Explaining what exactly is so funny about Flight of the Conchords is an exercise in futility. Jokes die on the page, even more so when the punch line consists of saying nothing and remaining expressionless. And with the aforementioned New Zealand comic duo, subtlety is everything.
“Those guys are masters of the awkward pause,” says Tony Kiewel, head of A&R for Sub Pop Records. Kiewel first saw the group three years ago at Bumbershoot. At the time, FOTC was a live act, with members Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie singing songs and bantering back and forth in a manner similar to this:
Jemaine: I’ll introduce you to the band. (pause) There’s me. (pause) There’s also Bret.
Bret: Hi. (Sheepishly, he holds up a sign saying “Girlfriend Wanted.”)
(Long, awkward pause.)
Jemaine: What are you doing?
Bret: Just…um…I’m just trying to get a girlfriend.
“I find it hard to believe anyone could watch that and not find it funny,” says Kiewel. But what’s funny about it has nothing to do with the “Girlfriend Wanted” sign—it’s the delivery. New Zealanders are laid-back and stoic. To the average American, this comes off as complete indifference, as if FOTC have no interest in anything. Top that off with an accent that sounds like a confused Scotsman imitating an Australian, and you’ve got the basics of the pair’s comic recipe. Vowels are also pronounced higher in the mouth than in American English, so “pen” is pronounced “pin,” “yes” pronounced “yis,” and “weird” pronounced “wee-ud,” Most importantly, “Bret” is pronounced “Brit.”
Because foreigners talk funny, hilarity ensues. Then they burst into song.
At the time Kiewel was introduced to them, Clement and McKenzie were being courted by HBO to develop their act into a scripted series. The idea was to incorporate their music and comedic wit by writing episodes based around the songs they performed. The first season of FOTC aired last June with a seriously unambitious but brilliant premise: Bret and Jemaine move to New York, play in a band, get mistaken for Australians, compete over girls (pronounced “gi-uls”), and break into song.
Like the Beatles’ Help! and the Monkees’ TV show, the songs are mostly mini-fantasies taking place in Bret’s and Jemaine’s heads, stemming from situations between the actors. For example, when Jemaine tries embarrassingly to impress a barista by ordering a croissant in French, the awkwardness of the moment leads to “Foux du Fafa,” a music video–esque mockery of French culture and music. On the show, ’60s-era visuals boost the song’s humor: the guys ride bicycles wearing sweaters and scarves, and bop through the “super-marché” buying cans of “soup du jour” and loaves of “baguette” while chuckling and wagging their heads like French sleazeballs.
Hilarious? Yes. But it’s also a great fucking song.
“If they didn’t have the musical chops, we wouldn’t be putting out the record,” says Kiewel, noting that they were set to release a FOTC record before the HBO show ever aired. Released April 22, FOTC’s self-titled musical debut (in the United States at least) proves what multifaceted talents they are. It’s a studio album, with no padding of between-song sketches or show clips, forcing the songs to stand on their own. Their stylistic range and musicianship is boggling. Over 13 songs, FOTC dabble in the fey synth-pop of Pet Shop Boys (“Inner City Pressure”), the tough-guy braggadocio of hip-hop (“Mutha’uckas”), the lovemaking smoove-ness of Barry White (“Business Time”), and the glammy space-pop of David Bowie (“Bowie”).
If you didn’t know better, you might ask “Why the hell is Sub Pop bothering with a joke band?” But Clement and McKenzie have a trick up their sleeves: they really admire the bands and styles they’re poking fun at. And that’s what makes FOTC so engaging: they’re subtly teetering between mockery and tribute. You laugh at first, only to find yourself humming the tune when it’s stuck in your head the next day.
Kiewel says the release-date shipment of this album is the second largest in the label’s history (the largest being the Shins’ Wincing the Night Away), and the investment in the album packaging is possibly the most elaborate they’ve ever done. The label has also been receiving an average of three requests per hour to interview the band.
“We found out it went gold in New Zealand already,” says Kiewel. “I mean, over there, gold is only 7,500 records, but still.”
Naturally, Clement and McKenzie are superstars in their home country. “They grew beards to hide out a little bit from the paparazzi in Wellington,” says Kiewel. “It’s really hard to imagine paparazzi in New Zealand. Their highways are, like, one lane, and you gotta pull off to let oncoming traffic pass. I don’t even think they have broadband yet!”