In episode four of “Flight of the Conchords” entitled, “Yoko,” Bret expresses these sentiments in song to his new love Coco:
“If it’s cool with you, I’ll let you get naked, too; it could be a dream come true, providing that’s what you are into.”
Lennon/McCartney they’re not. Burt Bacharach and his collaborators can relax. And although tempted to roll around in their graves, the Gershwins can continue to rest in peace.
Songwriting is not an intellectual process. The finest and most moving songs come from the gut. The only difference on HBO’s arid new comedy, “Flight of the Conchords” is that the gut in question is jiggling from laughter.
Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement play the two aspiring neo-folk superstars from New Zealand whose dry-roasted nuttiness forms the basis of the show. They’ve come to New York City to find gigs, fame and fortune, ladies and a manager. They succeed in finding a manager — whose day job is full-time bureaucrat at the New Zealand consulate — but the rest is iffy.
“Flight of the Conchords” is an unlikely post-“Sopranos” candidate as HBO savior. And in the final analysis, it won’t be. The network has forged a reputation over the years for its daring fare, and “The Sopranos” was the standard-bearer. Now Tony and his family are gone, wiped off the cable landscape with one notorious cut to black.
While HBO has greenlit some audacious possible replacements — polygamy on “Big Love,” drugs and surfing on “John From Cincinnati” — there is still a void created not only by the demise of “The Sopranos” but also by the earlier departures of “Sex and the City” and “Six Feet Under.”
The HBO legacy is one of major hits and misses. Lately, the batting average has dipped, even though the network is still taking some mighty cuts.
“Flight of the Conchords” does not seem as if it were designed to become a cultural phenomenon. Its function appears to be more like a juggling mime, hired to keep the audience amused between acts. However, this sideshow might just elbow out the rest of the lineup and become a sensation of its own.
Deadpan humor is death on broadcast networks. The mass audiences that gather to watch sitcoms on ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox have been, for the most part, conditioned to respond to a traditional setup-payoff pattern of broad jokes, followed by laugh track. But even Pavlov’s dog probably got tired of salivating before he got fed, especially after he realized that the food was lousy.
Those sitcoms are perishing for good reason. They’re just not funny anymore.
“Flight of the Conchords” is more akin to “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” only without the cringe factor. Larry David’s brilliant comedic take on self-flagellation, also on HBO, is simple and direct, and finds vast resources of humor in the nooks of the mundane. Yet Larry wants you to feel as uncomfortable watching as he feels in the context of his semi-improvised predicaments.
“Flight of the Conchords” rises on the likeability of its two stars. It’s impossible not to like the characters of Bret and Jemaine. They’re the upbeat, idealistic, romantic goofballs we all aspire to be, semi-intoxicated on their own limited talent and viewing the world as their oyster, although one they can’t quite pry open.
The situations they find themselves in would probably be better suited to a much more famous “show about nothing.” In “Yoko,” Bret is smitten with his new girlfriend Coco. But Jemaine, who couldn’t take a hint if it were inscribed inside the lenses of his glasses, continues to tag along with Bret as if those two were Simon and Garfunkel and Coco was merely a roadie.
Eventually, Coco’s presence becomes threatening to Jemaine, and he responds to it with a side-splitting lack of maturity. Yoko Ono had an easier time winning over Paul McCartney.
But more than the knowing glances, the absurdist touches, the ludicrous outfits and the uber-quirky exchanges of dialogue, “Flight of the Conchords” gets most of its buoyancy from the musical numbers.
The songs concocted by Bret and Jemaine rival anything performed in music videos in the last several years. It’s not exactly rock, pop, folk, country or hip-hop, but an inspired sampling of them all crammed into a hybrid genre that might be described as “rock and droll.”
The other night the boys sang a song about tape. It went something like this:
“Love is like a roll of tape, it’s real good for making two things one; but just like that roll of tape, love sometimes breaks off before you were done. Another way that love is similar to tape, that I’ve noticed, is sometimes it’s hard to see the end.”
Now who can argue with that?
HBO has had some clunkers in the midst of its highly publicized successes. There was the astonishingly unamusing “The Mind of the Married Man” and the strangely out-of-place “Lucky Louie.” But then there is also “Entourage,” which found its rhythm in the second season and just keeps getting better.
If there is any justice, HBO will give “Flight of the Conchords” the same room to breathe. As Bret and Jemaine expressed it once in a song called, “Think About It”:
“Well, at the end of your life, you’re lucky if (you) die, sometimes I wonder why we even try; I saw a man lying in the street half dead, with knives and forks sticking out of his leg. And he said, ‘Ow-ow-ow-ow-ow-ow-ow-ow, can somebody get that knife and fork out of my leg please? Can somebody please remove these cutleries from my knees?’”
Insight into the human condition like that deserves a permanent home.
Michael Ventre is a Los Angeles-based writer and is a regular contributor to MSNBC.com.