Flight of the Conchords (FOTC) are Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement. You may have seen them on their acclaimed HBO One Night Stand and you'll be seeing a lot more of them soon because HBO just picked up their series for twelve episodes. In this interview, FOTC discuss hologram pants, trying to wrangle up audience members at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and radio comedy.
Tell me about your HBO series.
Brett: It's about the two of us, Flight of the Conchords, living in New York and trying to make it as a band.
Who are some other people that will be involved in this?
Jemaine: The director is James Bobin, who directed Da Ali G Show. Me, Brett, and James wrote it.
Brett: Some American comedians are acting in it: Eugene Mirman, Kristen Schaal, and Arj Barker. There was a woman that was in the pilot as a cameo, Rachel Blanchard, who was also in Snakes on a Plane.
Have you seen Snakes on a Plane?
Jemaine: Not yet. Hopefully I'll see it on a plane.
Brett: I don't think they play that on planes.
Jemaine: Snakes on a Plane on a plane.
Brett: I saw it and it was terrifying. I went with a friend who has a phobia of snakes. When there were snakes on the screen, he couldn't look at it, which is ninety-eight percent of the film.
Jemaine: Where's he from?
Jemaine: How did he develop a fear of snakes in England?
Do you plan on releasing a second album soon?
Jemaine: We're going to start on it very soon. We know some of the songs we're going to start recording in October.
Will this be recorded in the studio?
Jemaine: We'll try both and see what we come out with. We'll record some shows and do some things in the studio.
Can you tell me about the New Zealand comedy scene?
Brett: It's a small but healthy live comedy scene based in Auckland and Wellington.
Jemaine: We're not exactly the first generation of comedians in New Zealand, but we're quite close. People were starting a few years before we started and a lot of those people are still going. There's only one comedy club in the whole country that's a regular comedy club and that's not in the town where we lived. A lot of comedy is more like what we do; it's more of a theatrical sort of thing. People do plays, but stand up is growing as well.
What was the first performance that you two did as Flight of the Conchords?
Brett: We did a few strange gigs before we performed as Flight of the Conchords. One of the first versions was not a duo but a four piece called Vested Interests. We wore vests and played catchy tunes.
Jemaine: A vest in New Zealand is a sweater vest in your language. If it were Sweater Vested Interests it wouldn't fly.
Brett: It didn't fly in New Zealand either. The first gig we did as Flight of the Conchords was playing while an audience was coming in and sitting down rather than an actual comedy act. Our songs, which we thought were weird, the audience found funny.
How would you say that your material has evolved with time?
Jemaine: We try to put more jokes in these days. We go through phases where we want everything to be funny, we want everything to be musical, or we want to tell a story.
Brett: Some of the first stuff didn't have enough jokes in them to play now.
Jemaine: If we play in a theater we could do those songs. We usually write an hour's worth for theater shows. We've done three of those as Flight of the Conchords, but we've done others as well. If we write another one, we'll probably want to do something different from our last show, which had a lot of gags in it. When we first got on, our performances were really big, but now we're quite subtle in-between songs.
Brett: For a while, we didn't talk and just did songs. Over the next few years, talking became a much bigger part of the show.
How would you compare the different types of audiences you've played for, American, New Zealand, UK, and Edinburgh?
Brett: They're surprisingly similar. A lot of people think that some material will work in one country and not the other, but if people find it funny in New Zealand they'll find it funny in Britain and America. The only difference is that audiences tend to be a lot more vocal in America.
Jemaine: People from New Zealand love to say, "Americans won't get it, will they?" Sometimes when we play in New Zealand we'll do art festivals rather than comedy gigs. They're sort of highbrow and different from what we want to do, but people in those crowds are actually the worst sort of comedy crowds. They can't tell if we're joking. We'll make a joke, but we'll say it in such a way that it sounds like we mean it and we'll often hear a, "Yeah, right."
It seems that in the UK and Edinburgh, the press covers comedy much more than they do in America.
Brett: I was in the UK for the last week of the Edinburgh Festival, and even in London papers had reviews of shows and comics on the festival. I turn on the TV and there are documentaries about comedians working in the UK and what it means to be a comedian. Comedy is such a strong part of their culture.
Jemaine: You've got to remember, it rains a lot. The weather's pretty bleak.
Are there some comedians from England or Ireland that you'd like to recommend to the readers?
Brett: There's an Irish comic named David O'Doherty who's touring with Demetri Martin in October.
Jemaine: Bill Bailey, who does musical stuff. Ross Noble, who gets up and improvises for an hour. He does a different show every time. Jemaine: Daniel Kitson , who does shows in New York sometimes. He's a really amazing person to see. One of my favorite performances at Edinburgh was by this guy named Noel Fielding, who's part of The Mighty Boosh.
Brett: The Mighty Boosh have a TV show that's really absurd.
That aired on BBC America, but at times like 2 AM.
Brett: Even in England it's more of a cult show.
In the UK, and possibly New Zealand, radio comedy is much more popular than it is in America.
Brett: In the UK, there's a strong tradition of it.
Jemaine: They don't do it too much in New Zealand. Comedy is not very much supported by the media in New Zealand. The people in the media are often older and don't realize that this whole comedy scene is growing. We wouldn't get a special like the HBO special in New Zealand, but in England comedy is everywhere.
Brett: The tradition in the UK is to develop comedy through radio and from radio to TV, while in America it goes straight to TV. I think that one of the bonuses of the UK system is that a lot of problems in a comedy show are ironed out in the radio stage so that by the time they get to TV they're more prepared and come out stronger.
Do you have any British radio programs you'd like to recommend to readers?
Jemaine: One of my favorites is The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
Brett: I can't really think of any recent shows, but shows like League of Gentlemen, Little Britain, and even The Mighty Boosh were all radio shows before they became TV shows. It's interesting, once you know the TV version, to look at the radio version and see how it developed.
There's an American writer named John Swartzwelderwho wrote fifty-nine episodes of The Simpsons and he writes books that are similar to Douglas Adams, specifically Adams's Dirk Gently series.
Jemaine: Fifty-nine is a lot.
Do you have any plans to return to the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh?
Jemaine: There's a show that Brett and I are working on using film and cameras. I'd like to take that to the Edinburgh one day, but it's really expensive and has a lot of people involved. Maybe, if we wrote enough new songs or did a different sort of project.
I've read that it's very difficult to get audiences to go to shows at Edinburgh.
Jemaine: It's very difficult. By the third year we were getting lots of people, but that was after a series of coincidences and lucky breaks.
Brett: People do all sorts of tricks to get people to come to their shows.
Jemaine: Including us. We were out in the street pretending to be Cockney ticket scalpers that only had tickets to our shows.
Brett: People would buy tickets to the show, show up to the show, and realize that we were the people in the show.
You've jammed with Hard N Phirm at LA's Comedy Death Ray.
Brett: They're our LA musical comedy nemesis.
Jemaine: They have some really great songs and their production is amazing as well. It was really different for us when we played with them. Brett and I are very loose, but they're more like, "We'll just nod to each other."
Brett: They do videos as well while they perform. There aren't many musical comedy acts, and even less that I can get along with, so it's great to work with them.
Do you plan on making music videos in the future?
Brett: Part of the HBO show concept is that there would be music video sequences. We've talked about many things, including making music videos.
Jemaine: T-Shirts. You should see the franchise we have in our mind. It's an empire. Notice that I said mind in the singular.
What sort of merchandise?
Jemaine: We had a mouse pad, but we lost it. It was really nice, though. It had a wood grain finish.
Brett: Hologram pants.
Jemaine: We had a jag saw puzzle, but we only made one piece of it. Hologram pants is an idea.
Brett: It's a concept that we haven't got the technology to create yet.
What do you like to do after a performance?
Brett: I like to…
Jemaine: Check your e-mail.
Brett: Check Myspace to see if someone's commented on the show.