Sunday Star Times

Flight Path

By Grant Smithies - 16 September 2007

Rejected at home, embraced in the United States, now about to be world famous in New Zealand. Grant Smithies asks Flight of the Conchords how they did it.

There wasn't much local comedy on the telly when Jemaine Clement was a teenager. "I felt really starved for it," the star of Eagle vs Shark and half of comedy duo Flight of the Conchords says. "In fact, when Melody Rules was about to start, I remember getting up on our garage roof in my school uniform and trying to hook up an aerial so we could watch TV3 in Masterton. In the end I never got the aerial to work, so I never saw the show."

He is, of course, extremely lucky on that score. Melody Rules was crap. I've had funnier dental appointments. But the sad thing is that there's still very little decent homegrown comedy on the telly now, 14 years later. You have to wonder why. Are we simply an unfunny nation? Or are the wrong people commissioning comedy television in this country? Going by the experience of Clement and his Conchords co-star Bret McKenzie, you'd have to suspect the latter.

You probably know the Conchords' heavily ironic back-story by now. Three or four years ago Clement and McKenzie wrote a pilot for a comedy TV series and submitted it to TVNZ. Unsure how to proceed when faced with something that was genuinely funny, the state broadcaster dragged its heels, so the disillusioned duo buggered off overseas where every man and his dog immediately recognised their talent and offered them work.

They made a six-part BBC Radio 2 series, won a Sony UK Comedy Award, were declared best alternative comedy act at the US Comedy Arts Festival, appeared live in front of four million viewers on The Late Show With David Letterman, signed to Seattle's famous Sub Pop record label and filmed a 12-part comedy series for huge American cable network HBO.

That series has just finished its run in the US, and starts tomorrow on Prime: a hit New Zealand comedy, made in America, then imported back here. Hilarious.

"It's hard to say how our show will go down in New Zealand, but it's been really well received over here" says McKenzie from the HBO boardroom in New York. "In fact, I'd say it's the best reviewed comedy of their summer season." Clement is at his side.

"Yes, it would be safe to say that it's the best New Zealand comedy on American TV at the moment" he adds, drily.

The show, also named Flight of the Conchords, sees Clement and McKenzie playing stylised versions of themselves two awkward New Zealand "folk parody" singers trying to make it as a band in New York.

They flat together, date the same girls, hide from their only fan Mel (Kristen Schaal), a stalker who comes to every show and hangs around outside their apartment in a fetching range of Flight of the Conchords T-shirts. They burst into winningly surreal musical sequences at the drop of a beanie, often wearing DIY outfits made from cardboard and gaffer tape.

Their fledgling career is overseen by ineffectual band manager Murray (Rhys Darby), who works at the New Zealand consulate in an office full of bogus tourism posters with slogans such as "New Zealand: It's Not Part of Australia!" and "New Zealand Don't Expect Too Much and You'll Love It!".

They meet a steady stream of Americans who mistake their accents for English or Australian and ask interminable questions about Lord of the Rings. They regularly lose jobs, gigs and girlfriends to cocky Australians.

But is it funny? Does it raise a belly laugh, a chortle or merely a smirk? Does it make you laugh so hard you need to change your underwear, or yawn so hard you need to change the channel? Really, it depends on your personality.

Some will watch Flight of the Conchords and be endlessly irritated by its slow, gentle, deadpan humour and its geeky characters. But I loved it.

It struck me as precisely the kind of show we should be making here at home, because the whole enterprise reeks of New Zealand from the homemade costumes to the awkward romantic encounters, from the understated mateship between the blokes to the semi-apologetic ("Dunedin: It's All Right Here") tourism material.

In fact, the show seems so profoundly and pungently New Zealand-centric, it's amazing that it has translated as well as it has in the US.

"We really worried about whether Americans would get this kind of humour," says Clement.

"I think New Zealanders have a distinctive sense of humour that's very dry and underplayed, but with really imaginative, kinda surreal elements to it as well. We wanted the show to be mostly like that, but then we also added in some more straight-ahead jokes and ridiculous costumes for the Americans."

The show takes a lot of digs at Australia. Did Americans understand what was going on there? "Probably not," says McKenzie, "but they have been fascinated by that. They find it ludicrous that there would be this competitive relationship between two countries that they see as being pretty much the same place."

The show has had mostly positive reviews (Detroit Free Press: "TV's most original and irresistable new comic concoction"; San Francisco Chronicle: "may well be the funniest thing you've seen in ages") and HBO has commissioned a second series, which the duo plan to write in Wellington in preparation for filming in New York in 2008.

In the meantime, Clement and McKenzie are intrigued to see whether their overseas success has any repercussions back home.

"If our show does well in New Zealand, it might create a bit more confidence in the TV comedy industry there," says Clement.

"A few more adventurous shows might get made. I really hope so, because one thing that's clear from performing a lot in the UK and America is that New Zealand's best comedians are as good as anyone in those places. They just don't get the support from the TV networks.

"For example, over here at HBO, they're always scouting for fresh talent. They come up to you after comedy shows, invite you to meet with them to discuss projects and so on. I doubt anyone from TVNZ even bothers to check out live comedy shows. They prefer to just hire the same writers and producers over and over again, which is why the finished shows are always much the same.

"And they don't understand the concept of constructive criticism. At HBO, somebody might send you a note with very useful and detailed criticism of a storyline. In the mid-90s I wrote for TVNZ, shows like Skitz, and somebody with no sense of humour would just get a red pen and underline jokes they didn't understand. They'd just pick the whole thing apart until they killed it."

Taken from the Sunday Star Times

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