New Zealand music’s most famous musical comedy duo return to the stage in Flight of the Conchords: Live in London. Calum Henderson reviews.
New Zealand television networks have always got a lot of shit for not giving Flight of the Conchords their own series. Fair enough, in hindsight this does seem like a pretty bad call.
Knowing what we know now, having watched and rewatched the series they made for American network HBO instead, it’s easy think those New Zealand television commissioners must have all been a bunch of brain-dead bloody idiots.
This has always been my position, anyway. It is a fun and popular position to take. But is it really an honest one?
Watching their reunion special Flight of the Conchords: Live in London, recorded (live, in London) last year and screening on Prime this Sunday night, I tried to imagine I was an early-to-mid-2000s New Zealand television commissioner.
I pretended I had never seen the successful HBO series, or any of Bret and Jemaine’s subsequent work, and asked myself: would I give these two men their own show?
If I’m honest? Probably not. Maybe I’d try and shuffle them some budgetary scraps to make something that plays late at night on TV3, because they are funny and I do like them. But would I stick my neck out and risk my career (potentially, I don’t know what it was like for television commissioners back then) on them having a hit comedy series in them?
The stage show is obviously very good. The banter (is it ‘banter’ when a comedy band talks between songs? Or just comedy?) has some moments that show series potential, like when they bring out “the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra” and it’s just one guy carrying a cello, and Bret tells the crowd “per capita he’s actually bigger than your orchestra.”
Okay, but can you make a whole series out of jokes like this? You can, and they did. But remember I’m an early-to-mid-2000s New Zealand television commissioner so I don’t know this yet. To me, the stage just feels like the perfect platform for their talents.
Because the other thing the live setting really brings into focus is how, you know, ‘good at music’ the Conchords are. One of the reasons this is so good to watch is because of how often their songs transcend comedy pastiche and just genuinely shred.
There’s a bit at the end of the second song, Britpop / The Office inspired duet ‘Iain and Deanna’, where Jemaine rips out this feedback-drenched Neil Young guitar solo while Bret holds down a motorik groove on the bass. I realise this just sounds like I’m describing most mid-period Wilco songs, but still, pretty cool.
The new songs are mostly good. ‘Seagull’, a ’70s AM-radio soft rock ballad sung by Bret and narrated, Genius.com style, by Jemaine, is a highlight of the set. The opener, ‘Father and Son’, is like the Cat Stevens song only with a M. Night Shyamalan twist that escalates the laughs without quite shaking the pathos.
The combo of 7-and-a-half-minute medieval folk ballad ‘Summer of 1353’ and 9-and-a-half-minute outlaw country epic ‘Stana’ means the show has a definite lull in the middle, but what concert special doesn’t? Even Queen Live at Wembley has a bit of a lull. Maybe it’s a deliberate pastiche of concert specials, in which case, simply brilliant.
They have enough hits to bring it back whenever they want, don’t worry. ‘Inner City Pressure’, ‘Foux du Fafa’, ‘Bowie’s in Space’ and others all get a run. So does the deep cut ‘Bus Driver’, a character-driven (pun not intended, please politely ignore) heartbreaker told from the perspective of a rural Kiwi tour bus operator giving a regretful tour of his hometown.
I put my imaginary New Zealand television commissioner’s hat back on, and I reckon this is the line I tell them to pursue if they want to make a series on my network. Give us quirky New Zealand caricatures! I imagine they then go away, work really hard, and end up making a show that absolute best case scenario is New Zealand’s answer to League of Gentlemen, but in all likelihood is probably much worse.
I mean well, but I unwittingly waste their talents and probably ruin all of our careers. Bugger! Maybe being a New Zealand television commissioner in the early-to-mid-2000s is more difficult than I thought.
Flight of the Conchords airs tonight on Prime at 9.05PM.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.