HBO’s new comedy series, Flight of the Conchords, which follows the exploits of ”New Zealand’s fourth most popular folk parody duo,” is a simple bit of joy. Underacted, underproduced, understated, and underground in tone, Conchords features writer-actors Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement playing dimmer (one hopes) versions of themselves, as they attempt to break into the New York music scene. Bret and Jemaine have self-centered souls, childlike reasoning skills, and songs about diseased monkeys. They’ve acquired one obsessed fan, Mel (Human Giant‘s Kristen Schaal), and a semicompetent manager, Murray (Rhys Darby), who also happens to work at New Zealand’s consulate. On Murray’s wall is a tourism poster for his home country that reads: Don’t Expect Too Much — You Will Love It. It could be a theme for Conchords, which isn’t trying to be edgy comedy: There are no big sociopolitical statements here, no guerilla-style confrontations, no scenes of squirmy awkwardness, no multilayered pop culture references. It’s just a very smart, very funny show. The series — spawned by HBO after the duo’s hilarious 2005 One Night Stand ”concert” — has the chilly aesthetics of a Wes Anderson movie and the oddball hangers-on of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (the freakishly doting Mel could be Dotty’s cousin). Perhaps what Conchords most closely resembles is the now-defunct Comedy Central series Stella, with its three men-children inhabiting their own strange world, giving the occasional wink at the camera.
In this case, the winks come in the form of impromptu songs, filmed like cheap ’80s videos and packed with perfectly ridiculous lyrics. When Jemaine meets a girl at a party, he croons: ”You’re so beautiful/Like a tree, or a high-class prostitute/You could be a part-time model/But you’d probably still have to keep your normal job.” The songs are catchy, and lined with slippery lyrics that will make you rewind. Executive-produced by James Bobin (Da Ali G Show) and Troy Miller (Mr. Show), Conchords is roomily written, with a sketch-show feel. In one episode, Bret becomes fixated on making a helmet that looks like hair; in another Jemaine gets dumped and swears he’s emotionless: ”I’m not crying, it’s just been raining…on my face.” Throughout, the two actors maintain a dry naïveté which works especially well when the show prods at the stereotype of well-mannered New Zealanders. Even Jemaine’s rap persona, Hiphopopotamus, keeps his lyrics clean and helpful: ”I’m not a large, water-dwelling mammal,” he explains in one rhyme. Conchords is a weird, low-high-concept series. It’s comedy that’s actually pleasant, which is a blessed change of pace.