All the adulation for his superb HBO show with Bret McKenzie, the dearly departed Flight Of The Conchords, hasn’t changed Jemaine Clement, one of New Zealand’s funniest performers. Offstage, he’s grounded and modest, shy and sensitive. His (co-)directorial debut, What We Do In The Shadows, a vampire mockumentary, received the Midnight Madness Peoples’ Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. Clement delivered his acceptance speech at the awards’ brunch to rowdy laughter: “They are being hunted for their lifestyle choices,” he joked. “The disgusting sport of vampire hunting. We want to name and shame prominent people in the film industry who are vampire hunters. Sir Anthony Hopkins, and the Australian Hugh Jackman.” Clement had just finished filming James C. Strouse’s People, Places, Things in New York, portraying the lead, a sympathetic graphic novelist.
The A.V. Club met up with Clement before TIFF, back at his home in New Zealand. “I’m exciting to be working with HBO again,” he said, announcing that he and his Shadows co-director Taika Waititi—who also directed such Conchords episodes as “Evicted” and “Drive By”—are writing a new four-episode HBO comedy. Clement riffed on Davids Larry and Bowie, how his sense of humor is different from McKenzie’s, and Stonehenges.
The A.V. Club: Your “Feel Inside” video for the Cure Kids charity was brilliant. You had that great variety of New Zealand musicians along with the comically absurd lyrics from your interviews with kids, like “the craziest financial system you’ve ever seen.”
JC: It’s all from what the kids said and they’re just talking about the prime minster. They think the prime minister has all the money and that’s all that was about. I did love getting the kids’ ideas on politics.
AVC: You have built on the trailblazing tradition of your HBO stablemate Larry David.
JC: Bret and I had never been really too worried about formalities with interviews. We had this big press conference and it was a terrifying prospect, because there were hundreds of journalists all interviewing us. We were on a panel and it was all the HBO shows. You had The Sopranos people, and the one before us was Larry David, Curb Your Enthusiasm. And I was thinking the whole time, “We’re gonna be fine because everyone’s going to take this seriously, and me and Bret are going to not take this seriously, we’re going to have our own thing.”
We were watching Larry David intently because we are big fans; we’d actually been studying Curb Your Enthusiasm a lot because it’s a really great way to learn structure for a sitcom. It’s a perfect structured sitcom. Curb and Seinfeld are big influences on our writing. But then Larry David got up and he really didn’t care. Every single question, he obliterated the journalist until they wouldn’t talk again! [Laughs.] We thought he was hilarious, it was like a stand-up routine. So we suddenly had to rethink how we were going to be able to survive. It wasn’t going to be by being irreverent.
AVC: When you were 10, your little vampire gang rode around the streets of Masterton yelling out to girls, “I vant to drink your blood.” But you didn’t get off the bikes?
JC: [Laughs.] No.
AVC: Any other favorite memories from growing up in provincial New Zealand?
JC: Growing up in the ’80s you could be really free. You’d go to your friend’s house and then you’d say, “We’re going for a walk,” and go out to some field. So much space. I’ve really become citified, now, and I get bored really easily by wide spaces, but when you’re a certain age it’s so fantastic.
AVC: Any comical experiences involving the model of Stonehenge in Wairarapa?
JC: Oh no, that came after I left. But I’m sure that if I was a teenager then we would have spent a lot of time lying there. [Laughs.] I wonder if it’s better than the real Stonehenge in that the real Stonehenge is right near a highway. Just pointing it out, seeing the real one when you go, “I wish it wasn’t so easy to get here. I wish they’d at least hidden it from the road.”
AVC: What is it like working with Taika Waititi, your Shadows co-director/co-star?
JC: I just wanted to deck him during our first play at Bats [festival]. Then the first time we did a play at the Edinburgh Festival, we were really struggling. We’d improv these insults about each other and then they would just get so personal. We’d start to talk about each other’s girlfriends, our head sizes and shapes. Sometimes I thought we’d punch each other onstage, right in front of people. But now, it’s pretty smooth.
The way Bret and I work and the way Taika and I work are different. Bret and I, we don’t like the same movies. We like the same music but we don’t like the same comedy stuff often. He would rather watch Sex And The City, whereas I could not sit through that. He loves Knocked Up and things about groups of friends having babies and stuff, whereas I look around at the audience in total confusion. But he walked out of Step Brothers. At the time, I thought it was one of the funniest movies I’d seen in years. So we have to work on a subset of what we both find funny. I think sometimes that raises the quality because you get rid of all this crap. Me and Taika, we’re more similar in sense of humor.
AVC: The hilarious Conchords’ episode “Drive By,” directed by Waititi, explored dislike of Australians. Aziz Ansari, playing Indian fruit salesman Sinjay, throws out insults like, “Too bad New Zealanders are a bunch of cocky a-holes descendant from criminals and retarded monkeys,” and “New Zealanders: Throw another shrimp on the barbie, ride around on your kangaroos all day.” When the boys’ nationality is clarified, he’s mortified. “I’ve totally confused you with Australians, I feel terrible.”
JC: The Australia-New Zealand relationship’s been put to me as like a big sibling finding it funny when the little one makes fun of them, and the little one getting really angry and vent up when it’s the other way round.
AVC: The “Little New Zealand” Conchords episode has a rare, pointed joke about your Māori ancestry [New Zealand’s indigenous Polynesian population].
JC: It’s a funny thing, I think I wrote that joke but yet I feel uncomfortable about it [Laughs.]… As a pale-skinned Māori person, I felt like a spy as a kid. I could tell what pakeha people [the Māori term for New Zealanders of European descent] actually say, which sometimes would be quite shocking. And also, I heard what Māori people say and it’s essentially the same thing. Each group thinks the other one are thieves.
AVC: Shadows werewolf leader Rhys Darby, Conchords’ manager Murray, is too ubiquitous now [in New Zealand], isn’t he?
JC: I’ve worked with some really big names now; he’s the one that cracks me up the most. I agree with everyone, he’s on too many ads. We’d get home and he’d be on a billboard and then you’d turn on TV and he’d be on the TV show. And then there’d be ads of home with a phone or something and another one doing a charity and another ad with him saying “Come and sit down, stay tuned, because I’m on the next show too.” That is purely what’s annoyed people, just him being around too much. He’s really talented, really funny. To watch him in character—and keeping coming up with stuff—is really quite amazing. I wish I could have that skill. I think he even does a good job of the ads but it’s just that there’s so much of them. But I think in time, when those go away, he’ll be remembered for his talents.
AVC: You also directed two episodes of Darby’s series Short Poppies. Is directing a natural progression?
JC: We’d just finished Shadows and Taika and I shared decisions there. So Short Poppies was the first thing I directed by myself. I was worried, but when I did it was totally fine. It totally felt like a natural progression and didn’t feel different to acting. I’ve worked with Rhys so much. When we do those band meeting scenes in Conchords, I would have so many ideas from his ideas.
AVC: Who are some other people who’ve taught you about comedy, made you laugh?
JC: I think I always watch people. I did a movie recently with Sam Rockwell and he’s so professional. He was pretty inspiring, detailed. I love his movies. Steve Carell, Kristen Schaal—always make me laugh. On Conchords, it’s hard to keep a straight face with her. A lot of people who are in Shadows, like Jonny Brugh. Did you ever see Jonny’s Sugar And Spice? They don’t do anything anymore but they were a great comedy duo. I think world class, but then they never managed to get out of New Zealand.
AVC: Last year, you took to Facebook to challenge criticism of Rio 2, where you voiced Nigel, the villainous cockatoo: “I notice criticism that even though the movies show favelas and have a homeless orphaned character, they don’t go far enough portraying the poverty in Brazil. Fair point, perhaps they could also address Britain’s startling amphetamine abuse problem during Postman Pat?”
JC: Yeah. [Laughs.] That annoys me—Rio, they do actually address poverty, in a way. They do have a homeless kid living off the gutters and most stuff doesn’t. But because it’s Brazil, it’s expected, and people know it for its problems and so they expect them to throw it up. Because they’ve seen City Of God and no other reason… They wouldn’t demand that in Toy Story or anything set in America, which has just as big problems.
AVC: The Conchords’ David Bowie song is a keeper. Would you play Bowie in a movie about his life?
JC: [Laughs.] I’d do it for sure. I don’t look anything like him. The resemblance is that we’re both males. A Hollywood casting agent once said I should play Mick Jagger. I couldn’t do his years under 40 now.
AVC: Any more directing lined up?
JC: I got asked to direct a New Zealand TV ad campaign encouraging more kids to play rugby. I said, “I hate rugby.” They said, “It doesn’t matter.” I’d do it if it was a campaign [that said] you don’t have to play rugby.
AVC: Does you still think of yourself as an outsider?
JC: I feel like I need to think of myself as an outsider. I hate it when I can tell when people see me and my friends as part of this establishment… It feels more creative to be small, to be creating something from very little.