Jemaine Clement

Jemaine Clement

Born in Masterton, a small city in the agrarian Wairarapa region of New Zealand, Clement grew up in a blue-collar family he described as a mixture of European and Maori (indigenous New Zealander) descent. He attended Makoura College, where his friends called him "Jim" and he vested himself in speech and drama activities. His entry in Makoura's yearbook relates how a certain math teacher inspired him "to despise all human life," and listed his great ambition, to participate in "Jelly Wrestling" in a future "Masterton Olympics." Upon graduation, he moved on to Victoria University of Wellington to study theater and film, and there he met later collaborators Taika Waititi (a.k.a. Taika Cohen) and Bret McKenzie. McKenzie and Clement participated in a loose-knit drama club and began envisioning original comedy concepts of their own. Both dropped out of the university, and while McKenzie kept busy with a raft of musical projects, Clement formed a comedy project with Waititi called Humourbeasts and made some early forays into radio and TV comedy. He wrote for and appeared on TV3 sketch-comedy shows "Skitz" (1993-97) and "Telly Laughs" (1996-98), but soured on the heavy-handed network process, where scripts would go filtered through executive layers and, as he recalled later, "somebody with no sense of humor would just get a red pen and underline jokes they didn't understand [and] pick the whole thing apart until they killed it." He would eventually win a Radio Award for his work on the show "Trashed" on Wellington's Channel Z in 1999. That same year, Humourbeasts received the country's highest honor for comedy performance, the Billy T Award. McKenzie and Clement each went out on auditions for TV shows and commercials but scored little meaningful work in the limited market.As a side project, the twosome began working on a musical act in 1998 that incorporated their wry, observational sense of humor, initially as a four-piece band. Eventually they refined their act into a duo as Flight of the Conchords, putting together a repertoire of original songs they considered "weird" but audiences found hilarious, as they began working the comedy angle by default. In one song, they extolled a woman's beauty by suggesting, "You could be a part-time model/But you'd probably still have to keep your normal job." They compiled the tunes in their first album, Folk the World Tour, in 2002, and that same year, journeyed to the UK to play the alternative act-friendly Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Back home, Clement also wrote and starred in his first full-length feature film, "Tongan Ninja" (2002). Judged either a filmic atrocity or a brilliantly self-aware satire, "Tongan Ninja" ostensibly told the tale of a ninja from Tonga who journeys to Wellington to reunite with childhood nemesis Action Fighter (Clement) and to save a woman's restaurant from kung-fu-fighting criminals - but the plot was secondary to the production. That is, Clement and his partners effectively hung a lantern on their lack of a budget, trying to make a martial arts film so cheap and hackneyed, it had to be funny, even dubbing their own English dialogue - badly - into English. Flight of the Conchords returned to Edinburgh in 2003 and received a nomination for the Perrier Award for the festival's top comedy entry, losing to the similarly eccentric U.S. comedian Demetri Martin. Martin also introduced them to James Bobin, producer and director of Sacha Baron Cohen's cult hit series "Da Ali G Show," (Channel 4, 2000; HBO, 2003-04) and Bobin's friendship would later prove pivotal. Back in New Zealand in 2004, they pitched a TV pilot to the national broadcaster TVNZ, but network execs considered it too quirky and niche-oriented to become a mainstream hit - which would become a minor national controversy as they lost the homegrown talent to more prescient media overseas.Flight of the Conchords won "Best Newcomer" at Australia's Melbourne Comedy Festival, returned to Scotland and went on to North America to play comedy fests in Montreal and Aspen, CO. The crescendo around them earned McKenzie and Clement a six-part radio series on BBC Radio 2 the next year, "The Flight of the Conchords." Presented as a "mockumentary" - a la "This Is Spinal Tap" (1984) - and made mostly with improvised gags on a hand-held recorder, the radio show saw the kiwis playing themselves as hapless fish-out-of-water who are trying to make a name in the UK, flummoxing their maladroit manager, fellow New Zealander Rhys Darby. The basic concept, which would win them a Sony Radio Academy Award in Britain, would remain extant via another relationship developing with innovative U.S. pay cable network HBO. Talent spotters for both HBO and NBC had caught their act on the festival circuit in 2004, yielding a one-off special in 2005 on HBO's ongoing "One Night Stand" (1989-92; 2005) series. NBC gave them a deal to develop a pilot, but the network wound up passing on the Conchords ideas.Clement meanwhile scored a conspicuously high-profile solo role as the face of the national U.S. restaurant chain Outback Steakhouse in an ad campaign that debuted during the States' highest rated annual broadcast, the Super Bowl. Clement and McKenzie also in the spring of 2006 made a documentary, "Flight of the Conchords: A Texan Odyssey" (2006), about their trip to the trendy South by Southwest festival in Austin, TX, and Clement reunited with Waititi (working as Taika Cohen) in New Zealand to take the lead in the latter's film project, "Eagle vs. Shark" (2007), an off-beat romantic comedy. Clement played a bitter, antisocial dork who lets his guard down to an equally geeky girl after she wows him with her video game skills - a kind of anti-Hollywood, glamour-free romance that drew comparisons to the quirky "Napoleon Dynamite" (2004). Not surprisingly, when the Conchords' NBC deal eventually lapsed, HBO jumped to commission its own pilot.Clement and McKenzie returned to their fish-out-of-water premise, playing themselves cohabitating in a small New York apartment, navigating an indifferent cityscape with their now-trademark deadpan obliviousness. With the boys lapsing seamlessly into fanciful music videos of their songs within the narrative, McKenzie described it as "[s]omething like 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' (HBO, 2000-) crossed with 'The Monkees.' (NBC, 1966-68)." McKenzie and Clement suggested a familiar name to HBO execs to help them helm the project, James Bobin, and the channel greenlit 12 episodes of the show. " The Flight of the Conchords" (2007-09), premiering in June 2007, with HBO's creator-friendly operating style allowing them to realize their charmingly self-flagellating vision. Darby reprised his role as their incompetent, musically ignorant manager, Murray, who also works for the New Zealand consulate - itself depicted as a dowdy suite in an unmarked office building, with its walls adorned with tourism posters proclaiming "New Zealand: Just like The Lord Of The Rings!" and "New Zealand . . . Why Not?" Kristin Schaal played Mel, the president and lone member of their fan club and nigh-psychotic stalker. Clement and McKenzie played themselves as sweetly idiotic and socially dysfunctional. The New York Times summarized the show as "funny in such an understated way that it is almost dangerous to make too much of it . . . the humor lies in a deadpan exchange of inanities, punctuated by long, puzzled silences." Flight of the Conchords also signed to Sub Pop Records, which released a new EP, The Distant Future, in August 2007 to capitalize on the show's buzz.By mid-August, HBO had already renewed the series for a second season, though McKenzie and Clement's quickly filling schedule and work on their third record delayed production and postponed season two until early 2009. In the meantime, Wellington named them "Wellingtonians of the Year" for 2007, and in February 2008, The Distant Future won them the Grammy award for Best Comedy Album. They celebrated in appropriately muted fashion with a free show at a Wellington video store. The win set the table for their eponymous third CD to debut on Billboard's U.S. chart at No. 3 later that spring. They and their TV writing team also netted three Writer's Guild of America award nominations, and in July 2008, "The Flight of the Conchords" wracked up four Emmy nominations: Bobin for his direction, Bobin and the Conchords for Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series, and two for Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics.The Australian magazine Who also listed McKenzie and Clement in their 2008 ranking of the "100 Sexiest People." In 2009, after the second season of "Conchords" aired, Clement received an Emmy nod for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series - his first nomination in the acting category. But the success of the television show was short-lived. Later that year, after months of waiting and speculation, Clement and McKenzie announced that the show would not return for a third season, citing the enormous amount of time required to write for the series. On the big screen, he scored an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Supporting Male for his performance in "Gentlemen Broncos" (2009), in which he played an acclaimed novelist who steals a story idea from a teenage outcast (Michael Angarano).