Flight of Fancy: Looking @ FOTC

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Just last week, New Zealand-bred duo Flight of the Conchords released a statement announcing the end of their HBO half-hour comedy after only two seasons: “While the characters Bret and Jemaine will no longer be around, the real Bret and Jemaine will continue to exist,” they told the BBC.

This decision is rather unusual. We spoke often in class about television as a commercial entity – one heavily reliant on advertising dollars and highly profitable syndication fees. And while we do see network execs cancel poorly rated shows quickly and frequently, we rarely see the creative side pull the plug so early into a successful (and recent Emmy nominated) run, as limiting episodes means limiting syndication sales means limiting royalties.

But this, along with a number of other quirks, is what separates Flight of the Conchords from other comedy programming featured on TV today. For those unfamiliar, Flight of the Conchords (or, as it is aptly abbreviated FOTC), refers to both the musical duo of Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie and their HBO television counterpart – a series based on the fictionalized version of these two characters. When it comes to comedy, the show has been called everything from extraordinarily funny, deadpan, and absurd to a musical “skit-com,” showcase, and variety-based comedy.

This impossibility to compact FOTC into a concrete genre is what drew me to the show as both a viewer and a student – it isn’t a sitcom in the traditional sense, nor is it a sketch show or a half-hour musical comedy. Their humor is also atypical, reliant on cheeky innuendo, clever lyrics, and sheer absurdity rather than pratfalls and snappy one-liners. Perhaps my favorite of their running jokes is the lackluster tune “Rock the Party” that they play almost exclusively at every gig they book (and of those there are few – their manager works out of a makeshift office in the New Zealand Consulate, meeting with them during his free time):

As opposed to a song like this, which apparently only plays to Bret and Jemaine’s inner-dialogue, and never their actual audiences (well, besides the one at home, of course):

So, after that long “introduction” of-sorts, I now plan to explore a few general questions regarding the aesthetics of television comedy as it relates to FOTC. Something I found particularly thought provoking was this quote from show EP Stu Smiley (additionally, he has a long history in the sitcom genre): “Whatever [FOTC] aspires to do, it does, and I know I’m making absolutely no sense. It doesn’t feel like it aspires to be anything, and that’s what makes it so funny and so honest.”

This all seems to come back to one’s inability to articulate what exactly FOTC is. I would venture to say that as an audience, we are trained, specifically in comedy, to follow a formula. Shows that reject this formula seem to fail commercially (see Arrested Development, Family Guy) yet they see a resurgence through DVD sales and online streaming – all formats that allow for repeated viewing. Technological advances also aid shows like FOTC but almost to reverse effect – their fan base is rooted in online content (taped festival performances, homemade music videos), thus their jump to the small screen is reliant on those viewers. They serve as a focus group, of sorts, easing audiences away from typical TV comedy troupes in favor of their more flightful approach.

I’m going to refer to the main distinguishing feature as the flight of fancy element: the use of Bret and Jemaine’s impromptu musical stylings. A fixture in musical theatre, FOTC’s song use is different: the songs are often written (and released) before the story, thus driving the entire half-hour plotline. They are also ripe with parody: spoofing famous musical acts (David Bowie, Simon & Garfunkle), genres (rap, doo-wop) and the industry in general. Here, their agent Murray offers his wise advice re. the rock and roll lifestyle to the two budding musicians (they have just engaged in a very un-rock-and-roll-like threesome):

Aside from the musical numbers, I’ve found that the show seems to rely on subtlety to drive laughs. For example, a series of New Zealand tourism posters seem to rotate through Murray’s Consulate office – featuring hilarious taglines that never seem to catch the character’s attention. Some favorites:

A review from Entertainment Weekly echoes my thoughts re. this particular comedy style: “There are no big sociopolitical statements here, no guerilla-style confrontations, no scenes of squirmy awkwardness, no multilayered pop culture references. It’s just a very smart, very funny show.” Perhaps this is what is most startling about the show. It has an innocent quality to it. A quality that may have been lost along our search for the next ‘hot’ sitcom or comedy concept.

This kind of comedy seems to either attract viewers as rampant fans or repel them completely. This early review of the series from New York Magazine dismisses the show asking, “Why is this funny, even below 14th Street?” Interestingly enough, the same magazine seems to come around, seeming genuinely bummed out by the news that the series won’t be returning to HBO.

And my commentary on FOTC and comedy would not be complete without addressing the hilarious, and perhaps most conventional, character on the show: crazy fan Mel. As the only fan Bret and Jemaine really have, her enthusiasm often borders on creepiness, as does her obsession with the two, despite her marital status (married). In fact, she sometimes requires her poor husband to accompany her on Conchord-related outings. Mel’s character also serves as a tangible representation of the fictional Conchords’ success – the band searches for fervent and dependable fans, yet the one they have is a complete psychotic. As we often see in their musical careers, they simply cannot win.

So can a comedy like FOTC work in our modern TV landscape? Apparently. But maybe they aren’t made to sustain decade-long series or maybe they don’t belong on television in the first place. Bret and Jemaine seem to feel that their work is better served on a different platter: through live performances and shorter filmed pieces. Yet their run on HBO has not been unremarkable – now other unfamiliar comics are getting a shot on the small screen, most notably Britain’s duo The Mighty Boosh. Hopefully, musical absurdity is here to stay. And with that, I leave you with this performance:

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