Jemaine Clement On Comedy, Rejection, And That Flight Of The Conchords Film You’re Waiting For
"Oh god, everyone is expecting us to finish it now."
Though it’s been more than seven years since Flight Of The Conchords was last on air, it’s still pretty hard to differentiate between Jemaine Clement (Talented New Zealand Actor And Comedian) and Jemaine Clement (Member Of The Almost Award-Winning Fourth-Most-Popular Folk Duo In New Zealand). I guess that’s what happens when you play a version of yourself on stage, screen, and radio for 17 years.
But over the past month especially, Clement’s found himself a little hamstrung between these two identities. Though he’s had a number of notable film roles since Conchords finished up — including an eccentric artist in Dinner for Schmucks and a sadistic yet affable vampire in What We Do In The Shadows — his latest release is the closest he’s come to playing another Normal Guy. In People Places Things, his New Zealand accent’s out in full force, his character’s once again bumbling around New York being perpetually awkward and deflated, and fans seem suspicious of the fact he’s able to play a romantic lead without breaking into song about epileptic dogs.
With the film now in cinemas, we spoke to him about the new directions his comedy is taking (and when exactly we’ll be getting a new instalment of the old stuff).
Putting The Comedy In Sad Dad Comedy
Watching a middle-aged man being reluctantly thrown into divorce to flounder with the new responsibilities of caring for his twin girls as a single parent is hardly conventional comedy gold, but People Places Things is definitely funny. As gloomy graphic novelist Will Henry, Clement offsets the weight of the story perfectly with endearing absurdity and deadpan comic asides.
At one point, after a long and disheartening look in the mirror, he holds some gift-wrapped kites up to his daughters and excitedly tells them they’re getting iPads. At another, he tells a student he’s “just having a bad life”. “It’ll end eventually.”
Lovingly referring to it as “a sad dad comedy”, Clement tells me this humour was really the most important part of the whole thing for him. With critics meticulously analysing him as a leading man and first-time serious romantic interest, he seems both a little baffled and generally unfazed.
“I didn’t think of it as that different,” he says. “I found the film quite funny even though it had sad parts [and] if it was purely dramatic I probably wouldn’t have ended up doing it. The fact that it had some laughs, sugar-coated it for me — it made it easier.”
Of course, this is helped by the fact that Jessica freaking Williams is firmly by his side. In what is The Daily Show correspondent’s first film, Williams stars as Kat: a witty and talented 19-year-old student who serves equal measures of compassion and sass to Clement (both on-screen and off).
“I wouldn’t have wanted to be her rival at high school,” he tells me. “She’s so good at the put-downs. She’s very quick and pretty amazing at improvising. There’s this scene where she asks me to go to her house for dinner and I think she’s asking me out on a date. Some of the improv she would do was so insulting and so specific about how I actually looked. It was great.”
In fact the much-loved young comedian was so good, Clement tells me, that writer/director James Strouse immediately started writing another movie for her which will be filming some time next year.
OKAY, BUT WHEN IS THE FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS MOVIE?
This is far from being the most shocking piece of news Clement has let slip in this press tour. When speaking with Indiewire last month, he very casually dropped the fact that he’d started working on a Flight Of The Conchords film with Bret McKenzie.
“We’ve written some notes for some different film ideas,” he said, mid-interview, like it was no big deal at all. “Who knows if it will ever be made,” he said, cruelly, as if this wasn’t something millions of fans had been eagerly waiting for over the past seven years. Naturally, these words soon ballooned into huge news and were excitedly spread around the world.
When I bring this up, Clement kind of laughs and sighs like he’s just seen footage of himself falling down some stairs. “Oh yeaaaaah, that’s very very early,” he says. “I always forget about interviews, that you can just say one thing and then that’s going to be the headline. One sentence you say might become the focus of the story. I’m not sure how Brett and James [Bobin] feel that I’ve let it out of the bag that we’ve started on something.”
In speaking to him, it’s easy to see how this happened. In true New Zealand fashion, Clement is really matter-of-fact. He doesn’t really do small talk, he won’t dive into a rambling story, and if you ask specifically about something there’s no bullshit — even if it seems against his best interests. His awkward little misstep has made things pretty tough from here on out.
“We have a few ideas for different movies, but we’re not sure if that’s going to happen,” he says. “We hope so! In a way, it might be a motivator but oh god, everyone is expecting us to finish this!”
Jemaine Is In High Demand Everywhere! (Except New Zealand)
Though it may be the most pressing to hardcore fans, a Flight Of The Conchords movie is just one of the many things Jemaine is working on at the moment. Almost two decades after first gearing up his comedy career with friend and flatmate Bret McKenzie, Clement is doing voice work on Steven Spielberg’s new version of The BFG to be released next year, he’s planning a sequel to the hilarious and well-received What We Do In The Shadows, and writing a new HBO show with Shadows co-star Taika Waititi to be produced by Judd Apatow and filmed early next year.
“[It’s] an anthology show where every episode’s a different story, different characters,” he says. “We’re not doing that many of them. They’re hopefully going to be little special comedy movies — half-hour ones. At the moment it’s just Taika and I, but we have people we want to cast in it. We have to ask them first.”
“That’d be a good way to get people you want though — just put it in the news!”
But despite this enormous success on the international stage, Clement still finds it difficult to get things off the ground in his home country. Before being broadcast on BBC Radio then developing a show for HBO, Flight Of The Conchords was infamously knocked back in New Zealand, and his new idea was exactly the same.
“Everything I’ve ever pitched in New Zealand, which is probably like ten different shows, has been rejected,” he says. “At first it was because they didn’t consider us experienced enough, but I don’t think you have to be experienced in television. We came up on the stage in comedy bars. You learn a lot from that about writing comedy — more than you can writing a TV show. Then you apply what you know.”
“[Now] I think I’ve bagged them in the press a lot which doesn’t help,” he says, with a slight hint of self-consciousness.
Although it can come across as harsh in print, Clement is really understanding of the situation. He cites New Zealand’s lack of major funding as a big reason behind his trouble, and notes the local industry is not set up as well as others. “Australia has the biggest comedy festival in the world and that’s pretty well supported, you know, there’s a comedy culture in Australia,” he says.
Though he’d still prefer to work on local projects, the pilgrimage overseas isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“I’m so glad it worked out the way it did,” he tells me. “People like working for HBO. TVNZ don’t have that reputation. HBO’s great because they try and help you realise your idea, whereas TVNZ have an idea of what people want to see and they try and make you do that.”
He ends on this strong note then tentatively concedes he can’t say for sure; they’ve never really let him see the process. “I just pitched one a few months ago and I haven’t heard the no for sure yet! Waiting on that now. I’m improving!”
As an ex-pat Kiwi myself, I ask him if he feels like the national icon I see him as. “I guess maybe overseas I am,” he says. “In New Zealand, it’s the All Blacks and that’s all.”
As if to prove this, a week later he wrote the team a special charity song that soon went viral.
People Places Things is in cinemas now.