Friday, July 13, 2007

HBO's Conchords takes flight


Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle

BEVERLY HILLS, CALIF. — In the hilarious, self-spoofing, surreal HBO comedy Flight of the Conchords, New Zealanders Jemaine Clement and Bret Mc- Kenzie are living in New York City, trying to find places where they can perform their funny songs and awkwardly approaching women on the street and at parties. It's not unusual for them to break into song at any moment.

Refreshingly new and offbeat, Flight of the Conchords has made Clement and McKenzie two of the coolest cats on TV. Their fragile chemistry is in constant danger of being wrecked by one's devotion to a fan or another's connections to a girl or their inability to agree on a venue, but they are a team united by song and country, and inevitably stay friends.

In person, they are as deadpan and unassuming as they are in the show (9:30 p.m. Sundays), either unaware or not bothered by their sudden celebrity. Just seeing the two of them — Clement's the one with the goofy grin and black-rimmed glasses; McKenzie's the bearded one with the skinny ties — evokes a knowing grin from those who have seen their work.

Their onstage and on-screen personages are not far removed from what they are like in real life.

"I'm not sure that we're aware of the differences in our characters," said McKenzie. "We have exaggerated the stupidity, and Jemaine's much more of an (expletive). But there's a little bit of truth in them which makes them believable on-screen as well."

"That's why they work," says James Bobin, who with the boys created the series. "Jemaine and Bret are friends in real life, and that's why they have a natural rapport on-screen as well. And so even though they don't get along that well all the time, they can depend on each other, which is quite nice."

Their songs are a reflection of that familiarity and their humor.

How do they rate themselves as musicians?

"Bret's better than I am, and I'm worse than Bret is," says Clement.

"And I think we're both just above mediocre," says McKenzie.

They met as housemates, living with eight other people in New Zealand. There, they tried to learn guitar and tried playing other people's songs.

"That was too hard, so we started making up our own," says Clement.

"We started off playing small clubs, weddings and a local cricket club Christmas function," says McKenzie. "Eight years later, we're on TV. There was never a plan. We've just been incredibly lucky."

They scored an HBO special in 2005, then hooked up with Bobin for the series.

"Live we're looser and more improvised," says McKenzie. "A lot of comedy duos are competitive onstage, and I've always wanted to avoid that. But in order for the stories to last 30 minutes (for the series) we had to create more antagonism between the characters."

In the U.S., they gained a following through club appearances and on YouTube. With Conchords, obviously, their following is growing. In New Zealand?

"Well, we're on the news a lot, for having a show in America," says Clement. "We've been on TV more in New Zealand from being on the news than anything we've done there (on New Zealand TV)."

"It's a news story," says Bobin.

"Not the lead news story," says Clement. "There's also great irony in that New Zealand doesn't make very many or very many good comedy shows, and we were turned down for a show there."

Flight of the Conchords will premiere in New Zealand this fall.

So what's the coolest thing about living in America?

Clement: "People are friendly."

McKenzie: "Paying taxes to George Bush is a real treat."

Clement: "What Bret means to say is the people are friendly."

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