October 1, 2007

If You're Into It

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This summer Flight of the Conchords, starring the self-proclaimed fourth most popular folk-parody duo in New Zealand, surpassed an increasingly gimmicky Entourage as the first most popular comedy on HBO.

Okay, maybe FOTC hasn’t passed Entourage yet, but it’s only a matter of time at this point. I mean, how long can a show survive with acting performances from the two main characters that are arguably as bad as Shaq’s performance in Kazaam? Jeremy Piven’s back must be about to give out after carrying this series for a season and a half.

Luckily HBO offered us a comedy alternative in the form of Bret and Jemaine—members of Flight of the Conchords, an indie-folk band struggling to make it in New York City. The show supplements the aforementioned plot with several original songs per episode. The genius of the show lies in these songs—parodies of a wide array of music ranging from rap to classic rock to pop ballad. Imagine early John Mayer instrumentals mixed with Weird Al lyrics on lithium, or just listen to this:

It would not be an overstatement to say that the hysterical tunes belt out by the incomparable Bret and Jemaine in parody of every genre of music fundamentally changed my summer of ’07. Instead of dividing my time fairly liberally between sleeping, playing tennis, making day trips to the Jersey Shore, and staying out past 2 a.m. (a division that came to be known as “The Grind” between an equally lazy friend and myself), I found myself watching reruns of FOTC daily. Instead of lying by the pool reading The Stranger or Generation X—two works which are the foundations of my justification for being a slacker—I was spending an inordinate amount of time engaging in a back and forth of FOTC lyrics via text message. Needless to say the quirky folk-parody duo shook things up for me this summer. To think that I passed on countless opportunities to nap in favor of responding to text messages reading, “You’re so beautiful, like a….tree” with texts saying, “or a high class prostitute.” Unbelievable.

FOTC, coupled with a few other acts, represent a trend away from the traditional stand-up comedy employed by people like Dane Cook—who is all of a sudden more noisy and annoying than anything resembling funny—and toward musical comedy. For some reason comedians have figured out that jokes backed up by guitar or harmonica or glockenspiel are funnier than they would be sans glockenspiel.

Demetri Martin, who made a cameo on the final episode of FOTC, fuses traditional stand-up and musical comedy on his album These Are Jokes. He finds a delicate balance, telling traditional jokes in stand-up mode and quirky jokes with equally quirky instrumentals (see glockenspiel) in musical comedy mode. When set against a Dust In the Wind-like acoustic guitar track the lyric, “A squirrel is the same as a can, when there’s a B.B. gun in my hand,” seems to be significantly less nefarious than if it stood alone.

Even Saturday Night Live has turned to musical comedy. The only relevant skit since the 2000 election on the show that defines sketch comedy was not a traditional SNL skit but rather a perverse self-parodying tune starring Justin Timberlake. Though SNL’s vitality seems to be waning, it still holds some symbolic relevancy in American culture. It still matters who is hosting SNL this week. When the most popular skit of the decade produced by the show that embodies comedy is a musical parody, it says something about the direction of comedy. It marks a definitive rise of musical comedy out of obscurity and, if not to popular supremacy, to firm standing in our mainstream culture.

To the delight of fans everywhere, HBO has announced that there will be a second season of FOTC. At some point in 2008, Bret and Jemaine will again challenge Entourage for Sunday night superiority. Once again we will get to see the true embodiment of cutting-edge comedy square off against a show whose four main characters are less popular than the agent’s gay Asian assistant. So next season, scorn Entourage. Bask in the brilliance of the Conchords (providing that’s what you are in to).