Sunday, February 08, 2009

Flight of the Conchords: An interview

A couple of weeks ago, I interviewed "Flight of the Conchords" stars Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, plus executive producer James Bobin. I didn't get a chance to post the transcript until now, in part because I was afraid to start transcribing it. Between Bret and Jemaine's New Zealand accents (which can be thicker in real life than on the show) and the odd way that Bret and James sound alike on the phone, even though one's from New Zealand and one's from England, I was afraid I wouldn't understand half of it, and would mis-attribute the rest.

But eventually I did it (though there were a couple of exchanges I couldn't decipher), and rather than risk getting further behind while waiting to write a review of the latest episode (it's been one of those weeks), I thought I'd just post the interview in lieu of a review. Feel free to discuss both the interview and the episode, and if I have any specific thoughts on it, I'll post them in the comments one of these days.

So, the key should be obvious: the stuff in bold and italics is from me, B is Bret, J is Jemaine, and JB is James Bobin. I feel reasonably confident that I was able to differentiate between Bret and James, but if I screwed up, I apologize to both gentlemen. The interview was conducted the morning after "The New Cup" aired, and so we talked about that quite a bit. I believe one of the upcoming plot points they hinted at was for tonight's episode.

Anyway, here we go...

I had the good fortune to see one of your Town Hall shows a few months back, and it was really striking to me how much the audience tried to involve themselves in it.

J: You mean the one where they put things on stage?

Yeah, the one where they put things on stage and there was the one woman in the audience who viewed the entire concert as an excuse to get a date with Jemaine.

B: That actually was a date.
J: I was taking her out.
B: They met on the Internet.

So much of what you guys do, in the TV show and on stage, depends on the timing of the interplay between the two of you. As you become more popular and the audience becomes more exuberant, does that cause problems?

B: They ruin it. They take out all the fun. No, it really changes the dynamic of the (stage) show. We realized last year it had changed and we don't think it's going to change back, unless we start touring countries in Eastern Europe. It's just a new environment, working on jokes that play along with the audience who know our stuff more.

How long ago did you start writing the musical material for this season, and was it before the scripts were written or was it done in conjunction?

B: We wrote a lot of it before the first season and we saved it up.

Really? Because when I talked to you during the first season, you said you had exhausted virtually all your material.

J: One of them is a lie.
B: One of us is a liar.
J: One of us only speaks the truth.
J: No, we wrote some about a year ago.
JB: Some are pre-existing.
J: We had some left over. Not a lot, and still we have some left over.
B: But a bunch of them we wrote as we wrote scripts this year.

Well, last season you were able to say, "Here's 'Rhymenoceros,' let's come up with a story where we can work that in." This year was it more, "Maybe we'll do an episode about this and then we'll write a song about Jemaine's sugar lumps"?

JB: I like to have songs which aren't necessarily due to storylines, if we can have them as well.
J: I hate (indecipherable Kiwi-accented moment). I like the songs to relate to the stories.
JB: I'm saying I like songs we can then work stories around. I like doing both, basically. I like the idea of having songs that come from the story and I also like the idea of having stories from songs. You can do both. That's the ideal world, I think.

Has it been harder, though? You did have this existing backlog of material going into the first season. You basically had to start from scratch for this.

J: We thought it would be harder, but actually it was easier. We could start off on stories, mostly the story ideas that we liked, and then we could write songs into them. We weren't beholden to our songs to come up with episode ideas.
B: Yeah, last year I don't think we wrote as many new songs because we were more cautious.
J: When we had time off, we were writing songs. We write mostly love songs, so then we have to do a certain amount of episodes that are about having a girlfriend -- which is a subject matter that's been done a lot.
B: By us.
J: Us, even.

Let's just take the episode that aired last night as an example, "The New Cup." There are two songs, I think: "Sugar Lumps" and then Bret trying to tell Jemaine that he doesn't have to be a prostitute. In what order did you come up with the ideas for all of that?

J: That was a song idea first, and then a tune, and then an episode. I had the idea for that song, the prostitute song, years ago, but I didn't really know how we could make it funny. But having a show, we could have a context in which it would be funny. I just wanted to have an idea of telling someone not to be a prostitute, but we didn't really think of making me the subject of the song.
JB: But also, Sugar Lumps, that was a song first, if I remember correctly.
J: We had an idea for a song. We just hadn't written it.

I like how the logic in the Conchords universe is bizarre and it goes from the $2.79 cup to you being a prostitute.

B: Thank you.
J: Good memory for prices.

I've only seen the first three of this season, but it does seem like there's more confidence in embracing that odd logic, of both the universe and the way the characters behave, than there was last year. And it seems more overtly farcical. Would you say that's something you were trying to do?

J: I don't want to hog all the answers, but last year, like many shows starting out, we weren't absolutely sure of the tone.
JB: The familiarity with it, you can explore it more fully. The more you learn, the more confident you get about what works and what doesn't work. And also, we liked the idea of evolving the characters more, and we're lucky to have actors like Rhys and Kristen and Arj, and they've really come on this year. So, for us, it was about fleshing that out, the world of the Conchords.
J: Also, last year, when we were creating the show, James, Bret and I have similar senses of humor, but they're not the same. So a lot of the discussion last year was in the tone, and we all had slightly different ideas. That sort of comes out in the first season -- it varies tonally. Whereas after we completed a whole season, we knew what the tone is, and it's a mixture of all our senses of humor together. Where discussion might have come up every episode last year, what we were heading for, this year, it didn't come up once, because we know what we like about the show now.

Even the songs seem to becoming more democratic this year. Murray sings fairly regularly, even Dave and Mel have sung in a few of the songs.

JB: We like that. We liked Murray singing "Leggy Blonde" last year and we wanted to explore that a little further, to see what other characters having going on in their heads.

The show isn't necessarily story-driven, but what are some of the plots that are coming up?

JB: Jemaine goes out with an Australian.


J: Yeah.
JB: Murray suggests being friends.
J: He wants to change the nature of his relationship with us.
B: Wants it to be more of a personal relationship.
JB: The prime minister of New Zealand comes to visit, and Murray is appointed his aide. What other ones are coming up?
J: These sound like blurbs out of the TV guide.
JB: I'm really making them sound boring.

Well, if you were to describe last night's, you would say "Bret buys a new cup," and that wouldn't really capture what the episode was.

B: That's right. That's why people clicking through the TiVo might go, "Oh, that doesn't sound very good."
JB: We can give you a sentence saying what happens, but a lot of stuff happens.
J: Jokes work in two ways --
B: Either they do or they don't.
J: Either you surprise people by delivering what they don't expect or you deliver what they expect and they get satisfaction out of that. If they read it beforehand, neither of those ways is going to work.
JB: It's quite hard describing the show without giving away the jokes. Last year, we gave the episodes titles that gave away the story. They were working titles.
B: They were titles to remind us what the story was about.
J: That was very useful, but then they stuck on the Internet and we were stuck with them.

The first season ended, then there was the writers strike, which would have prevented you from coming back right away. Was there any temptation to say, "Well, we did this year, people really seemed to like it, maybe we should quit while we're ahead," or did you definitely want to go full-steam with this season?

J: We definitely thought of quitting. Well, I did. I wasn't supposed to answer that.
B: I thought about quitting. I tried. There was also a contractual thing.
JB: it's a good question.
J: Bret and I never agreed to do a second season. I'm not joking. They never asked us. They just assumed we were doing it. Even though we filmed it all, I like to think I can quit and say, "I never said I would do it."
B: We're too polite to say no.

Obviously, the two of you have different personalities, especially in real life. But on the show, it's kind of gradations of it. How do you decide in stories who's going to do what? Like, Jemaine's going to be eager to be a prostitute and Bret won't want to?

B: We thought it would be funnier if Jemaine was a prostitute. It seems too real if I'm a prostitute.
J: Also, in season one, Bret wouldn't like to do nudity. But he's come around this season.
B: I take my shirt off.
JB: Generally, it's fairly obvious which character would be funnier in which role. Sometimes, you set out with one idea in mind and then you switch it around and it's funnier.
J: that's unusual in that I thought of that idea, and I'm the focus of the prostitute story, but usually we suggest the other one. If it's me and Bret, all my ideas are "Bret does this and Bret does this," and Bret's ideas are all "Jemaine does this and Jemaine does this," because we don't want to do it (ourselves).
B: Last year, I got a lot of girls. This year, we switched that 'round. Jemaine gets the girls.
J: I was away for a week, so there's more storylines with me. Bret was away some of the time last year doing some band stuff when we were coming up with stories, so he got the girls.

One of the things I've always liked about the show is you go into these odd corners of New York, and they always look very memorable and yet I've never stumbled across any of them. Is somebody in the production a big fan of New York architecture, like the bandshells?

JB: Me. I'm a fan of (Robert) Moses' work in New York. I also love history, and I also love New York. So I spend a lot of time finding interesting places to put boring conversations.
B: The locations manager, Diego Prange, works hard to give it that grounding in this real place. We're quite surreal sometimes, but if you set it in a real place, it helps ground the humor.
J: Also, we get to definitely show a different part of New York than you see in most movies and films. I was watching "Hellboy 2" last night, and it's definitely a different part of New York than in our show.
JB: To me, that's a very believable, realistic part of New York. If you're in an unsuccessful band and you're not making any money, you could live a life very much like Bret and Jemaine.
J: When we started the show, Bret and I had hardly been in America, and I don't think you had spent much time in New York, James. We were just guessing what it was like to live in America when we started. Some of it was based on TV.

In the third episode, when Bret disses the other rappers, there's a reference to New Zealand having one other rapper named Steve. And as I recall, in "Rhymenoceros," there's also a reference to a Steve. Is there an actual rapping Steve in New Zealand? Is he a friend of yours?

B: You should check out Steve the rapper.
JB: He's from Dunedin.
B: There isn't one that I know of, but maybe there is now.
JB: There's actually a very flourishing rap scene in New Zealand.
B: But there isn't anybody named Steve.
J: I think he'd have a better rap name than Steve.

How do you think the show has changed the relationship between New Zealand and Australia?

J: Now a lot of Americans who have never been to australia say to us, "Australia sucks?"
JB: Is that a good thing?
B: We're helping.

Now that you're a bit more famous, is there a bit more sucking up from Australia?

J: Some of our first success was in Australia. The Melbourne Comedy festival was one of the first places we played.

And this is how you pay them back. I understand.

JB: I think they quite like it, actually.
J: They like to be mentioned.
JB: I don't think New Zealand gets a very good representation on the show, either.
B: Or America.

I want to get back to the songwriting. You say that, for the most part, it was easier because you could start fresh on it.

J: We were worried when we started.

You were worried?

J: Yes. You probably read an interview where we said we were worried, because we're very honest in our interviews. It was kind of fun.

Is there any temptation to say, "We don't necessarily have to have two to three songs in an episode, because we've gotten quite good at the comedy part of it"?

B: There's definitely a temptation to not have three songs.
JB: For me, the comedy around the songs is obviously quite important. I like to flatter myself to think the show could exist without songs.
J: Again, we have a different opinion. If it was up to me, we'd only have one song.


Alan Sepinwall said...

Great episode, by the way. Mel's dream song was hysterical (and disturbing), loved Gaffigan's backyard interrogation of the boys and, of course, all of Murray's sincere, detail-oriented attempts to befriend the band.

Anonymous said...

I thought this was another example of the show working well this season even if you completely removed the songs.

It was my favorite of the season so far.

Anonymous said...

I thought it was just an OK episode. The funniest part for me was Jermaine describing how he is more like Chandler and how people "watching" find his comments funny. He should have made a quick look in the camera at that point... or maybe that would be too much.

Anonymous said...


thanks for the interview and taking the time to transcribe!
the episode hasn't aired yet here in cali, but i am so excited!!!

Anonymous said...

Alan, I'll be happy to take you on a tour of FotC's New York. We'd spend a lot of time on East Broadway in Chinatown and Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Here's the bowling alley:

Antid Oto said...

I thought I recognized that alley! I just bowled there like a month ago.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Alan! The interview was really, really good.

Anonymous said...

There are lots of comedies on TV that make me laugh (at least in syndication), but very few that just make me happy after I've watched them. The Conchords do that. I generally have a smile on my face the next day thinking about the episode. The song with Gaffigan this week is amazing and next week Michel Gondry is directing. Talk about a perfect fit! So glad I get tickets for their concert!

lungfish said...

"How does that feel, a taste of your own d**k medicine?"

I loved Murray's delivery of that line.

Dave said...

Out of nowhere, I now laugh more during this show than any other one on television.

When Jemaine said his favorite part of the newspaper was "the pages? the articles?" I nearly lost it.

Even the way Jemaine says "Flight of the Conchords" when previewing next week's episode makes me laugh.

Anonymous said...

Finally got a chance to watch the episode,and I laughed my ass off. Somehow, this episode didn't have the same problems as the last one, even though it too veered towards "less song, more dialogue" territory , but the plots this time are more well hashed out and developed, making the scenarios aptly strange and hilarious to watch.

Gaffigan was a really great guest star, and fitted in pretty perfectly as Murray's bestest friend, as well as participating quite successfully in one of the songs as well. I enjoyed Murray and Jim together so much, I kind of wish that Jim would come back later in the show. (Though Greg is also a good foil for Murray too. The "No, we're not friends. We're colleagues" brush off was heartbreakingly funny.

Anonymous said...

Is it wrong that the highlight of my Monday is that Alan used my questions in the interview? I say it is not.

As for last night's episode, I enjoy the spreading around of the love concerning the songs, especially when it extends to guest stars.

Tom said...

I watched last night's ep in big-screen, hi-def glory, and Mel's dream was pure cinema. Seriously. They've come a loooong way from "Robots" in cardboard boxes on Murray's cell phone.

The songs and script blended very well last night. The music and lyrics had a twisted "Electric Company" vibe, which added a subversive kick to the story. And Gaffigan's character was PERFECT. Murray's soul-mate, really. I hope they get married.

Anonymous said...

Have to say that, after four episodes, it seems as though this season is less fresh, interesting and funny than the first. It's almost become a formula, with little genuine surprise or inspiration (the West Side Story episode was especially creaky). But once you come to terms with that there's still a lot of fun and enjoyment to be had.

SJ said...

Murray: "This is a workplace, not a rec center for the misguided."

Murray: "What if someone came here and saw this?"
Jemaine: "Then we could play doubles."

The table-tennis scene was hilarious!

Anonymous said...

Loved the overhead projector in Murray's office and Murray carrying around the transparencies. Took me back to grade school!

The show is very good this season.

Alan - any talk of a third season during the interview?!

Anonymous said...

My favourite thing about this new season is how much the supporting characters are being brought into the songs/made more central to the show. So far I've found the second season far more entertaining to the first even if the songs are prehaps slightly less memorable.

Anonymous said...

The parts of New York in "Hellboy 2" that Jermaine was mentioning were actual Toronto.