Let’s say you turn on your television, flip to HBO, and find two gentlemen and three elderly people singing and snapping to a “West Side Story”-esque musical number, threatening two preteen delinquents who can only stare at them in confusion. Or maybe you catch two men in cardboard robot suits, speak-singing about a robot apocalypse.
There are really only two reasonable reactions to this kind of scenario: you can wonder what kind of oddball would find this funny, or, like me, you can be one of said oddballs that keep watching and laughing until your face looks like a tear-stained tomato.
And the show in question, HBO’s “Flight of the Conchords,” is uproariously funny and impeccably structured in ways to which other shows can only aspire.
Based on the stand-up and musical performances of the show’s two leads, the show centers on the lives of two New Zealander folk musicians living in New York, Bret (Bret McKenzie) and Jemaine (Jemaine Clement). Yet the two seasons of “Flight of the Conchords” are tales of seemingly eternal financial and social adversity; rather than spend the show’s two seasons building these characters as savants who fight the world around them, the writers portray these characters as absolute idiots who live in an idiotic world. They’re put in situations in which they have the opportunity to succeed, like gaining a refurbished public image thanks to some hair gel (a kind of amazing fantasy, when you think about it), but their utter incompetence gets in their way every time. I won’t spoil the show’s ending, but once you see it, you’ll wonder why it hadn’t happened in the show’s pilot.
Rounding out the regular members of this idiotic world are Murray (Rhys Darby), the incompetent manager of the New Zealand consulate; Dave (Arj Barker), the friend with an inflated self-image who constantly delivers bad advice; Mel (Kristen Schaal), the band’s only fan and obsessive stalker; and Eugene (Eugene Mirman), the pair’s socially awkward landlord. None of these hilarious series regulars is good at hir job (or lack thereof), and that’s what makes the show so relatable. Even in spite of their flaws and social problems, we want these characters to break out of the world in which they live and move on to a better existence. It’s a show about goofballs, for goofballs.
And how would you round out a show so utterly ridiculous? By inserting musical numbers into the show’s plot, of course. They range from the surreal (“The Prince of Parties” is a drug trip gone wrong) to the raunchy (“Sugalumps” is a song about showing off your, well, “family jewels”) to the oddly touching (“Carol Brown” is a song about lost love, even if it’s sung by Jemaine, a clearly subpar boyfriend).
But the songs of “Flight of the Conchords” never feel forced or unoriginal. Rather, they’re an integral part of the show’s narrative construction. Some numbers connect story lines, like in “Stay Cool,” which cuts between Bret’s gang (the aforementioned group of two men and three elderly people) and Murray’s struggle to deal with the bullies at the Australian consulate. Others push the show’s plot to absurd extremes: “Foux Du Fafa” turns the pair’s infatuation with two bakery employees into a French-inspired number in which Bret and Jemaine rattle off pretty much every disconnected French word or reference as possible, from “boeuf” to “Jacques Cousteau.” Some are just delightfully stupid: “Hiphopopotamus Vs. Rhymenoceros” is one of the show’s many attempts at rap, featuring such gems as “my rhymes are so potent that in this small segment I made all of the ladies in the area pregnant” and “there ain’t no party like my nana’s tea party.”
Perhaps more importantly, these moments serve as a rather dramatic contrast from the show’s deadpan, non-musical humor. Whether it’s the clearly exaggerated backwardness of New Zealand, including advertisements such as “the telephone: you make the call,” or the casual, monotonous delivery of the show’s actors, the show does a stellar job of creating two distinct but never out-of-sync brands of humor. Highlights include arguments about leather suits and Eugene’s advice about prostitution, coming from a book that he calls “How To Get It Done.”
“Flight of the Conchords” only lasted two seasons, but it tells a complete story. There’s room for more if McKenzie and Clement ever decide to go the “Entourage” route and make a movie, but “Flight of the Conchords” feels like a unified whole. Yes, it is a fantastic show, but I’d rather let it end with style than become a dilapidated, formulaic mess. It is a tale of, as Jemaine puts it in the show’s finale, “two guys who start at the bottom, with a lot of hard work, continue along the bottom, and finally end up at the bottom.”
The clichéd saying goes, “if, at first, you don’t succeed, try, try again.” But if, like Bret and Jemaine, you fail spectacularly on a weekly basis, “Flight of the Conchords” teaches us that, at the very least, you can sing along.