No laughing matter
He's famous for playing Murray Hewitt but Rhys Darby is out to prove he's more than a one-trick pony.
Edinburgh, 2002. Three struggling comedians meet, and realise that among the mass of aspiring hopefuls at this recognised proving ground of emerging comics, they are the only New Zealanders present. So they agree to help each other. Rhys Darby hands out fliers for double-act Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement; McKenzie acts as lighting technician for Darby in his tiny subterranean venue.
"I didn't have enough material - you were supposed to do an hour, and I only had 45 minutes, so I would do an intermission in the middle," recalls Darby. "So 25 minutes in, we'd have a break and Bret would come round with a packet of biscuits and I instructed him to ask them what their favourite part was. I'd be right behind this little curtain on this pathetic stage hearing it all and now and again peeping round and saying ‘How's it going, Bret?' He'd say: ‘Some people have left, Rhys . . .' There was only ever about 10 people in there to start with."
Clement and McKenzie's subsequent rise was, of course, brisk, and Darby is forever grateful they took him "along for the ride" and thus handed him the remarkable good fortune of that most enduring character, Murray Hewitt.
But as much as Murray was born of good luck, he also came from seven years' toil amid the grit of the British comedy club circuit.
Now living in Los Angeles, Darby feels he's again engaged in a long spell of graft to make a breakthrough - and this time it seems to be all about finally shedding Murray.
His initial vehicle is Darby's first self-written show, the mockumentary series Short Poppies, which was released online last week by TVNZ. The people of Short Poppies, however, seem vaguely familiar. Of the eight main characters, Darby says, only one is an arsehole: "I like playing empathetic, nice people who have a crack at life, and never quite get it right, but don't mean any harm."
In unintended ways, it's an apt title: on the eve of its release, Stuff's television blogger, Mike Kilpatrick, took to the ether for a pre-emptive strike on the grounds Darby simply wasn't funny; many people posting comments on the story agreed. Some of those internet critics seemed to base their dislike on the feeling Darby had simply been too lucky.
He wouldn't see it that way. After those years of hard work in Britain, he decided to refocus on the US. "And just when I went to America, to boom . . . all these chump open mic-ers had DVDs out," he says. Like who? Well, Michael McIntyre. "I was never a fan. Very middle of the road. Hence the success I suppose. Good performer; knew how to tell a joke. But not necessarily original. So I was quite surprised."
Then he says: "I coulda been a big stand up over there. But I prefer what I've done . . . writing clever one-liners wasn't my thing. I think I've got four great one-liners since I started. I've written them down. They are gold . . . but there's only four." In person, he's quite funny like this, good, energetic fun, mainlining flat whites in a Ponsonby Rd cafe.
He's lucky to have his wife, Rosie, he says. She also acts as his manager, "is very responsible and has everything I lack" and shared his early belief. "I had these blinkers on and I said to her right from the beginning, ‘We are going to the US, I am going to make it, I am just as good as these people I can see on the television.' "
Darby had told his first agent that he wanted to work with Jim Carrey, one of his idols (alongside the Pythons and Rowan Atkinson).
The agent laughed.
And then, of course, post-Murray, he was cast in a movie with Jim Carrey (the comedy Yes Man, a Dice Man-lite, playing a modified Murray as Carrey's sadsack boss).
"I've never been more petrified in my life," he says. "When it happened, my head was saying ‘hey, this is supposed to happen, it's what you wanted' . . . but I'm on set with him and its hard to look him in the eye."
They talked about shared heroes like Peter Sellers and Andy Kaufman. "Thank God he was lovely: he knew I had come out of nowhere.
"Even when I saw the premiere and today to a certain extent when I see it, I feel I've been Photoshopped in."
But perhaps the biggest impact of Yes Man was that the director, Peyton Reed, a Conchords fan, had told Darby simply to be himself, or as he puts it, a touch smugly: "He saw the sense of me I was developing and proving to be a comedy hit."
And so Darby then decided he would always audition in his own voice. It's a stance that has hardened into suggesting he wouldn't take a role where he had to deliver an American accent. He mocks the Australian actor, Simon Baker, for playing an American in a New Zealand TV commercial - for ANZ. "It just makes no sense," he says.
He knows some Antipodean actors who use an American voice from the moment they walk into the casting room. "I've been lucky," he says. "But if I was to do that, they'd be sitting there laughing."
Actually, he thinks he deserves some credit for a recent trend for actors with accents - he mentions the British actor McKenzie Crook - getting work in US dramas.
After two years of auditioning through "pilot season", the three-month scramble where American networks commission and cast shows, Darby felt encouraged enough to have pursued and received a green card, determined to do the same hard work in the US that he did in England.
He rationalised it by thinking its' not as far as England, and California is somewhat better than Peckham. He's home at least twice a year professionally - next for a national stand-up tour - and Christmas, at his renovated Grey Lynn villa and says his eldest son, Finn, has become like Uncle Travelling Matt from The Fraggles, returning for brief, lauded stints at his local primary before returning to California.
When he did land a show, the Kevin Dillon sitcom How To be a Gentleman, the part was rewritten to suit Darby's curiously reedy voice, complete with backstories about the All Blacks. It lasted nine of a scheduled 13 episodes before being canned. Darby says it was a multi-camera, laugh-tracked traditional sitcom, "factory-style, like Two Broke Girls or that one with Charlie Sheen in it".
He hated it, and was happy when it was cancelled and says he has told his agent he won't take on similar shows. "I don't think my comedy chops are being utilised enough. I'd do a scene and add some bits and I'd see the edit and they had cut all the bits that I called the gold." He laughs.
But he's also thrown himself into other stuff - an online show, a Comedy Channel quiz show, appearing on Letterman, some stand-up, all, he says, "specifically to give people a wider view of what I do. I enjoy turning up to these places, I don't have a goatee, the suit on and sitting behind a desk about to do a roll-call. I come out and do all this physical stuff and they realise it is very different . . . very rarely do I get someone walking away saying ‘no I didn't like him, it's not Murray'."
AND SO back to Murray. His ghost, inevitably, stalks each of Darby's Small Poppies characters - a narcissist lifeguard, a UFO spotter, a slightly racist grandmother.
"I guess he will always go down now as someone people love. I wanted to do my own show to prove to everyone he's not the only guy I can do. Everyone knows me as Murray. While that's awesome and I do love playing him it is important for me to prove I am not just a one-trick pony. Hopefully, this show does that. But without him I wouldn't be where I am today."
Small Poppies is deadpan mockumentary in a familiar style: TV3 type David Farrier playing himself playing Louis Theroux pursuing Darby's oddballs. It's an idea, says Darby, he's had for a long time. He talks about paying homage to John Clarke's Fred Dagg, and of the Australian comedian Chris Lilley, the movies of Christopher Guest, how he only really wants to do realistic, quite improvised, believable comedy. But here's the issue: from Clarke onwards, lots of people have done this kind of thing. Short Poppies is most evocative of a series by the British comic Peter Kay - That Peter Kay Thing - which also followed around nondescripts like icecream men, paper boys and bingo callers. And that show dates back to 1999.
Darby wrote most of Short Poppies himself, surrounded by mates like Grant Lobban (his first comedy partner) and Rosie, and in rather a coup, secured cameos from Stephen Merchant, Sam Neill and Bear Grylls ("he was a real pro; he played himself but he did a little bit of improv and he was funny").
Interestingly, TVNZ say they can't get Short Poppies on their regular schedule until mid-winter, but have released all eight episodes online and on-demand for a month because the online TV provider Netflix - who bought overseas rights from Darby - are showing it this month.
Despite this, Darby's hope is that Small Poppies will prove popular enough that there will be public demand for a full-length series based on one of the characters; he also admits he'd like to unleash something similar on the US market. This seems ambitious, but then so was wanting to work with Jim Carrey.
It means Murray isn't dead, but he's definitely being replaced. "For now, I am happy for him to be sitting in his office, watching and seeing these other characters come to life and saying ‘shit, they're good, they might take over my role - but I'm his main guy'. Maybe they will be funnier than him. I don't know if they are, but they will give him a good run for his money."
At this, he giggles. But, really, for one so determined, this is no laughing matter.
Sunday Star Times