Bret McKenzie of Flight Of The Conchords
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Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement—better known as "New Zealand's fourth most popular folk parody band," Flight Of The Conchords—have been performing together since 1998, but until about two years ago, when their stellar HBO One Night Stand performance aired, they were virtually unknown in America. Then again, it takes a while for comedy so quietly absurd to ripple across oceans. Onstage, McKenzie and Clement are low-key: Sitting on two stools, guitars in hand, they trade deadpan banter between pitch-perfect send-ups of everything from Marvin Gaye to David Bowie to hip-hop.
Those songs naturally play a big role in Flight Of The Conchords, their sly, funny half-hour comedy for HBO. In it, McKenzie and Clement play Kiwi bandmates Bret and Jemaine, perpetuating the roles they played in the BBC radio series Flight Of The Conchords, and onstage in infrequent but hilarious live performances. McKenzie recently spoke to The A.V. Club about translating their live act to television, working with friends, the creepiness of MySpace, and living in the shadow of Cop Rock.
The A.V. Club: Three years ago, you didn't even have a website. Now you have something like 18,000 MySpace friends.
Bret McKenzie: They're not our real friends, though. We're still quite lonely. We feel cheated by the Internet. I wanted to have a birthday party and invite them all, but… too freaky. I would probably have to have a party somewhere big, maybe Central Park… I'm not really a big fan of MySpace. Think it's evil. Corrupt.
AVC: But you have the page anyway?
BM: Jemaine is the MySpace guy. I don't go on it. You can ask him about it. I feel pressure to go on it. It seems to be the way everyone's working now.
BM: I don't really feel pressure. I don't know, it seems a lot of people get addicted to that thing. To collecting more friends. It seems kind of weird.
AVC: A lot of comedians seem to get particularly addicted to it.
BM: I think comedians probably because they're lonely travelers, and they sit in hotel rooms, making up for the loneliness by collecting fake friends.
AVC: Are you thinking of anyone in particular?
BM: [Laughs.] So many people. It's really more who I'm not referring to.
I think it's really bad. I think it's helped us. Well, YouTube's made us popular, not MySpace. Thanks to YouTube, people know who we are. We haven't done much in America. We just did One Night Stand for HBO. And we don't play live very often. So until the show comes out, the only reason people have heard of us is through YouTube, really. It's kind of weird. But I guess a lot of people are like that now. YouTube's made a lot of bands and weird comedy acts more popular.
AVC: Did you like shooting the show in New York?
BM: Yeah, it was cool. We got to use a lot of our friends in the comedy world—Todd Barry and Demetri Martin and Eugene Mirman. We got a lot of those guys to play cameos in our show. Pretty much everyone we've met—especially a lot of the guys who tour, people we've met touring the UK and doing comedy fests in America. And it was pretty cool, because we often wrote the roles with them in mind, so I think the voice comes through strongly for the characters, because we knew what kind of comedians they were and wrote to their strengths.
The weather was really extreme. We started shooting in the snow, and then we stopped shooting last week in extreme, sweltering humidity. But I think extreme exhaustion just gave us our desperate edge. That's what you need to create something new.
AVC: People can tell from looking at you.
BM: Yeah, you notice throughout the series, we get progressively darker under the eyes. We're just sleep-deprived. We shot five days a week and then recorded music and rewrote the scripts on the weekend, so we've worked seven days a week since the beginning of the year. So to say we were kind of burnt-out would be an understatement. But I think it was worth it. We came up with some funny stuff. There were a few jokes.
AVC: You did a Conchords radio show for the BBC. Is this a television translation of that show?
BM: Well it definitely has, um, enough similarities that warrant us being concerned. We think we might sue us.
The radio show was a stepping stone to this show. I mean, that show was about us trying to make it as a band in London, and this show is about us trying to make it as a band in New York, so there's definitely some very clear similarities. And I think, doing the radio show, we developed a style of working and telling stories that helped us kind of know which ways we wanted to go about creating this show. We wanted to incorporate an element of improvisation as well as a scripted story to go off of.
AVC: Do you prefer doing comedy for radio or for TV?
BM: I think the radio is kind of cool, because you're really free to do whatever you want, because you can go into another world. Whereas in TV, you have to make that world. I still like doing radio comedy. But it was fun showing up on set, and they'd built a spaceship and stuff like that. I mean, that was more fun than going to work and pretending you're in a spaceship.
AVC: Did you enjoy seeing people creating the things you'd written about?
BM: Yeah, that was really cool, like, arriving on set—Dan Butts was the design guy, and he always just did these outstanding things. Every show has one or two music videos in it, and often they went into fantasy worlds. And he would have created these spaceships, or the 1970s, or the Miss Universe contest, or a tropical island covered in mermaids. No, it was an underwater mermaid world. Honestly, it was really great, just better than my expectations. That was really cool.
AVC: Did some things work better on radio than on TV?
BM: Well, the radio show, we only did six shows. For TV, we did 12. So we did a lot more work on the TV show. And, well, I'm not sure what worked better. I don't know yet. Can't tell. I mean, obviously you can do different jokes. It was a lot of fun doing the visual jokes on the TV show. Like falling over.
AVC: Do you do that a lot on the show?
BM: I fall over once when I'm sporting an eyepatch in an attempt to look cool. David Bowie gives me some advice in a dream to wear an eyepatch, and I have trouble with depth perception and fall over.
AVC: Did you have any hesitations about the way you incorporate songs into the show?
BM: Yeah, we watched Cop Rock, and that terrified us, and then we just kind of held our breath and gave it a go. We were worried. The fact that it's a comedy helps—you get away with that strange moment when people just break into a song. But I think we thought that was funny anyway, people just starting to sing. We put a lot of care into those transitional moments, to try and make them work, because it can be a very difficult moment in a show. It works better with some songs than others. We tried a variety of different methods throughout the show, whether we go into a complete other fantasy world of one of the character's minds, or there's a blurry half-reality when the rest of the world can't hear 'em.
AVC: Like an inner-monologue song?
BM: Yeah, yeah. We kind of play around with different styles. We had a back catalogue of songs, and we just used them all up. And then we wrote some new ones. We wrote probably half a dozen new songs.
AVC: And how did you figure out which songs you wanted to use in which styles?
BM: Well the songs usually explain them by themselves. Like, we had a song about David Bowie that clearly had to be in some sort of fantasy world. And the mermaid song, likewise. We couldn't actually meet a mermaid in the show, because the show is set in the real world. Even though it's a fairly strange world, there aren't robots or aliens living among us.
AVC: How did the show come about? Did you approach HBO with the idea?
BM: No, they approached us. We're not the sort of guys that would approach anyone with an idea, as you would probably know, having caught up with us over the years. We do whatever sort of falls in front of us.
AVC: Did they approach you backstage at Aspen?
BM: They did, yeah. They had to wait, because we were on an NBC deal. But as soon as that finished, they asked us to write a pilot and teamed us with James Bobin, who has literally now become the third Conchord. I mean, he won't play the show, but it wasn't just me and Jemaine, it was me, Jemaine, and James. He lives in Los Angeles, so we wrote there and filmed it in New York last summer, and they liked it and asked us to write 12 episodes, and we took a month off and then came back and started writing. We wrote for about three and a half months in L.A., then came to New York and started filming.
AVC: That sounds fast.
BM: It was fast. We really haven't done anything else for the past year. We've had a little time off, but it's been a huge project. The three of us together, I think, we wrote a lot of the scripts—five scripts—and then we found other writers to help us write first drafts on them.
AVC: When HBO said "Would you like to do a show with us?" did you hesitate?
BM: Well, I think we'd toured so much that we were kind of sick of touring, so doing a show was new and interesting, and that was one of the main reasons I did it. But yeah, there was a lot of concern about how it would translate from the live act, because it doesn't easily translate. But everyone said that HBO would be the best place for us to do it, because we tried doing it with NBC, and they didn't pick it up. And I think it was probably lucky that they didn't, because we had time to develop, and we did the radio shows for the BBC, and I think we got kind of a clearer idea about how we would translate our show to a TV show.
AVC: It probably would've been a totally different show if it had been on NBC.
BM: We wrote the NBC pilot, and it was a little broader. It was us living in L.A., and we had an American manager rather than a New Zealand manager. I mean, it was pretty similar, but it would probably have been a very different show, because we weren't as experienced.
AVC: Did you have HBO in New Zealand?
BM: No, HBO doesn't make it to New Zealand, but some of the shows get picked up by a local television company. Like, Sopranos plays over there. Curb Your Enthusiasm plays over there.
AVC: So you were sort of familiar with HBO when they approached you?
BM: Not to the point when I knew it was sort of the cool channel. I didn't know it was the alternative channel—which it seems to be. I had no idea, the difference between ABC and HBO. But now that I've worked for them, I've heard a lot about it. And they have been, creatively, incredibly supportive. They've let us do, almost, like, 90 percent of what we want. It's pretty amazing. We'll feel pretty guilty if the show doesn't work.
AVC: So you don't have to get script approval?
BM: They're pretty involved in the script, but they've just given notes that we've agreed with, on the whole. We only re-shot one scene. They were really happy with the episodes that have come in. Yeah, they've helped us with the scripts, but generally, they were happy with what we were doing.
AVC: Was there anything they didn't want you to do?
BM: Some casting. They didn't like our choices. But that was it. Honestly, they were really small things in comparison to the time we spent on the show. For small roles, we'd suggest someone, and they weren't confident with that person. It's probably not really cool to give a name. And I think, to their credit, the casting's come out pretty well. So they might have been right. Sometimes their experience was useful to have. Jemaine and I haven't made a TV show, and James [Bobin] has made Da Ali G Show, but it wasn't a narrative show, so all three of us were kind of finding our way through the project.
AVC: Did you have any influences when it came to what you wanted the show to be like?
BM: The Monkees meet the monkeys. We didn't want a studio audience. We wanted it to kind of deal with surreal ideas in a very ordinary way, because that's kind of what we do onstage a lot. It was really all driven by the songs, actually. There wasn't as much creative freedom as you'd imagine, because the songs kind of drew lines as to what we could do, what the stories would do. Early on, we'd considered doing a variety show, kind of like Mr. Show? But we wanted to try doing half-hour stories. We wanted to try our acting, and hopefully we got better. Some of our acting—I can't really talk for Jemaine, but some of my acting was unreliable. I kept having to ask James whether he could read what my face was doing.
AVC: Well, your thing is kind of being deadpan…
BM: My acting's very understated. I think my sad and happy don't play that differently onscreen.
AVC: Do you still enjoy performing live?
BM: We haven't played in a really long time, so it'll be interesting getting onstage and trying to remember the songs. I'm concerned that the crowd might know us too well at this point. The YouTube people might be correcting us.
AVC: Do you ever have people sing along to your songs?
BM: The last time we played in New York, people started singing along. Last time we played was in December of last year, after the HBO One Night Stand had come out, and the audience was singing along—too much. It became a little bit of a classic hits concert. It was terrifying. If you get to see us, you won't believe it compared to the days no one knew us. And the strange thing is, the audience sings along, and they sing the jokes. It's not particularly funny any more, it's just like singing along. It's a new type of performance which we haven't really tried, so we'll have to figure out what to do with that. We'll try it out, and if it doesn't work, we'll just never play live again.
BM: Yeah, just disappear.
AVC: What's it like standing on the precipice of fame?
BM: It's curious. There's a lot of positive feedback about it, but you can't tell until it actually starts airing more. Apparently there was a similar hype about Cop Rock, when that was about to come out.
AVC: Do people keep comparing you to Cop Rock?
BM: I do. Executives early on did. Well, we'd bring it up, because we'd heard it was a musical. And then we'd see the fear in their eyes.