A tonic for the troops: Rhys Darby went from the New Zealand army to Flight of the Conchords

Rhys Darby is among the headliners at the Vodafone Comedy Carnival in Galway next week.

It was a long march for Rhys Darby to go from the New Zealand army to starring in Flight Of The Conchords, writes Richard Fitzpatrick

THE comedian and actor Rhys Darby had a plan for what he was going to do once he finished high school in Auckland, New Zealand in the early 1990s. He was going to join the army… and achieve world domination.

“To take over the world,” he says, “I needed to rise up through the ranks and become commander. I started as a cadet in the regular force cadet school. They trained me there. I graduated and became a radio operator. I was in the Royal New Zealand Signal Corps for three years.

“Then I got a girlfriend. It was all over then. You go away for two weeks on these military exercises. I said, ‘I’m not doing this army crap anymore.’ I also looked at some of the other soldiers who were living in these government houses next to the base and I thought: Oh, God, I don’t want that; I have visions of owning a huge mansion somewhere.”

Darby says he thought military life was a bit like the scouts – a training thing where you wear a nice hat. “What I should have done was joined the Territorials or ‘the part-time soldiers’ and then I would have got the digging holes and running around in the forest thing out of the way, and then had a different job.”

The 44-year-old says he has no regrets about enlisting. “I enjoyed every minute of it. I learned Morse code. I learned how to do my own ironing and keep my boots clean. Part of it was Mum trying to get me off the streets. I had become a teenager and she was a solo mum. She really pushed for the military career. She said: ‘Stay in there, and one day you’ll be commanding a huge army.’ Boy was she wrong.”

Instead, Darby drifted into a career in show business. He moved to the UK after the turn of the millennium, working the comedy scene with his gift for mime, physical comedy and sound effects. It was his role towards the end of the Noughties in Flight of the Conchords — the HBO hit comedy series — that propelled him into stardom.

Darby played the band’s gormless, deeply uncool manager, Murray Hewitt. He kept getting it wrong, mixing up, for example, hip-hop icons with comic strip characters.

Murray: “Who were those people you were dissing? The only one I could make out was Snoopy! What’s your problem with him?”

Bret: “No, Snoop Dogg.”

Murray: “Yeah, I know he’s a dog, Bret. I’m not totally in the Dark Ages.”

Murray might have been a loser. He may not have had street cred, but fans loved him. He had an everyman quality to him, explains Darby. “Everybody sees a part of them in this person — a person who doesn’t have much direction in life. Doesn’t really know where he’s going. He’s kind of latched onto something he thinks is cool — a couple of musicians who have old shirts and wavy hair; they look cool. He’s thinking: I can be part of this.

“He’s got very limited ability in the managerial sense but he’s got enough, ie he knows that he has to do a roll call. He’s got a pad so he can write down an agenda. That’s enough really for these young, cool-looking idiots to think, ‘This guy is going to take us somewhere’. It’s the blind leading the blind.

“Everyone goes into a job or a career when they leave school — even like I did with the army — with no real idea where it’s heading and you kind of hope for the best. You ‘fake it until you make it’. That’s what Murray represents. He’s the loser in all of us, but he becomes a winner — because he manages the Conchords!”

Darby has featured with some A-list celebrities since his starring role in Conchords, including a part alongside Jim Carrey — who once described Darby as having ‘the spirit of Peter Sellers within him’ — in the 2008 film Yes Man and a recent appearance on The X-Files. “David Duchovny is a Conchords fan,” he says.

Darby is currently touring his comedy show, Mystic Time Bird, which he will perform during Galway’s Vodafone Comedy Carnival next week.

It is, as expected, an offbeat set-up, with a spice of philosophical depth added in.

“The baseline of it is my mother passing away two years ago and how that affected me,” he says.

“I missed her and I wanted to find out what was going to happen to me now that I don’t have a mum. So I looked into mysticism and taking the advice of a shaman. I didn’t want to talk to a counsellor. That’s very American. I said: ‘I’m going to go into the forest and talk to someone who can read my future.’ This chap told me I had lived many lives. This was an attractive notion to me. Maybe we do live again. Maybe I’ll see my mum again.

“In your previous lives, he said ‘You were birds’. I thought it was crazy but then as I left I thought about it; I started dreaming about birds. I realised maybe I was a bird in my previous life because it made sense — I can do all the sound effects. I can mimic anything. It’s the one thing I’ve taken from my previous life.

“This became the idea for the show. It’s full of crazy impressions of pre-historic birds but also there’s a bit of where do we go in our lives and how do we feel when our loved ones pass and how do we get through it.”

Rhys Darby will be performing as part of the Vodafone Comedy Carnival Galway, Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent (8pm, Wednesday, October 24) and Town Hall Theatre (8pm, Thursday, October 25). See vodafonecomedycarnival.com

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