I jumped on a bandwagon recently and started watching and admiring an HBO series called Flight of the Conchords. The premise of the show is described succinctly on their website: “Bret and Jemaine have moved to New York in the hope of forging a successful music career. So far they’ve managed to find a manager (whose “other” job is at the New Zealand Consulate), one fan (a married obsessive) and one friend (who owns the local pawn shop) — but not much else. ” The premise is intended to create a humorous atmosphere, and if you’re not in a band, then it is hilarious. However, if you live a life even remotely like the Conchords’ then the show is less funny and more a tragic reminder of how pathetic a wanna-be-rockstars’ life really is.
Tthis “digi-folk duo” lives in a small, crappy New York apartment filled with music gear and they do lots of crappy gigs. In one episode, their “manager” (whose day job office sits in the same building as a business called “Asian Massage”) takes them on “tour” (notice how many quotation marks we’re using here?). Jemaine, one of the musicians, reads the contract outloud in the backseat of the manager’s car, and says, “It’s says here we’re going to have a tour bus.”
“This is the tour bus,” says the manager.
“This isn’t a tour bus.”
“Yes, it is.”
“No, it isn’t.”
“You’re only two people. What do you need a whole bus for?”
I have paraphrased the conversation, but the gist is the same. It was funny until Brian and realized that (we, a duo with a harmonica player) will no doubt be touring in our Nissan Sentra. This scene just reminded us of this fact, and what began as a funny show laughing at a the adventures of a pair of naive musicians, became a not-so-funny mirror or our own lives.
The scene, however, which really stopped us from laughing, occurs at their first gig in the tour. They’re playing the lounge of a airport motel. In the corner of the restaurant, they’re completing their set, and one of them says, “We’d really like to thank you for having us. We have CDs and t-shirts for sale.” Then the sound of one or two aimless claps resounding in an empty room. Brian and I sat quietly through the scene until I said, “God, that is so not funny.”
“I know,” Brian said. “That happens to us all the time.”
And indeed it does. We’ll be completing a set at a nearly empty bar, but I will still declare cheerfully into the mike: “Thanks for coming everyone! We have free CDs and pins!” And just like in the show, I hear solitary claps echo through the room. The same scenario is funny in the TV show, but is depressing in real life. The myth of the musicians’ life is hardly ever explored, but what I like about this particular show is that they don’t embellish their lives. It is pretty funny to hear them thank everyone for coming to the show, when the joke is that the audience is there because they’re waiting for a flight out of there.
Brian tells this story (possibly apocryphal) about Eddie Van Halen watching This is Spinal Tap, the mockumentary about a rock band. In Brian’s story Eddie Van Halen had to leave the screening because it wasn’t funny. “It was just too real,” said Brian. We have a similar response watching Flight of the Conchords. What should be hilarious scenes about lonely gigs, strange fans, and band drama (one member “quits the band” weekly) for us seems like a sobering Oprah episode on something like identify theft: “this could be you”. And like an Oprah viewer, we recognize ourselves. “Hey, you have that synthesizer!” I’ll shout when it appears in the background of the band’s apartment. Or, “God that happened to us,” Brian will say of the Conchords’ Open Mic gig when the announcer (in the episode, Daryll Hall) used the wrong name to introduce the band: “The Flutes of the Commodores.”
That was the other thing that shocked us: the band’s name is like our band name. Flight of the Conchords sounds a lot like Short Punks in Love. It makes me wonder if we’re not some unrevealed joke. Two mid-thirties to early-forties musicans have day jobs as community college teachers while they pursue a rock-n-roll career in Chicago. Actually, that does sound pretty good. If HBO only knew about us.