Flight of the Conchords: ‘It feels like people are consciously casting women now’
Comedy nerds Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement are back on tour a decade after their cult HBO series
Flight of the Conchords: Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement. Photograph: Matt Grace
On Soho Theatre’s stage, on a snowy London night, Jemaine Clement is readying himself for the female part in the next song. “Erm, thinking about it, it should have probably gone to a woman,” he says, his nod to the issues of the day met with raucous laughs. “We try to do our bit for the industry. But we’re limited in our choices.”
Bret McKenzie chimes in, equally deadpan: “It’s a male-dominated band.”
Back on the live scene after eight years away from Europe, much has changed for New Zealand’s Flight of the Conchords. They’re a little older, a little wiser, and there are a couple of highly acclaimed projects under their respective belts. Now in their 40s, they’re no longer recognised for their dark, curly locks; there’s more salt to their pepper.
But there are constants too. Their cult following can be marked as present, as proved by their arena tour of UK and Ireland (and this week of warm-up shows, which sold out with nary a tweet from the venue or band). And, as the test run suggests, their talent hasn’t changed with the passage of time: they’re sharp as ever, mixing bone-dry wit with comedy songs of a range of genres.
It feels like people are consciously casting women now, and making sure you don’t have too many men in a cast
Cosy in the theatre bar hours earlier, we’re talking about this shake-up the industry’s had recently, with women’s representation in comedy called into question, and the Louis CK scandal especially highlighting the hostile conditions women face.
“We don’t masturbate in front of women if that’s what you’re wondering,” says Clement, with a laugh that reminds me he’s not the same character as his TV series alter-ego.
“When we started our show [in 2007], Tina Fey, Kristen Wiig and Amy Poehler were bigger than any male comedians, so it didn’t feel like women were absent from comedy in America. It’s still mostly men, but the most popular at that time were mostly women.”
“It’s hard for a man to comment, to be honest, because we didn’t face those problems,” says McKenzie. “It feels like people are consciously casting women now, and making sure you don’t have too many men in a cast. In the musical I’m working on, we’re using source material where there are lots of male characters, so we’re changing some to female characters so it’s more interesting on stage. That comes up with a lot of projects now, so [the entertainment industry] seems in a good place. That, and diversity, comes up a lot.”
It turns out that, well before Frances McDormand uttered the phrase at the Oscars, they were seeking their own inclusion rider.
“I noticed when we were casting for Flight of the Conchords, it was almost always white people put forward,” says Clement. “Particularly with the women. We had to ask them [the casting team] to vary it up a bit. It seems strange to me. Doing other shows in New Zealand, it’s just not like that.”
Speaking to the duo would be daunting if they weren’t so full of manners and enthusiasm (a relative term: this is the band so monotone in their delivery that you’re sometimes not sure if they get their own jokes). It’s partly because they rarely grant a private audience – this is their only interview for their tour. But mostly because, as with the best comedians, they read, interpret and respond to micro-situations with alarming speed. It’s a disarming skill.
It doesn’t help that, like most of their fans, I’ve been obsessed since their HBO series first aired, a move that gave their comedy a larger platform than the Edinburgh Fringe Festival accolades and BBC Radio 2 series before that.
The series was unleashed just as American tastes had adjusted to subtle comedy. Curb Your Enthusiasm led the pack; The Office had just successfully translated across, 30 Rock was in its first flush, and Knocked Up and Juno, both released that year, had similarly understated styles.
In their low-key and slightly surreal style, the series followed McKenzie and Clement as two aspiring New Zealand musicians in the kind of New York where two adults share a room and a mug, and get robbed at vegetable knife-point. To help their band make it is Murray (Rhys Darby), whose managerial style is questionable (“Band agenda, item one: Haircut. Get it cut! You don’t hear of professional musicians with long hair”), and their “fanbase” Mel, played by comedian Kristen Schaal. Other fleeting appearances come from New York comedians Eugene Mirman, Arj Barker, Aziz Ansari and Judah Friedlander.
Woven between their escapades are their songs: their rapping alter-egos come out in Hiphopopotamus vs Rhymenoceros; there’s the club banger Too Many Dicks (on the Dancefloor), and a more literal interpretation of The Police’s Roxanne with You Don’t Have to Be a Prostitute (“The streets are cruel, he tries to act cool, he goes to work with only his one tool”).
Sadly, after two seasons and spectacular momentum, they called time on the show. Today, McKenzie confirms that “there’s definitely no plans for another”.
“It felt like too much to do,” reflects Clement. “Trying to do a show is one thing, but trying to record the music simultaneously was hard. Working on other shows now, I see it’s so much easier when you don’t have to record an album too.”
Was it a tough decision, to not go back in for a third round?
“It was very clear-cut,” says McKenzie. “We were working every day, all day long and nights, and that doesn’t seem possible now. Our lives were so different then.
“And it’s years ago now. I think the characters would look too old now to be hanging out. It might be funnier, it could be like a couple of dads starting a band.”
Clement: “We’d have to do it a different way.”
McKenzie: “One episode a year.”
After the show finished, both dedicated time to their personal lives: they’re now both married with children, and have returned to Wellington, with a presence in LA when necessary.
Happily, they’ve achieved the similar levels of success in different fields: Clement has the longer acting CV, and is especially noted for lending his baritone voice to The BFG, Despicable Me, Rio and The Lego Batman Movie. He also wrote and starred in flatmate vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows (sample bickering: “If you’re going to eat a victim on my nice clean couch, put down some newspapers on the floor. And some towels. It’s not hard to do”). Meanwhile, McKenzie holds an Oscar, for writing The Muppets’ majestic tune Man or Muppet.
There wouldn’t be much rivalry anyway – Flight of the Conchords was created 20 years ago as just one of their many creative projects.
“This was always something we’d work on every now and then,” says Clement. “When we started he was in a couple of other bands and I did other theatre shows. Now more people see our work, but it’s always been like that.
“And actually,” he adds, “it reflects well on me when Bret does well.”
McKenzie: “Yeah, that’s true. People get confused with what we’re up to. When Jemaine does something, everyone tells me ‘that’s great’ because they presume I’m involved.”
It’s heartening that, however impressive their tangents, they’ve always returned to Flight of the Conchords, in its various guises. Their side-splitting charity single Feel Inside (And Stuff Like That), created with the lyrical input of schoolkids, was as adorable as it was funny. Then there are the tours: a post-series lap of victory in 2010, an Antipodean stint in 2012, a US/festival stint in 2016, and now this tour.
Given that their last Dublin show was at the theatre venue of The Olympia, what’s the set-up for the arenas?
Clement: “It’s Bret and I.”
McKenzie: “The whole band.”
Clement: “And we have a friend, Nigel, who plays cello. He fills out the music a little bit.”
McKenzie: “We call him the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.”
They’re also surrounded by instruments: guitars, basses, omnichords, pianos – and recorders, for the inevitable recorder wig-out.
“We’ve now also got chimes and the vibraslap,” says McKenzie. “Do you know what a vibraslap is? It’s like an instrument from a cartoon sound effect. It’s a bit like a rattlesnake."
Clement: “You’ll know it.”
McKenzie: “Do you ever get a ruler and whack it against a table? It’s like that.”
It features on their country track The Ballad of Stana. In keeping with their talents, it’s less of a send-up of a genre than a comedic emulation – if there was an instrumental version, it would still hold its own. That’s also the case with Deana and Ian, which would be a highlight in a Kasabian or Arctic Monkeys setlist if it weren’t about an office shag.
As with previous tours, fellow musical comedian David O’Doherty takes a few support slots.
“The first Edinburgh festival we did, we became friends with him,” says Clement. “He was on as part of an Irish show with Tara Flynn and Kevin Gildea. We gave them flyers to come to our show, and he came and liked it. He was one of the first people to tell his audience to see our show.”
David O’Doherty put us up when we were in Dublin. It feels like such a long time ago. He showed us the sights but I don’t remember what they were. Bono’s house?
McKenzie: “Since then we’ve become really good friends, and we just like hanging out with him. We share a musical sensibility. He does songs as well, which is quite rare, so we help each other out.”
Clement: “I stayed at his house in Dublin. Were you staying there as well?”
McKenzie: “Yeah, he put us up when we were there. It feels like such a long time ago. He showed us the sights but I don’t remember what they were. Bono’s house?”
After the tour they’ll return to their other projects, of which there are many.
For Clement, his attention will be on spin-offs from What We Do in the Shadows. “We’ve finished Wellington Paranormal, which is a six-part show in New Zealand that follows the cops in the film – a man and a woman,” he grins. “We’ve made the first series, and that will come out in June or July.
“Then there’s an American series, which is more of an adaptation. It’s about another house where they also have vampires. There are three British people in the cast for that: Kayvan Novak, Matt Berry and Natasia Demetriou. We’ve only made the pilot, so we need to give them [FX] the edit and see if they want it.”
And what of We’re Wolves, the touted spin-off film, following the werewolf characters?
“I don’t know. We’ve been doing so much of the other stuff, we haven’t put any thought into that. I’m not sure about that.”
“They’ll need a break from creatures of the night,” adds McKenzie.
While McKenzie’s main project is a musical he can’t reveal yet, he also adds that he’ll be involved in The Muppets’ live show when it comes to New Zealand. And there’s a potential adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Fortunately, The Milk.
“Have you read that book?” asks Clement. “You should – it’s a funny kids’ book.”
The film will be directed by Edgar Wright (Baby Driver and Shaun of the Dead), says McKenzie. “It’s in the Hollywood development system. It’s supposed to be filming this year, but I don’t know when.”
Men in demand, it means they’ll once again go their own separate ways after the Flight of the Conchords tour ends, except for a little post-tour activity such as an HBO special. But for now, it’s business time.
Cultural aficionados might shudder at the thought of characters breaking into song on screen. But, as Flight of the Conchords show proved, if it’s done right, it’s a match made in musical heaven. Here are other TV series that use songs to tell their tale.
A blessing for a cappella singers everywhere, it turned the fringe genre into the coolest style going for a few years. The high school comedy-drama was a mainstream fixture while it aired from 2009 to 2015, and the Pitch Perfect movies continued its spirit from there.
The Get Down
It’s only right that Baz Luhrmann’s slick series about the emerging scene in 1970s Harlem lingers on its musical moments. Focusing on disco, soul, gospel and hip-hop, it’s a shining example of a natural use of music on TV.
My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
A sudden burst of song in the midst of the show is a usual occurrence in My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, currently in its third season. It reflects Rachel Bloom’s love of musical theatre, and keeps with the unconventional style of this deceptively dark comedy show.
The Mighty Boosh
Noel Fielding and Julian Barrett’s more surreal precursor to FotC, comedy troupe The Mighty Boosh’s world of songs and stories gave rise to a radio show, TV series as well as live tours.
Garfunkel and Oates
With their wide eyes and potty mouths, folk comedy duo Riki Lindhome and Kate Micucci were popular on the comedy scene well before their TV show came out. The eight-part series mixed the best tunes with their adventures in Hollywood.
- Flight of the Conchords concerts 3 Arena, Dublin, on March 25th and April 3rd have been postponed after Bret McKenzie was injured and will be rescheduled