Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement of Flight Of The Conchords

Illustration for article titled Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement of Flight Of The Conchords

When Flight Of The Conchords debuted on HBO in 2007, the musical sitcom about a pair of unknown New Zealanders struggling for success felt as if it might be based, however faintly, in real life. But a Grammy, two Emmy nominations, and a platinum record later, Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement are hardly unknowns. Their sleepy deadpan delivery and scruffy charisma have made them low-key heartthrobs, and their low-tech music videos are tailor-made for the YouTube era. The show's second season, which premières Jan. 18, finds their fictional selves as downtrodden as ever, penning jingles for a women-only toothpaste and being neglected by their manager, Murray (Rhys Darby), who's preoccupied with million-selling novelty act Crazy Dogggz. During a break from filming in a Brooklyn warehouse, McKenzie and Clement sat down at Murray's desk with The A.V. Club, which resisted the urge to call the roll.


The A.V. Club: I remember seeing the first episode and thinking, "Wow, this is really funny. I'm glad they got a full season, because that's obviously going to be all there is." The next thing I know, you guys are selling out 3,000-seat theaters.

Bret McKenzie: It could have slipped by. There are a lot of good shows that don't get picked up. Like that Ben Stiller pilot, Heat Vision And Jack? That would have been a great show, but somehow it slipped by.

Jemaine Clement: That's even weirder than our show, really.

AVC: You'd already done a version of the show for BBC Radio, so you hit the ground running. Even the pilot is fully formed, in terms of visual sensibility and the characters' identities. Were there things you wanted to do differently in the second season?

JC: I think we made the same mistakes again.

BM: I think we learnt, but we probably didn't—

JC: Apply our learning.

BM: Apply our lessons, yeah. One thing we did learn was that the transition to song is a really crucial moment in the musical format. It's easier if the song somehow slips into the scene, rather than a hard cut to a music video. So we kind of played around with different ways of transitioning from the real world of the show into the surreal world of the music videos.


AVC: The first season is almost an encyclopedia of the New York alternative-comedy scene, with Kristen Schaal and Eugene Mirman in recurring roles, and guest appearances by Todd Barry and Demetri Martin. Was there a thought that that might be a good way to get the show to an American audience?

BM: No.

JC: It can go a long time with just New Zealanders, but we try to make sure there's American characters in it. I'm always aware when we're looking through the script that in the first few scenes, there should be an American character.


BM: We didn't cast them to try and break into a market or anything. We cast them mainly 'cause we knew them. And we didn't want to have people that were well-known.

JC: It really is like, "Who do we know?" Todd, Demetri, Arj [Barker], and Eugene are all the Americans we knew.


AVC: Every comedian who's ever opened a rock show, basically.

BM: Yeah, that's true, it's the same circuit. John Hodgman is another one. This season, we ran out of people we knew.


AVC: You go through an album's worth of songs in three or four episodes, and a mini-box set in the course of a season. Did you run out during the first season, and did you have to stock up more for the second?

JC: We didn't quite run out, but almost. We've got a few old songs this season.

BM: It was kind of a different process this year, because we had to write I guess about 16 songs.


AVC: You initially had the songs and wrote a show around them. This time, were you writing songs to fit scripts, or working on them in tandem?

BM: We do both, but probably more songs were written to fit scripts this season.

JC: We had a break to write songs, and they were all love songs. So we wrote a lot of episodes where there was a romance. I think it's probably more interesting, the ones where we've written a song around an idea. There's one where we try male prostitution. I had a vague idea for a song that I wanted to do for years, and then we came out with a story based on that, and then we wrote another song to fit in the story.


AVC: What was the vague idea?

JC: It was just doing a song like "Roxanne," but it's got a judgmental—it makes a lot of assumptions about the profession. Singing a song about prostitution, like "I'll stop you from being a prostitute with this song."


AVC: When you're coming up with a song, does it start with genre, sound, or a lyric? What's generally the first thing that falls into place?

BM: It's a mixture, I think. A couple of songs this year, we wanted to do particular styles, like a club tune, and we wanted to do a West Side Story-type musical song.


JC: Yesterday we did this video. It was a song that Bret wrote about fashion as danger.

BM: An '80s song.

JC: It's kind of based around the video idea, really.

BM: A few of them are definitely just style-based. But then there are other songs that are lyric-joke based.


JC: Last year, the first song we had—which was "The Most Beautiful Girl In The Room," which is kind of Prince-ish—the idea actually came from a male character who wasn't very good with compliments. That's where the idea came from, not the style of the song.

BM: There are some songs you could do in different styles, and they'd still be funny, and there are some that wouldn't.


AVC: "Foux Da Fa Fa" is obviously a style song. "Boom," the reggae dancehall thing.

BM: It's a mixture of things this year. It's kind of fun, because a lot of our old songs were developed for comedy clubs, and this year they're basically built for music videos. We've written them with the idea of the video in mind, rather than performing them live.


AVC: The live show predates everything, radio and TV. Has the fact that most of the people in the audience know you from TV changed your performances?

BM: I think people are surprised that we have a live show.

JC: And there will be about 2,900 more people than we would usually have.

BM: It must be quite weird if you've never heard us and you came along, and there were all these people who were so fanatical.


JC: "Who are these dorky guys, singing stupid songs?"

AVC: The show still feels very homegrown and underground. It's almost a shock to see you in front of such large crowds.


BM: There aren't many TV shows that can go on tour. You can't go watch The Sopranos.

JC: The first time we came to the States after our special on HBO, there was a little bit of that mob fanaticism.


BM: We used to play in Edinburgh. There's a great comedy festival each year, and you play for a month in a row. We played for a few years, and by the end of each month we did have fans, so it was like a miniature version. People had come to the show a couple of times, so they had favorite songs and would shout things out. That was only a hundred people.

AVC: Is that where rabid fans like Mel on the TV show come from?

JC: A lot of her best lines are direct quotes. Some of her weirdest lines.

AVC: There's more of a disparity between where you are and where the characters are now than there was when you started doing the show.


BM: Yeah. So we're drawing on our old experiences more than our recent ones. But it's funny, I meet bands, living in Los Angeles, and they all come up to you and they're like, "Oh man, we've got a real Mel." They tell you weird little anecdotes from their lives.

JC: People have said their managers are like Murray. But that kind of makes sense, because those characters are based on real people.


AVC: Is Murray someone you worked with professionally?

JC: Our real manager in New Zealand is very mothering, and overprotective in the way Murray is.


AVC: One of the things that makes a show work, visually, especially the music sequences, is that there's a sort of delicate semi-competence to them.

BM: That's just us doing our best and then failing.

JC: Mm-hm.

BM: We aim high, and then we run out of time.

AVC: They wouldn't be as funny if you hit your mark, if the video for "The Hiphopopotamus Vs. The Rhymenoceros" looked like a Hype Williams production, and not two guys in safety vests in a vacant lot.


BM: I think that may be a layer to the show that we're not as aware of as the audience.

JC:, We try our best. We just don't have much time, money, or skill.

BM: You've got to try and do your best, and the failure is what's funny. But you can't be aware of the failure, you've just got to keep trying to do your best.


AVC: Well that's certainly true of the characters on the show, at the very least. Leaving you guys out of it.

JC: That's a part of it on our stage show, trying to create these sounds with two guitars.


BM: It was that distance between the hip-hop sound of, say, "Hiphopapotamus" played with two guitars that's the failure of the song, even though we onstage aren't aware of it. Sometimes when you play music, you start thinking, "This is rocking!" We lose consciousness of the fact that it doesn't really sound that good.

AVC: In America, people talk a lot about how many comedians are from Canada. A healthy sense of inferiority is a good thing for a comic, and when you have a nation in the shadow of a much larger neighbor, that helps.


JC: There's a lot of great Australian comedians, which is a very confident country. They're like our confident older brother.

AVC: It's something you exploit on the show, that New Zealand inferiority complex. Doubly because you're in America, and then you bring in the Australians to push you even further down.


BM: Drop us further down the ladder. That's a very genuine New Zealand characteristic.

AVC: That sort of humility?

BM: A lack of confidence.

AVC: Rhys Darby, who plays your manager, played a similar role on the radio show, so you've been working with him longer than anyone. Is there a lot of improvisation in the band-meeting scenes with him?


BM: There definitely is, but it's also a very easy format to improvise in, because we don't move.

JC:, We're just sitting down, and the continuity doesn't matter.

BM: Those scenes can go for 10 minutes before we cut.

JC: A three-page scene, which should be three minutes.

BM: The camera people are putting the cameras down, aching from holding them. They run out of tape before we finish.


AVC: When you're writing the script, do you leave room for improvisation?

JC: We try to re-word something sometimes in re-writes to leave it open: "That subject might be a good one to go off on."


AVC: Is that something that evolved over the course of doing the show?

BM: That's something we've been doing more recently. We found that sometimes we'd do a read-through and you'd have a funny improvisation and you'd write down the joke, and when you'd do it again, it can sometimes lose its life. It's better to leave it. You always know what the area of the joke is. Let Rhys or us find it.


JC: Rhys is a brilliant improviser, which really helps.

AVC: How does the process of writing the episodes differ from songwriting?

JC: There's three of us [including director James Bobin] who do the storylining. It's much more involved, but a very similar sort of process. In the songs, usually we both work on them, but sometimes I'll do a song and then show it to Bret or vice-versa. We would never do that for a script.


BM: The scripts are very developed. I've never worked on any other sitcoms, but it seems like our story outlines are very thorough. They're a very solid story with a couple of joke ideas and the scene outline, and then we write it from that. But you could almost improvise a show off those.

BM: It seems like the same problems—if there are problems in the outline, they then become problems in the script. And if they aren't solved then, they become problems when you're filming. And then problems in the edit.


JC: And then they become problems for the viewer.

BM: The things that work in the very beginning work all the way to the end, usually.


AVC: Is that something you learned the hard way?

BM: I don't think there's any solution, there's still episodes that don't work.

JC: As I said, we still make the same mistakes.

BM: And you try to fix them, it's like, "Man, sometimes it's really hard to solve the problems."


AVC: That's why God made Final Cut Pro.

BM: That's why God made the episodes that don't quite work.