‘Flight of the Conchords’ star looking for lift-off

Rhys Darby didn’t think anyone would get the joke. “New Zealand humour can be extremely dry,” says the stand-up and actor.

“Someone described it as just the right side of boring. It is very understated. You ask yourself, ‘will it travel’?” He is discussing the hit comedy TV show, Flight of the Conchords, in which he starred alongside Brett McKenzie and Jemaine Clement. The show, featuring Darby as the hapless manager of Kiwi songwriters, McKenzie and Clement, was a surprise smash for American network, HBO. Despite the acclaim, McKenzie and Clement ended the series after just two seasons — leaving Darby out of a job as he was on the verge of fame.

“They guys were always going to finish it after two,” he says. “Going into the second season, we all had a pretty clear idea it was the end. We created a piece of art and put it on the wall and it will always be there. HBO couldn’t understand why anyone would wish to do that.That is very different to the American model of working on something for 15 years. It’s funny — ever since, people are forever asking ‘why did you get cancelled?’ We took the British outlook towards television, which is that shows have a natural lifespan”.

Darby had been a jobbing stand-up in London, and was known for his comic song effects. Because of Conchords, he relocated with his family to Los Angeles to make it big. It’s a struggle, not helped by his refusal to put on an American accent (“I’m not going to pretend to be someone I’m not”). He has shot an eight-part New Zealand-set comedy, Short Poppies, which screens on Netflix each Friday, this month and next.

“Short Poppies was a big passion project for me,” he says. “I poured a lot of cash into it to make sure it was really good. In fact, I ended up losing money. It was always going to air in New Zealand. But I thought, ‘hopefully, I can sell this — so that the whole world gets to see it’.” He was surprised at the speed with which Netflix came on board. “Although I made it for New Zealand television, I owned it. When I approached Netflix, they were really enthusiastic. As is their way, they wanted to put it on pretty quickly. It was like ‘okay, let’s just do this’. It happened very quickly.”

In Short Poppies, Darby plays a revolving cast of quirky, small-town characters (it also features Stephen Merchant, co-writer of The Office and a star of Extras). Having inhabited Murray’s soup-stained business suits for two years on Flight of the Conchords, it was nice for Darby to stretch his repertoire. But flitting between roles on Short Poppies was disconcerting. “You get to grips with one character — dress up as them, interact with the rest of the cast. Then, at the end of the week, you come back as another character, wearing a completely different costume and what have you. I had to forget who I had been and be someone else entirely. It was a challenge for the crew, too — they were used to one person on set. Now, suddenly, here was someone different,” Darby says.

The show has yet to air in New Zealand. “We have had an interesting debate back home. Networks tend to shelve things — and they’ve sat on this for a year and a half. That may suit them — it doesn’t suit me. I need to move on.”

Short Poppies is funny and sweet, but has serious undertones. Television comedy is dominated by America and Britain. It’s time other countries had their turn, says Darby. “We ware watching so much American stuff, so much English stuff. Maybe the odd Irish thing gets through. I thought ‘let’s give them some New Zealand stuff’.”

* Short Poppies airs on Netflix on Fridays.

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