Flight of the Conchords: not quite world famous, but much more than New Zealand’s 4th most popular folk parody duo. Tailing Bret and Jemaine to a secret in-store signing and performance at Wellington’s Aro Video (to coincide with the local release of FOTC on DVD), BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM witnessed their escalating cult firsthand.

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A MAN CAME to return his videos on the morning of the February 13th, 2008. Aro Video, that filmic oasis in the middle of bland chain stores, was a little different that day, something which he probably couldn’t put his finger on as he bulldozed his way through hundreds of people clogging up the tiny store, and past the hundreds more queuing outside. He handed his videos to the staff behind the counter, nonchalant, bemused, and walked back through the multitudes. If he had turned his head left, he would have seen New Zealand’s latest bandwagon, the Flight of the Conchords, performing their first show in two years in the country. Songs like ‘Inner City Pressure’. Of course, bandwagon has negative connotations for those who prefer their talent underappreciated, but the Conchords fully deserve their adoration.

But you’d be half-tempted to say New Zealand doesn’t deserve to bask in the Conchords’ recent success. Continually rejected by the New Zealand channels for funding (rumour has it, TV3 rejected them because their humour was “too Wellington” and that no-one would get them outside of the Capital), they went over to the BBC to do a killer radio show, and then onto HBO, the cable network that is part of the reason why TV is so good at the moment. But it’s a good thing they were rejected here in the first place – you only have to look at what played before Conchords on Prime, Welcome to Paradise, which is so bad it’s probably the worst thing in the world, to be grateful that no New Zealand production company got anywhere near it with their “commercial” models and whatnot. Of course, TV One and TV3 pissed around with the HBO show too, barely offering a reasonable price to pay for it. And now they rant on about it as if the Conchords are the greatest New Zealanders in history.

But of the show itself, is it any good? A bandwagon does not necessary equal quality. The Conchords were following up from their BBC Radio show, a brilliant piece of radio comedy. The seeds for the TV show are in their BBC work, including a dim-witted manager Brian Nesbitt (with an inspired use of Neil Finn), the struggles of Kiwis on the road, and surreal situations (involving things like bow and arrows, double beds and groping etc.). Narratives for the TV show got played out there too, like the fake record agent. The songs there however were simply them performing live, but they were restricted by the medium in which they were operating.

Flight of the Conchords, live at Aro Video. Image by Charles Mabbett.

The TV show allows for greater scope with their music, and this is one of the big successes of the show. It’s one of the things that make them unique, few shows have tried to incorporate the songs like the Conchords do to such an extent. Their music videos are genius – and for longtime fans it’s memorable to see songs that you would have seen on a Thursday night at Indigo for five dollars years ago, now complete with crazy videos attached to them. Some of the musical moments often making up for some of their weaker songs (‘She’s So Hot BOOM!’ for example, while not the funniest song, had a wonderful video complete with immigrant hoochie dancers), and they were able to use visual parodies to match their aural parodies (think ‘Inner City Pressure’ or ‘I’m Not Crying’) to great effect.

While McKenzie and Clement aren’t as surreally crazy as they were in the radio show, there are still flashes of it such as Bret’s helmet, or the camera-phone. Yet they’re more the straight men of the show, not the central point for comedy except when they sing. Rather, it’s the supporting characters around them who are the most memorable. You wouldn’t have really picked that one of the nicest, sweetest, most genuine characters on TV at the moment, the type of guy you want to be your Dad, Murray, to also be one of the funniest. And it’s a real masterstroke they pull off with Rhys Darby’s character (Darby also played Brian Nesbitt). He’s earnest, naďve, clueless, incompetent, forgiving, and so so good. And one of the more sinister characters on TV at the moment, the odd stalker Mel (Kristen Schaal), is also hilarious, particularly through the use of her deadpan facial expressions.

In fact, you could probably call Flight of the Conchords an excuse for deadpan performance. It matches the dull New Zealand accent perfectly, and there’s very little emotion shown except when the characters sing (or dance, as Bret does in the final episode with a Footloose homage). I’m trying to think whether there has been any other American TV show where the main stars get to keep their foreign accents. And while the stories aren’t really about anything, kind of the surreal, absurdist nature of Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm, they do allow for narrative digressions and one-off moments a-plenty. The set-ups are reasonably similar throughout – someone leaves the band/is kicked out, girl issues, the problems of being New Zealanders in New York – but leave enough wiggle room for the characters to make us laugh. There are also the little things, the posters in Murray’s office, the petty squabbling with the Australians, and the constant piss-taking of New Zealand (including Taika Waititi’s advertisement for the “telephone”), that you wonder how it has become such a cult hit in other countries. Flight of the Conchords is truly excellent, the type of TV show that probably wouldn’t have got made if a visionary American cable channel didn’t decide to take a punt, and in the process, made national heroes of two comedians back in a country whose funding bodies pretended they didn’t exist for years.