Jemaine Clement established an international cult following as half of musical comedy duo Flight of the Conchords. The show's successful debut season on US cable network HBO coincided with the US release of Taika Waititi's slacker romance Eagle vs Shark, in which Clement starred as a geeky retail worker. The two would go on to direct and star in hit vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows.
The Conchords dryly described themselves in promotional material as "formerly New Zealand's fourth most popular guitar-based digi-bongo acapella-rap-funk-comedy folk duo". With Grammy Awards and HBO success they can squarely be described as New Zealand's most successful comedy act full stop.
Jemaine Clement grew up in Masterton, the eldest of three brothers. Clement recalls being a fan of Billy T James and, that around age 11, the English television comedy series Black Adder (starring Rowan Atkinson) transported him beyond the sheep and souped-up Ford Escorts, and he thought, "I want to do something like that."
At Victoria University Clement studied drama and film towards a BA. There he met a number of key collaborators, including comedian/musician Bret McKenzie — his future partner in Conchords — and actor/director Taika Waititi, whom he collaborated with in many theatre productions.
Waititi and Clement later formed comedy duo Humourbeasts and performed together in several iterations, including touring mythbusting show The Untold Tales of Maui (featuring a bi-lingual owl and the North Island as kaimoana). Clement, McKenzie and Waititi also briefly performed together as part of a larger comedy group, So You're a Man.
In 1996 Clement and Waititi were invited to join the cast of sketch comedy show Telly Laughs. Clement also wrote and appeared in longrunning sketch show Skitz. The high pressure deadlines of weekly television comedy complemented the performance experience Clement was gaining from live shows.
During the same period Clement worked with director Jason Stutter on a number of short films, playing a vampire in Stutter's 1995 short Blood Suckers, and having a close encounter with a soft drink machine in Fizz. He also acted in this theatre parody, and cameos as a pizza delivery man in this Duggan episode (go ten minutes into the clip).
In the late 90s, Clement and Stutter began improvising martial arts parody Tongan Ninja, which would mark their feature debut. Featuring an Elvis-style opening track composed by Clement and Bret McKenzie, the film follows a kind-hearted Tongan who is trained in the ways of the ninja, then sent to save a Wellington ethnic hospitality establishment from baddies. Clement played one of the lead villains, and also provided the voice for the main character. NZ Herald reviewer Graham Reid called Ninja one of "the dumbest, funniest local films" in years.
Clement had met Bret McKenzie in 1998, while both were working on a Duncan Sarkies play. They became flatmates and decided to form a band. Although McKenzie was already a talented multi-instrumentalist (and member of popular band The Black Seeds), they decided to write their own songs — partly, they claimed, because it was easier than learning other people's.
In 2001 after one of a number of appearances on TV's Pulp Comedy, Flight of the Conchords took their first full-length show to Canada's Calgary Fringe Festival. The following year their show Folk the World began its long journey from Wellington's Bats Theatre to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and beyond. Follow-up High on Folk was nominated for England's prestigious Perrier Award. This period also saw an award-winning, improvised, self-titled series, which aired on BBC radio in 2005.
The band's humour came not just from their parodies of a wide range of musical genres, but from their deliberately awkward banter between songs, making a virtue of Kiwi naivety, obscurity, and self-deprecation.
Attempts to pitch a Conchords show to New Zealand TV networks met little success. Like John Clarke a generation before them, the Conchords were faced with the irony of taking their particularly NZ brand of humour overseas to find enlightened support. By 2004 the band were attracting overtures from American TV networks; the following year executives from cable network HBO invited the duo to perform in Los Angeles, for an episode of stand-up comedy show One Night Stand.
The show's success encouraged HBO to sign the Conchords to make a pilot for a potential series, one of only four by HBO that year. The resulting series saw the pair playing versions of themselves, trying to make it big in New York. For four months they alternated five days of filming, with weekends working on scripts and music. Clement, McKenzie and Brit director James Bobin (Da Ali G Show) are all fans of understated comedy: the Conchords series has few punchlines, and no laugh track.
Clement feels that the group's low energy performance style helped make them stand out in America, where people are often "running on stage with their hands up in the air ... and we just ... sit there [in the live shows]. I think people find that funny, that we're not shouting."
The TV series (tag-teaming in the HBO slot occupied by popular series Entourage) became a breakout success, with Clement and McKenzie attracting a large hipster-geek fanbase.
In August 2007 they released The Distant Future; it later won a Grammy for best comedy album and became the first album by a NZ band to ascend pop charts in the US since Crowded House. A second series of their show aired on HBO from January 2009, winning Clement his first Emmy nomination for comedy actor.
In the midst of Clement's growing Conchords fame, Taika Waititi asked him for feedback on the script for offbeat romance Eagle vs Shark. Originally Waititi planned to play the geeky Jarrod, who as Waititi says, possesses "all the worst traits of every male you've ever known". But as the project grew in budget Clement took over the role, and Waititi concentrated on directing. In turn, Waititi has directed episodes of Flight of the Conchords.
Eagle vs Shark's offbeat style and and a release in the wake of nerd hit Napoleon Dynamite, left some American reviewers unconvinced; though even naysayers like Variety admitted that Clement and co-star Loren Horsley made "an indelible impression". Premiere, USA Today and Empire magazine were more positive, with Empire calling the film "a comic delight destined for cult adoration."
Clement followed Eagle with Gentlemen Broncos, playing a successful fantasy novelist who rips off the work of an aspiring writer. Directed by Dynamite helmer Jared Hess, the film was a box office failure, though it saw Clement nominated for best supporting actor at American indie awards Independent Spirit.
In 2010 Clement joined star Steve Carell as one of the schmucks in Dinner for Schmucks, a remake of French hit The Dinner Game. USA Today reviewer Claudia Puig argued that Clement "nearly steals the movie" as a pretentious artist whose "off-the-wall remarks, bizarre costumes and animalistic tendencies are absurdly comical".
His voice talents can also be heard on animated hit Rio and a 2014 sequel (as a villainous red-eyed cockatoo, The Hollywood Reporter argued the character "steals every scene he's in"), 2010's Despicable Me (one of the evil minions), and sneaking a mention of Wellington's Botanic Gardens into an episode of The Simpsons. Clement went on to play Boris, the bug-eyed alien assassin who fiddles with time in the third Men in Black movie, and in 2016 played the villainous giant crab Tamatoa in Disney’s Moana.
Back home, Clement took a small role in Jason Stutter comedy Diagnosis:Death, then reunited with Stutter for the director's third feature Predicament. Based on the novel by Scarecrow author Ronald Hugh Morrieson, the film won Clement praise for another scene-stealing performance, this time as The Spook, an oddball plotting to blackmail adulterous couples.
Clement contributed to sketch comedy show Radiradirah, directed an episode of Short Poppies for his Conchords colleague Rhys Darby, and can be heard as the voice of one of the sheep in The Pen, a series of shorts he made with Wellington animator Guy Capper.
2014 saw Clement's big screen directorial debut: mock-documentary What We Do In the Shadows, based on a 2006 short he made and starred in with old friend Taika Waititi. Clement's interest in vampires stems from childhood; he recalls starting a vampire gang at primary school, donning plastic teeth and trying to scare smaller kids in a Transylvanian accent.
Directed by Clement and Waititi, the Shadows feature film explores life and flatting for a group of vampire friends who live in Wellington and try to get invited into bars. Clement plays Vladislav, aged 862. The movie premiered in early 2014 in the midnight section of US festival Sundance. A run of largely positive reviews and international press — plus a Moa win for New Zealand's best self-funded film of 2014 — followed Shadows' successful local release in June that year.
Early 2015 saw Sundance debuts for two further big screen roles: People, Places, Things, in which Clement stars as a teacher balancing his job, his art, and solo parenting, and Jared Hess comedy Don Verdean.
Jamie Dunn, 'The Old Ones: Jemaine Clement on his new vampire flatshare comedy' (Interview). The Skinny website. Loaded 10 November 2014. Accessed 20 February 2015
Amelie Gillette, 'Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords' (Interview). A.V. Club website. 27 July 2007. Accessed 20 February 2015
Megan Lehmann, 'Rio: Movie Review' - The Hollywood Reporter, 7 April 2011
Claudia Puig, 'Dinner for Schmucks' serves up more than a nibble of fun' (Review) - USA Today, 31 July 2010
Graham Reid, 'Best ninja movie with a Tongan in it' (Review of Tongan Ninja) - NZ Herald, 3 October 2004
M.E.R, 'Flight of the Conchords' - Current Biography, March 2008, page 21 (Volume 69, Issue 3)
'Sundance debut for Kiwi vampire spoof' Stuff website. Loaded 17 December 2013. Accessed 23 December 2013