Kiwis flying high in the States
New Zealand folk-parody duo The Flight of the Conchords have gone from obscurity to celebrity in just a few weeks. By Tom Cardy.
Blog: The art of laffing
Wellington comedians and musicians Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement don't have to wonder whether their sitcom Flight of the Conchords has had any impact in the United States.
Speaking from the offices of American cable channel HBO in Los Angeles, just days after the final episode of the 12-part first season aired, the two say they are recognised wherever they go.
"Over the last 12 weeks it's really incredible, the change," says Mc- Kenzie.
"Up until when the show started airing no one recognised us on the street. A few weeks into the show a few people recognised us, then about eight weeks into the show a lot of people. And now every time we go out someone comes over to us."
In the show, which airs in New Zealand from next Monday, McKenzie and Clement play Kiwi musicians called Bret and Jemaine who are trying to make it big in New York with help from their bumbling manager Murray (played by Kiwi comedian Rhys Darby), who works for the New Zealand consulate.
While Kiwi Melanie Lynskey stars in top-rated American sitcom Two and Half Men, Flight of the Conchords is the first time a show starring and written by New Zealanders has been turned into an American sitcom.
Flight of the Conchords has also had contributions from Wellington film-maker Taika Waititi, who wrote and directed episode seven and directed episode 10, which was written by Wellington playwright Duncan Sarkies (Scarfies).
By American standards Flight of the Conchords, which aired on Sunday nights, didn't pull in huge audiences. It averaged about one million a week. But for HBO - best known for The Sopranos and Sex and the City - it's still a success and they want a second season next year.
The New York Times reported recently that HBO measures a show's success by how many viewers accumulated over multiple plays and often viewers have watched Flight of the Conchords on the station's on-demand service after they first aired.
HBO says on-demand isn't dominated by hit shows, but by the niche interests of its audience. According to the channel, Flight of the Conchords has been a strong ondemand entry with "the golden demographic" - men aged 18-34.
McKenzie and Clement say women also like it. The obsessed fan Mel in the show (played by American Kristen Schaal) was inspired by fans when they were only a live act - now they have more.
"I was walking down the street in New York three weeks ago and three girls came up to me and one of them said 'I really like your show', then they went away," says McKenzie.
"Later I was with my fiancee Hannah and another friend and we walked two or three blocks and then one of the girls appeared again - she'd followed us. She jumped in front of us and said, 'Oh, I'm little bit like the character Mel'.
"We used our real names on the show so people out on the street shout out 'Hey Bret!' At first I have to look at them to make sure whether they are someone I have possibly met in the past 12 months working here. They usually turn out to be strangers.
"But most of the time it's encouraging and supportive. They are usually fairly polite."
"We had a big discussion whether to use our real names," says Clement.
"We thought of calling ourselves Brent and Jerome."
The two worked on the episodes each week as the series aired, but found time to play live too. Again, the longer the show aired - along with Internet clips on iTunes and YouTube - the bigger they got, including playing to 3000 in Seattle with crowds knowing the words to every song.
The two continue to be genuinely surprised by the show's impact. Drew Barrymore ran up to McKenzie a few weeks ago and declared herself a big fan.
A performance of their song Robots/Humans Are Dead by American a capella choir Duke Rhythm and Blue is on YouTube. The show's been dubbed into Spanish for Latin America and America's large Hispanic audience.
McKenzie and Clement got the two Spanish singers used in the dubbing to perform at one of their live shows.
"They are better singers than us," says Clement.
References to the show - including the popular songs Business Time and Hiphopopotamus vs the Rhymenocerous are popping up all over the place.
"You'll see references to our show indirectly, like a sports broadcaster commenting on a gridiron game and they go, 'And it's business time'," says McKenzie.
"Someone gets a touchdown and he'll go, 'He's a hiphopopotamus'," says Clement.
Last week The Los Angeles Times' food section had a feature on cooking with concord grapes. The headline: Flight of the purple Concords. "It was recipes for grape tarts," says McKenzie, laughing.
There's no sign of slowing down. Both are finishing a studio album of songs from the show, it airs on BBC4 later this month - more interviews - and the first season DVD is released in the United States in November.
And yes, there have been offers of movies and other television projects. Due to other commitments they turned down appearing as their Flight of the Conchords personas in a new movie starring Jon Heder from Napoleon Dynamite and Blades of Glory.
But they've had other auditions. Clement says he's turned down offers because he wants to get back to Wellington and begin writing the second season.
"I stayed in New York two weeks ago and it was quite weird how it's worked out," he says.
"I've been in a room before when you see a famous person go in and everyone turns around and looks at them. But it's weird that suddenly I'm the person that people turn around and look at."
The Dominion Post