Inside With: Rhys Darby – By: Keith Huang

For the past five years, Rhys Darby has been living abroad in pursuit of a comedy career. A native of New Zealand, Darby has been performing standup and sketch comedy for well over a decade, just putting his material, like any other comedian, out into the ether.

Along his path, though, it was probably inevitable that Darby would team up with like-minded Kiwi comedians Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, better known as the musical comedy duo Flight of the Conchords. Over the past five years, the Conchords have accrued ample, worldwide buzz, especially after being nominated for the Perrier Comedy Award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2003, followed by “Best Alternative Comedy Act” at the 2005 U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen.

But in 2005, the Conchords landed a BBC radio show, a touchstone event for any comedian in the U.K., and asked Darby to play Brian Nesbitt, their well-meaning but inept band manager. And later, when HBO approached the Conchords to create a pilot episode, they asked Darby to reprise that role as Murray Hewitt. Perhaps most satisfying about Darby and the Conchords is their off-brand sense of humor that has ultimately lead them to leave their homeland for greener pastures.

Describe your first-ever meeting with Bret and/or Jemaine.

I remember first getting to really meet Jemaine back in New Zealand at our annual comedy festival. It was a big festival that year with more than five acts showcasing their talent. I was one of those acts. There was always a lot of competition back in those days for stagetime and I remember seeing the shady but dominant figure of Jemaine standing at the back of the crowd of people who had come to see my show. He laughed a lot during my show. Afterwards, I approached him and said, “I know you. You’re here to see if I’m any good aren’t you?”

“I’m just checking out the other acts,” he said softly and deeply.

“So how was I?” I said confidently and quietly.

“Pretty good. Pretty good,” he replied.

From that moment on I knew we had a special connection.

Where did the character of “Murray/Brian” come from?

After the Conchords were approached by the BBC to make a radio show pilot, Bret and Jemaine came to me with the idea to play the part of their manager. I jumped at the opportunity and gave them five separate character voices that could be used for the role. They chose voice #4, which was my normal voice. From there, I molded the character out of thin air. I came up with the name Brian Nesbitt and then formed a picture in my head as to how he acted. Purely based on the name, I saw him as a little high-strung, overly keen, utterly clueless, but most importantly, well-meaning with a big heart.

Is he from real life?

He’s not based on any particular person. He’s just a man who’s really keen to do things by the book–but can’t for the life of him find the book he needs. Murray is essentially the same character, although I say he is Brian’s cousin. To Murray, managing the Conchords is his life. The pure passion for it is like a man who’s obsessed with greyhound racing.

You’ve lived in Auckland, London and New York. Are these three cities really all that different?
They are not different at all. They are all wonderful examples of Western Starbucks commercialism. Auckland does recycling better.

Do you worry about having to move away from New Zealand for work?

I”ve been living away from NZ for the last five years because of work, but the more success I have internationally means the sooner I can come home. We have a problem with nurturing homegrown talent. In our country, you have to succeed overseas before they’ll take you seriously back home. After my success in the U.K. and now the U.S., my own country should finally open its doors to me. This seems like a step back but really it’s a step home and that’s what counts.

Do you recommend getting a show on HBO?

Getting a show on HBO has been amazing. I can really recommend it. They have been awesome to work with, and they are at the forefront of taking risks and their visions seem to be limitless. HBO is the best. There’s nothing that comes close.

Do you tell your friends back home that you know Tony Soprano?

Most people back home ask me if there’s an HBO Christmas party, and if so, will I meet the Sopranos and the Entourages and the Larry Davids then. I usually say, yes, it’s all about the Christmas parties. Man, we have the best Christmas parties.

What was the first day of shooting like on the Conchords set?

The first day was the pilot. And I knew from working previously with the guys exactly the sort of dry, laconic but slightly madcap humor that we’d be using would come out on set. I was just really happy with the group of people that were there with us to share the vision. We all got along and you could tell from everyone’s faces that we were excited to be working on something so original. I was nervous as this was my first TV show, but the sense of fun took over pretty quickly and soon enough we forgot the cameras were there. At night in my hotel room I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face for a week as I lay on the bed and tried to take in the magnitude of what we were doing.

Do you think Conchords would have turned out differently if they hadn’t done the BBC radio show first?

I have no idea how the show would have turned out had we not made the BBC radio show beforehand. And, more importantly, I don’t really know if I would have even been given a part in the show. They may have had an American actor play their manager as the chemistry we created on the radio may never have come to fruition if the opportunity had not been there. I guess I made my mark in that radio show and cemented my position as their foolish side kick from then on.

Who is Billy T. James and why is he important to know?

Billy T. James is one of New Zealand’s most iconic comedians. He was a big national hero in the ’80s when he had various TV shows on the air. He also starred in a couple of movies. The NZ comedy festival gives out an award each year in his honor to an up-and-coming comedian who shows outstanding talent. The award includes a grant of money so the winner can move overseas and seek his fortune.

Did you ever win that award?

I got nominated for the award a couple of times but never won it. The award I have been given twice is the ‘Kevin Smith’ memorial trophy for international achievement. Kevin Smith was a Kiwi actor/comedian who was tragically taken from us too early while achieving success in Hollywood.

You do sound effects very well and they’re funny. Were you a fan of Michael Winslow of Police Academy fame?

I was never an obsessed fan of Michael Winslow, or indeed, the Police Academy films but I do remember really loving the ability he had as I’m sure most kids did.

When did you first start making sounds?

I just started making noises every time I described objects or mimed objects in my story telling. It didn’t even occur to me that I could mimic sounds any better than anyone for a long time. Then someone told me I could and so it has really just been a natural process for me. I haven’t even spent time practicing to get the sounds right. They just come out well when I do them off the cuff. Some people can do accents. I can do machinery, and various animals. When you use a microphone you can really have a lot of fun with sound effects so that’s why I’ve stuck with it.

We’re huge fans of Kristen Schaal. Please say something nice about Kristen. 
I can’t say anything that isn’t nice about Kristen. I love her to bits, she really is a ball of excitement. We hang out when we can when we’re in the same country. We go shopping for novelty gifts together and once we went clay modeling. She has my bike at the moment on loan until I come back to NYC to make the second series.

Now tell us something secret about her.

She loves playing Frisbee and drinking booze.
Rhys Darby is performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival through August 26th. Dates and times to all of Darby’s upcoming shows can be found at his myspace page.