Pied piper of comedy

Last updated 10:58 22/09/2012
Daniel Tobin

Will Harvie talks to comedian Rhys Darby about his Christchurch bound show This way to spaceship.

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Rhys Darby wants to make New Zealand comedy as successful as New Zealand sport. Will Harvie reports.

You can't escape Rhys Darby these days. He's flogging a cellphone company on television. His Murray character is still constantly referenced by fans of Flight of the Conchords and he's coming to Christchurch next month for a one-off gig that will be packaged into his third standup DVD. All going well, it will be on store shelves before Christmas.

And we'll see more of Darby in coming years, partly because he will star in his own eight-episode comedy on TV One next year called Short Poppies. It won more than $700,000 in funding from New Zealand On Air last month and the title gives away something of the content, Darby concedes. "It sounds like a show or two you've already seen, but it's not. It's very New Zealand and I'm really looking forward to it."

Short Poppies has another purpose, however. Darby sees it helping to nurture New Zealand comedy into a self- supporting and richer business, something like professional sport.

"In entertainment, we have the talent here and the reason it all keeps leaving is because there's more money overseas. If we can build up the base level here, they're not going to leave. We're going to create our own stuff here that involves the greatest amount of talent across all genres and all levels of production.

"Of course, everyone crosses the ditch for money. So . . . instead of just leaving the ship, it's about leaving it and getting experience overseas . . . and then bringing it home. You know Peter Jackson's doing that. That's important and I'm trying to do that for comedy.

"I could make a TV show in the UK or US, but I'd rather make one here."

It's also true that Darby's first foray into mainstream American sitcom (Conchords wasn't mainstream) ended badly, although it was hardly his fault. He got a supporting role in a 2012 half-hour television comedy called How to be a Gentleman, but the network effectively cancelled it after airing three episodes.

Was it that bad?

"It was adequate," says Darby. "It was more setup, punchline. There wasn't much room for organic comedy movement, the improvising style I like to use." It even had a laugh track.

Darby's preferred style of comedy will be seen in Christchurch on October 3, when he stages This Way to SpaceShip. This is the show that won him the premiere Fred Award in May's New Zealand International Comedy Festival and which he's been touring and improving through Britain this winter and which sold well at Edinburgh Fringe last month. It's a companion piece to Darby's 2012 book, This Way to SpaceShip, a "handy autobiographical end of the world companion", according to the cover blurb.

"The show starts and I'm in space and the spaceship asks how I got there. So I look back on my life and explain how I think I achieved my greatness to get on to the ship. Only VIPs are allowed. By the end we find out the truth of how I actually got on to the ship, which certainly wasn't through greatness.

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"I don't dip my pen in the obvious- answer ink very often," he writes.

Darby says he will shoot the DVD of his show in Christchurch "because my comedy career began here and it was like bringing it home". He spent two years in the Army at Burnham and then four years studying at the University of Canterbury before launching his professional standup career.

Since then, he's become a businessman as well as comic. Darby is self- funding the DVD production, with Auckland production house Augusto, which means they keep all the profits.

With his agent and wife, Rosie Carnahan Darby, Rhys runs Awesomeness International, which aims to bring "the best of international talent to New Zealand and the best local talent to the world".

Self-employment also means that Darby markets for cellphone company 2degrees. He is unrepentant.

"People think if you start earning money doing what you're doing, then you're selling out. As long as you're struggling, then it's fine."

Even so, Darby can't fund an entire television series himself. Darby concurs with a tweet from New Zealand comedian Steve Wrigley: "A lot of people seem to think that being on TV in NZ makes you rich? NZ On Air guys, we are government funded. I'm basically a beneficiary."

"He's definitely hit the nail into the coffin there," says Darby.

RHYS DARBY ON:

CONFIDENCE

Confidence . . . can also act like a force field protecting you from such evil things as . . . common sense.

EARLY CAREER POVERTY

To keep myself afloat I managed to get some work under the table - picking up food scraps and lost contact lenses. Unfortunately, that job fell through, literally: the floor collapsed and I ended up in a hidden underground chamber covered in soot and old bones from the plague.

CRITICS

There are haters and pricks and knobs and neigh-sayers (yes that's right, part horse part man, all negative) out there and they will not like your popularity.

ON THE CONCHORDS

It's not an understatement to say that thanks to them [Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement], I'm sitting here right now in my rented Beverly Hills home, typing these words with this state-of-the- art typewriter.

BEING RECOGNISED I got recognised on my honeymoon at a bar high up on bamboo stilts in the jungles of Thailand (the bar was on stilts, not me). I got recognised by a fellow Kiwi . . . My wife, Rosie, thought I had paid the guy to come up to me. Huh, what a cheek. It made my night. 

This Way to SpaceShip, October 3, CBS Arena, tickets, $65, from Ticketek.

- The Press

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