Doubles champ

By Russell Baillie

With his first romantic comedy at cinemas and his American-made sitcom hitting screens soon, funnyman Jemaine Clement's career is on a roll.

It's a little strange talking to Jemaine Clement by himself. He always seems to be part of a pair.

And at the moment his double-acts have doubled. The sitcom he created with Flight of the Conchords partner Bret McKenzie is into the last shows of its 12-episode season on American cable channel HBO before arriving on New Zealand screens next month.

Before that, we can see him as the awkward and self-involved Jarrod opposite Loren Horsley's awkward and shy Lily in romantic comedy Eagle vs Shark, the debut feature by Taika Waititi - Horsley's partner and Clement's former offsider in comedy duo the Humourbeasts.

Right now though, Clement is experiencing the downside of creative control. He's holed up in the show's production office in Burbank, Los Angeles, looking at the edits of one of the last shows in the series, two episodes of which were directed by Waititi in between American promotional duties for Eagle vs Shark.

Getting Flight of the Conchords on the edgy US network might have seemed like the pair's big break. But then came the real work.

"We knew it was going to be hard but we probably didn't expect the amount of work it was going to be," he says down the phone.

"It's just that we are doing the writing the acting and the music. So after five days shooting, in the weekend we would be finishing the scripts and recording the music, so it was pretty hard. We went for like four months without any days off. I know we did at least 100 days without any days off. That was a bit much."

Still, Clement knows that having your sitcom picked up by the world's most progressive television channel and starring in a feature film - his second after the cult comedy Tongan Ninja - means it's been the biggest year in his career.

That was obvious a month or so back when the programme was starting, just as Eagle vs Shark was taking its American bow.

"It was pretty crazy being in New York. There were posters - there were whole banks of Flight of the Conchords posters next to Eagle vs Shark posters all over New York, so that was quite weird to see."

Growing up in Wairarapa, Clement first encountered Waititi at Victoria University in the mid-90s - about the time Waititi also met Horsley - where they were both doing a drama and film course.

"We were in the capping revue. I remember seeing him and instantly taking a dislike to him," he deadpans, "but I would say he is now one of my very best friends."

That led to a series of writing and stage partnerships with Waititi leading to the Humourbeasts while Clement also wrote and performed in TV sketch comedy shows that included Skitz and Tellylaughs, an experience that doesn't leave any fond memories.

The Humourbeasts took their conceptual humour - "we were just trying to do anything we could think of which I think is a good way to go with comedy because comedy can work on a lot of different levels and you want to get everybody you can" - to stages throughout the world. But they called it quits as Waititi's interest in film grew and Clement paired up with McKenzie for a comedy double act which was different, but at the same time, sort of similar.

"There is crossover. Me plus Bret equals Flight of the Conchords, and me plus Taika equals Humourbeasts. And Humourbeasts and Flight of the Conchords are very different to each other. It's those other guys that steer it. The Humourbeasts shows were really lively and the Conchords ones are really slow and deadpan and low-energy.

"In some ways they're the opposite - the presentation is opposite - but the humour is similar."

Initially, Waititi emailed his mate the Eagle vs Shark script because he wanted feedback.

Eventually, the role of Jarrod - which Waititi was going to play when the film was being planned as a digital DIY project - came up for discussion.

The director asked Clement if he might be interested - which he already was. "I was going to ask him to give me an audition or something."

He didn't have to audition but he did have to rehearse to see if he was right for the role.

"He said he would test me out to see if I can act," laughs Clements. "So we had some rehearsals and he did mention checking if I could act.

"He wanted some emotional depth in the character sometimes to show some things that I wouldn't usually have to do. So that is what he was checking for."

With Horsley having created the character of Lily before there was a script, Waititi said he wrote Jarrod's character as reflection of the worst male traits, especially those of adolescents.

"Most of the characters in the film are teenagers stuck in adult bodies. It was fun making people tap into their childhoods, tap into the awkwardness they used to feel as teenagers - I think all people felt that no matter how cool you were, it's really a struggle just to it and make your way into the world."

An electronics store worker with a permanent chip on his shoulder, an obsession for the videogame Fightman and oddball creative urges, Jarrod is certainly a creature who runs a fine line between infuriating, pitiful and endearing.

Clement says he didn't really base his performance on anyone he knew, though he did visit a few of Jarrod's possible workplaces for research. I did go into a couple of shops like the one Jarrod works in to see what the relationship they would have with their workers.

"It's a really male world so there's a real alpha male status structure that happens and that is the way that Jarrod sees himself as an alpha male, I guess."

And yes it was strange doing that love scene with his friend and best mate's partner Horsley, even if they both stayed in their eagle and shark costumes.

"Yes it was odd. It's always a little awkward I think. I haven't done many sex scenes or kissing scenes but from the few I have done it's always a little weird. And with Loren, because I knew her I'm not sure if that helped or hindered."

Laughs Horsley: "It was extremely difficult. I've known Jem since I was 17 or 16 and always as a friend never as anything else. We had a really good rehearsal process where we tried to break down that awkwardness. "It probably helped. Actually, I was really blushing in lots of those scenes because it was so odd to be kissing Jemaine with Taika watching. I think it helped the feeling."

Clement is looking forward to heading back home after spending most the year stateside filming, writing, singing and talking up his two big productions.

The reaction to the show, screening in the northern hemisphere summer, has generally been positive.

"I was nervous but we've got positive and negative.

"I saw a thing in the Guardian the other day saying it's the best new sitcom in years, and there are other people right on the other end of the scale ... the truth, of course, is somewhere in between. But it's probably the best reviewed new comedy show on TV here and a lot of new shows when they start they take a while to get some good reviews and ours straight away got some."

Clement says says HBO have indicated they are interested in keeping the Conchords flying.

"We know they are interested in doing another series but we have to think about it.

"It's not a definite offer but they have talked about us starting writing but we've got other things we want to do as well.

"But one season is not very long though. Twelve episodes - I think that is what Fawlty Towers did.

"The only reason I would want to do it is to do it better.

"So like I to think we started some good things and we're all just learning - the three of us - me Bret and James [Bobin, the show's English executive producer-director] James - haven't made a sitcom before and we're learning about it. It was a pretty high-pressure place to have your first thing shown."

Could they have made it in New Zealand if someone in local television had picked up on them?

"Definitely, but they are just not interested. Maybe now - I hear there are some new comedy shows being made in New Zealand, but I am sceptical just because of the way the system works there. You have always got to answer to your bosses that what you think is good. There is an extent of that here too, but not the way it was - because I worked in New Zealand on Skitz and stuff. It's not like that - it was ridiculous. It makes it very hard to make comedy.

"I remember telling a New Zealand producer a very similar idea to the show we have made. But then again, there is something exciting about the New York setting."

Lowdown

Who: Jemaine Clement

What: Eagle Vs Shark starts at cinemas today. Flight of the Conchords, starts on Prime, September 17.

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