"Flight Of The Conchords" vs. "Tenacious D"
-- the comedy cage match
So it's funny but one question I've been asked more than any other lately by my American friends is, have you seen "Flight Of The Conchords," the hit HBO TV series about the struggling New Zealander musicians in New York City. Embarassingly, until recently, the answer was no, because the series didn't air in New Zealand until months after it aired in the U.S., and then it aired at like 10.30 at night which is past my bedtime on work nights (blame NZ television, which actually passed on airing the show when offered at first, and will never quite live that down).
But now it's out on DVD here, we bought it and have been laughing our way through the first series. It's hilarious deadpan humor, with what I now recognize as a particularly Kiwi bent to it.
I have to admit, though, before I ever saw "Conchords" I was a bit put off by it, because it sounded startlingly familiar to another short TV series, which also just happened to be on HBO, about a two-man band struggling for success -- Jack Black and Kyle Gass' "Tenacious D," of course. And they are quite similar, no doubt about it, right down to having a single obsessed fan of each band. But then again, the theme itself is hardly new – mock comedy about fake bands goes back at least to "The Monkees" that I can think of.
And what's interesting having seen both "D" and "Conchords" now is the differences between them. They're both quite funny, I think, but in different ways that speak of the cultural humor gap between US and Brit/Kiwi style wit.
"D" is openly surreal and slapstick, over-the-top in the way live-action cartoon character Jack Black specialized in when he was starting out. The D meet Sasquatch, battle the Devil, kick each other's heads off in fights, and play a kind of acoustic heavy metal folk heavy on sexual bragging, yelping and boasting, made all the funnier because they're strumming it along on cheap two-chord guitars. It's a comedy based on excess -- how far will we take this? (The D's semi-successful live-action movie "The Pick of Destiny" tried the same style, only to sputter out a bit when transfered from 10-minute shorts into 90 minutes of film.)
The Conchords on the other hand are particularly Kiwi as they focus in on the idea of the Kiwi man, a stoic "bloke." They play on the image of Kiwis as unknowns in Manhattan (frequently they're mistaken for Australians or English), and Conchords Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie are experts at the deadpan, Buster Keaton stoneface non-reaction reaction shot. The duo and their manager Murray are sometimes shown as gullible, easily fleeced and a bit confused by bustling Manhattan. So "Conchords" is simultaneously making fun of Kiwis in America while also knowingly nudging New Zealand in the side, saying "ah, this is what they think we're like, eh?" It's double-edged humour that's a fair bit subtler than Tenacious D, and the exotic Kiwi factor pays well to Americans who don't know much about this country on the other side of the world.
The Conchords' music is also a fair bit different than Tenacious D -- the songs are almost always in elaborate music video-style fantasy sequences, and tunes like "If You're Into It" and "Business Time" kind of parody hot R&B and indie pop but are also technically quite proficient music, with Jemaine's swooping bass delivery and Bret's velvety croon. The music is more varied than the D's, which possibly explains why the Conchords' first CD "The Distant Future" just grabbed a Grammy Award.
I think "Tenacious D" is about being big and refusing to acknowledge you're small, while "Flight Of The Conchords" is about being small and dreaming of being big. What that says about the two nations I'll leave to deeper thinkers than I! I tell you, though, now that I'm a fan of both shows, what I wouldn't give to see some kind of "Tenacious D"/"Flight of the Conchords" crossover, with a musical duel and/or cage fight to the death to see who the top parody folk duo in the world really is.