Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement own the stage, but Flight Of The Conchords fans know that their manager, Murray (Rhys Darby), makes it all tick. Whether he's hyping New Zealand ("like Scotland, but further") or booking the hapless duo into hopeless gigs, he clings to the belief that organization trumps ineptitude: Every band meeting has a roll call and an agenda, no matter how few people or items are involved. Murray could easily be the butt of the joke, but Darby makes his dogged incompetence seem valiant rather than deluded. Darby took some time off from filming the show's second season for a chat in his dressing room, with an Air New Zealand pen close at hand.
The A.V. Club: You've been with Bret and Jemaine longer than anyone, haven't you?
Rhys Darby: Yeah, I've known them for I guess about 10 years. We hooked up in Edinburgh when we individually went to do the Fringe Festival over there, and we were the only Kiwi acts performing. We kind of bundled together and helped each other out. I did their flyering, and Bret did my lighting. So when they got approached to do the BBC radio show, they asked me to play the role of the manager, and we just kind of flippantly did it. Made it up on the day, with a tape recorder much like this setup. "Go!" "All right, band meeting, um…" I just did the roll call right off the bat. And the rest is history.
AVC: How did you go about transferring the character to TV?
RD: That was the big issue. It's okay for them to be seen, but how was I going to be portrayed? The manager was an unseen entity at the beginning, and we thought it should maybe be an older person. But we found right from the radio series that we connected and improvised really well as a threesome. So it was a sort of no-brainer for me to come in and play the same part on the television side of things. We kept that same vibe of the characters, obviously, those three main characters, and then we just colored in the world around them.
AVC: The show seemed destined for cult status. Did you expect that?
RD: We knew that was going to be the case, but we didn't know how big a cult it was going to be. We should have had an idea from the beginning. The Conchords already had like 20,000 friends online before the series even went out, so they already had a big buildup of people that knew about it. And of course they told millions of others, and then now there's a sort of tsunami—cult fans have pushed it into this thing where, bang, they've got to have another season, we've got to keep this thing going for the fans. But even now, there are people who haven't seen it, or "I've heard of that." And of course if you don't have HBO, or you haven't heard of buying a DVD, or haven't got the Internet, then you wouldn't have come across us. But it's getting scarcer now to find someone who doesn't know the show.
AVC: Pretty much all the people you'd think would have heard of the show, have.
RD: I think you can sum it up with, if you're into comedy, you will know what the show is about. We have so many comedy geeks, comedy enthusiasts, fanatical people who go to comedy festivals and follow comedians, and really treat it like rock 'n' roll—which it can be, but more like the geeky rock 'n' roll. And that's great, because that's the world I've lived in, even before I started doing comedy. I feel like I've made it to this really important position within my peer group. It's been awesome.
AVC: It's a great character.
RD: I had no idea it was going to be so popular when it came out. I thought, "People aren't going to like my character, because he's so different. If they're really into these cool-looking idiots, they're not going to like this other idiot who kind of gets in their way and is always uptight and has his little lists." I guess because it's the opposite side of the seesaw, it just fits in perfectly. He is kind of like their father figure. They're kind of lost without him, and he's definitely lost without them.
Murray's got a good heart. It's not about trying to get money for these guys. The best part of his day is when they come in and he tries to connect with the cool gang. He tries to get them gigs, but he mentions sometimes, "It's not about that! It's about the look!" And I think deep down, the characters never really expect to make it. They're young and looking for hot chicks and that sort of stuff. It's weird, because they don't drink—they always have water. It's all about details and things you don't expect. It's about being comfortable in your skin.
AVC: There is a sort of gentleness to the way he's portrayed. Clearly Murray is a figure of fun, but the show isn't mocking him the way it could be.
RD: Yeah, absolutely. He's not as mocked as he could be. Bret and Jemaine would obviously mock him if they were very cool, but they don't, because they look up to him. It's that New Zealand thing that binds them together. I like to think of them as a very cool belt, with nice little features on it, maybe some designs of cowboys on it. I'm the buckle. A very boring buckle. Imagine that in the middle. You see this really cool belt, and you're like, "Wow!" and then you look at the buckle, "Ah… I would've gone for a little different buckle." But it's such a good buckle to hold it together!
AVC: The first season was already pretty fully formed, but are there things you wanted to do differently this time around?
RD: They unfortunately ran out of songs, and they had to write 20 new ones. So therefore they could write the songs to fit in the episodes, and not the other way around. That gave them the advantage of coming up with any story they wanted to. The first series, in a way, was difficult because of that. That's why all the episodes are quite similar: getting with girls, blah blah blah. The songs were about getting with girls, so they had to fit it in. This time around, they're able to go off on slightly different tangents and just put songs in. So that's been simple—it's been easier. Certainly not simple, writing 20 new songs and keeping it the same caliber as the others has certainly been difficult.
AVC: They're going through an album's worth of songs in three to four episodes.
RD: Absolutely. You've got your difficult-second-album syndrome along with your difficult-second-season syndrome. So you've got to work on your things that obviously work, which are the band meetings and the getting lost, being confused, fish-out-of-water scenarios. People don't want anything too different. I think what they really want is 20 brilliant new songs, and then stuff in between them that's similar to what happened last time, but maybe in different settings. You've got the apartment, you've got the office, you've got Dave's shop, and then you've got out on the streets of Manhattan or whatever. And Mel and Doug popping up. And as soon as you go, "Right, let's take it out of this and go to Hawaii," you start to go into one of those TV shows where you go "Now look at them, they've gone to London for the weekend." Those episodes of shows never seem to work as well. This is all about absolutely absurd situations that fit in a weird world, so it almost looks normal, and we just act it out very realistically, so there's no punchline. We play it out like "This is real." I guess people can believe it because we're from New Zealand, and they assume that's how we really are, that's how we act and what our country's like.
AVC: In the U.S., people talk about how many great comedians come from Canada because they're in America's shadow, and some people consider that sense of inferiority something that helps breed a better comic. Do you feel there's anything comparable to that the relationship between New Zealand and Australia?
RD: Yeah, we're lumped together because we're from that part of the world. We have similar accents and cultures, but there's a very distinct difference to us and them. It's distinct, but if you're from one of these big countries, you can't see it. So our mission in life is to show people the ever-so-slight difference we have between our two places. That's a big part of the show. "We're from New Zealand! It's quite a way from Australia! We're the one with rivers and gullies and hobbits and toothbrush fences! We've got interesting things." It's funny, because we take it quite seriously, and when we come abroad, we say "Oh my God, why do we take those toothbrush fences so seriously?"
AVC: Have you gotten to do anything particularly noteworthy in the new season?
RD: I've done some dancing. I was quite impressed with being able to learn choreographed dance moves. A little more singing. Last season, Murray was always behind a desk or in a car, never moving around and not very physical. This year, I run at one point. There's a slapstick scene I do. Murray's not so much stuck behind a desk this year—although many of the best scenes are him just stuck behind a desk, talking bollocks.
AVC: Are those largely improvised?
RD: There's a scripted version of what we want for the band meetings, so we do one like that and then let it roll, and just improvise. It's kind of an organic process. But most of it is improvised, yes.
AVC: So is there more improvisation in those scenes than with other one-episode guest actors?
RD: We try to get actors that are okay with improvisation. A lot of the comic ones enjoy it. We let them know, "This is the scene, and if you want to add more, go ahead."
AVC: One big thing that makes the musical sequences work is that there's a delicate semi-competence to them. They seem like they're meant to look like they're made for $1.50.
RD: That first season, we had a very limited budget, and there's a homemade feel to a lot of the music videos. It fits in with the lowbrow look of the show, and it fits in with the musician scenario and the boring government job Murray holds and the horrible autumn colors he wears. This time around, we got a lot more money, and we put a lot of that into the music videos. I think they'll still have a similar look, but we can put more money toward props.