A few stray questions with Jemaine Clement. Plus, a Toronto International Film Festival Top Five.
Jemaine Mahana (“The Heat” in English) Atea Clement, best known for Flight of the Conchords, is a favourite comedian of this website. Before our flights for Canada, I met up with the Toronto International Film Festival People’s Choice Award Midnight Madness winner in Mt Victoria. The What We Do In the Shadows co-director and I discussed John Clarke, Billy T. James, and Australian Mels. Illustration by Elina Nykänen.
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ALEXANDER BISLEY: Flight of the Conchords’ bumbling Prime Minister is a hoot.
JEMAINE CLEMENT: I think Helen Clark might’ve been there when we wrote it, and it might have been the end of Helen Clark. I think there’s a reference in it—he has this card and it says John, and it says that’s the name of the last guy. And that was because we wanted John Clarke to play that part, but he doesn’t fly. He was considering it and we were really hoping, but then luckily Brian, who definitely was a strong choice anyway, was available. We all loved how he did it. It was different, like a sleazier version, but really funny.
AB: John Clarke loved seeing you guys in Melbourne. He’s had similar issues with having to go overseas because local television producers were too stupid and stingy. Tell me about Clarke’s influence on your writing?
JC: I was surprised to learn that they script everything in Clarke & Dawe; they seem so natural and good at it. I feel like anything that I’ve done to get that natural feeling is through improvisation. What they’re doing is an exemplar of great performance and great writing.
AB: You see yourself as more a writer than an actor?
JC: I don’t know at the moment. I always have. There was a funny thing at the time of Conchords. We’d spent so long writing it but then week-to-week filming each one, people would see us as actors, when we spent a lot more time writing the music, writing the scripts. We’d film it in no time.
AB: What was your first trip to Australia like?
JC: The first time I got to Melbourne to do shows, we turned on the radio and literally there was this show that was all New Zealand accent jokes. [Imitates] “Ben’s got a new cardigan.” “Yeah that’s right, it’s a pink cardigan.” Our accents were made fun of the whole time we were there. People just snickering when we would say something.
AB: Any Australian ‘Mels’?
JC: The Australian comedy scene is really big there. It’s not like New Zealand, they have more of a history of comedy and they’re more dedicated. So yeah, you get people turning up every night. I don’t believe that’s ever happened in New Zealand, but in Melbourne, the Comedy Festival is the second or third biggest in the world.
AB: What are your thoughts on Billy T?
JC: I feel like Billy T had this great mix where he could be intelligent; you could tell he knew the word that he was pretending not to say, but because he plays a dumb character often, he could get away with it. But that’s exactly the model where Billy T’s like [adopts Billy T voice] “and then you’ll get retribut-retribut- you’ll get paid back.” That’s the New Zealand comedy model: don’t say that, don’t say that, they won’t get it, you can say that. Billy had a good way of showing that he knew a better way to put it.
AB: HBO’s always going to have healthier budgets. A better deal than here?
JC: The last thing I did in New Zealand writing-wise was The Two Sheep, the Claymation sheep. We did some of those for one of the networks here and we’d get more notes on one or two pages of a script than we would for a whole HBO script. They [producers] feel like they really need to do their jobs in New Zealand by being like, “We’d better write lots of notes.”
AB: At the risk of appearing like Mike Hosking asking you about Will Smith just because he’s a celebrity, what’s Larry David like?
JC: We were up for an Emmy the same year Curb Your Enthuasism won. I knew we wouldn’t win. All I said was, “I hope you win it” [touches me on the shoulder, demonstrating his interaction with David]. “Thank you,” he said. And then the guy was gone.
A TIFF 2014 Top Five
- While We’re Young (Noah Baumbach, USA)
- A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (Roy Andersson, Sweden)
- The Humbling (Barry Levinson, USA)
- Kabuchiko Love Hotel (Ryuichi Hiroki, Japan)
- The Drop (Michaël R. Roskam, USA) + The Dead Lands (Toa Fraser, NZ)