Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement were mates from Victoria University in Wellington, first meeting in a 1996 theatrical production. Two years later they formed a four-piece band called Moustache. (For trivia buffs, the other two members were Toby Laing and Tim Jaray.) Like all great comedy duos, they brought different skills to their stage partnership. Clement, with a natural gift for comic timing and inflection, appeared in the Gibson Group’s mid-90s television comedy Skitz and went to the Edinburgh Festival in 1998 with Taika Waititi in a show called Humourbeasts.
McKenzie, the musician, would spend time away from the Conchords with The Black Seeds, release an album as Video Boy, and play with the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra.
The duo built their song catalogue and honed their stage lethargy to perfection over a couple of years in front of Wellington audiences and at international fringe and arts festivals. (On their return to the capital from an overseas trip, when a comedy night line-up at the San Francisco Bath House was hastily rearranged to accommodate McKenzie and Clement, one bumped comedian was heard to enviously utter, “Those f****** songs!”)
The Conchords self-released their 14-song debut album in 2002. Folk the World Tour was recorded at Wellington’s Bats Theatre and Auckland’s The Classic comedy venue, and contained an early versions of ‘Bowie’, a fan homage humorously confusing the singer with the song as Bret ponders how “you freaky old bastard Bowie” enjoyed space travel. Other songs to appear on later recordings were ‘Petrov, Yeylena and Me’, ‘K.I.S.S.I.N.G’ (later known as ‘A Kiss is Not a Contract’) and ‘Something Special for the Ladies’ (retitled ‘Ladies of the World’). Catching the wave of Lord of the Rings fever, with its insider Wellington jokes, was the dramatic ‘Frodo, Don’t Wear the Ring’.
One comedian was heard to enviously utter, “Those f****** songs!”
In 2003, the Conchords were nominated for the auspicious Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the following year were voted Best Newcomer(s) at the Melbourne Comedy Festival.
Briefly home in October 2003 – between seasons in Edinburgh and London – the duo fulfilled a promise to “folk it up” with their High on Folk show at Wellington’s Downstage theatre. Reviewing High on Folk, John Smythe of the NBR wrote that “their superb musicality, vocal agility, sound-fx skills and comic timing generate a subterranean shimmer, sparkles of wit and flashes of brilliance. Need I add the Conchords are very ‘now’ in a retro-fashion kind of way. They are not, nor have they ever been, wearers of natural wool vests, crocheted berets or macramé guitar straps.
“Their hometown following is such that old favourites are enthusiastically demanded. On opening night we got ‘Checking Out the Hotties on Cuba’ and the lost Lord of the Rings theme song, ‘Frodo Don’t Wear the Ring’.”
Although a proposed Conchords television series was turned down by TVNZ, it was obvious that the act was about to go global, and it was only a matter of time before mass media projects appeared. The first to come to fruition was from BBC Light Entertainment who commissioned a six-part radio show. First aired in September 2005, it followed the Conchords, billed as “New Zealand’s fourth-best folk guitar-based jazz, techno, hip-hop duo”, trying to break into the music scene in England. Their manager, Brian (played by Rhys Darby), made regular calls to Neil Finn, who played a perpetually patient mentor giving advice on how to succeed in the music industry.
That show was transplanted to American television with the backing of cable and satellite channel HBO, which had first featured the duo in a One Night Stand showcase. Touted as “A new comedy series that makes love to your ears”, it premiered in June 2007.
Around the time the American shows were in post-production, Darby told me that the radio series had been great fun to make as they improvised their way around London landmarks recording onto mini-disc. The American programmes lost some of that spontaneity due to the producers “getting” or “not getting” the laconic New Zealand humour.
Signed to Sub Pop thanks to the scouting efforts of the record label’s “International Talent-Hound Department”, the opening track of The Distant Future EP is the brilliant ‘Business Time’ which turns suggestive soul into the boring domestic reality of recycling, after work sports teams and teeth-brushing (“a-sheeka-sheeka”). Can you imagine Isaac Hayes or Barry White ever saying, “I remove my clothes very, very clumsily”? (There are even hints of the spoken verses in New Order’s ‘Fine Time’ from their 1989 album Technique.)
Second track, ‘If You’re Into It’, is quirky, quick word play followed by the disguised heartbreak of ‘I’m Not Crying’, reversing songs such as Godley and Creme’s ‘Cry’: “I’m not crying / I’m just cutting onions / I’m making lasagne.”
The last three songs were recorded live at the (short-lived) Comix stand-up comedy venue in New York. In an age of excited and exaggerated praise, ‘The Most Beautiful Girl in the Room’ harks back to New Zealand musical comedy of the 1950s which captured social awkwardness and the inability of Kiwi blokes to give compliments: “You’re so beautiful / you could be a waitress.” It also harpoons the saccharine awfulness of songs such as James Blunt’s ‘You’re Beautiful’.
‘Banter’ is exactly what it says on the label: Bret and Jemaine japing between songs, though it suffers slightly from a pile of sheep puns.
The superb final track, ‘Robots’, with its B-movie science fiction prophesies (and hints of Radiohead’s ‘Fitter Happier’ from OK Computer) includes a wonderful imitation of Stephen Hawking’s computer-generated voice.
Upon release, Rolling Stone magazine dismissed the EP as “a souvenir of the show” and being “hard to imagine wanting to play it over and over”. Many critics preferred the non-musical segments of the TV series. Conversely, television reviewers, such as those for Variety and The New York Times, preferred the songs to the storylines. Variety went so far as to call it “a snooze until the music starts”. Reviewers almost unanimously mentioned lyrics from ‘The Most Beautiful Girl in the Room’.
in 2008 Flight of the Conchords became the first non-American act to win Comedy Grammy.
Then, in February 2008, Flight of the Conchords became the first non-American act to win Comedy Grammy. They achieved something legends of comedy such as Jackie Mason, The Smothers Brothers, Mort Sahl, Dick Gregory, National Lampoon and Dennis Miller had not. It was also the first comedy Grammy for Sub Pop. (New Zealand media at the time didn’t give the Conchords’ success the praise it deserved.)
Grammy winners are decided by 18,000 music industry voting members. To cast a vote one must be “professional with creative or technical credits on six commercially released tracks (or equivalent)”. Thus, the voters range from hard-rock singers to classical arrangers, studio engineers to conductors. This was in the Conchords’ favour. Their musical send-ups were literate and conversant in the styles and lyricism of the broader music canon. This was a progression from earlier Grammy winning send-ups by the likes of Americans Allan Sherman and Weird Al Yankovic. It also separated them from thousands of guitar-toting comedians offering lame love-gone-wrong songs and rewrites of hits and standards in comedy venues around the world simply by changing a word or two.
The Conchords’ self-titled follow-up album, released in April 2008, contained 15 songs from their first HBO series. It too was nominated for a Grammy but lost to George Carlin’s It’s Bad for Ya, which was awarded posthumously. While the Conchords’ album contained ‘Robots’, ‘Most Beautiful Girl’ and ‘Business Time’, ‘Inner City Pressure’ was a wonderful spoof of Pet Shop Boys pop with Bret perfectly imitating Neil Tennant’s enunciation. The very popular ‘Hiphopopotamus vs. Rhymenoceros’ is a Milligan-esque rap battle.
Uncut’s four-star review concluded with, “The LP serves as a reminder that ‘funny’ and ‘funky’ are only one character apart.”
NME also scored the LP four stars saying, “It’s got flaws, definitely, with the inclusion of a few too many lady-loving ballads ... But in the land of comedy records anyone who can sustain interest, let alone laughter, for nearly 42 minutes, is king. Somehow, even after you know all the punchlines, the tunes are solid enough to still bear pressing ‘repeat’.”
British music magazine Mojo compiled a 20th anniversary CD of Sub Pop acts in June 2008. There amidst the grunge legends such as Green River, Mudhoney and Tad were Flight of the Conchords with ‘Bowie’.
In 2009 came I Told You I Was Freaky, which featured 13 songs from the second HBO series. It’s an album that swings wildly between Gallic crooning, R&B and rap. ‘Sugalumps’ is a laugh-out-loud song about male genitalia: “All these b***** checking out my britches / put em’ in a trance, when I wear track pants”.
The difficulty with presenting funny songs in an album format is that the listener can swing between judging them as simply as comedy (funny), music (catchy, tuneful) or musical comedy. A dozen music send-ups can be listened to one after the other because they stick to the original melody of a famous, familiar song and add humorous lyrics over the top. But original musical comedy songs are often best appreciated when there is other content between them. So they tend to be used sparingly as part of a stand-up show, given long introductions if a show is mostly music or packed in between sketch material on an album. The Conchords’ tracks are in a variety of musical styles so naturally some are considered funnier than others. The truly hilarious songs can stand alone as album tracks. For those considered not as funny there is a sense of something missing; the storylines that build up to their appearance in the television series. But that is probably more to do with television and music executives than Bret and Jemaine.
The great English comedian Tommy Cooper based his act around performing magic tricks that constantly failed. He could do that convincingly because he was a great magician, a member of the Magic Circle, no less. Knowing how to do the trick made him more able to ruin it. Similarly, what made the Conchords a class above was that as skilled comedians, clever musicians and fans of music they were able to deconstruct a musical style and put it back together so it sounded authentic. Crucially, the lyrics spluttered along with their comic personas’ attempts at oneupmanship and misinterpretations of what it meant to be cool, funky or hip. They will deservedly always have that Grammy to show for it.
For Bret McKenzie, more musical success came in 2012 when he won an Academy Award for the best original song in a film. The song ‘Man or Muppet’ was one of four he contributed to the 2011 feature The Muppets. McKenzie was music supervisor on the film, and its 2014 sequel, Man or Muppet.
Seven years after their HBO series finished, The Flight of the Conchords made a major tour of the United States. The six-week Flight of the Conchords Sing Flight of the Conchords tour included a headlining slot at the 2016 Newport Folk Festival.
Flight of the Conchords
Jemaine Clement - vocals
Bret McKenzie - vocals