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Pop CultureJune 25, 2017

About that time I was on Flight of the Conchords


Ten years ago, HBO screened the first episode of Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement’s Flight of the Conchords. And look, there, sitting outside that shop. Isn’t that Spinoff music editor Henry Oliver?

If it’s 10 years since the first episode of Flight of the Conchords aired in the US, that means it must be about 11 years since I was an extra on the first episode of Flight of the Conchords.

I’d vaguely known Bret McKenzie for about as long as I can remember. He’s a good friend of one of my sisters and I think another one of my sisters was his babysitter. His mum has taught most of my family ballet. Bret and Jemaine Clement’s comedy troupe with Taika Waititi, So You’re A Man, did a lunchtime show at my high school in flesh coloured nudie suits with woollen pubic hair and detachable penises. I went and laughed at my sister’s friends running around, pulling their penises off to play women and then putting them back on to play men again. Wellington is a small city.

The Most Beautiful Girl in the Room and Jemaine Clement and not Henry

I largely ignored my family’s recommendations about Bret’s new comedy-folk band (“sounds great!”), so didn’t really “get” them until every other festival-going type in the world did too. I hardly ever saw Bret in New Zealand, but would cross paths with him while I was on tour with Die! Die! Die!, the band I was in at the time. Every time I saw him, the Conchords were making something incredible happen. When he came to our show in London in 2005 (at a bar called the Spread Eagle), they were recording a radio series for the BBC. Early the next year, when Bret and Jemaine interviewed us (three vegetarians) at George W Bush’s favourite BBQ joint in Austin, Texas for their SXSW documentary A Texan Odyssey (we didn’t make the cut), they had just announced their HBO deal. And when we met up in New York later that year, they were about to shoot the pilot.

At the time, Die! Die! Die! existed on a kind of low-budget neverending tour. We’d leave New Zealand for as long as possible, play as many shows we could get in a row and then decamp somewhere until we booked another bunch of shows. My then-girlfriend/now-wife was living in New York, so between tours we tried to see if we could make it work there, playing whatever shows we could play in between trips to the UK where we got paid ever-so-slightly better.

Henry Oliver, ‘the Third Conchord’

Bret and Jemaine came to a show we were playing at a shitty bar on the Lower East Side and, after we’d played, Bret introduced me to James Bobin, an executive producer and co-writer on the show. He told me a bit about the premise of the show, and became increasingly interested in what we were doing and how we were scraping by. He thought it was funny that we were living the reality of what he was making a TV show about: a band of naive New Zealanders with small t-shirts and fluffy hair, often sleeping in the same room, trying to make it in the big city a long way from home.

A few days later, we were invited to be extras in a couple of scenes they were shooting: one at a party or one just sitting around. It was hot and we were lazy – we went to the one just sitting around. So, for one summer’s afternoon in New York, me and my bandmates (plus a friend from The Brunettes, who were also touring the States at the time) sat outside a pawn shop on the Lower East Side, drinking coffee and eating bagels, trying not to eat and drink them too fast, because they needed to last a few takes, but definitely eating and drinking all of them because we were broke and ate and drank all the free food and drink we could at every opportunity.

Later that year, I left the band and left New York. Another year later the series aired and soon I was back in New York visiting friends. The first time I went to the States, everyone asked about Lord of the Rings. “Do you know Peter Jackson?” they’d ask, thinking that everyone from a country as small and remote as New Zealand must know everyone else. Now they’d ask, “Do you know Flight of the Conchords?”

Keep going!