One half of one of New Zealand’s best-known comic duos is set to launch his first homegrown TV show. Jemaine Clement shows Greg Bruce around his Wellington roots.

"Do you feel like you've found the thing in life you were meant to do?" I asked Jemaine Clement as we wandered down a hill on the residential edge of Wellington's city centre, where he had just been showing me a house he used to live in with Bret McKenzie.

"No," he said. "No, no. I don't think I'll ever find it."

He thought for a second, then said, "I guess when I'm writing shows I do feel like, 'I know how to do this.'"

"So you don't feel like writing is it?" I asked.


"Yeah, because I get bored writing as well, after a while."

He said: "I think it's just a feeling that — I'm not sure if everyone has it but I'm sure most people have it — like that there should be something else I'm supposed to do."

I didn't tell him, because I didn't think of it until just now, that most people are actually spending most days sitting at their desks clicking between Twitter and a variety of Microsoft programs while staring out the window and dreaming of performing smash hit comedy songs for crowds of 20,000 people at London's O2 arena while also starring in smash hit television shows and a variety of blockbuster movies.

What the people who dream of those baubles are probably not also dreaming of, though, is the demands accompanying them, which go far beyond turning up with just a guitar, your amusing face and heroically fleshy lips to be adored by the multitudes. When he and McKenzie were deep in making the television series of Flight of the Conchords, he says, the stress was intense.

"Not just acting and being on a TV show but also trying to record an album's worth of music simultaneously. That was too much. And I would also think of [American comedian] Dave Chappelle and how he quit his show. Like, I could 'Chappelle'. And I looked up to him for leaving it.

"I probably wasn't really close to leaving it but it was good to know that it had been done."

Clement, who's 44, mentioned also the appeal of doing a Daniel Day-Lewis, who quit acting for a while to make shoes.

"Do you still think like that?" I asked.


"I can see the appeal of it," he said. "It's simpler, it's probably quite a skilled thing, so I feel like it would be satisfying in a way, without the pressure."

The problem with interviewing comedians is it can be quite hard to get them to think too deeply about themselves. Maybe it's because they're so attuned to working conversations toward the emotional pay-off of the laugh, and because that pay-off is so richly satisfying, they don't see much value in looking beyond it. Then again, maybe it's nothing to do with that.

Jemaine Clement.
Jemaine Clement.

I asked him what the odds of him walking away were.

"Oh yeah," he said, "I'll never do that."

"Do you think you'll always be writing and acting?"

"I really don't know," he said. "I haven't thought about it."

Contemporaneously with the production of Wellington Paranormal, his new show which starts on TVNZ 2 in a week and a half, he's been working on a What We Do in the Shadows spinoff in the United States and he says there are other creative projects he wants to do also, including a musical film he hasn't yet pitched and doesn't even have really have an idea for yet. "I've been too busy," he says.

It was so hard to nail him down, to get him to commit to some or other life course. He was all over the shop. Part of the problem is that he's not really interested in talking about this sort of thing. He'd prefer to talk about his creative process, which he says is what overseas media typically want to talk to him about. He says New Zealand media are always more interested in the drama of your life, the darkness, how you get on with your family.

We had seen one member of his family already, one of his two younger brothers — we'd walked past him on Cuba St. Clement told me they go to the movies together once a week.

He had also told me earlier that this interview was one of only two promotional media appearances he was doing for Wellington Paranormal. The other was an interview with Kim Hill on RNZ, which he had already recorded but that had not yet aired.

"Hers was the one where you play the music and talk about your life; and yours is where you walk around Wellington and talk about your life, and it's like, 'Arghhh! Two of these things.'

"Kiwis love darkness," he said, "but I'm a comedian, you know."

While I was still in the midst of searching for his darkness, we ran into Herald senior writer Simon Wilson, who normally sits a few seats away from me at the Herald office in downtown Auckland but who was now inexplicably standing next to me at a Wellington intersection. It was pretty weird. After exchanging pleasantries and doing introductions, I turned back to Clement and said, "I lost my train of thought."

"Oh well," he said, "It wasn't going anywhere."

The TV show that made him seriously famous when it first aired in the US in 2007 is, of course, pretty dark: two broke guys living in a crappy New York apartment and working a series of terrible jobs to try and survive while their inept manager and lack of talent hamper any chance they have of success in their chosen field. Furthermore, their love lives are disasters.

Is it possible that Clement's lack of conviction about his career choice is a harbinger of the doubt or despair at the centre of his soul, something that he prevents from spreading by singing, writing and performing comedy? Or is it something much, much less significant than that?

I probed by asking how he thought he had changed over the course of his career, both as a person and a performer.

"I'm not sure," he said. "It feels pretty similar."

"Any big philosophical shifts?" I asked.

"No, I'm afraid not," he said. He paused for a second, then added, "I guess I might be grumpier."

"With?" I asked.

"With the world in general."

Jemaine Clement on the set of Wellington Paranormal.
Jemaine Clement on the set of Wellington Paranormal.

Wellington Paranormal

is the first TV show he's made in New Zealand, after years of trying and failing to get the networks interested in his work and a similar number of years saying bad things about TVNZ in the press.

For instance, he once said that, as the state broadcaster, "I think they've got a responsibility to reflect New Zealand culture, which they don't. They take American programmes and copy them."

In a week and a half's time, Wellington Paranormal's first episode will screen on TVNZ 2, which proves there's no good justification for being polite to a money-making organisation, particularly when your relative negotiating power has become significantly greater than that of the organisation.

"We had one awkward meeting," he says of the process leading to the new show. "That was the first thing they mentioned, why I always bad-mouth them in the press. But I have to say that when I would do that, I always laugh, I always laugh about it. But it doesn't come out like that when you read it. And then they have a photo of me and I'm often looking grumpy in my photos so it's like, 'Jemaine Clement says TVNZ …' and then the photo's like this and, 'Oh no, that's not what I meant! That's not how I meant it, I just find it funny.'"

With Wellington Paranormal, TVNZ has allowed him and his team to do what they want, he says, but he has previously pitched lots of shows in New Zealand that nobody wanted him to do at all. That includes a version of What We do in the Shadows, which was rejected by TV3.

He says he's keen to make a second series of Wellington Paranormal, but it's yet to be confirmed.

"You have to hand in another document — like at university — where you've gotta say what the ideas are for next season and you have to say what you did this season. Like, 'Why don't you just watch it?'"

Two hundred metres up Cuba St from the bucket fountain, which provides the setting for the opening scene of the opening episode of Wellington Paranormal, is the landmark bar/venue now called San Fran, previously San Francisco Bath House, where Clement and McKenzie performed their first gig as Flight of the Conchords in 1998.

"A friend of mine was organising a comedy gig and Bret and I — I think we'd made up one song, I had one song that I'd written for another show and he had a song. So we had three songs. My friend said, 'Do you want to try stand-up comedy?' I said, 'I don't but I have this band, we've got three songs, maybe we could play before the comedy starts.'

"So we thought people weren't going to be listening. We thought we were going to be just like the house band. But people were listening. And they were laughing. They were kind of funny songs, but they were pretty dark, our first songs — a lot of murders in them and stuff.

"So we did those and people listened, which is not what we wanted. I got so nervous I couldn't even move my right hand."

"Why didn't you want people to listen?" I asked.

"Cause I just wanted to play music," he said.

Jemaine Clement on set for Wellington Paranormal.
Jemaine Clement on set for Wellington Paranormal.

"One of my favourite gigs I ever did was a gig we did there also, where people didn't listen and my friend said, 'Sorry people weren't listening.' It was like, 'No, this is perfect, this is what I always wanted.'"

Initially, it was just about playing guitar and making up songs, he said. But because it was part of a comedy night, and there was an expectation from the audience, the songs got increasingly jokey.

But where the stand-ups they performed alongside were shouting and waving their hands in the air, trying to be big, he and Bret would be as small as possible.

"I guess it's one way to get people to listen. If you've got a microphone — a microphone's a lot of power — if you've got a microphone, you can be quiet. Most people are shouting into it in a bar."

Four days after our interview, Clement was due to perform with McKenzie in Dublin's 3 Arena, in front of 13,000 people. "We'll still do it the same," he said, "Sit there quietly, mumble."

He led us along Courtenay Place, pointed to a corner and said, "This is where me and Taika [Waititi] used to busk.

"Sometimes people would complain," he said, "Because there was a guy called Country Kenny. He used to dress like Kenny Rogers and he got his amplifier taken away from him but he was so popular that if we were in his place, even though he hadn't played there for years, it would be like, 'Wait! What? This is Kenny's spot! Where's Kenny?!

"We'd do mostly Violent Femmes songs."

"Not comedy covers, but actual Violent Femmes songs?" I asked.

"I think we had one original that we did, which I wrote. Nah, it wasn't really a comedy song but it had a couple of funny lines in it, I guess. But no, not comedy, just singing. Taika's a good guitarist, really good. He's better than Bret or me."

There's an earnestness that exists in off-stage Clement, or at least a large part of him that seems to have no real interest in being funny. It's a hard thing to calibrate to when you're meeting a famous comedian for the first time because you expect — more than with probably any other type of performer — that their private and performance persona will be the same, even though you know from experience they never are.

He told me a story about going to a bar in his home town of Masterton with some friends when he was in his late teens.

"The only girls at the bar were with us and I remember this guy coming up and wanting to dance with the girls but he did it sitting in his chair. Like, he wouldn't dance, so he brought his chair up on to the dance floor and he wants to be cool, but he's sitting in his chair.

"And to me that stuck out in my head as, 'That's a New Zealand guy trying so hard to be cool that he doesn't realise what a dick he looks like.' That's the New Zealand cool to me, like, 'I'm not going to dance, I'll sit in my chair on the dance floor.'"

I asked if he felt like he had always stood apart from that sort of thing.

"No," he said. "I totally feel like part of that. I relate to that guy."

We go to Bats, the edgy Wellington theatre where, with McKenzie, Waititi and others, he had performed a range of edgy, funny and sometimes terrible shows while he was still at university.

It was a Monday morning, so he didn't know if we'd be able to get in. When he pushed the door, it opened to reveal a woman and man sitting chatting in the bar area.

Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi. Photo / Jason Oxenham

"Can I show these guys Bats?" Clement asked the woman, called Heather and who was the theatre manager and had known Clement for decades.

"Yes," she said, "but kind of …"

There was an awkward silence.

"We don't have to go in the theatre," he said. "Are there people packing in?"

"Yeah," she said.

"I felt it," he said. "Oh, so we can just sit in there," he said, gesturing non-specifically.

"Yeah, totally," she said.

"All right," he said, starting to lead us across the lobby.

"Oh," she said. "Sit in where?"

He stopped. There was an awkward silence.

"Oh, in the ... uhhh ... oh ...

"We'll just walk around here," he said, pointing non-specifically to a different area. He laughed one of his famed awkward laughs.

He said, "It's this thing for Canvas that …"

"What?" she interrupted.

He started again: "I'm being forced to take these guys around Wellington and show them places."

"What do you want to do?" she said, "Some filming or something?"

If it was on TV, I would have been struggling not to change the channel. It was uncanny how much it felt like the characteristically painful set-up for a Conchords song: Seat in the Lobby. In his Bats days though, he wasn't the awkward performer we now know him as, at least not always.

"Me and Taika's show was very energetic and frenetic and then Bret's all about subtlety so our show was really subtle. Have you seen [Netflix movie] Annihilation? it's quite good — you know how they take on the genes of other things? Other people? It's like that."
I asked Heather if his early work at Bats had been good.

"Oh yeah," she said. "I loved it."

He laughed. "You've gotta say that!" he said. "Some nights would be so bad because we'd never done them, especially with Humourbeasts [his comedy duo with Waititi]. Bret and I would play at San Fran and we'd have our set together, they were all songs we'd done before, but me and Taika, it was the first time, the first show we ever did together. I thought we were going to punch each other."

He can't remember what the issue was, but he says they've never had an argument since and there's no darkness between him and McKenzie either.

"You just go, after a while, 'Does it matter? We're just trying to make people laugh.'"

He showed me a little spot off to the side of the theatre lobby where there used to be a tiny place called Pit Bar, where he and McKenzie used to play sometimes. It looked big enough to take about as many people as a medium to large elevator.

"It's still not our smallest gig," Clement said. "We did a little one in Edinburgh where you do it in a pretend elevator. It's pretty hard. It's harder to do that than to play in front of 13,000. People can see that you don't mean what you say."

Our time together was coming to an end. I asked whether he feels creatively fulfilled. He said: "I love it when a joke works, when a show works. Like, an episode. Like, all these elements coming together."

Flight of the Conchords.
Flight of the Conchords.

That didn't answer the question, obviously, but I guess it was at least heading in the right direction.

By way of explanation, he referred the final scene of the second episode of Wellington Paranormal, which features an extended version of what's called in the comedy world a "callback" — a joke that refers back to an earlier joke.

"I love that," he said of the way that scene came off. "We'd been talking about that for a long time and, yeah, so that's a victory for me."

I asked, "What tells you that it worked?"

He said, "It just makes me laugh."

Wellington Paranormal premieres on Wednesday, July 11, 8.30pm on TVNZ 2 and will also be available at TVNZOnDemand.