Are these guys joking? Usually. But Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie, long billed as ”New Zealand’s fourth-most-popular folk-parody duo,” are serious about conquering America. Though each of the Kiwi natives has film credits of his own — Clement, 33, stars in the quirky love story Eagle vs Shark (opening this weekend; see EW review) while 31-year-old Mackenzie’s role as an eye-catching elf in 2003’s Lord of the Rings: Return of the King had online admirers calling him ”Figwit” (”Frodo Is Great — Who Is That?”) — the two-man band is ready for TV stardom.
The onetime college roommates portray New York newcomers who are clueless about cracking the music scene in the new HBO comedy series they co-created, Flight of the Conchords (debuts Sunday, June 17, at 9:30 p.m.). Building on an international following of fans who love their droll lyrics and deadpan delivery, they’ll play Bonnaroo June 16-17 and record a new CD in July. Clement and McKenzie spoke to EW about dayjobs, girlfriends, and Daryl Hall.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Describe your new HBO series.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: There are a lot of difficult situations that lead to awkwardness. We usually have one big awkward scene every show. I wouldn’t say it’s exactly like The Office or Curb Your Enthusiasm, where it’s all awkward, all the way. But there’s always some element of that.
BRET MCKENZIE: It’s a difficult thing to describe. It’s a musical comedy. Something like Curb Your Enthusiasm crossed with The Monkees.
CLEMENT: Trying to describe it, we always fail to do it in a very appetizing way.
Would it be accurate to call it semi-improvised?
MCKENZIE: We write full scripts, so we have a structure, and we improvise off that. Looking at the edits, I’d say there are large portions of improvised stuff. You can see the life in the takes when it’s improvised. It’s quite clear — there are moments that seem too unexpected to be scripted.
In one episode, Bret calls home to New Zealand from New York and mentions he’s not carrying a gun. Was that based on a myth New Zealanders have about us?
MCKENZIE: I guess so…. But doesn’t everyone have a gun here?
CLEMENT: I had a guy from New Zealand stay on my couch who was almost terrified to go outside, based on movies that he saw in the ’80s. He’s realizing now that it’s fine. It’s America’s own fault, though. That’s the way it portrays itself.
MCKENZIE: Star Wars really made it confusing.
CLEMENT: That’s not set in America.
MCKENZIE: Oh, right. Well I, actually, I expected the Ewoks to be here. I was really disappointed.
Your characters room together — how much did your days as roommates inform those scenes?
CLEMENT: We didn’t literally live in the same room, like on the series.
MCKENZIE: The show is mainly influenced by our experiences touring and performing as a band.
CLEMENT: Actually, when we’d first come to the States and do shows, we’d share a hotel room. We wouldn’t now. We wouldn’t be able to take it, because we spend so much time together filming and writing.
MCKENZIE: We’ve traveled to Europe, we’ve played Edinburgh a lot, [but for the series] we’ve drawn a lot on the days when we were drawing crowds of five people. Our desperate years.
CLEMENT: We both had pretty bad jobs when we were roommates. You saw the episode where Bret has to hold a sign? Well, he once had a job where he had to dress up as a boat. Like a tugboat, and give out fliers for rides on the boat. I haven’t done anything as embarrassing as that.
What made you decide to form a musical duo?
MCKENZIE: We started the band in 1998. I was a musician. Jemaine wasn’t. We were students, and we wanted to learn how to play guitar, so we started writing songs, ’cause we weren’t capable of playing other people’s songs.
CLEMENT: We were both sick of doing auditions for crappy American TV movies and for TV shows in New Zealand, and we’d never get them, or the parts would never suit us. And I remember, we had a big discussion: ”Oh, let’s do a band, then.” We made up a few songs. And we just kept doing it.
MCKENZIE: Most of our early songs are based on one chord. As the years have gone on, now we’re up to seven chords.
And why did you name yourselves ”Flight of the Conchords”?
MCKENZIE: There isn’t really a good story. Other than…we shared…a dream. A vision. [Laughs] Jemaine’s explanation will be completely different.
CLEMENT: It was just, like, a last-minute thing. We had a gig and we didn’t have a name. We had to come up with something quickly. We were considering ”Tanfastic.” Which is the name of a suntan lotion.
NEXT PAGE: ”We have different tastes in comedy. But they generally align. And I think we have different skills…Jemaine’s grumpy, and I’m moody.”
Do you miss New Zealand?
JEMAINE CLEMENT: I miss the city Bret and I live in, Wellington. It’s a good place to be creative, in the same way New York is.
BRET MCKENZIE: I definitely miss New Zealand. Mainly friends and family. [Wellington] is a very small town. It’s strange, though — that small town quality is actually kind of similar to the East Village. New York has small towns within it, I think.
CLEMENT: We’re sort of in a group of people back home — Taika Waititi, who directed and wrote Eagle vs Shark, is one, and me and Bret and a couple other guys…. There are [artistic cliques] like that here.
Jemaine, didn’t you film most of Eagle vs Shark in Wellington?
CLEMENT: Yeah, I loved doing that.
CLEMENT: I enjoyed not having that responsibility of having written [Eagle vs Shark]. I just didn’t have to worry about that part of it. And my character Jarrod — I like the guy. It was like playing someone playing a character. He’s acting all the time. I like to think of him as a really nice guy who just got beaten up so much that he learned not to act nice. Even though he was. Some people who’ve seen it are like, ”That guy is such a jerk! Why does Lily like him?” But I like to imagine that underneath, he’s not a jerk.
What’s the key to your partnership? Are you two opposites?
CLEMENT: I don’t know if we’re opposites. We like the same music: Parliament. Stevie Wonder. Wings.
MCKENZIE: Leonard Cohen. Cat Stevens. Beck. Neil and Tim Finn. Crowded House, right, has Neil Finn and Tim Finn in it? Neil Finn’s kind of the Paul McCartney of New Zealand. Part of being a New Zealander is liking [his] music.
CLEMENT: Like part of being an American is liking Bruce Springsteen.
MCKENZIE: We have different tastes in comedy. But they generally align. And I think we have different skills…Jemaine’s grumpy, and I’m moody.
Really. How else might we be able to tell you apart?
MCKENZIE: I’m easy to get along with, and intolerant.
CLEMENT: Unlike me, you mean.
MCKENZIE: Jemaine’s very tolerant but difficult to get along with.
CLEMENT: Yeah, they don’t get along with me, but I get along with other people.
Looking back at the FotC shoot, are there scenes you particularly enjoyed?
MCKENZIE: One of my favorites is when I get to throw a peanut butter sandwich in Jemaine’s face.
CLEMENT: He did enjoy that! Definitely. He put a lot into that. [I liked] a scene where our characters were peer-pressured into taking acid. Two new fans think we’re really rock-and-roll, so we try to act more rock-and-roll in front of them. We go into a psychedelic song, running around the forest in Beatles clothes…. Bret was so excited the other day [when] we had a cameo by Daryl Hall. And he was really good. A natural actor.
MCKENZIE: That was a seminal moment of my life. I never thought I’d actually get to meet Hall from Hall and Oates. He was very personable. He was really into the comedy of the scene and played it really well.
CLEMENT: We’re Hall and Oates fans. We always wanted our apartment on the show decorated with their posters, but weren’t allowed to [due to] copyright stuff.
NEXT PAGE: ”I think once the show’s on TV, yeah, we could become — what do you call them? — mascots for New Zealand. Which is quite concerning, because we portray New Zealanders as total idiots.”
Your supporting cast is strong. Do any of them really crack you up?
JEMAINE CLEMENT: Kristin Schaal, who plays the fan…Our friend Arj Barker, who plays Dave. He’s one of my favorite standups…I really love working with Rhys Darby — he plays our manager. I always laugh doing scenes with him.
He had a line, ”Girlfriends and bands don’t mix.” Meanwhile, your characters are all about the ladies. Is that art imitating life? Have you been doing the whole dating-in-New York thing?
CLEMENT: We’ve imported our New Zealand girlfriends here. They love it. They’re not allowed to work. They don’t have work permits. I think that would be great, if I could be in a city and wasn’t even allowed to work. It’s a good city to do that. And we’re lucky — we’ve got jobs so we can look after them here.
Ever sense, after being so well-received abroad, anything is lost in translation when you perform for American audiences?
CLEMENT: I think there’s something gained. Because, you know, we’re quite low energy. And that’s unusual here. I mean, some American comedians, like Stephen Wright, are deadpan. But usually people are running on stage with their hands up in the air. And we just…sit there. I think people find that funny, that we’re not shouting. There’s something funny about being on a big stage and not making a big effort to fill it up. We try to entertain people with our little songs and small gestures.
Do you sometimes feel like ambassadors for your country?
BRET MCKENZIE: I think once the show’s on TV, yeah, we could become — what do you call them? — mascots for New Zealand. Which is quite concerning, because we portray New Zealanders as total idiots. At the moment, they’re proud of our success — we’re on the news every few weeks — but they don’t know how stupid we’re gonna make them look. When you think of famous New Zealanders, there aren’t many. There’s Crowded House. The guy who sang ”How Bizarre.” Edmund Hillary. He climbed Mount Everest. Some people have heard of him. Peter Jackson. And if our show’s a success, Bret and Jemaine.
Speaking of Peter Jackson and his trilogy, Bret, you flirted with worldwide fame after one tiny role made you a Middle-Earth heartthrob. Did you love or hate that?
MCKENZIE: I was very concerned that I would be forever known as the guy who was the elf. But now it looks like I’ll be known as the musical comedy guy. Which is good news for me. Or I’ll be known as the New Zealand idiot.