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Jemaine Clement had one serious and lofty aspiration when he was a lanky, dark-haired 16-year-old sitting in the classrooms of a Wairarapa high school: "to be myself!!!" he exclaims in a self-penned profile in the 1990 Makoura College yearbook.

"But I probably don't have the qualifications," he added.

Turns out he couldn't have been more wrong.

Eighteen years later, the 34-year-old Masterton-bred Clement has a fanbase so enthusiastic he finds it all a little alarming.

He and his 32-year-old partner in musical comedy, Bret McKenzie, constitute one of the most internationally successful groups New Zealand has ever exported to the world: the Emmy-nominated, Grammy-award-winning, Flight of the Conchords.

THEIR STORY of funnymen triumph has been told countless times since they landed their HBO self-titled sitcom in 2006 and started to take the world by storm. But it hasn't happened overnight.

The idea that Wellington-born McKenzie and his mate from Victoria University magically appeared just in time for a meteoric rise to the celebrity heavens over the past five years is just plain wrong, according to McKenzie's mother, dance teacher Deirdre Tarrant.

"Bret is not a child who suddenly turned into a musical genius at the age of 26," says Tarrant. "They've worked pretty long and hard for this."

They met in the late 90s at university and started learning the guitar and writing songs together. But well before that, their ambitions were obvious to those around them.

One of three brothers, McKenzie was always "passionately musical", and comes from a lyrical family, Tarrant says.

"My attitude was not negotiable - you never gave anything up, you just added. Although I think I drew the line at paying for harmonica lessons."

All up, Tarrant estimates Bret played 11 instruments while growing up - not to mention playing Oliver in Oliver Twist at 11 years old, singing opera in The Magic Flute, and being part of high-school band, the Blue Samanthas, who won the Wellington 1993 Smoke Free Rock Quest competition.

That was on top of being part of the National Secondary Schools' Orchestra, and dancing so well he could have ended up in the Royal Ballet, his mum reckons.

"If there was something to produce, he produced it. If there was something to be in, he was in it."

After Wellington's Clifton Terrace Model School (where he went back to DJ at school discos in later years), McKenzie moved to Wellington College, where teacher Martin Vaughan remembers him as an enthusiastic performer and organiser.

A debating team star, McKenzie also organised, directed and performed in school plays, including taking the lead role in Bugsy Malone, and producing a version of The Hobbit, in which he had his first go at playing a Tolkien creature. In later years, McKenzie has gained a cult internet following for his part as an extra in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which subsequently bagged him a speaking role in the third film.

"Bret was absolutely understated, unassuming, but also absolutely multi-talented, too," Vaughan remembers.

As well as the prizes, scholarships and honours awards McKenzie earned for music and drama, he was known for his "wry, clever humour".

His close-knit group of school mates included musician Age (Adrian) Pryor, and actor Jeremy Randerson. Together the trio dominated the arts scene at the school, and have continued to excel in the creative arena.

Meanwhile, Clement was busy leaving his mark on the small town of Masterton, after his family moved there from Wellington when he was six.

Clement, who has a younger brother, lived "on the dump road," (as Clement colloquially called it when speaking to the local paper) - a street that leads to the town landfill.

The actor, who appeared in television show Skitz, and took the lead role in award-winning film Eagle Vs Shark (written and directed by pal
Taika Waititi, the other half of the Humourbeasts comedy duo Clement performed in), attended East School and Hiona Intermediate, which have since been closed down or merged with other schools.

He claimed in an American magazine that his family were "working-class," and worked in a variety of factories around Masterton.

Rae MacKenzie, the third form dean at Makoura College, Clement's high school, remembers his great sense of humour. But she remembers his questionable time-management skills even more.

"He was always late," she laughs, pointing just a few hundred metres up the road from the college to where he used to live, although the house is gone now.

"Even though he lived across the road, he was always late. I was always chasing him up - he just didn't get out of bed."

Clement was also heavily involved in drama productions and theatresports, always taking the "character roles" in the school plays, including playing the evil Caliph in Sheik, Rattle and Roll in his final year.

His school yearbook shows he was already honing his comedic prowess; aside from detailing how a maths teacher has "influenced me to despise all human life," he is said to have the "sharpest wit in the Western World," and claims his ambition is to be part of the World Jelly Wrestling Team in the Masterton Olympics, 2048.

While Clement may have been slow to get to school each day, he appreciated its influence in his life. Makoura is currently under threat of closure and this month Clement emailed a website in support of it remaining open, saying he was "another ex-pupil heartbroken" by the news, and that it's closure would be "a great loss for the Wairarapa".

At university, McKenzie studied music while Clement enrolled in theatre and film. They eventually moved into a large flat with friends, practising their routines and songs in jam sessions, and performing a play in the garden.

As part of the university drama club - where they first met - the pair acted in a comedy show about body image, in which they wore "naked suits" including velcro penises, as they explained to one amused British journalist at the Observer.

THE STORY from that point on is now familiar to many Conchords fans: while McKenzie became part of popular band The Black Seeds, and has also been a founding member of the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra, Clement's voice is familiar from many ad campaigns and the film Tongan Ninja, and his face from his television and film credits.

Together, the pair continued to travel to comedy festivals in Edinburgh, Calgary and Montreal with their Conchords act, which ultimately caught the attention of an HBO talent scout in Canada.

Dotted in between their first meeting and their internationally acclaimed 12-part television series being made, the pair have had widespread international attention.

They were also approached by NBC to make a pilot, wrote and performed a hilarious six-part radio series for the BBC, and won an award for Best Alternative Comedy Act at the US Comedy Arts Festival.

Since being talent-spotted, a one-hour special on HBO's One Night Stand show, appearances on The Late Show with David Letterman and Late Night with Conan O'Brien, and a Grammy award for their EP The Distant Future have cemented their place in stardom. Add to that, three Emmy nominations for their series to the ever-growing list of accolades.

These days Clement and McKenzie divide their time between LA, New York and Wellington. They are writing a second television series, and mingling with stars such as Napoleon Dynamite director Jared Hess and School of Rock screenwriter Mike White in LA.

Tarrant discovered, when visiting McKenzie last year, that everyone knows their names in LA - even the guy working in the deli. However, they have not exactly embraced their celebrity status, telling local and international press that they lament the loss of their anonymity.

They rarely talk about their partners although, according to reports, both are engaged - McKenzie to film-maker Hannah Clarke, and Clement to playwright and director Miranda Manasiadis.

Earlier this year they told a music magazine they were disappointed that a free concert at Wellington's Aro Street Video Store saw hundreds of fans, and several reporters, mob the place. Clement said he didn't know about "stardom, but what has increased is my annoyed-dom".

For that reason, they say, they give few interviews, although Clement told an Observer newspaper journalist they didn't mind speaking to her because the article would run in Britain, "which is far away".