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Pop CultureMay 23, 2024

Jemaine Clement’s new comedy band could be great – but opening night was a disaster


Review: Goth 2 A Flame, the new musical comedy act by Jemaine Clement and Jonny Brugh, shares the same magic that made Flight of the Conchords world famous. But their debut performance fell well short. 

Twenty-eight years ago, Jemaine Clement first performed at Wellington’s BATS Theatre alongside Bret McKenzie in the comedy troupe So You’re a Man. The two would go on to form the band Flight of the Conchords, arguably New Zealand’s greatest comedy export.

There was an excited flurry among Wellington comedy fans over the news that Clement would be returning to BATS theatre during the New Zealand Comedy Festival to debut a new musical comedy duo with Jonny Brugh, whom he starred alongside in What We Do In The Shadows.

Goth 2 A Flame is “New Zealand’s darkest goth band”, made up of Martin AKA Clown of Thornz (Brugh) and Richard Nothing (Clement), two self-serious, angsty goths from Dunedin who aren’t nearly as complex and tortured as they think they are. 

As a comic premise, it’s more high concept than Conchords. There’s a lot of room to play with characters and genre, plus some outrageous costumes and ambitious lighting effects. There are elements of Spinal Tap in their attempts to prove how hardcore they are, and moments that parody the wider music industry (Brugh’s character sings a song about Tunisia, then condemns artists who appropriate African themes, including himself). 

Obviously, the most important part of a musical comedy show is the songs. On that front, Goth 2 A Flame is excellent. Similar to Conchords, the characters are earnest but dim-witted musicians, and the humour comes from their awkward, unaware songwriting. Clown of Thornz writes horror in the same clunky way Jemaine sang about sensuality in ‘Business Time’ and ‘The Most Beautiful Girl In The Room’Richard Nothing tries to explore dark, twisted themes but exposes his own sheltered naivety in a way that reminds me of ‘Think About It’ and ‘Inner City Pressure’. The final number, an upbeat disco track about how they’re not having any fun at the disco, has shades of ‘Sugarlumps’ and ‘Too Many Dicks’

Flight of the Conchords at the US Comedy Arts Festival 2005 (Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)

However, Clement and Brugh clearly put a lot more effort into composing the songs than rehearsing the show. It was an unorganised disaster, which started late and was riddled with technical difficulties. 

During the second song, Clement couldn’t get his guitar playing through the amp. The audience laughed along as he struggled, assuming it was part of the bit. “No, it’s actually not working,” he said. “Oh, I thought you were being humorous,” Brugh replied. They had to restart a song because the wrong drum loop was playing. Their instruments got caught on their wigs and mesh tops. A costume change took too long, leaving Clement on stage stalling for time. Brugh emerged dressed as Clements’ character in an even bigger wig, a strong joke premise that didn’t seem to go anywhere.

To their credit, the pair kept the show flowing with strong character-based improv, riffing about gothic themes while they tried to fix the litany of problems. But there were too many empty moments between jokes. In one pre-planned bit, the characters held a mock funeral for “the vibe of the show” after a song went off the rails. That part was scripted, but the joke of being bad on purpose didn’t quite land when the actual show was obviously falling apart. 

As things went downhill, Clement started to doubt himself. “I don’t like my character’s voice, am I English?” he mused. “Is this what Dunedin people sound like? There are a lot of white people there”. He broke character on stage to give lighting instructions. “We haven’t rehearsed this, but go to black and bring the lights up when the bass starts”. While plugging the band’s merchandise (a $12 pin on sale in the lobby), he asked, “Is $12 a good price? Probably not for this show. But once we’ve done it a few more times, hopefully it’s worth a $12 pin.” The show ended awkwardly, without an obvious climax. Brugh got his guitar strap stuck in his wig again before the pair ran off stage. “It’s actually over,” Brugh had to clarify to the confused audience.

It feels a bit unfair to judge a show like this on its opening night. Comedy is an iterative process, and they’re obviously still workshopping. But for such highly regarded comedians, it was pretty bad. If they were a young, unknown group performing in their first Comedy Festival, they wouldn’t have dared to charge money for something so underdeveloped.

Presumably, Clement and Brugh didn’t go to all the effort of songwriting and costume design just for a four-night run in a 70-seat theatre. Hopefully, this is leading towards a TV show or mockumentary. Once they work out the kinks, I have no doubt Goth 2 A Flame will be brilliant. It can only go up from here. 

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