In January, I was at San Francisco airport waiting for a flight to Salt Lake City, en route to the Sundance Film Festival. I was early and had time to kill, so I ventured over to a café for some caffeine and sustenance.
"Can I have a large coffee and a bear claw?" I asked the woman behind the counter.
"And a bagel?" She responded.
"No, a bear claw."
She was still wearing a very blank stare. I donned my hardest American accent. "Bearr Clorr!"
"Ohhhh. Bearr Clorr! Got it."
A woman was standing off to the side of the counter putting milk in her recently purchased drink. She swivelled around to look at me, beaming from ear to ear.
"That was so Flight of the Conchords," she said in an American drawl. She was thrilled.
Her reaction was a little annoying to me. I wanted to snap back at her, "I'm just a foreigner struggling to order breakfast! I can't be reduced to a mere pop culture reference!"
A few months later, I'm beginning to develop a new appreciation of this moment.
It has been four years since the last new Flight of the Conchords episode, yet the show still has cultural legs in America. And despite not being an entirely serious show, it does hold an outline of what New Zealanders are like and what it is like to be a New Zealander abroad.
Because often, just like Bret and Jemaine, people can't understand what I say and I get exasperated in the moment, even though in retrospect it is always amusing.
So, could it then be considered that the legacy of Flight of the Conchords is creating at least a stereotype of what a New Zealander is like in the minds of many Americans?
To an extent, I'd say yes.
Let's be frank. Pretty much all of the New Zealand pop culture held up and celebrated at home for being "big" in America doesn't do a lot for our image abroad. Actors like Cliff Curtis or Karl Urban might at best be recognised with the tag of, "Haven't I seen that guy in something?" People know who Lucy Lawless is, but maybe one in five know that she's a Kiwi. Crowded House rings a bell for some, but the average person would at best be able to hum a song or two back at you. Whale Rider has receded from most people's cultural memory, as has The Piano. No one here saw Boy, or has seen Once Were Warriors, or heard of Bic Runga, Phoenix Foundation or Shihad. Music geeks all know about Flying Nun, but no one does outside that niche subset.
The collective weight of New Zealand's international cultural legacy in America is about 70 per cent Tolkien references and 30 per cent Flight of the Conchords.
As much as New Zealand has riding economically on Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, the films tell and show people nothing real about our country. The scenery is largely composites. The Middle Earth angle even encourages, I think, people to dismiss us even more than usual as some sort of tiny rural backwater gripping on to a Hollywood life raft.
I saw the Hobbit with LP's family over Christmas and the only discussion about New Zealand it prompted was a running joke about how if we want to order a taxi we whisper in the ear of a butterfly and a giant eagle comes and picks us up and takes us wherever we want to go.
My buddy Jon and I were in a car full of Berkeley hipsters in 2007 about the time that Flight of the Conchords began. When someone found out we were New Zealanders there was a chuckle, followed by a brief silence before someone said, "We've got a regular old Flight of the Conchords on our hands." They seemed proud of the reference. People always think they're bringing up something fairly underground when they mention Flight of the Conchords to me.
Little do they know that in New Zealand becoming genuinely popular in America makes you an automatic household name... we'll get behind anything the world gets behind.
In Los Angeles recently, my friend Pete was chuckling away about Flight of the Conchords and recommended it to two American friends of mine, making some quip that it would help them understand me better. I briefly felt defensive, but then I realised that he was probably right.
In the DNA of Flight of the Conchords is the outline of our national character: our passiveness, our low-key approach to everything, our unwillingness to make a big deal of anything, our little brother relationship to Australia, the colloquial, small-time politicians and the provincialism we can't quite escape.
Sure, it is under the umbrella of absurdity, but there's both love and truth in there also.
Flight of the Conchords, I've come to appreciate, have put out in the world an idea of what a New Zealander is, which has stood the (short-term) test of time.
Past applauding Bret and Jemaine for genuinely making it in America, I think this should also be celebrated, don't you think?
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