Are these guys joking? Usually. But Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie, long billed as ”New Zealand’s fourth-most-popular folk-parody duo,” are serious about conquering America. Though each of the Kiwi natives has film credits of his own — Clement, 33, stars in the quirky love story Eagle vs Shark (opening this weekend; see EW review) while 31-year-old Mackenzie’s role as an eye-catching elf in 2003’s Lord of the Rings: Return of the King had online admirers calling him ”Figwit” (”Frodo Is Great — Who Is That?”) — the two-man band is ready for TV stardom.
The onetime college roommates portray New York newcomers who are clueless about cracking the music scene in the new HBO comedy series they co-created, Flight of the Conchords (debuts Sunday, June 17, at 9:30 p.m.). Building on an international following of fans who love their droll lyrics and deadpan delivery, they’ll play Bonnaroo June 16-17 and record a new CD in July. Clement and McKenzie spoke to EW about dayjobs, girlfriends, and Daryl Hall.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Describe your new HBO series.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: There are a lot of difficult situations that lead to awkwardness. We usually have one big awkward scene every show. I wouldn’t say it’s exactly like The Office or Curb Your Enthusiasm, where it’s all awkward, all the way. But there’s always some element of that.
BRET MCKENZIE: It’s a difficult thing to describe. It’s a musical comedy. Something like Curb Your Enthusiasm crossed with The Monkees.
CLEMENT: Trying to describe it, we always fail to do it in a very appetizing way.
Would it be accurate to call it semi-improvised?
MCKENZIE: We write full scripts, so we have a structure, and we improvise off that. Looking at the edits, I’d say there are large portions of improvised stuff. You can see the life in the takes when it’s improvised. It’s quite clear — there are moments that seem too unexpected to be scripted.
In one episode, Bret calls home to New Zealand from New York and mentions he’s not carrying a gun. Was that based on a myth New Zealanders have about us?
MCKENZIE: I guess so…. But doesn’t everyone have a gun here?
CLEMENT: I had a guy from New Zealand stay on my couch who was almost terrified to go outside, based on movies that he saw in the ’80s. He’s realizing now that it’s fine. It’s America’s own fault, though. That’s the way it portrays itself.
MCKENZIE: Star Wars really made it confusing.
CLEMENT: That’s not set in America.
MCKENZIE: Oh, right. Well I, actually, I expected the Ewoks to be here. I was really disappointed.
Your characters room together — how much did your days as roommates inform those scenes?
CLEMENT: We didn’t literally live in the same room, like on the series.
MCKENZIE: The show is mainly influenced by our experiences touring and performing as a band.
CLEMENT: Actually, when we’d first come to the States and do shows, we’d share a hotel room. We wouldn’t now. We wouldn’t be able to take it, because we spend so much time together filming and writing.
MCKENZIE: We’ve traveled to Europe, we’ve played Edinburgh a lot, [but for the series] we’ve drawn a lot on the days when we were drawing crowds of five people. Our desperate years.
CLEMENT: We both had pretty bad jobs when we were roommates. You saw the episode where Bret has to hold a sign? Well, he once had a job where he had to dress up as a boat. Like a tugboat, and give out fliers for rides on the boat. I haven’t done anything as embarrassing as that.
What made you decide to form a musical duo?
MCKENZIE: We started the band in 1998. I was a musician. Jemaine wasn’t. We were students, and we wanted to learn how to play guitar, so we started writing songs, ‘cause we weren’t capable of playing other people’s songs.
CLEMENT: We were both sick of doing auditions for crappy American TV movies and for TV shows in New Zealand, and we’d never get them, or the parts would never suit us. And I remember, we had a big discussion: ”Oh, let’s do a band, then.” We made up a few songs. And we just kept doing it.
MCKENZIE: Most of our early songs are based on one chord. As the years have gone on, now we’re up to seven chords.
And why did you name yourselves ”Flight of the Conchords”?
MCKENZIE: There isn’t really a good story. Other than…we shared…a dream. A vision. [Laughs] Jemaine’s explanation will be completely different.
CLEMENT: It was just, like, a last-minute thing. We had a gig and we didn’t have a name. We had to come up with something quickly. We were considering ”Tanfastic.” Which is the name of a suntan lotion.
NEXT PAGE: ”We have different tastes in comedy. But they generally align. And I think we have different skills…Jemaine’s grumpy, and I’m moody.”