Flight of the Conchords Leads Woodlands Crowd on Merry, Ever So Gentle Chase

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Flight of the Conchords, Demetri Martin
Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion

October 25, 2016

To recap, since this show was full of recaps, the Flight of the Conchords had a running gag about Houston’s neighborhoods, wherein they roll-called Sugar Land, The Woodlands, Montrose, the Museum District, even Galveston, going back to Montrose again and again, their eyes twinkling merrily in the giant video monitors flanking the stage, because Montrose is supposed to be our exceptional neighborhood, our neighborhood for people like them — hip and self-aware if a little shabby. They even teased us about the Houston-Dallas rivalry, the Houston-Louisiana rivalry, and Texas water rats. Later in the program, Jermaine reached down for a set list mid-song, and pretended that it was a note upon which was seemingly written "the Heights," so he called out the Heights. It was a bit of easy crowd work, well-timed, geographically correct, inevitable in its repetition, like a clause in a line in Gertrude Stein.

And the audience loved every minute of it. Brett McKenzie and Jemaine Clement are so congenial that there in the heart of Trump country they even landed a few mild, topical jokes about a bad man with tiny hands who is prone to grabbing at pussy. This was an affable crowd; they arrived happy and they left happy. Before the show, one could hear a few people trying out tin-eared, stage British accents (not even Australian or Kiwi, British) in homage to their New Zealand heros. On some level, we Houstonians are completely Pavlovian when it comes to short-cuts and generalizations; we relish inevitabilities and broad strokes, and while the Flight of the Conchords' comic line is not exactly broad, it is definitely built on the inevitable. They’ve worked out a can’t-lose shtick for getting paid and having fun.

While a comedian is almost always the smartest person in the room, Brett and Jemaine pretend to have muzzled the dog. Their act lets almost everyone in on the premise of the joke. No one is exposed to shame or embarrassment, and they slip in just enough rude words to escape a terminal G rating. They play with language and the structure of meaning and expectation, as all comics must. And they always deliver. I’m not going to try to get the names right, since we live in Internet times, and that would waste my time and ruin your fun, so you can correct me if you must in the comments, but the nearly two-hour Flight of the Conchords set contained many of the hits: "We Are the Robots," "It’s Business Time," "Albie the Racist Dragon," "French Song,’ a "Too Many Mother Uckers/Hurt Feelings" medley and "Bowie’s in Space," as well as a few perfunctory new songs. It was conducted like an Easter egg hunt, or a Halloween party for kids; no one had to leave empty-handed.

From the amount of song requests honked into the void, it seems like most people there were already fans of their show that aired on HBO in the mid-2000s, but everyone was given a chance to get on board, and every joke and each song proceeded along highly visible tracks, like a kiddie train in a park, following a brief word from the conductors, a nod and a jingle. Brett McKenzie and Jemaine Clement are both incredibly elastic singers and players, and part of the fun for the audience is marveling at the vaudevillian elements, the high-quality musicianship, and the sense of something coming out of almost nothing. They were aided by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, itself comprising one Nigel Collins as well as a few musical instruments, a few instructions to the camera crew and the lighting techs, but that was it. In terms of stage props or gags, it’s a minimal production.

The other part of the fun for the audience is in forever almost catching up with the comedians. We’re like greyhounds on a raceway, chasing a rabbit on a loop. We are meant to recognize the pastiches, get the jokes, the gestures, the jokes within the jokes, and to pick up on the general outline of the plan for the night. You can bet that Brett and Jemaine have already worked out a place for audience interaction, the time and the treatment for such mild-mannered heckling as they incite, and they even hashed out one joke out of appearing to play the songs out of order, per an audience request. But each song follows the rules of the genre it is spoofing, with no aberrancies beyond the lyrics, and the song lyrics are always meant to rhyme. They go on a little too long to be absurd, but that’s part of the appeal of the show, it’s constant assurance of structure, stability and inevitability. The adherence to the rules leads to another recurring built-in joke, the occasional use of confounded spaces or gaps in lieu of an obvious rhyme, or, more frequently, the repetition of an end line awkwardly rhymed to itself. This was mostly a Jemaine trick, walloped into lines with too many words. Like everyone else in the seats, I love enjambment; it breaks up the rhythm of the wordplay and the narrative. In its own small way it upsets the flow and helps confound our expectations.

One of the first rules of comedy is self-knowledge. Flight of the Conchords know how to work a PG vibe like few others doing comedy today. Their jokes are gentle because their personas are gentle, self-deprecating, excessively polite, second-string musicians from a faraway make-believe New Zealand likewise teeming with other gentle bumblers and buffoons. Brett, or at least the character of Brett, is the Davy Jones of the group, the cute one, the floppy rag doll, slightly underwritten but eager to please. He’s the one prepared to travel a few inches off-script toward the audience in order to secure their applause. Jemaine is the straight one, less lucky in love, and somehow cooler for it; he is more fully in control of his character, however lacking the character may be for guile or social perception. Jemaine is less likely to eff and jeff, to work blue. But, you see in his eyes way up there on the video screen, and don’t be thrown off by the birth-control goggles; by the way they crunch up a tiny bit at the corners, you can bet that Jemaine knows all the dirty words too, but he won’t break character, and he certainly won’t “go there.” 

Now, a brief word about the opening act. Stand-up comedian Demetri Martin was funny. His blank comedian's eyes emit a little menace, but he kept it tamped down. I looked him up afterward, and sure enough, he’s a Yale graduate, who was once accepted into Harvard Law, so that was real menace crouching behind the loosey-goosey rundown of non sequiturs and observational absurdities, the best series of which was represented by this joke, paraphrased roughly: "Live Nude Girls — you know the 'Live' is really unnecessary, it just gets me to thinking.’ He was funny, working along that conceptual dogleg that connects Jerry Seinfeld, Mitch Hedberg and Steven Wright, but I wanted more from him and his material. More of that darkness, fewer throwaways, sharper knives, less of that duding-around, toning-it-down feeling.

For our part, we arrived at The Woodlands a few minutes early to escape ourselves and let the overall tone and atmosphere sink in. It was a nice occasion for a promenade along one of the dollhouse sidewalks leading to the scalloped white tenting of Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion. Along the way, strange insect graduates of the nearby Research Forest facilities wove pleasing webs across the trees above our heads. Momentarily, our reveries were jolted by the loud hard rock and engine sounds of a leather-vested motorcyclist blasting Van Halen into the early dark, but I will say right now, that was the most dangerous cultural exchange of the night. To give you an idea what was going on inside the gates, there was a longer line for T-shirts than for drinks. And that included the night’s special, a Christmas Story-themed lady leg filled with lime-wine margarita.

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