Date: June 29 2012
On May 3, 2000, two skinny Kiwis with acoustic guitars made their television debut on Wellington's regional TV station.
Before a studio audience of about 20, in front of a lurid backdrop that threatened to steal the show, the pair looked, well, awkward.
One of them, Bret McKenzie, wore a perplexed expression, as if he'd been beamed into the studio from another planet. The other, Jemaine Clement, looked unimpressed under his glasses and woolly sideburns, like a young academic whose application for tenure had just been refused.
The pair, who had met at the Victoria University of Wellington four years earlier and called themselves Flight of the Conchords, launched into Bowie, a parody of David Bowie's Space Oddity. Actually, ''launched'' is overstating it. More like ''stumbled''.
''Bowie's in space,'' they sang, over slapdash guitar work. ''What you doin' out there, man? That's pretty freaky, Bowie. I mean, you don't have any astronautical qualifications of any sort … Do you have one spacesuit, or do you have several ch-ch-ch-changes?''
Twelve years on, the Conchords haven't really ch-ch-ch-changed. McKenzie still looks perplexed, and Clement still looks like a disgruntled professor. And their act, all catchy tunes and whimsical observations, hasn't changed much, either.
What has changed can be summed up in two words: ''accolades'' and ''audience''. Or maybe four words: the Sydney Opera House. That's where the pair are playing next month during their first headline tour of Australia.
''We are finally returning to Australia,'' Clement says.
''Mostly to apologise.''
It's true that the Conchords have made a habit of poking fun at Aussies. ''I think in the States we've helped give people an idea of what New Zealanders are like,'' McKenzie told Newcastle's The Herald in April.
''But I think we maybe made Australia look quite bad, which we will be apologising for on this tour. Americans often come up to me and say, 'Do New Zealanders really hate Australians?' and I'm like, 'Noooo, it was just a joke.'''
The Conchords are cruising at an impressive altitude, having covered considerable ground since their TV debut. In 2003, they were nominated for the Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. In 2005, they made a radio series for the BBC, which won a gong at the Sony Radio Academy Awards. In 2007, they made a TV series for the US cable network HBO. Ranked by several critics among the year's best, it led to a second series; the two series then garnered 10 Emmy nominations. In 2008, the band won the Grammy for best comedy album for The Distant Future. And in 2010, they appeared on The Simpsons.
This year, McKenzie bagged a best original song Oscar for Man or Muppet, from the film The Muppets. Not bad for New Zealand's fourth-most popular folk-parody duo.
So, what went right? Or, if you dislike Kiwis, what went wrong?
First, they wear cool T-shirts. On that debut TV appearance, McKenzie wore a brown, blue and white number that was so retro it was avant-garde. At that moment, there would have been thousands of analogous duos, but none had T-shirts as cool as the Conchords'.
Second, they have handsome heads. McKenzie has the angular, chiselled features of a model; Clement is tall and dark and has a charismatic twinkle in his eye. In 2008, Who magazine included them in its list of 100 Sexiest People.
Third, they are actually very good. For starters, they are musically accomplished. (Clearly, they've been practising since their TV debut.) They write great pop melodies that build to memorable choruses. And they complement those melodies with witty, charming lyrics, as in Business Time, a song that has been viewed on YouTube more than 25 million times.
''Girl, tonight we're gonna make love,'' Clement sings. ''You know how I know? Because it's Wednesday, and Wednesday night is the night that we usually make love. Monday night is my night to cook, Tuesday night we go and visit your mother, but Wednesday we make sweet, weekly love.''
Their humour is observational and whimsical. Not nasty or mean, just playful. As in Hiphopopotamus vs. Rhymenoceros, which has been viewed 13 million times.
''My rhymes are so potent, that in this small segment, I made all the ladies in the first two rows pregnant,'' Clement sings. ''Yeah, that's right, sometimes my lyrics are sexist, but you bitches and hos should know … erm, I'm trying to correct this.''
Both these songs feature in the Conchords' current tour.
''Live, it's all songs,'' McKenzie says. ''We don't do sketches; we don't do scenes. There's no costumes or anything. It's more like a music gig.''
To buy tickets for the New Zealand leg of the tour - which started on June 13 in the North Island town of Hastings - Kiwi fans queued for hours. The shows sold out in 10 minutes. The Sydney Opera House show sold out in minutes, too, prompting the hasty addition of a Sydney Entertainment Centre gig.
Those who have missed out need to invoke the words of McKenzie: ''I'm not cryin', it's just been raining … on my face.''
FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS
Thursday, July 5, Sydney Opera House, sold out. Friday, July 6, Sydney Entertainment Centre, sold out. Tickets still on sale for Newcastle, Tuesday, July 10, and Wollongong, Wednesday, July 11. Tickets available from frontiertouring.com/fotc, $86.
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