just as McKenzie’s turn as an extra in the first Lord of the Rings film turned him into a Web phenom. His appearance, during the pivotal “Council of Elrond” scene, is extremely brief, just three glorious seconds. “The whole family was told what scene and whereabouts,” his fiancée Hannah Clarke recalls, “and no one saw him. That’s how minuscule it was!” But fans who appreciated his enigmatic brooding latched on, dubbing him Figwit (“Frodo is grea…Who is that?!?”) and starting a Web site, figwitlives.net in his honor. After uncovering the elf’s real-life identity, a handful of hardcore Middle-earthers heard about the Edinburgh performance and traveled to the show, many sporting pointed ear extensions. The Figwit fans succeeded in turning McKenzie into a veritable cult hero (the trilogy’s very own Boba Fett), landing a story in USA Today and persuading Peter Jackson to give him an actual line in the third installment—“Lady Arwen, we cannot delay! My Lady!”

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All the money that we’re making is going to the man¿/¿What man, which man, who’s the man, when’s a man a man, what makes a man a man?¿/¿Am I a man? Yes, technically I am.
—“Think About It”

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The show itself evolved slowly. After creating a six-part radio series for the BBC (about a pair of Kiwi musicians trying to make it in London) and nabbing the award for Best Alternative Comedy Act at the 2005 U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, they signed a deal to develop a pilot with NBC (about a pair of Kiwi musicians trying to make it in L.A.). When that didn’t stick, they moved to HBO, where they were teamed with James Bobin (Da Ali G Show), whom they now regard as the third Conchord. After studying the ill-fated musical series Cop Rock—“It gave us some ideas about what not to do,” says McKenzie—they decided to set the new series in New York.

Both Conchords now admit that had they known how grueling the gig would be, they might never have signed up for it. “I hope our union doesn’t read this, but we worked seven days a week for months in a row,” says Clement. “Not only did we act in it and work on the scripts, but we also had to record the music. Plus, we did the incidental music! It seems crazy, when I look back on it now. HBO was making out like bandits.”

“Nobody shoots a half-hour show in five days,” says Schaal, who was awestruck at the bare-bones production values. “There weren’t any dressing rooms, so we’d just sit on the curb. At one point, I think, this crew person found some cardboard and put it on the ground for us to sit on.”

While the first season was written around the Conchords’ existing set list, they’re now fresh out of material—though neither one seems par­ticularly anxious about it. McKenzie is eager to do a Queen parody, tackle acid jazz, and attempt an R. Kelly homage. “Trapped in the Closet was a big inspiration for the show,” he says. “He’s definitely one of our favorites.”

“Bret urinates on all the girls,” Clement explains.

For now, though, they’re eager for a break—and grateful to the Writers Guild for providing an ideal excuse. “It’s quite good timing for us,” says Clement. “Otherwise there’d be pressure from HBO to start working,” McKenzie says, “but they can’t even call us.”

“They’re not allowed to pick up the phone,” Clement adds, explaining that both Conchords are still highly ambivalent about being on television at all.

“We should get other actors to play us,” Mc­Kenzie suggests.

“Personally, I’d be happy just to make the show and have no one ever see it,” Clement says. “That would be the perfect scenario.” Sir Edmund Hillary, at least, would be proud.