Kiwi Comedians Merrily Wing It And Sing It on HBO's 'Conchords'

Jemaine Clement, left, and Bret McKenzie mine their deadpan demeanors and hangdog personalities for laughs. (By Nicole Rivelli)

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By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 16, 2007

Comedy doesn't have to be loud and laughter need not be convulsive for either to be satisfying. Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, who boldly under-bill themselves as "the fourth most popular folk-parody duo" in New Zealand, have come to America with a style of musical humor that's sly, shy and wry.

Fortunately, adventurous smarties at HBO have given the boys their own series in which to display it.

"Flight of the Conchords" aims to sort of slip itself under the door, or float gently in over the transom, rather than come blasting out of the telly to assault one's senses. There's easily enough about it that's sweetly fresh to make it worth hanging around for (starting tomorrow night, after "Entourage").

The four conspicuously consuming heroes of "Entourage" announce their coolness to the world, whereas the modest duo of McKenzie and Clement exert so little energy on trying to be cool that they achieve effortless coolness maximus above the fray. They've reached a plateau that mercifully frees them of cooler-than-thou poses, also mercifully freeing the audience of sitting through that kind of cuteness.

But every now and then, unpredictably most of the time, the chaps break into song, wherever they happen to be and whatever social intercourse they're involved in.

Their style of comedy isn't totally new -- nothing ever is. It has something in common with the surreptitious audacity of Ricky Gervais ("Extras"). But the Conchords' deadpan, hang-dog demeanor is rare and special and can grow on you quickly. Even instantly.

These two mean the world no harm, and they weather crises calmly. When, in the third episode, they're mugged by a pair of feckless toughs, and Bret sees to his own escape while leaving his partner behind, Jemaine tells him later upon their reunion that "leaving your friend to die" is simply "the height of rudeness."

Bret concedes without much real contrition that Jemaine has made a valid point, and willingly subjects himself to a lesson in manners from, of all people, one of the muggers, with whom the boys have a pleasant lunch a few days after the incident. The scene ends happily when the other mugger shows up at the restaurant and the two duos are complete again.

Jemaine and Bret don't kiss, but they do make up; although addicted to each other's company, they're clearly heterosexual, competing ruthlessly for girlfriends the way Hope and Crosby did for Dorothy Lamour in their great screen teamings. The two comic singers bring lots of male duos to mind, the kind that TV Guide's shorthand used to label "zanies" -- Beavis & Butt-head; SpongeBob SquarePants and clueless Patrick. Or, to read too much into it (as if it were a comic "Sopranos," perhaps), how about George and Lennie in Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men"; playwright Joe Orton and his fatally jealous roommate, Kenneth Halliwell, in "Prick Up Your Ears"; and, of course, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, just for good measure?

In the premiere, we meet the lads as they walk down a gloomy Queens street discussing women. The large and lumbering Jemaine "kinda talks in a monotone, sounds like a robot," according to a cop in a future episode, but the description fits the better-looking and more compact Bret, as well. These boys are classic examples of minding your own business, but as they learn each week, more or less, minding one's own business is no defense. Someone else will come along and mind your own business for you.

Although hardly surrounded by hordes of fans -- or even a half-dozen -- the boys have an acolyte or two. One is the deputy cultural attache at the New Zealand consulate, who appears to act as their agent (HBO likes to keep essential information about its programs a secret, so the actor's name remains a mystery). The other acolyte, more amusing by far, is Bret's girlfriend (and apparently Jemaine's ex-girlfriend), Coco, played with endearing and authentic goofiness by Sutton Foster.

In the fourth episode, Jemaine goes a little nutty and starts calling Coco "Yoko" because, he says, she is threatening to break up the band. This leads to one of the few acts of violence in the series -- Bret hitting Jemaine in the face with a sandwich -- after which Bret quits the band, something he does with apparent frequency. After an engaging "Duet for Three" sung by the boys with interpolations from Coco, the episode ends grandly with a Sgt. Pepper-y production number that's spectacular in a winningly offbeat way.

The whole show is winningly offbeat, really -- especially in how it never grovels, begs or exploits unpleasant bodily functions to get laughs. When approached by the muggers in the third show, the boys first try to scare them off by singing at them, then dancing. It doesn't work, but it's typical of the show's droll and nutty conceits.

"Flight of the Conchords" might not have you slapping a knee in hysterics, but it may well cause contented chortling inside -- the kind of laughter that's probably good for the soul, good for the digestion and, in this case, good TV.

Flight of the Conchords debuts tomorrow night at 10:30 on HBO.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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