From the Smothers Brothers to Adam Sandler, comedians have long used music to help their material go down easier, while musical acts from Weird Al to Tenacious D used humor to creep onto album charts. That line between tunes and laughs has been eroded further by Flight of the Conchords, the indie-comedy flavor of the month that has lasted well over a year.
By now, anyone with an HBO subscription (or YouTube addiction) should be familiar with the premise of Flight of the Conchords. Two likeable New Zealand geeks, the half-delusional Bret McKenzie and fully delusional Jemaine Clement, have relocated to New York City to make it as a two-piece band, also called Flight of the Conchords. They have the world's worst manager (Kiwi comic Rhys Darby) and suffer through dead-end jobs while laboring to keep the band together, hitting typical snags with offbeat humor.
In the episode "Yoko," Jemaine asks Bret to choose between the band and his new girlfriend — ahem — Coco. Bret opts for Coco, both to her surprise ("I don't really see us as long-term ...") and Jemaine's. Likewise, when the duo tries to scare off thugs with a rap song, it only baffles their attackers. That deadpan earnestness is the most likeable thing about the Conchords. Every character who encounters them on the show, meanwhile, can't believe they're for real.
But they are, sort of. On TV the band has a fan club of one — Kristen Schaal's lusty, hangdog Mel — whereas in real life the Conchords are signed to Sub Pop, won a Grammy last year, and have spawned an album and sold-out tours. Instead of simply writing clever songs like so many other musician-comedians, McKenzie and Clement have constructed a world where they're hilarious nobodies, in contrast to their ever-increasing popularity in the outside world.
With that universe firmly established, it's strange hearing Flight of the Conchords' new self-titled CD and revisiting songs so familiar from the show's musical segments. Following an EP last year, the debut album proves strong enough to stand on its own, namely by excluding songs too closely entwined with the plot of an episode. The Conchords have also fleshed out the mostly acoustic arrangements to make a proper album, if a novelty one.
The funniest entry, "Hiphopopotamus vs. Rhymenoceros," lampoons hip-hop and features the deeper-voiced Clement dropping these bon mots: "My rhymes are so potent that in this small segment/I made all of the ladies in the area pregnant." (This is the very song they unleashed upon the aforementioned delinquents, by the way.)
Elsewhere, "Leggy Blonde" sends up the sentimental musings of James Blunt; "Boom" is a slice of ribald reggae; and "Think About It" bridges the gap between Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" and the funky coffeehouse folk of G. Love. Knowing nods to Bowie, Kraftwerk, and Serge Gainsbourg pop up as well, all as catchy as can be.
While other musical parodists often focus on a specific song or genre, Flight of the Conchords is sonically omnivorous. It's not so much musical styles that interest McKenzie and Clement as the weird subcultures that spring up around them, which they mine for material, along with the pathos of life in a working band.
Credit the act's success in part to the duo's unique collective experience. Mc-Kenzie was in Kiwi party band the Black Seeds, and had a bit part in two of the Lord of the Rings movies (the basis of a Conchords song that didn't make the album). Clement explored his Maori roots as a member of the comedy troupe Humourbeasts, whose Taika Waititi later cast him as the delusional lead in the Napoleon Dynamite-esque indie film Eagle vs. Shark.
These guys know how absurd it is to be an entertainer, from managing outsized egos to swimming with industry sharks, which is why the best moments of their act offer acute observations about fame — both major and minuscule. In reality, Flight of the Conchords commands a decent amount of absurdity, of course, which should only provide fodder for even funnier material down the road. Talk about irony.