Return Flight for the ‘Conchords’

Return Flight for the Conchords

If you think you have to be a slacker yourself to make a comedy about two slacker folk musicians, consider the plight of Bret McKenzie. It’s late afternoon on the set of Flight of the Conchords, and McKenzie is hanging, duct-taped, on the back of a door.

The setup : McKenzie’s character, also called Bret, has been robbed in his apartment by a group of thugs, including the new girlfriend of his bandmate/roommate Jemaine . Jemaine, who’s been out sulking over problems in his new romance, walks through the door and finds Bret affixed. Bret calmly tells Jemaine that his gal pal has robbed them. Jemaine stares at Bret and asks, “Did she mention me”

The duo — who also co-write the show and the songs they perform in it — try out a slew of gags over numerous takes. Finally a crew member calls a break. “Can we relieve Bret’s arms for a bit”

For Season 2 of HBO’s eccentric musical comedy , the slackers are working harder than ever. Season 1, in 2007, took FOTC’s off-kilter songs, which the duo had been playing onstage for years, and built a winningly grotty sitcom around them. Bret and Jemaine are obscure musicians on New York City’s Lower East Side; their version of a big gig is playing a public-library reading room, and they’re so poor they share a tea mug, for which they’ve drawn up a schedule. They’re supported by incompetent manager Murray — by day a bureaucrat in the New Zealand consulate — and obsessed fan Mel .

The premise, the pair say, is an exaggerated version of their early days playing shows in Wellington, N.Z. One episode, Clement says, features a concert in which “we start off, and there’s one person, and then we turn the lights on at the end, and that person has left. That was a real gig that we did.” But a passionate cult audience discovered FOTC’s deadpan humor and the interspersed music videos for songs like “The Most Beautiful Girl ,” a sexy soul ballad to attainable beauty.

HBO ordered a second season. The problem FOTC had exhausted most of its song catalog — which meant writing a 10-episode season and the equivalent of a comedy album at the same time. “We’re going into the studio on the weekend,” McKenzie says, “and we might be finishing a song or even writing a song for that next week.”

On top of that, says co-writer James Bobin, are the show’s production demands. “We’re shooting a sitcom and two music videos in five days. Usually you have a day or three days for a video, and you have six days to shoot a sitcom. So we basically have half the time required to do that sort of work.”

You wouldn’t know it to watch the show, which is rich with visual allusions. When Jemaine tries to pick up girls in a coffee shop by ordering a croissant in French, the scene shifts into a video for “Foux du Fafa,” a conversational-French lesson set to ’60s Europop and filmed in the grainy color of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. “In the two or three minutes of a music video,” McKenzie says, “the world can just explode open. We can get really surreal or abstract, then drop back into the world of the characters.”

Keeping FOTC grounded are Bret and Jemaine, who depart from the Spinal Tap rock-parody standard with their deadpan manner. They’re both straight men, and thus both hilarious when they earnestly deal with absurd situations like trying to write a jingle for women’s toothpaste. HBO grows most of its comedy worldly and edgy; FOTC’s naifs inhabit a world smaller than Carrie Bradshaw’s shoe collection, but their show has a refreshing innocence.

Clement and McKenzie considered quitting after Season 1, knowing it would be a tough act to repeat. In the early Season 2 episodes, the strain shows in the songs, which service the plot but aren’t as memorable as the old ones. But the scripts are as funny and tightly written as ever, like an episode in which Bret buys a second tea mug, a “$2.79 spending spree” that causes their checks to bounce and sends them into a spiral of poverty.

So will the duo come back for a Season 3 Ask them after this one’s over, they say. As long as they keep slacking this well, let’s hope they don’t quit their day jobs.

See TIME’s “History of Stand-Up Comedy.” See the top 10 TV series of 2008.