New York Times
The New Zealand Invasion: Digi-Folk Now!
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By Alessandra Stanley - Published: June 15, 2007
It sometimes seems as if there is only one joke, and it’s innocence. From Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton to Jerry Lewis, Will Ferrell and Steve Carell, a comedian is as funny as he is unknowing.
Bret McKenzie, left, and Jemaine Clement in HBO’s series, which begins on Sunday night. By Nicole Rivelli
The humor can be physical or verbal, the character boorish or endearing, but the key is a childlike lack of self-awareness.
The heroes of “Flight of the Conchords,” a new series that begins on HBO on Sunday, are as witless as they come. Jemaine and Bret are young New Zealanders adrift in New York who hope to break into the music industry with their “digi-folk” two-man band, also named Flight of the Conchords.
They passively bumble through life and the shabby downtown apartment they share without money or contacts and with barely any friends. They have a fan club of one, Mel (Kristen Schaal), a female stalker; and a band manager, Murray (Rhys Darby), an officious deputy cultural attaché at the New Zealand consulate who promises to find them gigs but refuses to book anything after dark because New York is too dangerous.
“You could be murdered,” Murray warns. “Or even just ridiculed.”
“Flight of the Conchords” is funny in such an understated way that it is almost dangerous to make too much of it — it could collapse like a soufflé when the door slams. It’s much slighter than HBO’s big production comedies like “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Entourage.” It’s also a little sweeter, less a satire of show business than wry self-parody.
And that seems to be the way HBO comedy is headed in the post-“Sopranos” era. The network hasn’t found its next big thing and is instead trying out new material in modest bites. “Conchords” is a summer fling of a series, but it is funny, at times very funny.
As in “The Office,” or Ricky Gervais’s “Extras,” the humor lies in a deadpan exchange of inanities, punctuated by long, puzzled silences. It’s a comic style that’s been around a long time and served up many ways since the 1984 mock-documentary “This Is Spinal Tap.”
What distinguishes “The Conchords” from other, similarly dry, sardonic comedies is that at certain junctures the two heroes freeze the action and burst into song in subtle parodies of pop music videos that are almost plausible and deliciously absurd. The range is impressive, everything from David Bowie-style ’80s pop to rap and reggae.
Jemaine, smitten by a pretty girl he sees across the room at a party, croons:
You could be a part-time model
But you’d probably still have to keep your normal job
A part-time model
Spending part of your time modeling
And part of your time next to me
My place is usually a little tidier than this.
Jemaine is played by Jemaine Clement, the taller, bespectacled half of a real-life music and comedy duo from New Zealand with a cult following in the United States. Bret is Bret McKenzie, the duo’s shorter half. In interviews they have said their series was partly inspired by “Cop Rock,” an ill-fated 1990 show by Steven Bochco that was part crime series, part musical, though even this could be a joke.
Both men are mild and shaggy-haired and speak in flat New Zealand accents that American characters on the show find baffling.
Bret gets a job holding a hot dog sign near City Hall and befriends Coco, a fellow sign holder. When he gives his name, she thinks he has said “Brit.” He explains he is from New Zealand. “Oh, New Zealand,” she says brightly. “There’s Vikings there, right?” Bret politely agrees.
The two friends compete over girls in a subdued, clueless way and sometimes quarrel, but never raise their voices or demand explanations. Nothing seems to perturb their placid befuddlement, not even Murray, who demands a roll call at band meetings in his office, even though it’s just the three of them in the room.
Bret comes home one day with a grocery bag and hands Jemaine a thick sandwich, which he promptly begins eating. When Jemaine asks Bret how he paid for the food, Bret blithely explains that it was free, that he found the bag lying on the street. Jemaine rushes to the sink to spit out the hand-me-down meal, but stops himself.
“I was going to spit it out,” he says calmly. “But I think I’ll just eat it.”
After agreeing that they are quite poor, the duo break into a song, “Inner City Pressure,” in the style of a Pet Shop Boys video.
You know you’re not in high finance
Considering second-hand underpants
Check your mind
How did it get so bad
What happened to those other underpants you had.
The music parodies are clever, but part of the series’s appeal is the sheer novelty of New Zealanders as comic heroes. New Zealand as an obscure and backward country that no American can find on a map is a recurring joke. On the phone Bret assures his mum that no, he doesn’t need a gun, and that she would be amazed at how many television channels there are. He’s not sure how many, actually, but wows her with the assurance that it’s more than four.
“Flight of the Conchords” is cockeyed and a lot of fun. To say much more might ruin it.
Taken from the New York Times
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