Comedy | Nightlife

April 29, 2005

Invasion of Kiwi Comics

New Zealand's fourth most popular guitar-based digi-bongo a capella-rap-funk-comedy folk duo rocks New York.

Keith Huang

Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie, better known as Flight of the Conchords, have been onstage at a small New York music venue for less than five minutes, and already they've got the back row laughing.

Clement, the bigger of the two, says in a mellifluous baritone, "We're Flight of the Conchords. We're from New Zealand." His greeting invokes tepid applause and a limp "woo-hoo" from the front row.

Flight of the Conchords
Keith Huang

McKenzie, at left, and Clement

But Clement responds with bone-dry deadpan: "We're very popular there, as you can tell by that response." The audience laughs while absorbing his not-quite-English, not-quite-Australian accent. He turns to McKenzie, "How popular would you say we'd be in New Zealand?"

McKenzie, whose voice is slightly nasal and pinched, replies, "Oh, we're definitely this popular, but with actually less people." Clement nods: "Well, considering that there's a lot less people in New Zealand than in America, like, per capita it'd be about the same."

McKenzie, glancing puzzledly at Clement, looks poised to respond, but thinks better of it. Instead, their brief pause is filled with laughter from the audience, seemingly on cue. That's one joke down, about 50 more to go.

But first, they take a breath and sing Business Time, a sultry R&B send-up about a man preparing for his weekly appointment of intercourse with his wife, "Because it's Wednesday, and that's the night that we make love. Tuesday we visit your mother, but Wednesday we make love."

For the next hour, the Conchords sing, play keen acoustic tunes, and banter between themselves and with the audience, all the while wearing blank, deadpan expressions borne of years of performances.

Flight of the Conchords is two New Zealanders who sing silly songs and play guitars—and occasionally a digital glockenspiel. They have been called "sit-down comedians" and draw comparisons to comedy-rock band Tenacious D, though the Conchords are far more subtle. Their musical abilities are vast, and they draw upon a broad range of musical styles including well-toned harmonies, high-pitched falsettos, and a cappella breaks.

"It's easy to describe what we do, but it's just that it sounds really bad when we describe it," Clement told Gelf prior to last Thursday's show at The Knitting Factory. "We're sitting down, singing songs that we think—or that we thought at one time—were funny."

Most of what you'll hear at a Conchords show doesn't translate very well to paper or personal anecdote, for that matter. They have concocted their own form of improvisation that sets up their punchlines—funny songs with creative lyrics and titles, like the pantomime Albee the Racist Dragon or Hiphopopotamus Meets the Rhymenoceros, sung in a style they have dubbed "gangsta-folk." That number is so earnest that it transcends corniness. Clement, the "Hiphopopotamus," raps, "Sometimes my lyrics are sexist/But all you bitches and ho's should know/That I'm trying to correct this."

Clement, age 31, cites a fellow New Zealander as a major comedic influence: "There's this one hero when I was a kid, Billy T. James []. But he never went out of New Zealand ... and not many people not from New Zealand would get [his jokes]." Not so for the Conchords: Since they began performing as a team in 1998, they've put New Zealand on the alternative-comedy map, at least in the eyes of many Europeans, and, recently, a lot more Americans. In February, the Conchords were named "Best Alternative Comedy Act" at the 2005 U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen and in 2003, they were nominated for the Perrier Comedy Award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where they have been generating ample buzz since their 2002 debut.

Critical acclaim notwithstanding, Clement says he's surprised they were able to fill any of their shows in New York: "I wasn't expecting it at all. I didn't realize the venues would be so good. I honestly didn't think people would turn up."

But on Friday, the Conchords opened for comedian Bonnie McFarlane, who was taping an HBO "One Night Stand" comedy special at an 865-seat venue. Clement and McKenzie, who will appear on the DVD, were asked to perform for that show following their exposure at the HBO-sponsored comedy festival in Aspen.

"It's quite good that we don't really know how big [HBO] is—we're not familiar with the American TV market," says McKenzie, age 28. "It makes us less concerned about it, I guess."

Despite pleading naiveté, the Conchords have their own television project in the works, thanks to longtime NBC producer and talent scout, Lisa Leingang, who spotted the Conchords several years ago, she told Gelf. (Leingang also says she is working on similar TV contracts with New York comedian Demetri Martin and the improvisational comedy troupe Upright Citizens Brigade.)

"I used to work in television in New Zealand," Clement said. "But it's just so hard to get anything you want done, so the idea of getting to do [television] here is pretty exciting to us." He added, "TV in New Zealand is very conservative. It's kind of like the networks here, but in a way it's worse because they're just copying the networks here. There's no HBO or Comedy Central or anything like that."

"It's going to be a major challenge, but it'll be fun," McKenzie said, quipping, "And it'll be a good time to practice our acting."

McKenzie knows something about acting, having played a bit part in the epic film, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, directed by New Zealand native Peter Jackson. In fact, McKenzie's brief role as "Elf Escort" has spawned a cult following that has tracked him across the globe. After the Conchords' show at CB's 313 Gallery, a LOTR fan approached McKenzie and asked him to sign some posters. LOTR fans have dubbed McKenzie's character "Figwit," which stands for "Frodo is great, who is that?" (Figwit Lives!)

"It's crazy, man!" McKenzie laughed. "But I think it's sort of dying down a bit—well, just a little bit. But if [the Conchords] doesn't take off, I'm thinking about getting in on the convention circuit, you know, selling my elf merchandise."

Related on the Web

What the Folk! is a dedicated, detailed fan site.

•A Jemaine Clement fan site.

•: The Guardian reviewed Flight of the Conchords last August.

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