Flight of the Conchords would persuade us of its artlessness but there are several comedic subroutines spinning furiously within. I counted no fewer than 9 of them. (Aren’t anthropologists tedious? Always decoding culture, always overthinking things.)
1) the "second look" subtlety I talked about yesterday. As Flynn points out, the song lyrics demand careful attention and repetition.
2) broad humor, as when Bret glues Jemaine’s Kodak and cell phone together to make him a "camera phone." Or the robot video in which the boys dress up in aluminium foil and mechanical movements.
3) self mockery, as when Jemaine announces to the girl who is just about to dump him, "I’m usually more charismatic than this."
4) a passionate investigation of the bureaucratic sensibility, as evidenced by Murray (Rhys Darby) and his band meetings, roll calls and agendas. Anyone touched by the British Commonwealth likes this sort of thing, perhaps because the founding culture, England, managed to produce both a formidable love of bureaucracy and its anarchic opposite. In this view, Flight is to New Zealand what Monty Python was to Britain and Kids in the Hall were to Canada.
5) an affectionate investigation of the fan sensibility. The band’s fan Mel (Kristen Schaal) stalks the Conchords with insinuating questions that disclose a condition of imminent sexual ecstasy. In Schall’s best moment, she puts her nose to Clement’s shirt and inhales deeply.
6) Clement and McKenzie have a fine anthropological eye, and in the manner of Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, they examine "nothing" carefully for its comedic opportunity.
7) an idiotic innocence, which Alessandra Stanley captures nicely. The boys can’t quite decide what put off the woman Jemaine went out with. The viewer knows perfect well that it’s because Bret interrupted them as they were about to kiss, but the boys can’t help wondering whether perhaps Jermaine failed to walk "on the outside of her." The boys appreciate that this mysterious ritual is an absolute deal breaker with it comes to soliciting kisses.
8) dissonance, as when Clement takes on child labor in one of his "message songs," only to spin off into a reflection on why sneakers aren’t cheaper, the suspicion that we pay too much for sneakers, before being thrown free of the song with a plaintive cry: "what’s your overhead?" This is anthropological trickery of another kind. Normally, the folk song and business analysis are things kept secret. Clement binds them up.
9) splicing. This isn’t something I’ve noticed before, and it’s not something I’ve seen talked about. Let me have a go and leave it to my readers to sort things out. By splicing I mean exactly what Wikipedia means by the term: joining two pieces of rope or cable by weaving the strands of each into the other" except in this case what gets joined are not bits of rope but culture. There is lots of splicing in Flight.
First order splicing
There’s the cheap kind, the kind I associate most with Larry David, as when some stray detail of the plot turns out to be critical to its outcome. In episode 3 of Flight, a monkey serves this purpose.
Second order splicing
There’s something more complicated as when Brett determines that to square things with Jemaine, he must recover the camera phone they lost in a mugging. The mugger returns not just the camera phone, but also the pictures he took with it. These include pictures of him because, well, he had to "finish out the roll." There’s actually a picture of the mugger ripping off a convenience store.
It’s good comedy and it works because it represents the intersection of people who should never see one another again, and objects that are themselves the outcome of a preposterous kind of splicing, which devices, it turns out, capture photos that should never have been taken. Both the camera and the photos end up exchanged by people who should be enemies in the creation of a social moment that should never have happened. Sure enough and the boys all become friends. This is splicing to make the head spin.
Third order splicing
And there are moments of highest order splicing. The boys go to a party and Jemaine spots the girl of his dreams and breaks into song, exclaiming that she is so beautiful she could be a "part time model" or "high class prostitute." While Jemaine sings, we understand that we are now in "song time." More specifically, we understand that we have entered another dramatic dimension that is rooted in "drama time" but a departure from it. (This conviction is well established in our culture and musical theatre depends upon it.) But no sooner have we got our bearings than Jermaine walks up to the party host in "drama time" and still singing asks him a question. Yikes. Drama time and song time are suddenly one. They are now spliced.
Now, it’s not impossible to imagine why we might be charmed by splicing. We live in a culture that is busting out in all directions. We attempt to manage selves that are themselves disparate and various. There is something deeply reassuring about a comedy that puts the world back together again.
Flynn, Gillian. 2007. Taking ‘Flight.’ Entertainment Weekly. Issue 941/942. June 29-July 6, 2007, p. 125.
Richmond, Ray. 2007. Flight of the Conchords: Can a couple of sullen, sardonic New Zealand boys find success singing, strumming and spoofing at 10:30 p.m. on HBO? I’m guessing no. here.
Stanley, Alessandra. 2007. The New Zealand Invasion: Digi-Folk Now! New York Times. June 15, 2007. here.
FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS
Dakota Pictures, Comedy Arts Studios and HBO
Teleplay-creators: James Bobin, Jemaine Clement, Bret McKenzie
Executive producers: Stu Smiley, James Bobin, Troy Miller
Co-executive producers: Tracey Baird, Jemaine Clement, Bret McKenzie
Producers: Anna Dokoza, Christo Morse
Director: James Bobin
Director of photography: Patrick Stewart
Production designer: Christine Stocking
Costume designer: Rahel Afiley
Editor: Casey Brown
Casting: Cindy Tolan
Jemaine: Jemaine Clement
Bret: Bret McKenzie
Coco: Sutton Foster
Mel: Kristen Schaal
Murray: Rhys Darby