Flight of the Conchords, Arj Baker @ Sydney Opera House (6/7/2012)
Less a regular Thursday night show and more a triumphant, agonisingly belated victory lap, New Zealand’s self-styled “fourth most popular guitar-based digi-bongo acapella-rap-funk comedy folk duo”, The Flight of the Conchords, have finally made it to our shores. It was worth the wait. In front of a capacity crowd at Sydney’s “hat-shaped building”, the answer to their rhetorical question “Who wants to rock the party?” was pretty much everyone.
First though, the unbilled support act was FOTC collaborator and honorary Australian Arj Barker, whose ‘I just smoked some cones and now here’s some weird shit I observed’ demeanour has now been polished to slacker perfection. There’s a deceptive art to what he does, his apparently casual looseness belying his precise timing and ability to extract every ounce of humour out of even the slightest of anecdotes. Jokes about Michael Phelps smoking weed, ‘freeballing’ a solar eclipse and having corrective eye surgery may appear tossed off and almost improvised, but there’s serious polish and comedic know-how here. Taking in crowd-pleasing local references (“I’ve been doing tourist stuff. I went to see the famous 3 sisters…up in Kings Cross”, Breaking Bad impressions and recurring riffs on ‘Marley and Me’ (“Spoiler alert: the sequel is just called Me”), the themes of Barker’s set would have been fairly familiar to anyone who’s seen him before (is there anyone who hasn’t?) but he proved the ideal, crowd-pleasing appetiser for the Conchords.
Mercifully appearing straight after Barker, the Kiwis had the crowd, if not at ‘hello’, then about two lines into first song Too Many Dicks on the Dance Floor, which Jermaine explains is not just a literal re-telling of their experiences, but something of an analogy: “It’s about how there are a lot of dick-like people on the dancefloor of life. If you explore its hidden meanings, you’ll be richly rewarded”. We’re then left pondering the possible metaphorical implications of Robots, the hilarity of which is added to by the pair’s cardboard robot heads which leave those side of stage basically watching the side of a box. “They’re getting a very different show up there” Brett observes, dryly.
One of the triumphs of their instant-classic show was how the duo seamlessly transitioned from the all-conquering musical chameleons of the musical interludes to the uber-gormless, provincial naifs who bumbled through the storylines, forever confused by their big city surrounds. So it is tonight, with the pair skilfully skewering every genre from lovers rock and folk balladry to futuristic glam rock and then basically reverting to their hapless personas between songs. New Zealand’s image as a backwater is played up throughout, with the ‘New Zealand Symphony orchestra’, consisting of a single member called Nigel joining the pair for most of the set.
The focus throughout, however, is firmly on Brett and Jermaine. Unlike many comedy pairings, there’s no straight man here, no half of the duo that’s a bit smarter or a little more worldly. Both are equally out of their depth at all times, a dynamic beautifully explored on the hilarious We’re Both in Love with a Sexy Lady and the not-quite-gangster rap Hurt Feelings. The banter between them is priceless, not least when they negotiate with the lighting desk for an appropriate backdrop to one song: “Can we have something that’s like the smell of heather and the woods?” Brett asks. “I think they mainly just do colours, Brett” Jermaine deadpans.
The straight-faced absurdity of The Most Beautiful Girl in the Room and Inner City Pressure keep the laughs coming, and their deadpan banter between songs is almost as amusing. There are hilariously stilted non-anecdotes about getting free muffins in a hotel (“complementary means free. The muffins weren’t flattering me” explains Brett), getting stuck in a lift and a truly ridiculous gag involving misuse of a fish where we have to wait until the end of the show to hear the pay-off.
In many ways it was a night of firsts. It was surely the first time anyone has led the Opera House Concert Hall in a mass sing-a-long about epileptic dogs, and almost definitely the only time a song featuring the phrase “David Bowie’s nipple antennae” has graced the venue. There were also some newer songs to complement the favourites we’ve all long since memorised, including the mock-heroic Summer of 1353 which recounts the difficulties of wooing in the 14th century, and the typically ludicrous Fuck on the Ceiling, which takes them a few goes to get through.
Most comedy rock has a limited shelf life, but the Conchords’ songs were always better than novelty numbers. You get the impression they could have carved out a successful career in any number of straight musical guises, but that they decided this was way more fun. Having had the good grace to end their TV show before it risked getting stale, this unlikely cultural phenomenon shows no signs of coming to an end,
and by the time they get to the last song, a roof-raising Sugalumps, you’re already hoping their return visit comes around quite a bit sooner. I missed favourites like Hiphopopotamus v Rhymenoceros and If You’re Into It, but maybe next time. Otherwise this was a joyous, faultless Australian debut. They have no peers.