Flight of the Conchords at 10: Forget La La Land, the screen musical revival started here

Darren Richman
Monday 19 June 2017 09:37 BST
Will we ever see New Zealand’s fourth most popular guitar-based digi-bongo acapella-rap-funk-comedy duo collaborate on new material again?
Will we ever see New Zealand’s fourth most popular guitar-based digi-bongo acapella-rap-funk-comedy duo collaborate on new material again? (HBO)

Flight of the Conchords should never have worked. Everything about the idea seems so small that it’s almost impossible to believe we live in a timeline where a band that frequently referred to themselves as “New Zealand’s fourth most popular guitar-based digi-bongo acapella-rap-funk-comedy duo” could end up playing arenas.

Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement formed the duo in their homeland in 1998 and built up a loyal Antipodean following before performing at the Edinburgh festival in 2002 and 2003. The pair’s shows became favourites of other comedians appearing at the festival despite comedy songs historically having a pretty dismal reputation within the industry. What set the band apart is that theirs were actually really good.

A radio series, confusingly titled Flight of the Conchords, was broadcast on BBC Radio 2 in 2005. Rob Brydon narrated, while circuit favourites such as Daniel Kitson and Dan Antopolski popped up as guests to lend their friends a hand in a series that sounds like a prototype for the television series that followed. Better still, Crowded House’s Neil Finn (“The Paul McCartney of the North Island” according to Brydon) managed to save the day on a weekly basis. This would surely be as far as such an idiosyncratic act could go.

Ten years ago, Flight of the Conchords aired on HBO for the first time, an adaptation of the radio show that saw the struggling novelty band relocated from London to New York. James Bobin, the co-creator, writer and director, had seen the Conchords’ live show and immediately signed on. How would the downbeat, lo-fi whimsy of our heroes fare on the home of The Sopranos?

Much like the radio series, the cast was rounded out with circuit comedians, but this time New York-based acts like Todd Barry, Eugene Mirman and Kristen Schaal. The magnificent Rhys Darby returned as the band’s manager and, since his stand-up act showcased his array of different accents, legend has it he auditioned using a multitude of voices before the boys awkwardly asked if he might just use his own.

There is a story Larry David tells about the making of Seinfeld that illuminates a universal truth. The network executives were worried that Jerry and George might be too similar and asked the show’s co-creator to opt for more of a chalk and cheese approach. An incredulous David asked, “Why would I be friends with someone if they were nothing like me?” Very few shows have learned this lesson, but Flight of the Conchords did, and there’s a reason Bret and Jemaine will be cherished long after any number of generic network sitcom leads have been long forgotten.

The show has a gentle quality that clearly impressed someone at Disney since they astutely brought Bobin and McKenzie on board for The Muppets reboot. The pair seem at a slight angle to the universe, creating an off-kilter world of angry fruit vendors and New Zealand Town celebrations. They remain largely unflustered and, like characters in any good musical, only tend to become truly animated when bursting into song. Forget La La Land, the screen musical revival started here.

Having honed their craft for years in comedy clubs, the first series, in particular, is crammed full of songs that most “proper” bands would be delighted to have produced, setting aside the brilliance of the lyrics. From the pilot episode’s first song break, it was quite clear this was a different type of situation comedy: “And when you’re on the street, depending on the street, I bet you are definitely in the top three, good looking girls on the street.”

They said every kind of love song had been written. They were wrong.

In a sense, Flight of the Conchords was ahead of its time. The success of the original version of The Office saw an increasing number of mockumentaries with a hyper-realistic tone hit our screens and yet the magical realism of Bret and Jemaine’s antics ensure the audience is always aware this is a television programme and its sole aim is to entertain. The kind of songs and set pieces that make up the average episode have become commonplace on the internet but the series is more rewarding than any viral video because we are invested in these characters and care about their plight. The songs are the icing on the cake, not the main course.

The duo struggled to write new songs for the second series since they’d used up most of their material in series one. As a result, they called it a day after just 22 episodes, almost unprecedented for a popular American sitcom. McKenzie claimed in 2011 that efforts were being made to bring the comedy folk team to the big screen but HBO has stated that it has no such plans. Perhaps this is for the best and Flight of the Conchords can remain unsullied by the now obligatory disappointing film version of a beloved comedy series. That being said, it’s enough to make a fan well up at the prospect that the pair might never collaborate on new material again. Still, at least the excuses aren’t hard to concoct if one is caught in tears: “I’m not crying, it’s just been raining… on my face.”

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