Viewed: received as gift
Release Date: November 6, 2007
Date(s) acquired/borrowed: June 1, 2008
I first posted about Flight of the Conchords last November, quite some time after many people had heard of them, still earlier than most. I’m not as concerned with being *the first* to champion something anymore, I think more than anything what I’m championing should be something I’m willing to continue supporting after the initial rush of first contact has worn off. With Flight of the Conchords, “New Zealand’s no.4 folk-comedy novelty duo” (right behind the no.3 ranked Flight of the Conchords tributed band) my affection for their pithy, dry comedy has only grown, after spending much time on YouTube and receiving their “The Distant Future” ep.
The Kiwis made their way to America by way of the United Kingdom, having had a 6-episode BBC radio series before snagging their own HBO series Stateside. That they are novelty comedy might hinder their longevity if not for the fact that they’re really damn good musicians and their song craftsmanship is tight and catchy. Their HBO show actually moves them beyond just songsmiths and takes them into genuinely fine comedic actors as well.
The 12-episode series finds Bret and Jemaine as landed immigrants in New York City, living Bert and Ernie-style in a cramped (barely) 1-bedroom, 2-bed apartment trying (though far from desperately) to live the American dream. They want to be rock stars, but they have no pretensions about themselves or their ambitions. When success eludes them, they take it as a given. They are ineptly managed by the “Deputy Cultural Attaché” of the New Zealand consulate, Murray (who seems to be focused more on managing the band than performing whatever duties the consolatory is supposed to service), and they have only one fan, Mel, who is absolutely stark-raving obsessed with them. The boys don’t really like Mel’s stalker-ish behaviour (often dragging her lapdog husband, Doug, along), but accept her and rely upon her more often than they’d like. Eugene is their building’s ineffective (and creepy) super, while Dave is their American “best friend” (and pawn shop operator) who gives them nothing but horrible advice on fitting in, dating and anything else they need help with.
Bret and Jemaine as characters are at times niave, at times ignorant, and at times socially awkward, one of which always puts them into some predicament or another and is primarily the source of non-song comedy on the show. Their deadpan demeanour and their dry repartee is absolutely hilarious. They’re not stupid people, but they’re supposed to represent some skewed, backwards sensibility that they’re attempting to pass off as a New Zealand stereotype (Murry is equally as socially inept).
A handful of episodes are about dating, as Bret and Jemaine naively try to negotiate girlfriends, often causing discord in the band (or so Murray always surmises). One episode deals with the duo facing anti-Kiwi prejudice from a fruit stand operator, another finds the lads getting mugged (with Bret fleeing the scene, leaving Jemaine behind). Another deals with the boys going on a pathetic tour Murray organized, and another where the boys try to affirm Murray’s managing skills (and going horribly, horribly awry). Each episode has some of the Conchord’s songs shoehorned in, usually in some sort of daydream sequence or soliloquy-style aside.
As funny as the situations and performances are, it is the songs which stick out the most. Bret and Jemaine are musical chameleons, capable of jumping across different genres with apparent ease, from folk, to glam rock, to hip-hop, to dancehall, to R&B, to twee indie. The majority of the songs aren’t parodying one song (ala Weird Al), but a certain sound, like the Pet Shop Boys, Snoop Dogg, or David Bowie. The great thing is they’re strong enough performers to pull it of, not just as parody, but as uniquely enjoyable creations on their own.
The supporting cast of the show is made up of primarily New York area comedians such as Eugene Mirman, Aziz Ansari, Todd Barry, and WIll Forte. Regular viewers of the Daily Show will recognize John Hodgman and Demitri Martin, as well as Kristen Schall (”Mel”) who made her debut on Thursday last week. The Conchords are obviously entrenched in the New York working comedy scene, which should be only good news to those that think them a flash-in-the-pan novelty (thus fearing the loss of their “hipster cred” for liking a fly by night fad).
I noted a similarity initially to HBO’s Tenacious D in terms of the struggling comedy duo, and the fact is there strong themes that resonate through both, since they’re both about musical comedy duos. The raving fan, the girlfriend coming between the two, one member quitting the band, the in-fighting, the third member… there’s certainly a plethora of parallels between the plights of Jack Black and KG and Bret and Jemaine’s but it’s character and tone which decisively differentiate the two. Where as the D are bombastic and full of unearned arrogance, the Conchords are humble and occasionally self-aware (Bret often claims he’s not a fan of the band, because he only likes bands that are popular). As well, the Conchords are, frankly, less juvenile and obsessed with bodily fluids or being crass. They’re not in-your-face in any respect and are actually funnier for it.
It’s truly a hilarious show, ranking somewhere between Arrested Development and NBC’s The Office in terms of comedy and amount of running gags. While certainly not as densely constructed as the former, nor as loosely executed as the latter, it’s got an equal sense of polish and natural performance that makes it accessible and rarely uncomfortable.
Flight of the Conchords released their first full-length, self-titled CD last month. Season 2 starts in January 2009.
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