“Did anyone come to our show last year?” asks Jemaine Clement, one half of the Kiwi comedy duo Flight of the Conchords. Approximately five percent of the audience cheers. The rest of us sit on our hands. The response is a clear indication of how high the Conchords have soared. Since forming at college in their native New Zealand, the band has toured the traditional comedy circuits, recorded a radio show for the BBC, and starred in a hit HBO series. This, in turn, led to the release of a Grammy-award-winning EP. Now—a week after their self-titled, Sub Pop-released album debuted at number three on the Billboard charts—they are celebrating the start of their North American tour with a sold-out show at one of Philadelphia’s largest indoor theatres.
On the face of it, though, for a comedy act, Flight of the Conchords aren’t that hilarious. I’ve never laughed out loud while watching their show. Have I chuckled? Yes—on multiple occasions. Chortled? No. Yet, in my humble opinion, theirs is one of the best “comedy” shows on television. The HBO series follows the travails of two New Zealand musicians as they try to make it in New York City. In short, they don’t. But this constant underdog aspect is part of the pair’s charms. Not only when it comes to their stifled musical aspirations, but also within their myriad relationships: with the girls they meet; with their incompetent manager, Murray; with their landlord, played by Eugene Mirman (who opens this show with a routine of rote stand-up); and with their lone fan, Mel. There’s a serene sense of peace I get from watching them walking around Manhattan dressed as robots, or dancing away their pain. They make me laugh internally. They are comedy that calms.
5 May 2008: The Tower Theater Philadelphia, PA
Somehow, transplanted to the live environment, the duo becomes laugh-out-loud funny. Beyond the witty songs, many of which are taken directly from the show, there’s also their self-deprecating, deadpan banter, which contrasts with the confident tone of their tunes. And yes, if you’re wondering, I chortled—a lot.
While their career arc is easy to follow, describing Flight of the Conchords as a musical and comedic entity is not as simple. In their own words, they proclaim to be “New Zealand’s fourth most popular guitar-based digi-bongo a cappella-rap-funk-comedy folk duo.” Yet tonight, after just one song, they dismiss the duo aspect completely. “I’ll introduce you to the band,” states Jemaine, sitting next to his songwriting partner, Brett McKenzie. “Some people say we’re not a band. They say that we’re a duo,” he continues. “But we’re a band. You can have a one-man band and a three-man band, but two people -– that’s a duo? It doesn’t make sense. How many of you told your friends tonight you were going to watch a band?” We all cheer. Case closed.
It’s true: Flight of the Conchords is a band. Musically speaking (while there’s no “digi-bongo”), they do flit between a cappella, rap, and funk, but they also mine several other stylistic wells, with soul and the ‘70s being clear favorites. Bret even gives a shout-out to Philadelphia’s own Daryl Hall and John Oates. “They mean a lot to us,” he states in a deadpan fashion that makes you wonder how serious he’s being. The nature of their soul numbers ups the parodic aspect, especially on the awesome, faux-Barry White verses that populate the popular “Business Time” (“The next thing you know we’re in the bathroom brushing our teeth / That’s all part of it / That’s foreplay / Foreplay is very important in lovemaking / Then you go sort out the recycling / Which isn’t part of the foreplay / But it’s still very important,” croons Jemaine, in a deep timbre.)
Songs that shuck this approach for a different style often require careful listening. The opening “Inner City Life” is a case in point, in that it not only apes the Pet Shop Boys, it could actually be the Pet Shop Boys. The song starts out simply enough; atop of a drum machine the pair explains how city life can be so demanding. As it continues, though, the jokes become apparent, culminating with them stating (in their best Neil Tennant): “You don’t measure up to the expectation / When you’re unemployed there’s no vacation / No one cares, no one sympathizes / You just stay home and play synthesizers.” You can guess what happens next.
As with the TV show, how the twosome say something is often as important as what they are saying. It’s all in the accent (Bret is pronounced “Brit” while “yes” becomes “yis”), and the deadpan way in which everything nonchalantly drops out. Live, their act doesn’t come off as scripted and actually seems quite off the cuff. I’m sure they have a few prompts, in that certain songs send them down certain avenues in regards to in-between song banter, but for the most part, it all seems very natural.
“Can we call you Philly?” they ask after the first song, before changing it to the even less formal, Phil. Later on, Bret riffs about his imaginary kids, explaining that his wife can’t conceive, so they imagine their children instead. “Your wife’s not real, either,” interjects Jemaine. “Yeah,” sighs Bret, “the kids take after her.” After introducing a new song, Jemaine admits that it’s so new, he doesn’t even know it. A fact he backs up by reading the lyrics, lyrics that list the various ways in which ex-girlfriends broke up with him (“Mona, you told me you were in a coma”).
For all their humor, there are moments—whether intentional or not—that come across as subtle takes on social commentary. “Think About It” starts off stating “There’s children on the street using guns and knives / Taking drugs and each other’s lives,” yet it doesn’t take long for the comedy to kick in, with the pair ruminating on junkies with monkey diseases. On a similar note, during their final song, a tender, heart-wrenching ballad called “I’m Not Crying,” amid the humorous asides (“I’m not crying / It’s just been raining on my face”) they throw out a line that manages to traverse comedy and relationship woes, asking: “How come we have reached this fork in the road, but it cuts like a knife?”
What’s most striking, though, is that two guys, sitting on stools, with only a handful of instruments and no backdrops or accompanying videos, can keep a crowd captivated for so long. Especially a crowd as varied as the one in attendance—young couples sit beside families, while pensioners prove they get it as much as the finely-coiffed hipsters do. Obviously, there is a weird juxtaposition in seeing a band who on TV play to no one, play to such a large and enraptured crowd. Then again, Flight of the Conchords aren’t your normal, everyday band. They’re the kind of band who can rhyme “cab” with “kebab” without making us cringe, and drop the word “wanker” into a verse without it sounding coarse. They’re the kind of band whose songs can contain wordless raps and binary solos. And they are the kind of band who can unintentionally contradict the PG-rated “Mutha Uckas” by stopping halfway through for Bret to state, unapologetically: “Oh, I fucked that up.” Ultimately, they are the kind of band who can play to one fan or one thousand, and still—to steal one of their song titles—rock the party.