Darby gets laughs with delivery, sound effects
BY ERIN SMITH / Special to the Star-Advertiser
Roll call. Rhys? Present. Erin? Present.
‘AN EVENING WITH RHYS DARBY’
Presented by the Honolulu Museum of Art
» Where: Doris Duke Theatre, 900 S. Beretania St.
Best known for his work as hapless music manager Murray Hewitt on the wildly popular HBO show “Flight of the Conchords,” Rhys Darby has become one of New Zealand’s top comedic exports.
The show, which ran for two seasons from 2007 to 2009, is based on the lives of two struggling musicians from New Zealand who move to New York to make it big. Those familiar with the show will know that Murray, though well intended, is probably the world’s worst manager, often booking the band at karaoke bars or as a Simon & Garfunkel tribute duo. The writing is spot-on, and the show produced some of the funniest songs you’ll ever hear, with “Hiphopapotamus,” “Business Time” and “Leggy Blonde” among the titles.
With his sharp delivery, incredible timing and ability to poke fun at himself, it’s no wonder Darby is a fan favorite for “FOTC” lovers. He has some of the best lines in the show, and that’s saying something.
Beyond “Flight of the Conchords,” Darby is a stand-up comedian who delivers his sharp character observations with a signature blend of physicality and his own man-made sound effects.
Darby honed his comedic skills doing stand-up in New Zealand and England, where “Flight of the Conchords” began as a BBC radio show. He now splits his time between New Zealand and Los Angeles with his wife and two young sons.
As part of the Doris Duke Theatre’s “Out of the Box” series, Darby will be bringing his stand-up comedy show to Honolulu on Tuesday, Jan. 28.
Last week I caught up with Darby to talk about his brand of comedy, his hair color, mountain climbing and his upcoming projects before he makes his first trip to Hawaii.
ERIN SMITH: In your comedy special “This Way to Spaceship,” you talk about forms of greetings. It seems you’re a handshake man, adept at avoiding hugs and fist bumps. Here in Hawaii the common way to greet one another is with a kiss. How are you going to handle this?
RHYS DARBY: When you say kiss each other, do you mean on the lips or on the cheek? What’s the protocol?
ES: It’s kind of up to you; it depends on how you angle your head.
RD: I’m new to Hawaii, so I’ll probably just go with the flow of the first person that tries to kiss me. Knowing me, I’ll probably do it wrong and end up kissing someone’s nose or something. Learn by your mistakes, right?
ES: Absolutely! You’re really great with sound effects in your stand-up. How did you develop that skill?
RD: I used to play with my action figures as a kid, and I would create these stories and do the sound effects. Doors shutting, helicopters taking off. When I started to do stand-up comedy, it was second nature for me to make the sound effects when I was telling the crowd a story. And people would come up to me and say, “Wow, you’re really good at that,” which was something that I hadn’t realized. I thought everybody could. And once I put a microphone to it and amplified myself, it really took off. I think it surprised even myself.
ES: Let’s talk about “Electric Copper.” What perks in life do people get when their hair is “Electric Copper” like yours? (“Electric Copper” is Darby’s self-described hair color for his red mane.)
RD: It kind of has a Robert Redford thing to it. A lot of older ladies like it because it reminds them of the Double R. I say “Electric Copper” because my hair is really something to behold. If you get your hands on it, you feel the energy coming from it, and that’s a lot of where my power is. I’ve recently had a haircut because I have to calm it down. It gets real big and thick, and it’s too much power, I have to rein it in. My wife says, “You’re too crazy! You have to get a haircut!”
ES: There is a “silly walk” sequence in your “It’s Rhys Darby Night” comedy special, which is hilarious. I was dying laughing. You’re very physical in your comedy, and it seems to me that perhaps there is a Monty Python influence there. Has their brand of humor influenced your work?
RD: You’re right on the money there. I was very influenced by Monty Python growing up. I watched the films many times and collected their paraphernalia. I was obsessed with British comedy as a whole, which is often sketch-based. The Goons, Mike Milligan, Peter Sellers, Rowan Atkinson later on. When I got into doing comedy, I became like a one-man sketch group onstage, jumping about, often portraying the physicality of five characters at once, on my own.
ES: (Last year) you climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak, with charity organization World Vision New Zealand. What was that like physically and mentally?
RD: It was very difficult. (Laughs) I was a little under the weather at the time, so the higher I got, the more difficult it was to breathe. I didn’t get altitude sickness, as some people do. I kept on rockin’, just very slowly. Unfortunately, because of how I felt, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I would have liked to. I got to the summit, had a quick look around at the sunrise and curvature of the earth and then said, “Cough, cough. OK, I’m good, let’s go down now!”
ES: What pushed you to want to make the trip?
RD: It was for a good cause and it was in Africa. I love Africa; I’d been there a few times and was happy to go back. It was a no-brainer, really, for me. And then we spent a month in Africa after that, and we also sponsor a child through Child Fund. We have a boy that’s in Zambia. My wife and I and our two children made the trek across to Zambia and then a five-hour journey, rough as guts across country in a Jeep, to find this boy. It was one of those big life moments. My son was 7 at the time, and the boy we sponsor was the same age. They got to see the differences in each other’s cultures, just to see what the other side of the world is like.
ES: “The Flight of the Conchords” was a massive hit show, and it’s hysterically funny. What doors did the show open up for you internationally?
RD: That show being an international hit opened up doors for me to go many places in the world and perform my stand-up. Hollywood came knocking; I did a film with Jim Carrey (“Yes Man”) and then Pirate Radio after that. HBO is a great channel; we kind of got spoiled a bit because it’s such a good network. I knew the Conchords ahead of time, we’re friends, so we were spoiled with that show from all angles. After the show ended, I did other acting jobs that weren’t as good. It’s positive, though; having experienced something so great, it keeps you hungry.
ES: As well as being a columnist, I’m also a full-time musician. Around our cottage we get a lot of miles out of rehashing “Murray” jokes, particularly when I get a call for a gig that seems a bit ridiculous. Can you tell us about your best “Murray gig” moment while on your comedy tours?
RD: So it’s like, in an elevator or a cafe at the airport? (Laughs) I have been offered a few gigs that you sort of frown upon. Being a comedian, if I get offered something weird, I tend to go for it because I might get some material from it. Being a musician is different than being a comedian, but one moment comes to mind.
I was booked to perform on a jet airliner. It was a brand-new airline, which was flying from New Zealand to Australia, and it was a budget airline. It was an early morning flight to Australia, full of business people, and the clincher was that no one had been told that there was going to be stand-up.
I got the thumbs-up from the stewardess, I got up, picked up the airplane phone thingy and said, “Good morning everyone.” I started doing jokes, and I was getting these horrified looks. Nobody knew this was supposed to happen, so they were like, “Who is this (expletive) who decided to get up and tell jokes?” This was back in the day when no one knew who I was. I kind of died on the floor for about seven minutes and then hung up the phone and said, “Forget this.” Then I had to go sit down with the audience for the rest of the flight, which is something that doesn’t usually happen. You never have to join them, but I was stuck in this tube. It was the ultimate Murray gig!