“Something to Do with Gravitational Fields”: An Interview with Rhys Darby

Rhys Darby has a small legacy of his own, ranging from his roles in Flight of the Conchords to How I Met Your Mother to his outrageously theatrical standup, as well.

“The point of this exercise was to break me. The corporal who had organised this believed I would shudder with fear and be embarrassed in front of my peers. What a dick! He really didn’t know me at all. I leapt at this opportunity. This was a chance for me to shine!”

– Rhys Darby This Way to Spaceship

“Hot sauce,” “feed the chicken,” and “band meeting” are just a few of the phrases you wish you could hear Rhys Darby say more often. The latter may be the best known, but catch one of the comedian’s stand up shows and you’ll see him pantomiming the moves for the dance he’s dubbed “feed the chicken”. Unfortunately, the first phrase is from a UK show that never got off the ground, The Amazing Dermot — the pilot leaked online and while it’s a bit unpolished, Darby’s failed magician character is fantastic. But it hardly matters what actual words Darby uses, you’ll be tickled by his nasally comic, New Zealand intonation.

Darby was recently in New York to do some stand-up shows as part of the NY Comedy Festival and we had a chance to speak with him the day after he made an appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman. In our conversation, Darby never specifically named the HBO TV show most readers would best recognize him from (that’s Flight of the Conchords for those who didn’t know). But even excluding that, there is much to discuss with the hard-working Kiwi.

After making his Hollywood silver-screen debut in Yes Man alongside Jim Carrey, Darby has made a smattering of appearances in films and in television. He continues to fine-tune his stand-up routines in Edinburgh and to cultivate his own projects in New Zealand and in Los Angeles. His two comedy specials, It’s Rhys Darby Night! and This way to Spaceship are both available on iTunes. He recently finished production on a mockumentary he developed called Short Poppies. He continues to correspond with his mother via public letters and produce a podcast called The Cryptid Factor. Plus he just released an autobiography-cum-survival manual, also titled This Way to Spaceship just like the special.

Maybe you’d prefer to hear Darby talk about all of his projects – but unfortunately you’ll just have to read our interview.

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Welcome to New York. Last night you had your first shows here in four years as part of the New York Comedy Festival. Has their banner over your name increased your exposure?

Oh yeah. I didn’t even know I was gonna be part of that. I organized to do these shows a while back and they just fell into the Comedy Festival banner which has worked out really well for me. I’m always surprised when there are people in the crowd ’cause I just never know. I think of myself as an underground name. Quite a cult comic. But if anywhere is gonna fill-out it should be New York considering what I did in the past with that TV show. I was really happy with last night’s audiences and we’ll just have to see how we go tonight.

Last night at your 8:30 show, someone broke a glass. What’s the biggest disruption during a show you’ve had.

I generally don’t really get disruptions because I mostly play sort-of-theaters. It’s always different when you play comedy clubs because something will go wrong. There will be a heckler or there will be someone drunk or a smashed glass or something like that. But in general there hasn’t been anything.

So no hecklers?

I don’t generally get hecklers. Last night in the second show I got a couple of people yelling out “ginger balls” as soon as I hit the stage. I dealt with that. I thought there might have been a bit more disruption but there wasn’t. It’s difficult because I was thinking, tonight, it’s quite late these shows. The style I do, as you can see, is theatrical stand-up. So I dance around the stage and portray different characters and things. A lot of people that turn up to a late night comedy show, I think tonight, the last show, I won’t even be on the stage till half-past midnight. You’re gonna get some pretty drunk people coming in there. If they don’t know what they are expecting, they’re expecting jokes or whatever, I don’t know how they are gonna react to me dancing around doing horse impressions.

It’s not made for late-night revelers. It’s a sit-down, kind of take it in and enjoy. Have your wits about you and not be in the middle of a stag party [laughs]. Hopefully I won’t get any disruptions tonight. If I do, I would like to think they get kicked out. I would never normally do three shows in a row but whoever organized this, they even didn’t ask me. It’s exhausting. Like I was saying to you before, I do one show and I get a lot of energy from that and I go “Okay, I’m gonna do another one.” Then after the second one, I’m just pretty knackered.

But you do Edinburgh Fringe Festival for a month at a time. Is that one show a night? Do you vary it? Are you testing out material?

Yeah one a night in Edinburgh. It’s a fixed show that I do like that show last night. But it would be slightly bigger. I have a set. I’d be in a bigger room, it would be a theater. I do the same show every night. It’s a fixed show that I’ve written. By the time I get to the Edinburgh Fringe, I would have worked it on the road and got it down to exactly what I wanted. Generally on the road I would probably have more time, like an hour and a half or something, but once you get to Edinburgh, you’ve really got an hour or 55 minutes so you have to tighten it down. I do it every night but I’ve done the festival about eight times now. Last year was the biggest time I did it. I did this show for a whole month. It was full on. If I go next year, I will cut it down to maybe ten nights which I did previously and is much more manageable. Doing 28 shows is a lot. But I was in a big room and they all came. It worked out well.

Do you find there is a better audience for your stand-up in Europe or in the UK?

I started out there. They certainly all turn up. But I think it would be the same here but I haven’t really done theaters here. I think it’s something I do next year. At the moment, this year, I’m only dabbling in the comedy clubs and seeing who turns up. And they are turning up. So what I think I will do next year for my new show is do theaters. Just do small theaters. I just prefer the theatrical setting like I said before. I have a lot of set and stuff like that.

I hadn’t realized you were quite so physical in your comedy until seeing the show last night. The dance numbers and routines were unexpected. In your book, This Way to Spaceship, you mention doing impersonations of your commanding officers during your time in the Army. When did you develop the physical comedy or was that always part of your act?

It’s always been part of it. When I grew up, one of comedy idols was Rowan Atkinson, who of course is Mr. Bean and uses physical comedy. Same with Jim Carrey. Both of those guys. And Peter Sellers. Most of my comedy idols are physical comics. So when I started doing comedy in a duo, we did a lot of songs and some sketches. It was kind of physical but nothing really like what I do now. But when I went solo, I really started creating the stories and physically acting them out. It was almost like I wanted to be in a sketch troupe but I didn’t have anyone with me so I had play all the parts. At university, one of my first comedy routines was a sketch called ‘Things Rhys Can Do’, and I talk about it in the book. I had these purple tights on and just ran on stage and did some weird dance moves. It was so simple. That was the beginning of the physicality for me. That would have been back in ’95 when I was at university. I just liked expressing through movement as well verbal.

So the title of your book is a reference to escaping the planet before the Mayan Apocalypse. What did you do on December 21st, 2012 when the world didn’t end?

I was in my beach house with my family and that’s my son’s birthday. He was three. So yeah really, we were just in the house looking out at the sea and realizing that everything was gonna be okay. It was interesting because, we are in New Zealand, we get time first, ahead of everything, and then the other countries sort of happen. We never knew what was gonna happen with it. Or if anything was gonna happen. And it didn’t. So it was a good feeling. [laughs]

In the book, you describe times when you’ve utilized a “birthday ruse”, making a third party think it is your birthday. Have you pulled one of those recently and how?

Not here. The last time was the time in the book actually. Although I have used it in Short Poppies because I thought it was such a funny idea. I put one of the characters into that situation. That’s something that he did. But I haven’t used it over here yet.

– Can you tell me a little bit about Short Poppies? That’s something you filmed in New Zealand?

That’s a mockumentary series. It’s a day in the life of an ordinary, average New Zealander. Every week we focus on a different person. There is a journalist by the name of David Faria, an actual journalist well known in New Zealand, who finds someone in New Zealand to spend the day with. It’s basically focusing on ordinary folk.

In New Zealand, we have a thing called “tall poppy syndrome” which you might not have heard of it but its essentially where, it happens in small populations usually, but can actually happen in the UK, where if someone sticks out, they get their head cut off because they are being outside the ordinary or they are showing off. Usually in a smaller population it’s more likely to happen because it’s a syndrome where the average people would feel why should you be a more important than the rest of us. It happens a little bit in New Zealand. I guess it happens in the entertainment industry, when you’re doing something and you become well known for it. Fame and things like that. People will try and bring you back down to size.

I’ve had a little bit of that being from New Zealand and having the success I’ve had, I’ve felt a bit of … not much … It’s mainly been very, very supportive and great back home. But being an entertainer, an emotional soul, any sort of negativity you get can hurt you. Especially as a comedian, even though we are supposed to have such thick skins, we’ve probably got the thinnest skins out of anyone because we are very insecure people. I’m not sure if I am or not …

The long and short of it is that I wanted to create a series that focused on short poppies. My point of the series is that it’s not that these people that stick out are weird or interesting. Everyone is. It’s just that some people don’t get the opportunity to stick their head out. Or aren’t picked up in any sort of way. Or they have regular sort of jobs and they don’t care.

I play eight different characters; every week is a different character. It’s a comedy series so I got to improvise a lot. I like playing characters so I wanted to really get out there and show how versatile I was as a character actor because most people only know me from that one major character that I played of course. So I wanted to show what else I was made of. It was the first series I’ve written myself. It was my own show. I’ve created the whole thing. Very excited and very nervous about it coming out but can’t wait.

Will it be out first in New Zealand?

Yeah we own it so we’re in talks about selling it here. But I’m gonna make it so that whoever buys it makes sure it comes out [after it does in] New Zealand otherwise they will complain, [puts on voice] “What? We downloaded it illegally before it came out here.

So in this day and age as soon as you make something, everyone will see it. They’ll find it. It’s for Television NZ back home, which is our TV network, for their channel. I know they’ll make a special deal of it. I don’t want to release it anywhere else until they get it.

Will Short Poppies have a lot of stuff drawn from your life in it? There are eight characters over eight shows, how much will they be grounded in experiences from your own life?

Each one has something I’ve touched on. I play six males and two females, an old woman and a younger woman, a solo mother. They are all based on people I’ve met or generally based on Kiwi-characters. But they are not characters you wouldn’t recognize from over here. They are all very different.

Speaking of other illegal downloads, I watched the episode of The Amazing Dermot, after downloading it. Was that just a pilot?

It was. Channel 4 in the UK do a thing — it’s quite a cool idea, they still do it — where they make a series of pilots. They make six pilots and whichever one they really like or the public really goes for they make a series from. So I’ve done it twice now. The other one I did was Fun Police, I think they did the following year or something. I really like The Amazing Dermot. I was upset that that didn’t turn into something ’cause I thought that was quite a cool idea.

You have the catchphrase “hot sauce!”

[laughs as he recalls] Hot sauce, that’s right. I was surprised they didn’t want to make a series out of that. But that’s the British for you. It’s happened a couple of times with me. Same with the Fun Police one; I thought that was really good. I don’t know whether they were just not willing to let a New Zealander be in the lead of a show or something. I dunno. That’s a big step to talk. But sometimes you do feel we’re just little people in colonies outside of the great UK. That’s why I like America. Although I still haven’t been the lead on a show here. Maybe next year.

Congrats on the small part in How I Met Your Mother. How did it feel to work on that show?

It’s funny the people who made it where the same people that I’d already worked with on another show How to be a Gentlemen which was a short-lived CBS show. So I knew the people. They were great. They knew me. Going onto that show, it was quite nerve-wracking because it’s such an institution and they all know each other and this is the final season. It was an honor to get a cameo on their final season. I’m pretty happy with that.

Was it just the one episode?

They did say he works in the hotel and I said I was available. But I don’t know if the schedules worked out because I’ve been doing a lot of stand-up around the country. I may have missed out on returning.

Anything else here in America?

[I’m] pitching a new show. We’re doing an American version of the Fun Police. It’s quite different to the UK version but it’s quite a cool idea. I won’t go into it too much because no one’s bought it yet. But it would be awesome to get that on the road, to get that happening. My goal is just to get on a TV show back here again. Hopefully one that’ I’m co-creating with other people. I’ve jumped in on other people’s shows, whether people want to case me and they re-write the role into a New Zealander and stuff and I do the show. Then the show doesn’t last or whatever. Or if you do pilot season you get cast in something and then of course that can crash and burn. It’s so fickle over here. Things get canceled left, right and center. I guess that’s part of the game. That seems odd to me. A lot of money floating around to make stuff and sort of throwing it all away. It’s odd.

I’m looking forward to films as well. Getting some work there. I have an Australian film lined up for next year. I think what I’m gonna do is keep being international and not being grounded to any one particular thing. As long as I’m entertaining people in one way or another and maintaining some sort of adventurous life with my family in tow, then I’ll be happy.

A lot of people want to know, when are you gonna reconvene the band? Is it up to you?

If only it was. It’s not really up to me. Who knows when the band will get back together. Once a year the last couple of years we have come together and done a charity thing. You can find those online. We’ve done a bit for Red Nose Day for Cure Kids. So I think it will happen again. The Conchords are such an institution. When they feel ready and when we get time, we’ll pop up again and do something more. Who knows when that will be.

So do you consider Los Angeles your home now?

We’re living there right now but we still have a home in New Zealand. We’ll go back home maybe twice a year. I have a job still in New Zealand which requires me to be back there at least twice a year. So I’m happy with that. I get to see mum again. She’s getting old.

You’ve been writing a column for the New Zealand Herald for about a year. What have you learned? Is that an outlet for comedy you didn’t expect?

For me it’s keeping the discipline of writing. I think because I travel around a bit and I do interesting things I’ve always got something to say. I enjoy that. The other thing is my mum gets to read it every week. That’s my way of keeping in touch with her without having to phone her. They’re indirectly just letters to my mum that the whole of New Zealand can read.

You climbed Mount Kilimanjaro this year. Are you following the footsteps of Sir Edmund Hillary?

I like adventure. That was for a charity, World Vision. Most of the adventurous things I’ve done I’ve been approached to do. I don’t really say no to things. What an opportunity. You only live once. It’s a great chance to see parts of the world you wouldn’t normally necessarily see unless you wanted to plan it yourself. So I’ve been lucky in that way because of my job to get these opportunities. I did it. I would do something similar again for sure. I love that stuff. Unfortunately I was sick. I had a sore throat and I really find that to be hard. But I got there. I got to the top but it nearly killed me. I got some good stories from it. Basically me and the family were in Africa for like a month. We really enjoyed spending some great time together in Tanzania. Then we went to Zambia. We went on safaris and river cruises. We had a fantastic holiday.

Will you be sharing photos of that trip anywhere? Was that just done for the charity or can you put it into your work?

There’s certainly a few photos hanging around. I’ll be talking about it in my show next year. But I won’t be having a slide evening. [laughs]. It would be so boring. [booming character voice] ‘And here I am’ …

As a traveler, do you recall if, when you first visited the Northern Hemisphere, you ever tried to see if the water flows in a different direction when you flush the toilet?

I’ve heard about that but I’ve never really bother to look. [laughs] Is it a myth?

I’ve forgotten to check myself.

I’m gonna do it now you’ve mentioned it. I have to remember it. It’s not one of those things you think about when you’re in the bathroom. You just get out. But I will try and really look at how it works. I can’t see why it would be the opposite. It’s got to be a myth. Or it might be something to do with the gravitational fields.

What if I had greeted you nose to nose?

We don’t have to do that. I’m not Maori. But that would have been funny.

I agree. That would have been really awkward given that you said you didn’t like doing the fist bump last night …

… now here we are doing the nose kiss.

In L.A. or in NY, do you get recognized on the streets?

Now and again. But it surprises me. In general I don’t, so when it does happen I’m like, “What? Oh that’s right.” I forget.

You’re just happy living your day.

Yeah exactly. You kind of forget when you go a few weeks without anyone sort of pointing you out and then someone does and then you’re reminded. But its good. In places like New Zealand and things, you can feel that people are looking at you and it’s a sense of unease and you have to look down at all-time just ’cause you are aware that everyone is staring or they want photos and thing. I can understand it. But it’s nice not to have it. Certainly over here I can just be myself and you know dance around. Even today I went to Starbucks, and the guy goes, “Hey are you from?” and I go, “Yes yes yes.” And then it won’t happen again for another week or so. It’s odd. [laughs]. It’s a nice level of fame.

Don’t have to try and avoid the paparazzi chasing you all day?

Can’t be an enjoyable way to live. Hiding from reality. You’ve got your minders and your people looking after you. You’re hiding under a hat. And you go into the shop, ‘Close the shop down so we can have a look’. It’s odd. Hopefully that won’t happen.

So I was wondering what are some of the oddest or funniest American-English terms you have heard?

Most phrases aren’t too foreign. There are things like — we call elevators lifts. Various things, rubbish instead of trash. The leveler is my son Finn who is nearly eight and in he’s in school here of course with all the Americans. He’s started to use all the American terms. He’s teaching us the ways.

[puts on a voice] ‘You’ve got to call it trash dad.’

[normal voice] ‘Alright, alright. Its rubbish.’

So we keep him with us so when we accidentally use the wrong term, he’ll normally correct us. But I can’t think of anything that sticks out. What do you call them over here, swimming trunks? In New Zealand we call them togs, so that’s quite funny. I think New Zealand really has a few individual words that are more bizarre to America than the other way around. Togs. We call flip-flops “jandals.” That originates from Japanese sandals. Because when the Japanese came over I think they said, “Hey, look. Check these out.” And then we somehow called them jandals. The rest of the world calls them flip-flops.

So Kiwis use funnier phrases than the rest of the world.

That’s right. That’s our uniqueness.

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