Most comedians are lucky to land a bit part for their first television gig, but New Zealand standup Rhys Darby struck gold when his friends Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement cast him in their HBO series Flight of the Conchords as the two-man band’s incompetent manager Murray Hewitt. It’s been five years since Flight of the Conchords ended, and during that time Darby has toured his standup around the world, appeared in a handful of films and television shows, and also developed a set of original characters that evolved into his new series Short Poppies, now available on Netflix. Ahead of the Short Poppies premiere, I recently got a chance to talk with Darby about how the show came about, why believing in characters makes them funnier, and how Flight of the Conchords has remained hugely influential on today’s comedy shows.
You’ve said that Short Poppies is an idea you’ve had since Flight of the Conchords ended. How did the idea evolve into a real show?
It was a long process. I was living in that Murray Hewitt character world for quite some time. It was sad to see him go, but I really enjoyed playing a character and never really played one before – I had been doing standup for the best part of a decade and I guess onstage doing characterizations of people that were in my stories, but I hadn’t played a particular character for a length of time. So after finishing Murray, I decided to create some more and put them into my standup. So I came up with three over the space of a couple years – one was the ranger character Bill Napier, then a young boyish character called Steve Whittle who is a ufologist who believes in aliens and conspiracy theories, then another character called Ron Taylor, a whale watcher and a small town entrepreneur, if you will – a young go-getter that no one believes has seen a whale in the local bay. So I had those three and I performed them onstage amongst some of my live standup gigs. The show I wanted to make was a sort of longform interview format on different characters in New Zealand just so I could prove to myself that if I could come up with one I could come up with more, and I guess it took time for them to be created and for me to really get inside them and make them as real as possible. So when I found I had enough, then I put the show together. It took a few years, but of course in that time I was doing various other bits and pieces on other people’s shows, and I guess I had a time of just getting my experience down.
Why did you end up going with Netflix?
Well, we made it in New Zealand, so we came back to America and said “Look what we’ve got! Who wants to buy it?” Netflix put their hand up, and that was the ultimate for us. I’ve got a bit of a global reach thanks to the standup and working in the UK so much and of course with Conchords, so really for me the ultimate would be to get with someone who could show it worldwide. And Netflix is the obvious choice.
How many characters do you play on the show?
There’s eight altogether. Each week I play a different character, so there are seven that are interviewed, and then the eighth character – on the final episode all the characters come together – and he comes in from the New Zealand television department and is sort of the bad guy, really. He’s the manager of all the footage.
I see. Do you have a favorite character, or at least one who is closer to your heart than the others?
Yeah, I really like the ufologist Steve Whittle. He’s got an interesting background. He’s insecure about who he is in the world and is sort of looking up to the stars to find out where he’s really from, because he feels like he doesn’t fit in. I also enjoy playing the manly characters – the ranger is this outdoor rugged male chauvinistic kind of guy with sort of an ‘80s feel to him. Now men are quite openly getting things done to their face and hair – it’s all very laptops and lattes – and he comes from that era where you’re outside fixing gates and shearing sheep and looking out to the land and kind of…wearing hats and being buffer. I guess I kind of always wanted to be that guy but never was. So I like being someone I’m not, really.
Your characters are very mockworthy, but it seems like on the show, you prefer to treat silly characters seriously. Was it important to you to depict them that way?
Absolutely. That’s something I’ve always put into my character work – they always have to have a heart, and you have to believe them, and they have to have empathy and be sort of “real.” So that was one of the things I wanted to make the most evident, especially when I played the females. They had to be realistic – I wasn’t just going to put a wig on and do a silly walk. If they’re real, then the circumstances that they’re in or the dialogue they deliver can be as ridiculous or absurd as possible, but because you believe what you’re looking at, somehow that makes comedy gold, I think.
Why did you decide to cast David Farrier – a real New Zealand reporter – for the series instead of having an actor play one?
Just that reality factor again – making it as real as possible, and knowing that he was perfect for the job because he is in his late 20s, he’s a popular entertainment journalist who also does wacky and interesting stories, so it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for him to go into the heartland of New Zealand and find weird people and hang out with them. Then the other thing was that because he knew me, I knew he’d be able to hold a straight face. [laughs] I remember when we did Conchords, Jemaine was one of the biggest laughers you’d ever meet – he used to lose it all the time, and when we did scenes he’d just crack up. That’s sort of exactly the kind of comedy you want to achieve – off-the-cuff, improvised stuff built on something that’s been scripted, then you bounce off of it and see where you can go with it, and when you do that, the people that are involved in the scene have no idea what each other’s going to say. Then something will just snap you and you’ll crack up. But it’s that moment that’s cracking you up that is the gold that’s going to crack everyone else up, so you’ve got to try and hold that. So I got him rather than someone that didn’t know me at all who might lose it.
He’s great in the show. I watched an old interview he did with you where he asked how you get your ideas, and you called it out as a “hack question.” Just for the record, that made me scared to interview you.
[laughs] That’s great that you found that, because that is the one moment he keeps bringing up. No one’s ever done that to him. It sort of cemented our friendship that day, actually.
Have you enjoyed the role of being way more involved on a show, both onscreen and behind the scenes?
Definitely. I was spoiled doing Conchords because it was my friends’ show, and I just got to jump on their coattails and be part of it. I was very lucky and it was an easy ride, really – they had to do all the work. As we got into it more, I’d help out with the scripts here and there, but I never directed any of the stories or took anything further than what they’d already written. I guess the emphasis I put in was improvisational skills in the band meetings and stuff – they let me say whatever I wanted half the time, and that was really fun. But then I really felt like, for my project, I wanted to see what it was like doing all the hard work and coming up with the ideas. I enjoy it because of my standup background – I’d written and performed quite a few solo shows, so I knew it was in me that I was a writer. Now writing for television is slightly different, but it’s the same discipline at the end of the day.
Is Short Poppies something you’d want to continue into a second season, or are you treating it more as a one-off project?
Well initially the idea for it was just one season, one show, a documentary series about ordinary New Zealanders and what makes them tick. I did vow to myself I wouldn’t make another season, because it was a lot of hard work. But, much like pregnancy with women when they swear to never have another baby because they’ve been through all that hell, six months later they go “Oh, let’s have another one!” I’m really leaving it open. I’m just going to leave it up to the people whether I should do another season, or whether I just take one character and go down that route.
Now that it’s been a few years since Flight of the Conchords ended, have you noticed the larger impact it’s had on today’s comedy shows?
Yeah, I’ve started to see that. That’s what happens in comedy is that it goes through waves, different types of comedy come through, it’s a constantly growing and changing organism. If you look back at the UK Office – which was such a huge sensation – and then that kind of Office-style humor, that very realistic awkward humor spread into the US and we had obviously the US Office, and we had Curb Your Enthusiasm. Then Conchords came on and put music into it and made the dreamlike reality sequences, was very fish-out-of-water, involving awkward stuff as well, but also the endearing, optimistic element to Conchords – there’s nothing negative about the show, it’s the kind of show you can watch with your kids. To that end, I think that was one of the real goldmines of that show, because you’ll see similar shows in a way, but they’ll always go below the belt or to dark territories, obvious sexual references, drugs, blah blah blah – even though we did deal with a couple of those things, it was done in such a silly, light way it wasn’t really a problem. But I have seen other shows where you just look at it and the feel of it and you go “Ah, this feels very Conchords.” [laughs] I think it’s great, and that’s just what happens, you know?
Rhys Darby’s new series Short Poppies is now available on Netflix.