Sunday Star Times - Kiwi Jokers

Sunday, 20 January 2008 by Mark Coote

Flight of The Conchords by Mark Coote FLYING IN: Comedy duo Jemaine Clement (left) and Bret McKenzie have been spending an extended summer break in New Zealand.

Comedy duo Flight of the Conchords have been spending an extended summer break in New Zealand and enjoying a heroes' welcome home. Tim Hume talks to them.

Of all the unsolicited advice the Flight of the Conchords have received for the second series of their cult HBO comedy, one suggestion crops up with stubborn regularity.

"So many times people come up to us with: `How about your Kiwi cousin comes over and stays on the couch?"' laughs Jemaine Clement.

"It's not necessarily just comedians saying that, it's often strangers in bars," says Bret McKenzie, the other half of the duo which first conquered America, then won over New Zealanders last year with their critically-acclaimed, US-produced comedy series.

You can't blame opportunistic comics, or even barflies, for trying their luck in inveigling their way on to the show. An invitation to fellow Kiwi Rhys Darby to play their manager in the series in which the pair play struggling musicians trying to make it in New York has seen his stock rocket, and Hollywood offers, including a role in an upcoming Jim Carrey film, come his way.

But convincing HBO bosses to cast Darby was initially a battle, reveals Clement.

"That was our only fight with HBO. They didn't know what he looked like when he was acting, they had to get him over from London, and pay for a work visa and all this stuff, so it was a risk for them."

"Now they love him more than us," says McKenzie.

After a year in New York making the first series, the duo returned to Wellington in October, where they've been enjoying an extended summer holiday, and something of a hometown heroes' welcome. "It's great being back," says Clement. "We were worried about the tall poppy syndrome, but perhaps as a culture we're getting over that a little bit. People were very positive to us."

Many local observers were surprised that American audiences "got" the Conchords' quirky, idiosyncratic humour; not so Clement. "New Zealanders get American humour, so there's no reason it won't happen the other way round." He found the act's popularity at home where they've had to adjust to being frequently snapped on cameraphones even more surprising than their American success.

"We were worried because we don't show New Zealanders as being particularly bright, or particularly interesting either. We were worried we might get some backlash over that. We made fun of New Zealand television, and New Zealand culture itself. Fortunately New Zealanders are having a laugh at that too."

The ongoing writers' strike in the American entertainment industry has delayed the development of their second series; writing of its 10 episodes was supposed to begin last month.

The strike also threatens to jeopardise their big night out at the Grammys next month, where they are nominated for best comedy album. But, like their friend and collaborator Taika Waititi, who feigned being asleep while up for an award at the Oscars, the pair are not overawed by the glitz.

"I wasn't too sure about all that anyway," says Clement.

Only marginally more animated than their laconic onscreen characters, and every bit as droll (McKenzie drily says he "37%" resembles his TV persona; "27% for me," says Clement. "You should put it on a pie graph"), the duo are understated about the changes their American success has meant for their lifestyles. They didn't hang around and live it up off their newfound profile in the States; indeed, McKenzie is currently living with his mother.

"A big part of our job is writing, so it's in an office, it's long hours," Clement says. "We don't really go swanning around parties."

But they could tell their profile must be growing by the number of people who approached them on the street, and by the increasing size of crowds at their concerts, he says.

"The audiences became a lot bigger and there was a lot more enthusiasm and girls coming up to us and wanting autographs and being too nervous to speak to us."

For the record, McKenzie, 31, is engaged to Wellington film-maker Hannah Clarke, who in 2004 made a documentary about McKenzie's unorthodox internet celebrity following his brief appearance as a brooding elf extra in the Lord of the Rings. Clement, 34, has a girlfriend.

The Conchords' experience bears out the old dictum that local artists need to get recognition overseas before they find success here.

Clement says: "You probably know TVNZ didn't put us on; in fact I've heard a lot of stories about people at TVNZ joking about how terrible we were. They don't get it, that's fine. But there's other stuff as good, if not better than us, in New Zealand."

Clement hopes his next side project, a film he is writing with Waititi and which will feature comedy duo Sugar and Spice, will bring more acclaim to the latter, whom he rates as one of his favourite acts in the world.

But, points out McKenzie, being snubbed by New Zealand's television industry was hardly the worst thing that ever happened to them.

"It's great we got to make it over there, because we probably got to make a much better show than we would have here."

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