'What We Do In The Shadows' And The Origins Of New Zealand Comedy Success
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What is it with New Zealand? Two decades ago it seemed like their only export was hobbits and sheep, but now they’ve just about conquered every corner of the entertainment world. Comedy in particular is filled to the brim with kiwis, with series like Reservation Dogs and Wellington Paranormal, and movies like JoJo Rabbit winning over western audiences left and right.
Is this a New Zealand-flavored Invasion of the Body Snatchers apocalypse, or just the end result of a rich comedic history? Why is New Zealand such a comedy factory?
Beginnings At The Basement.
Kiwi comedy as we know it today traces its roots back to a comedy show at The Basement Theater in Auckland during 1996. A new comedy troupe called So You Think You’re a Man made its debut. Composed of former members of the University of Wellington drama club, the five-man squad included Brett McKenzie, Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi. Their sketches were themed around a warped 1950s style guide to early manhood, and cover elusive 50's topics ranging from finding the clitoris to urinal etiquette.
In hindsight, the project had the potential to become a New Zealand-flavored second coming of Monty Python's Flying Circus, but it wasn’t meant to be. Though the show would land a sellout season at the BATS theater in Wellington in the fall of 1996, the project floundered after disappointing shows in Melbourne, Australia that following year, before finally disbanding.
Clement later told The Sydney Morning Herald that the project suffered from its own edginess, saying “we tried to do something weird and offensive, and it really didn't work.”
Clement, McKenzie and Waititi weren’t the only famous New Zelanders to get their start in gross-out comedy. Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson began his career with the ultra low-budget horror comedy Bad Taste, which followed a group of aliens as they harvest humans for an intergalactic fast food restaurant.
Fun fact: McKenzie actually makes a cameo as an elf in Jackson’s Return of the King, which only further proves our theory that all New Zealand celebrities are part of something - The Sheep Pack?
But the short-lived troupe would go on to have a lasting impact, leading to two comedy duos; Flight of the Conchords, a musical collaboration between McKenzie and Clement, and The Humorbeasts, a comedy duo made up of Waititi and Clement.
The Humorbeasts would go on to receive the Billy T award, New Zealand’s most prestigious comedy award in 1999. Flight of the Conchords, well… we would be disappointed if you’re hearing about them for the first time here.
“Brett, Jermaine, Murray.”
Nearly a decade after Clement and McKenize first started writing songs together in 1998, Flight of the Conchords debuted on HBO in the spring of 2007. The sitcom was greenlit after the success of the duo’s BBC 2 radio show of the same name and developed with the help of Da Ali G Show writer/director James Bobin.
The show follows a fictional version of Clement and Mckenzie, aided by their incompetent manager Murray (played by fellow New Zealand comedian Rhys Darby) and their lone fan Mel (Kristen Schaal), as they try (and often fail) to find love and success in New York City. The show’s plots were themed around a song from the duo, with each episode acting as a sort of extended music video.
Clement and McKenzie had toured the states extensively before the show was conceived and had even made appearances on American TV shows including Late Night With Conan O’Brien and HBO’s One Night Stand. Still, the debut of Flight of the Conchords on HBO was closer to an alien spaceship landing than a proper sitcom debut.
With the exception of Peter Jackson’s films and maybe Crowded House, New Zealand culture hadn’t quite landed as a part of America’s cultural zeitgeist. American audiences and critics initially didn’t know what to make of the soft spoken musical comedy duo and their funny (and sometimes horny) little comedy songs.
Critics in particular were mixed on the show. The Hollywood Reporter’s Ray Richmond praised the show for its deadpan wit, but also commented that the pair were “cloyingly doofy,” which sounds like it’s an insult, but we’re not completely sure.
Yet audiences eventually warmed up to the Conchord’s off-kilter wit and polite delivery, and the show earned a sizable cult following by the end of its first season. The Flight of the Conchords series would end after just two seasons, but McKenzie and Clement were already on the fast track to bon a fide careers by that point.
By now you might be asking yourself “for an article meant to cover all of New Zealand comedy, why have you talked about only, like, three dudes so far?” First, that’s harsh and oddly specific.
Second, the Flight of the Conchords series was to many viewers, myself included, a gateway drug to the wider universe of Kiwi comedy. The show takes the classic sitcom formula, which has been around since god created it in seven days 6,000 years ago, and blends it with the unique comedic sensibilities only New Zealand comedians offer. Flight of the Conchords is also a prime example of what makes Kiwi comedy work so well.
1997 saw the premier of a show based on the American musical comedy duo Tenacious D. Released a full year before Flight of the Conchords even formed, the show followed roughly the same format as the Conchords series, casting Jack Black and Kyle Gass as fictionalized loser versions of themselves trying to hit it big in Los Angeles. There are so many similarities between the two shows in fact that you’d be forgiven for thinking they’re the same show, at least on the surface.
But they're not even close.
In Tenacious D, jokes and songs are much more self contained. More emphasis is put on making sure individual gags or songs land than it is making sure everything is cohesive. “Tribute” is hilarious on its own.
In Conchords, it’s the opposite. Every joke, deadpan performance and song are in service of crafting a cohesive vibe, and building a continuity of comedy. Neither approach is wrong, and it’s not like the latter is exclusive to New Zealand (see, Spinal Tap), but few countries do it better.
The Conchords' “Brett, You’ve Got it Going On” song, for example, is funny on its own, but it’s elevated to hysterical levels because the show takes the time to construct the tone and context necessary for it to shine, putting it a cut above the standard “character does random funny thing” formula.
We know that the show’s Jemaine is a strange bird, but we also know that he’s a good friend, so of course he would try to cheer up Brett by writing a song about a time he put a wig on him while he was sleeping.
The Conchords' approach didn't just come out of nowhere. John Clarke was a kiwi master at tone and context long before their arrival. His famous “Fred Dagg '' character was an underachieving farmer with multiple sons, all named “Trev.”
Like the Conchords, he was a perpetual underachiever. The persona satirized rural New Zealanders, and his many political jabs had a large influence on the dry, understated humor the country is known for.
But even before Clarke, there was Billy T. James. You may remember the “Billy T Award” that Clement and Waititi won? Yeah, that name wasn't just picked at random.
James toured extensively as sketch artist, impressionist and cabaret singer, which eventually landed him his own TV sketch show, The Billy T. James Show in 1981. Like Clarke, James’ comedy focused on rural underdog characters and a deadpan yet oddly polite delivery style. A number of the show’s sketches also focused on māori culture and tradition.
Element’s of both James and Clarke’s characters can be seen in just about every New Zealand character, from Conchords’ Murray, to even Thor: Ragnarok’s Korg.
Doing It In The Shadows
This past summer, the New Zealand supernatural comedy series Wellington Paranormal became one of the most streamed shows ever. Also this year, Hulu’s What We Do in the Shadows, adapted from the 2014 film of the same name, wrapped up its third season and has been called one of the best comedy shows in decades. And yes, before you ask, both shows are produced by Taika Waititi.
New Zealand's track record with horror comedy may seem like something out of left field, but really it’s a culmination of everything we’ve discussed so far.
First off, the New Zealand horror comedies that are popular now have more in common with Spinal Tap than they do Sean of the Dead or The Cabin in the Woods. They’re mockumentaries at their core, relying on the same genre trappings like character interviews and diegetic cameramen to tie together their humor.
Of course the What We Do in The Shadows film and series and Wellington Paranormal are beloved for their deadpan performances and slick writing, but what sets all three apart is once again that kiwi branded continuity of comedy.
The original What We Do in The Shadows has a lot more of that than one might remember. It takes a good amount of time to establish the vampire roommates Deacon Vladislav and Viago as tangible characters within the kiwi world that, while undeniably goofy, makes sense.
The writers of Welling Paranormal make heavy use of New Zealand specific references and vernacular. They even dive into the māori tradition for inspiration on the various creatures the paranormal investigators encounter. Western audiences may not understand every particular detail, but that’s not the goal. The goal is to create a show with a distinct vernacular and sense of place through which to tell its jokes.
Even the decidedly low budget aesthetics of each show work in service to that all-important cohesion. The mockumentary camerawork completely undercuts anything scary about the show’s monstrous characters, making them feel more vulnerable and empathetic.
We’re used to seeing vampires at imposing angles and under dramatic lighting with state of the art cameras, so to see them shot on a handheld is always amusing. An intentionally low-budget aesthetic is a kiwi trope with roots all the way back to Clarke and James.
All of these elements work to articulate the point where the supernatural meets the mundane, which ultimately is what Wellington Paranormal and the What We Do in the Shadows movie and show are all about.
So, Why is New Zealand A Comedy Factory?
The same reason why any other country becomes a comedy factory; it has talented, hard working comedians that understand their craft.
On another important level, though, what sets the New Zealand approach to comedy apart from others is that it isn’t concerned with specific tropes or bombastic performances, or hell, even individual jokes. Instead, the attention falls squarely on capturing a particular tone.
Legendary New Zealand satirist John Clarke described it best in a 2011 interview with Hamilton Community Radio, saying that “it began to form in me that there was a new kind of New Zealand attitude or tone or way of understanding the world that was comedic and not jocular.”
Anyway, this article is only a primer on the trade secrets of New Zealand comedy. For a more in-depth look on the subject check out Paul Horan and Philip Matthews’ Funny As: The Story of New Zealand Comedy.
Or if reading’s too nerdy for you, watch this New Zealand horror movie about an evil sheep.
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