Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Laughter from New Zealand

So, think of New Zealand, and what comes to mind? Sheep, maybe, or was that the Falkland Islands? Australia, which is another place entirely, albeit in the same part of the world? Of course, Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies, right? (For me, I also think of a media ecologist who lives there, Scott Eastham, and also Rodger Ashton-Smith, a MySpace friend, but they are not typical associations, obviously.)

Well, maybe this will all change with HBO's comedy series, Flight of the Conchords, which now has 7 episodes under its belt. The humor reminds me of Monty Python's Flying Circus, although it is not quite as surreal and discontinuous as that seminal show. And I realize I'm probably showing some bias or stereotyping here in associating them with British comedy, but the style seems closer to that than it does to our own, especially in the main characters' complete seriousness and typically deadpan expressions. And at least I'm not comparing them to the Australians. One of the refreshing themes that comes up repeatedly in the program is New Zealand's inferiority complex in relation to Australia. Forgive me, but how quaint, how cute!

And having noted the comparison, there is a certain resemblance to Paul Hogan's Crocodile Dundee movies, not in the sense that the heroes are rustics, or rugged individualists whose heroic traits were honed by living in the wilderness, but in that they are innocents who have come to the big city, fish out of water just looking to stay afloat. And the big city is the same as in Hogan's first film, the big apple, my hometown, New York, New York. So, sorry, but there are no lush New Zealand landscapes here. Instead it's NYC from the bottom up, two guys living here with almost no money, renting a place in Chinatown I believe.

So, these two guys who are naive, unsophisticated, and flat broke come to New York to seek fame and fortune, that's an established formula, but they play it well in Flight of the Conchords. And specifically, these two guys are a band, although they are only two guys playing guitars, which is already a little pathetic. And they have no gigs, but they have a manager, who works at the New Zealand consulate in Manhattan, and is good-natured but small-minded, calls lots of meetings, takes attendance, but has no idea how to get the performers any paying jobs. He doesn't even know how to set up a free MySpace account and make their music available that way! HBO, of course, is much more sophisticated, and there's one profile for MySpace Comedy, and one for the show itself, or is that two for the show? Actually, there's a third for MySpace Music.

Which brings me to the topic of music. Flight of the Conchords is a show about musicians, and there is music played in the show, so it's a musical comedy. Meaning that it's a musical, they break into song a few times during each episode, and it is worth noting that the musical genre is a rare one for television (and I am probably one of about three or four people who really liked the show, Cop Rock). And this also brings me back to the point about surreal comedy, because all musicals are in some sense surreal, in that we don't normally break into song, and maybe even dance, in the middle of everyday life, and then go back to whatever it was that we were doing. That's why the form lends itself so well to comedy, at least in the English speaking world where Gilbert and Sullivan rule, as opposed to on the continent where you have the melodramatic (which literally means musical drama) art form of opera (which is played for laughs quite often here in the United States).

But this is more than musical comedy, the program moves into parody of musicals, and not surprisingly, parody of music videos (which are an easy target, as Beavis and Butthead definitively demonstrated, but the HBO series still does a good job of it), parody of the rockumentary genre as well (Spinal Tap is definitely an influence), and of course parody of music. While they are sometimes referred to as folk musicians, the two members of the band both play acoustic guitar, the music ranges from progressive and new wave to soul and rap/hip hop (and I admit that I am a bit out of touch with contemporary popular music, so I may well have missed something). I should note that this is not parody of specific songs along the lines of Weird Al Yankovic, more of a generalized take off on various musical styles. The lyrics are not quite as funny as Weird Al's, but taken together with the style and attitude, and visuals, and the result is a good laugh indeed.

I should add that these same qualities make the show suitably self-reflexive and ironic to satisfy the postmodern appetite. But it also has the virtue of keeping the characters innocent and unaware of the self-reflexive nature of the program, let alone that they are on a program. Really, some of the best comedy ever produced is about fools, characters who are relatively powerless, or at least less powerful than we are, who somehow survive in the face of a hostile environment. Charlie Chaplin comes to mind, for example.

Now, HBO was kind enough to make excerpts available, so I'm going to take advantage of them while they're working, and add them to the old blog. First, from episode one, is a music video called Robot:

Now, here's a bit of dialog between the two band members:

And now, a meeting with their "manager":

Now, here's a naive take on citylife in music video form:

And one about the ever-popular topic of sex:

There's an episode that revolves around a mugging incident, with a musical interlude that takes us back to West Side Story and Beat It!.

And here's a phone call back to New Zealand that plays with stereotypes about America and NYC:

This is a love song, featuring the Unisphere (which I love to see, having grown up in Queens with very fond memories of the World's Fair):

This episode has a Yoko Ono and The Beatles, girlfriend breaking up the band kind of theme, and this conversation starts to reveal that possibility:

And here the conflict comes to a head in a musical segment:

Then there's unrequited love, another great musical theme:

And the band survives as love dies:

Another episode features a fictional David Bowie appearing in a dream to one of the band members:

Bowie's progressive rock was very big back in the seventies, so that segment and even more so this one about Bowie in space was hilarious, at least for me. My friend Marty Friedman and I used to play Bowie's Space Oddity on guitar and sing it in our own inimitable (bad) fashion, and the popularity of that song is reflected in Adam Sandler's a capella rendition in the remake of the Frank Capra film, Mr. Deeds.

And the most recent episode shifted the spotlight to the band's manager, who developed a crush on a co-worker and wanted to write her a song of his own:

and in this fantasy world of theirs, why not?

It's almost a cliché to say that HBO is giving us a quality television series, but there you have it. It's not Shakespeare, it's not Seinfeld, it's not South Park, but it is simply good fun from somewhere down under (not Australia).


Anonymous said...

That ain't no fantasy world, mate - that's reality. Those two could be (very good) friends of mine, and husband does do a KILLER robot dance. I'm quite excited (thank you), this could quite possibly my new favourite show. Perhaps there's still hope. If only we got HBO. Though probably just as well - keeps the art cleaner.

P.S. And of course it's not Australian. Though it very well could be.

Anonymous said...

P.S. My tummy hurts from laughing already. No. Really.