Sunday Star Times

American Idols
Sunday Star Times | Sunday, 23 September 2007 by Tim Hume

Their faces are on T-shirts, their songs are on cellphone ringtones and their catchphrases are on the lips of the nation's biggest sports commentators. Just how big are Kiwi comedians Flight of the Conchords in the US? Very, very big. Tim Hume reports.

On the ESPN highlights reel, the world's highest-paid baseball player steps up to the plate and prepares to swat a hapless pitch deep into the stands.

"Alex Rodriguez. He steps in at the top of the first: you know what time it is," intones commentator Scott Van Pelt, anchor of the cable network's flagship SportsCenter show, before - CRACK! - the Yankees star wallops his 52nd home run of the season over leftfield. "It's business time, baby!" roars Van Pelt, breaking into manic, half-scatted song: "Let's get down to business, it's business time!"

Viewers might be baffled as to what Van Pelt is on about here, or during similar moments - such as when he praises a high-scoring athlete as "a hip-hopopotamus rocking this metropolis", or goads an apoplectic, tantrum- throwing coach to "be more constructive with your feedback" - unless, of course, they are familiar with the work of New Zealand musical comedians Flight of the Conchords. That references to their jokes are appreciated by the audience of SportsCenter - a hallowed institution among millions of American sports fans - underlines just how far their quirky, surreal humour has penetrated the cultural fabric of the United States since their show launched on cable giant HBO in June.

Simply put, the Conchords - whose US-produced show debuted to New Zealand audiences on Prime on Monday - have "broken" America. This is an achievement few compatriots before them have ever come close to, and which surely ranks them among the most famous New Zealanders in the world right now. The bone-dry jokes and droll song lyrics of Wellingtonians Jemaine Clement, 33, and Bret McKenzie, 30, are being quoted in New York, Chicago and San Francisco in the same way lines from American cult comedies Anchorman or Knocked Up are tossed around by young New Zealanders. Their faces have been plastered on posters across New York's subway system and their songs trill as ringtones on mobile phones. They are internet sensations whose clips have been viewed millions of times on YouTube; references to their act pop up in places as unlikely as the official website of the PGA golf tour. One indicator of their popularity: when a line of Conchords' T-shirts recently sold out, buyers on Ebay were prepared to pay four times the original retail price to get their hands on one.

As a graduate student in New York City over the past year, I observed the Conchords' conquest of America first hand. At first, their success appeared unlikely, even taking into account their plum timeslot - on Sunday night following Entourage, HBO's breezy celebration of Hollywood seemingly watched religiously by every young American with a cable subscription - and the enormous promotional push which accompanied their debut. Any doubts about the show's potential were based not on a perceived lack of talent; the Conchords' genius has long been celebrated both here and in the United Kingdom, where their deadpan dialogue and perfectly pitched skewerings of musical genres have been recognised with awards at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and earned them a cult BBC radio series.

But Britain is culturally much closer to New Zealand than America, and, on the surface, more likely to be receptive to the Conchords' brand of humour. Much of it, particularly the dour, laconic interplay between Clement and McKenzie, seems to belong to an understated Kiwi comic tradition inherited from John Clarke, and strikes the viewer as quintessentially of this country. It seemed unlikely that their product would translate well to a culture where, aside from the landscape mythologised in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy and the old chestnut about our surfeit of sheep, New Zealand registers as a complete blank in the popular imagination. Many Americans have enough problems even understanding our accent.

"Don't take this the wrong way: it's, like, the country next to Australia. Or is it part of Australia?" says Alex Lu, a 23-year-old hedge funds analyst from New York, when asked of his knowledge of New Zealand prior to his Conchords conversion. "No one knows what a New Zealand accent sounds like."

Rather than modifying their act for an American audience, however, the Conchords stuck to their guns and played their dislocated New Zealandness for all the laughs they could. As the New York Times' television review noted, in a glowing review of the series, "part of the series's (sic) appeal is the sheer novelty of New Zealanders as comic heroes". The absurdity of coming from such a small, and, to American eyes, inconsequential nation, is a recurring joke: New Zealand as a kind of comic Kazakhstan. The tourism posters on their band manager's office wall, echoing the "100% Pure" campaign, capture the tone. "New Zealand: Don't expect too much and you'll love it", they read; "New Zealand: Why not?" The show, based on the duo's struggles to make it as a band in New York, is peppered with references to such kitsch, arcane aspects of Kiwiana as A Dog's Show, Wanaka's bra fence, and our ancient tribal antagonism towards Australians. The accents remain as broad as ever.

Somehow, Americans got it. "We were like: 'What the hell is this? Who are these guys?"' says Lu, part of the Entourage-addicted horde who had his interest piqued by the idiosyncratic new show. While it wasn't a ratings smash, with audiences hovering somewhere around one million, the series generated instant buzz, particularly among the young and the hip. The show was a grower; over time, it seemed, everybody was talking about it. For Lu and many others in his 18-34 demographic, YouTube clips of the previous night's show became required viewing in the office on Monday mornings. He agrees with McKenzie's reported observation that, if anything, their accents make their act even funnier to Americans. "Self- deprecation is funny. Accents are funny. Self-deprecation with an accent is really funny."

For New Zealanders in the US, the series' success had the unusual effect of putting their homeland and countrymen in the spotlight like never before.

"Americans connect to the dry humour, and it really puts New Zealanders on the map," says Chris Loh, an Aucklander who has been conducting telecommunications research at New York's Columbia University over the past year.

He says while many Americans were familiar with New Zealand's landscape through Jackson's movies, most had no sense of New Zealanders as a people before the Conchords hit the screens. He sees the series as having "broken a lot of hard ground" for New Zealanders in the States in terms of having aspects of their culture recognised by Americans.

Brent McLachlan, an expatriate New Zealand music producer and drummer for former Flying Nun band Bailterspace, has lived in New York for 15 years and has noticed, like Loh, that the show has made his accent far more easily recognisable to Americans.

"I don't have to tell people that I am not from England quite so often. Or, God forbid, being mistaken for an Aussie," he says.

So if the Conchords are filling that New Zealand-shaped void in the American cultural imagination, what exactly are they filling it with?

Something "very cool and musically hip", says McLachlan. "My boss loves the show. Pretty much everyone I know loves it. My wife fancies the tall one."

Clement and McKenzie have become sex symbols of sorts; fan-sites sell "Breterosexual" and "Jemainiac" T-shirts, for devotees to declare their allegiances. "Jemaine looked fantastic naked, as I suspected he would," announced one lust-stricken fan on a website. "Where do I sign up for two minutes in heaven?"

The shaggy-haired pair, uniformly dressed in vintage clothing, have appealed particularly strongly to the indie scene, says Daniel Whitefield, a 27-year-old social work student from Toronto, Canada, who has their "Humans are Dead" song as his cellphone ringtone, and whose daily conversations with friends are littered with Conchords references.

He says he was surprised that such a "cutting edge" act could hail from New Zealand, a country he previously knew little about. "It's really opened my eyes to the possible talent in New Zealand that could be just as well received in North America."

It hasn't been all good. The series drags in parts, with plotlines around the boys' vacillating relationships with their girlfriends soon becoming wearisome. While the couple of episodes directed by long-time Conchords collaborator, Wellington film-maker Taika Waititi, absolutely sing, a couple of others are complete turkeys, rescued only by the duo's reliably brilliant songs. They have not been met with universal critical acclaim; among the generally positive reviews ("Unlike anything else I have ever seen before," raved the New York Post's reviewer), have been the non- believers: "Hardly a great show . . . It's all pretty standard stuff," sniffed As Lu points out, the series' appeal is very hit or miss. "Some people hate it, some people love it. There's really no middle ground."

Fortunately for the Conchords, those that love them, really, really love them. A second series has been commissioned by HBO and movie roles, including parts alongside Napoleon Dynamite's Jon Heder, have been turned down because of other commitments. Clement and McKenzie are in a situation where they can pretty much do what they want; America is their oyster. Business time, indeed.

Taken from Stuff NZ

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