Figwit Lives!

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Tickets to fly


Sun Star Times
Sunday , 10 November 2002

Folk comedy duo The Flight of the Conchords are off to Hollywood - just as soon as they can find the airfare, says Sarah Catherall.

"The idea of us going to Hollywood is just so ridiculous," Bret McKenzie says with a laugh.

McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, better known as comedy duo Flight of the Conchords, don't know who will be in the audience at the 20th Century Fox comedy theatre when they perform their cult comedy show Folk the World in less than a fortnight. And though they have no idea what to expect they've booked their flights anyway - and are now scratching around for cash to get there.

"It's definitely a wild card. It's a goal among a lot of comedians to play for industry people, for Fox or one of the big TV places. We could potentially get spots on TV comedy shows, but we really don't know," Clement says.

McKenzie, 26, and Clement, 28, are the first Kiwi comedians invited to the TV giant's prestigious theatre. It was an honour they couldn't turn down.

Ann Maney, a Fox talent scout, spotted them performing their folk comedy show, strumming acoustic guitars and singing comic songs, at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two months ago. Maney uses Edinburgh as a recruitment ground; she spotted Irish comic Ed Byrne there, which led to him appearing on Conan O'Brien's US talkshow.

But when she asked the Conchords if they were going to be in Los Angeles in early November, their response was typically low-key.

"We were like, "ah, nah". She told us we should do a gig at her comedy theatre. It was like, cool," McKenzie says.

McKenzie has inadvertently become a superstar in a weird corner of the internet for his role as an elf extra in The Fellowship of the Ring. His brief stint on-screen saw him spotted and admired by Lord of the Rings enthusiasts who then nicknamed him "Figwit" - an acronym of Frodo Is Great; Who Is That?

Dark-haired and finely built, McKenzie has spawned websites, one of which even sells T-shirts boasting his elfin face. He doesn't own a Figwit T-shirt. Clement tried to buy one but entered the wrong credit card details.

"Maybe my family will buy me one for Christmas," McKenzie jokes. Figwit fans got wind he was at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, turning up to performances. McKenzie found it "really surreal" meeting adoring female fans afterwards. "Someone should time how long he is in the film, because he's probably in it for 10 seconds," Clement mutters, as he slouches in his seat and strums his guitar.

A British comedy website, Chortle, raved about the Edinburgh show, citing its "beautifully underplayed performance of atmospheric music and killer dialogue, delivered in earnest deadpan". Another reviewer described their show as "the future of funky folk. It's dirty, non-PC and funny as folk".

The pair are university drop-outs. McKenzie "dribbled on for ages" studying music and English at Victoria University, where Clement tried to study theatre and film but gave up. In 1998, they were living together in an old villa in Mt Victoria and performing in local productions, mainly comedy.

Clement was writing and acting in Skitz and performing with another comedian, Taika Cohen, in Humourbeasts, a comic production which won the Billy T comedy award in 1999. McKenzie was playing the keyboard (he is a member of dub band The Black Seeds), but the flatmates both decided they wanted to learn the guitar, and started writing songs.

They can't recall how it happened, but one night they were playing their guitars at Wellington's Indigo bar. "We thought we were going to be the band that played that night. We had about three songs we had written. But we just started being the comedy act. People were laughing at our songs and we went back every two weeks," Clement recalls.

The rest has fallen into place. They don't have a manager and each overseas gig has opened another door. Their Edinburgh performances led to a stint on a BBC radio show, Fringe Cuts. They hope to get to the northern hemisphere again next year, as they've been invited to perform in Iceland in March. They're not making money yet and the Edinburgh shows left them in the red.

"Most comedians are more serious about comedy than we are," says Clement. "What we do is a hybrid of us playing music and comedy."

They continue to act, and TV ads have helped pay Clement's rent - he graces screens as the wheelbarrow-spinning lad in that DB Export advertisement. He also co-wrote and acted in the yet-to-be-released film, Tongan Ninja, and he produces animated short films through his production company Fifty Fields.

The pair describe themselves as writers, actors, comedians and musicians, and like to choose which cap to wear in a given situation. At parties, they're musicians, never comedians "because people say, Otell us a joke' and they expect us to make them laugh", says McKenzie. But when clearing customs, they are writers. "If we're musicians or even comedians, we get searched," Clement says.

They're staging Folk the World at the Classic comedy club in Auckland next weekend, hoping to raise enough funds so their Hollywood performance doesn't leave them out of pocket.

Scott Blanks, director of the Classic, says the Conchords are popular because they are modest and understated. "They're quite shy too and that appeals to New Zealand audiences. They're so low-key about how good they are. It would be impossible for them to be tall poppies," he says.

McKenzie has a different way of putting it. Sucking another Snifter lolly, he says perhaps they appeal "because a lot of comedians actually want to be rock stars. They wear cowboy hats and make-up. We're not that way. We're a little bit country bumpkin".