Kebab doesn't rhyme with cab - and that's why these Kiwis are so brilliant
Rob McKenzie, National Post
Published: Thursday, June 14, 2007
Although the citizens of Vancouver did everything to discourage them short of feeding their carcasses to orcas, Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie are about to become the next big thing in television comedy.
"There does seem to be a sort of irrational hype for our show amongst the industry, but I think that's just 'cuz it's something different," McKenzie says.
The duo calls their act Flight of the Conchords, and this weekend their sitcom of the same name, a brilliant mix of absurdity and deadpan humour, premieres across North America. The New Zealanders play themselves as impoverished folk musicians in New York City. They're irresistible idiots, especially Clement. They try to impress girls, they chase random gigs (the aquarium, which in fact wanted sand, not a band), they have one fan (crazed) and their manager is a lying weasel. Every now and then, they break into a song, such as Prettiest Girl, which Clement employs in his doomed courtship of the lovely Sally, played by Toronto's Rachel Blanchard:
I can't believe that I am sharing a kebab - With the most beautiful girl I have ever seen with a kebab
He takes her to his apartment, and on the couch, preening and intense, he woos her with: You're so beautiful Like a dream - Or a high-class prostitute You're so beautiful
Mmmmm, you could be a part-time model
But you'd probably still need to keep your normal job
Clement sings the "kebab" part so that it rhymes with "cab," which is how he transports Sally to the kebab joint. North Americans would pronounce kebab to rhyme with "cob," but as Mc-Kenzie points out, you can't take a ride in a cob. Overall they have done very little to modify their unorthodox act for North American television.
"We don't conform to the rules of most comedy duos," McKenzie says.
"Yeah," Clement adds. "Most comedy duos have a funny guy, and we don't. We just have two straight guys."
Doesn't sound like a formula for success.
"We'll see. It might fail," Clement says. He sounds almost hopeful.
McKenzie describes the Conchords' brand of humour as "a mixture of funny and boring," but how is it that boring should be a complement to funny?
"That's a good question," says McKenzie, who does most of the talking, while Clement is often cracking up in the background with a mwa-ha-ha croak.
McKenzie continues, "Why is it funny? I think, um ? Why is it funny? I think it might be--"
"Maybe it's not funny," Clement interrupts.
It certainly seemed that way when they performed in Vancouver in 2000 during their first overseas tour. After appearing at a fringe festival in Calgary, which went well and where an organizer recalls the New Zealanders buying a goodbye breakfast for festival staffers, they bombed on the West Coast.
"Calgary, yeah, was successful, and then Vancouver we had a disastrous three-week season playing to audiences of between one and seven people in a venue called The Cavern," says McKenzie. "We were on the streets, trying to convince people in the middle of the day to come and see our show, 'cuz they had given us afternoon slots, midweek, and I remember enticing one woman who was on her way home with her groceries to come in and watch the show, and then when the lights came on she had snuck out."
He adds, "It was the Vancouver fringe, but we were on the fringe of the fringe."
They had begun playing music together while at Victoria University in New Zealand, veering into humour after being invited to a comedy night. They meandered until 2003, when their funny songs became the hit of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. That landed them a spot in 2005 on HBO's One Night Stand, which led to the current sitcom, also on HBO.
The series went through several conceptions: A live studio variety show, in which the Conchords would sing and have guests; a show similar to what it is now set in New Zealand; and a premise that "rather than being an unsuccessful band, we were an incredibly rich, successful group, and we lived on a yacht and travelled around the world without a care," McKenzie says. That last one ran into budget constraints.
One of this season's episodes will play with the idea of racism against New Zealanders, though it aspires to make a subtle point about racism in general. Clement is one-quarter Maori, through his mother's mother, and is the more political of the two. He says, "If we put any little political things in our show, I'll probably more tend to want to do that than Bret."
Clement is also starring in the movie Eagle vs. Shark, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance festival and opens in limited Canadian release next week. McKenzie too has been on the big screen, as the elf Figwit in Lord of the Rings. Though his appearance was brief, he became a cult favourite among Rings fans, to the point where a documentary was made about the phenomenon.
As our interview ends, I ask Clement and McKenzie if there's anything they'd like to add about the new show.
"Give us one chance, I'm asking the reader," replies Clement, with the faintest earnestness.
"Let the readers know that it's our first show we've ever made, and we didn't know what we were doing," adds McKenzie.
"If they don't like it, we were really trying," Clement concludes. "Have them know we were really trying."