You’re so beautiful, you could be a waitress.
— Jemaine Clement
There’s something familiar about the titular band of HBO’s newest comedy show, Flight of the Conchords. Perhaps it’s their Tenacious D-style acoustic comic rock. Maybe it’s the Conchords’ frontman Jemaine Clement’s “indie” look, like a square-jawed David Cross with more hair and better t-shirts. Or it might be that, like many independent artists, the Conchords invoke their influences freely and intelligently, creating something fresher and smarter than their precursors.
What’s initially impressive about the Conchords is their firm, collective grasp of pop music history, as both Clement and Brett McKenzie are confident, competent singer-songwriters with the versatility to channel anyone from Barry White to Radiohead (the duo’s “binary solo” during the premiere episode was especially inspired, and funny). This is not to say that they’re headed for the top of any pop chart; their songs are too mired in plot and irony. But the Conchords are sophisticated in their use of musical influences (think homage more than parody), so when they break into song, it’s less a gimmick and more a comedic coda, tying scenes and themes together quite nicely.
Rather than provide awkward backstory, the 17 June premiere “Sally,” began more or less in media res, on what seemed to be an average day for the Conchords. Both from New Zealand, Jemaine and Brett comprise the group, living on pennies in a teeny Manhattan apartment, presumably trying to make it big with the help of a daft, yet doting, part-time agent Murray (Rhys Darby), who also works as a low-rung cultural attache at the New Zealand consulate. As the three met in Murray’s office and hatched a plan for filming their first music video (the boys in homemade robot suits, filmed on a cell phone camera), a tourism poster on the back wall read, “New Zealand: Don’t expect too much — you’ll love it!” This initiated the episode’s running joke about their native country’s obscurity in the States, while lending an exoticism to the band’s formulaic struggle-to-fame plight.
Though the two foreigners appear dim-witted, it’s not because they are “foreign” (take that, Borat). Instead, they would be hormone-driven idiots, no matter the hemisphere they inhabit. When a frustrated Jemaine rattled off his dating history back in New Zealand — “Sarah Fitzpatrick, Michelle Fitzpatrick, Claire Fitzpatrick, the list goes on” — Bret observed that even though he can’t land any American women, the ones he talked about “getting on” sound hotter than the girls back home. Jemaine declared smugly, “You’re right, I do talk about getting with some pretty hot women.”
In this episode, hot women were the chief reason the boys broke out into song at all. The first tune of the series, “Part-time Model,” served as a serenade at a small party, explaining to a leggy and silent blonde how attractive she was, especially compared to air hostesses in the ’60s, high-class prostitutes, and trees. Jemaine and Bret are no doubt more charming when singing “Let’s go to my house/We can feel each other up on the couch,” than when clumsily taking a girl some place “romantic and cheap” for a date. Though they objectified women throughout, their attitude stemmed from an inflated, hallowed regard (see: Prince). The Conchords see no sense bothering such delicate creatures, unless doing so romantically, or to punctuate their own egos.
So when Sally (Rachel Blanchard) dumped Jemaine on a city sidewalk, before she even finished delivering her break-up speech, he walked away from her to begin another song (one of my favorite moments was her remaining in the shot’s background, hands raised in confusion), this one an ‘NSYNC-style ballad, “I’m Not Crying,” in which both men denied they were crying over a woman. Rather, they insist, their eyes are “just sweaty today.” It was curious that the very woman who inspired the episode’s title song ended up not worth admitting even a single tear. But of course, that’s the joke: the Conchords can’t resolve their feelings about women — as a class or as individual romantic partners. Women remain muses or punch lines, never anything in between.
What’s left is a relationship between the two men consistent with the best duos. Neither is capable of attaining a woman, so the partnership will likely never be in jeopardy. Though the show occasionally lapses into the “cringe comedy” mode, made popular by The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm, Flight of the Conchords is also quite sweet. In an establishing montage, Bret held a stopwatch to time Jemaine’s exercising on his stationary bicycle. Later, when a lonely Bret was shown with a stopwatch, timing the same empty bicycle, the effect was both absurd and strangely sentimental. Just like the show.