How Flight of the Conchords outlasted the hipster

The concern headlines of the early aughts needn't have worried: FOTC has figured it out

Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie — the brilliant duo behind the long-defunct HBO show Flight of the Conchords and the still-thriving band Flight of the Conchords — are sincere about everything except their own artistry.

It's rare for either to step outside their persona and name the comedic ethos they developed together, but Clement offered a rare glimpse into the Conchords' sense of their own creative philosophy in a tribute to David Bowie: "We had never heard a parody song like this before, that fawned over the artist instead of mocking them. Would people laugh if it wasn't mean?" There it is, then: fawning parody. Let's call it "loving parody" to strip out that edge of kiwi self-deprecation.

Whether it's "You Don't Have to Be a Prostitute" riffing on The Police, "Carol Brown" winking at Paul Simon, or "Rambling Through the Avenues of Time," a shaggy-dog version of Billy Joel, Flight of the Conchords' full-throated commitment to the genre or artist they targeted often made their songs just as catchy as the originals. You feel really, really silly when you catch yourself nodding along to "Sugalumps" or belting out the chorus to "Business Time." That's the trouble with musically brilliant comedy savants.

Despite breaking out at a specific cultural moment — an era during which America, at any rate, was seething with ironic hauteur and fetishized authenticity — these New Zealanders' penchant for loving parody turned out to be evergreen in ways no one suspected. Seven years after leaving their show and three years after their last tour, Flight of the Conchords' 2016 summer tour sold out almost instantly, forcing them to add five extra concert dates to accommodate fans at venues including Mountain View's Shoreline Amphitheater, a behemoth built on a landfill and rimmed by the eerie Google campus. It seats 22,500.

You can imagine my surprise when I learned I'd be seeing them there — this charming duo I'd associated with torn wallpaper act breaks, crappy production values, and a resolutely analog sensibility. The giant lifeless heart of Silicon Valley? What had the Conchords become?

It's a question that has plagued the group since it began. You'll recall that the hipster constituted a slippery category back in the aughts (when people still cared about that kind of thing), but most people agreed on his telltale phrase: "I knew them before they were cool." The question driving a lot of cultural coverage back then was how (not when) a band or comedian would sell out, and coverage of Flight of the Conchords while they were still on TV reflects this. "Will success spoil Flight of the Conchords?" Maxim wondered. "Can Flight of the Conchords avoid the fact that they are fully fledged music superstars?" asked The Guardian. While no one would admit to being a hipster, many shared this sense that creative faculties get shallower and shinier the more time someone spends in the spotlight. Seven years is a long time, and it's hard to get shinier than a Googleplex-adjacent amphitheater.

It's cool in Mountain View, and people start wrapping up in blankets during the opening acts. The stage looks reassuringly DIY and off-kilter. Everything on it is covered in tinfoil. John Hodgman starts things off wearing a dress Emily Gilmore might favor. He's followed by FOTC alums Demetri Martin and Arj Barker. There's a break, and when the lights come on, the tinfoil has been peeled off the instruments and the atmosphere is improved by the addition of a small stuffed sheep.

It's dark by the time the guys come onstage and they peer around, baffled by whatever Mountain View is. Jemaine is wearing a pale pink suit. "Are you Bay Aryans?" they ask, as disarmingly deadpan and dim as ever. "Being in a band, we party a lot, and this one is about that subject," Jemaine says as they launch into their first song, "Chips and Dip."

But it's the second song, "Father and Son," that illustrates how virtuosically the Conchords are adapting their silly lo-fi sensibility to these oversized venues. I'm on the lawn at Shoreline Amphitheater; I can only see the guys on huge screens: Bret's on one, Jemaine's on the other. Bret explains that the next song is about a son and his father. "We will be using technology. We've got John, who worked on Lord of the Rings," he says. "He's going to transform me into a child." We watch the Bret-screen start shrinking as someone zooms out to make Bret's image about one sixth the size of Jemaine's, then merges the two shots. Bret, tiny and bearded in the right-hand corner of the Jemaine-screen, is craning his neck up trying to gaze at Jemaine, who look lovingly back down at him. "You can see that Bret seems drastically reduced in age," Jemaine says, "I just sit — I don't even know how it works — I just sit and watch in awe."

The guys look crazy if you see them straight on: Bret's looking up at the ceiling, Jemaine's looking down at the floor. But onscreen, they look absurdly bonded. This is their move: adapting crazy arena technology as primitively as possible to restore that old DIY FOTC feeling. At one point, they try to touch each other's hands onscreen.

"The technology they have these days," Bret says — a nod to Mountain View. "Wonderful. I've given up trying to keep up."

The Conchords did a lot of things "right" from the point of view of the authenticity fetishist. They stopped making their HBO show after two near-perfect seasons because what mattered wasn't money or fame; it was material and remaining creatively intact: "Being a band that was useless was great for generating material. Now that our lives are warping into this other thing, playing these fools is tricky," McKenzie told Maxim. He confessed to the AV Club that "to say we were kind of burnt-out would be an understatement." The guys split up for a bit: Jemaine lived in a modest apartment with his wife and kid, starred in some indie movies, played the villain in Men in Black III, started a podcast called Uncle Bertie's Botanarium, and created two mockumentaries with Taika Waititi — one about vampires and one about werewolves. (He also plays a giant in The BFG, which started in theaters July 1.) Bret moved back in with his mom, got a bit part in some of the Lord of the Rings movies, and won an Academy Award for "Man or Muppet," one of four original songs he wrote as music supervisor for the Muppet movie.

But that time apart didn't stop them from getting bigger. Dealing with fame is tough, and the band's early struggles with it are well-documented in Flight of the Conchords: A Texan Odyssey, a silly 2006 documentary following McKenzie and Clement on their first trip to SXSW in Austin. It contains some standard FOTC humility fare (for example, they'll only agree to be interviewed if they can interview their interviewers back at the same time). Faced with fans who want photographs with them, McKenzie tells Clement he's not sure "how to look in the photo" but favors "the ones where we're pointing at the person as though it's exciting to see them."

They downplay the sudden attention they're getting, but there's a limit and they hit it at 34:20. A woman shows the camera three photographs. "This is what I carry in my wallet all the time," she says. "My daughter, my second daughter, and Jemaine's lips." The third photo is creepy as all get-out. Jemaine's deadpan dissolves; he mutters a thank-you but he is freaked out.

In 2007, Bret admitted they got rattled when people sang along at their concerts: "It's not particularly funny anymore, it's just like singing along." They're trying to figure out how to handle that. "We'll try it out, and if it doesn't work, we'll just never play live again."

"Really?" the interviewer asks. "Yeah, just disappear," says Bret.

The early aughts needn't have worried: FOTC has figured it out. The guys are pretty resistant to celebrity's siren songs, and they've slowly and thoughtfully scaled up their tolerance to fame and their act. Their improv still feels fresh. Their act still feels intimate. They've rejected the crappier attributes of fame without being squeamish about giving fans what they want, whether it's pinup material in Maxim or showing up to interviews in a crop top.

Have they changed? "We've gotten older," Jemaine says onstage in Mountain View, "and we realize that, uh, when you see people on TV and they get older and you see them again—"

"It can be quite confronting," Bret interrupts.

"It's confronting," Jemaine agrees. "We know, and we know it makes you feel uncomfortable and reminds you of your own aging process and ultimately your own mortality."

They cleverly use their aging (and ours) to pivot to their newest material: "We've grown older and we've started to appreciate jazz music," Bret says, introducing an effective and extremely loving parody of Tom Waits, "Shady Rachel". (Of their new stuff, it's possibly their best, secondly only to "Seagull," an homage to yacht rock.)

It's easy to see why rumors of a FOTC movie keep catching fire: The guys have held onto the real thing. Their impressions are razor-sharp, their vocals show huge range (McKenzie's especially), and their comic timing is better than ever (Clement's in particular).

They seem sellout-proof.


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