Time Out New York
This Time Out New York article ran in issue 498: April 14–20, 2005
Came, saw, Conchords
New Zealand's Flight of the Conchords land in New York
By Jane Borden
If I read about a band that plays funny songs, I'd never go to see it," says Bret McKenzie, one half of Flight of the Conchords, referring to previous descriptions of their shows in the press. His partner, Jemaine Clement, adds, in only half jest, "Sounds awful to me."
The comedic, acoustic guitar duo from Wellington, New Zealand, is in New York this week for a series of shows prior to shooting an episode of One Night Stand (HBO is resurrecting the late-80s comedy series this summer). A popular touring act, Flight of the Conchords also gained attention on the comedy- festival circuit. They nabbed a prestigious Perrier Award nomination at Edinburgh's 2003 Fringe Festival where they caught NBC's eye—and a development deal—and inked the One Night Stand contract shortly after winning the Jury Award for Best Alternative Act at Aspen's U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in February.
The HBO special will be similar to their live performances, which, to put it simply, feature (sigh) a band that plays funny songs. Then again, their act really can't be put in simple terms. And while the songs are indeed funny, it's the sincere and underplayed banter in between that really wins the audience over.
Clement and McKenzie play two somewhat dim but incredibly earnest and lovable musicians—"novice philosophers," as McKenzie describes them via conference phone from BBC's London offices, where the pair are currently working on a Radio 2 show. Onstage, they never break character or give even the slightest knowing wink, billing themselves, with deadpan delivery, as New Zealand's fourth most popular folk-parody duo. (As the bit goes, the third most popular is a Flight of the Conchords cover band.) "For a while there was just folk parody," Clement says to an Australian audience on their DVD High on Folk. "People didn't really understand what we were doing. And then folk music came along, so people get it more."
Part of the joke, of course, is that there isn't much that's folksy about their sound and the songs aren't parodies—at least, not from the deathly serious perspective of their characters. As is typical of good comics, though, they don't seem to be overthinking the act. When asked how their alter egos—subtler than the Smothers Brothers, more committed than Tenacious D—came to be, Clement responds, "That's just what we found funny: that people would be serious about these crazy songs and sincere about these quite strange ideas and messages."
In the intro to "K.I.S.S.I.N.G.," a song asking the throngs of women who want to kiss them to please not take advantage, Clement says without a trace of sarcasm, "I mean, sure, we'll kiss you. That's fine. We could do it down there later."
"Yeah," McKenzie adds, "after the show, we'll do it over there."
"But how far do you expect us to go?" Clement asks. "There's a limit isn't there? [Beat] Maybe we'll show you our undies, for instance."
"Maybe just the top elastic," McKenzie offers.
After admitting that we weren't always sure whether the Conchords were being honest or a little grandiose, their creators responded in unison with an enthusiastic "Good! Good!" In fact, sometimes it's even difficult to tell whether or not the real Clement and McKenzie are joking. After explaining that they experiment live with the show's banter, Clement says, "But [the songs] are difficult to improvise because we have to keep time." We know that's funny—but was it meant to be?
McKenzie concedes, "It's a pretty blurry line between our lives and this act," and goes on to compare the NBC show—"about the Conchords moving to L.A. and trying to make it"—to their own effort. "Which is totally different from the radio show about them moving to London and trying to make it," Clement quips.
In the end, the trouble people have explaining the act is a testament to the Conchords' originality. And the commercial success the duo has enjoyed in spite of not fitting neatly into an established form is a testament to their prodigious talent.
So how do the comics describe the show? "That's the problem," McKenzie says.
"We're seeing how far we can get without saying it," Clement adds. Then how will HBO promote the special?
They respond in tandem: "They're in trouble!" "Good luck!"
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