Jemaine Clement established an international cult following as half of musical comedy duo Flight of the Conchords. The show's successful debut season on American cable network HBO coincided with the release of slacker romance Eagle vs Shark, in which Clement starred as a geeky retail worker. Clement would go on to star in and co-direct 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". Thanks to Grammy Awards, HBO success, albums and tours, 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. He recalls classmates quoting Billy T James sketches at school. Around age 11, English comedy series Blackadder provided further inspiration; he thought "I want to do something like that."
After competing in Theatresports at high school, Clement took some drama and film courses at Victoria University. 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.
Clement first met McKenzie when they auditioned for a drama school production which ultimately became So You're a Man. Clement has memories of being forced onto the streets of Melbourne in a skin-coloured lycra suits with a fake appendage, while trying to promote it. Waititi and Clement later formed comedy duo The Humourbeasts;they toured mythbusting show The Untold Tales of Maui (featuring a bilingual owl and the North Island as kaimoana), and were surprised by the receptiona at the Edinburgh Festial Fringe.
In 1996 Clement and Waititi were invited to join the cast of sketch comedy show Telly Laughs. Clement also wrote and appeared in long-running 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 band The Black Seeds), they decided to write their own songs — partly, they claimed, because it was easier than learning other people's. The duo's humour came not just from their parodies of many musical genres, but from their deliberately awkward banter between songs, which made a virtue of Kiwi naivety, obscurity, and self-deprecation.
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 show Folk the World began its 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 radio series, which aired on the BBC in 2005.
Clement talks in detail about his career, the birth of the Conchords, disastrous early gigs, and varied television projects that got rejected, in this two-hour interview conducted for comedy history series Funny As.
Attempts to get a Conchords show on New Zealand television networks met little success. Like John Clarke a generation before them, the Conchords were faced with the irony of taking their particularly New Zealand brand of humour overseas to find ongoing success. 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 produced by HBO that year. The pair played 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 show featured 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 New Zealand band to ascend pop charts in the US since Crowded House. A second season of Flight of the Conchords hit HBO on 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 directed episodes of Flight of the Conchords.
In New York, Clement was everywhere: on posters for Eagle vs Shark and promotions for the Conchords. In the wake of nerd hit Napoleon Dynamite, some American reviewers were 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".
Clement's voice talents have been heard in a number of animated movies. The Hollywood Reporter argued that his villainous red-eyed cockatoo in animated hit Rio "steals every scene he's in". He can also be heard in 2010 hit Despicable Me (as one of the evil minions), Moana (as a villainous crab) and Kiwi show Kiri and Lou (as Lou). He sneaked a mention of Wellington's Botanic Gardens into an episode of The Simpsons, while in live action movie Men in Black 3, he was Boris, the bug-eyed assassin who fiddles with time.
Back home, Clement took a small role in Jason Stutter comedy Diagnosis: Death, and a larger one in Stutter'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 comical stop motion shorts he made with Wellington animator Guy Capper.
With mockumentary What We Do In the Shadows, Clement made his mark behind the camera. Based on a 2006 short film he made (and starred in) with old friend Taika Waititi, the movie explores life and flatting for a group of vampires who live together in Wellington and try to get invited into bars. Clement's interest in vampires is not new; at primary school he started a vampire gang, donning plastic teeth and trying to scare kids with his Transylvanian accent.
Clement reteamed with Waititi to direct the movie version. Clement plays Vladislav, aged 862. The movie premiered in the midnight section of US festival Sundance in 2014. 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. Alongside 'reality show' Wellington Paranormal, which Clement helped direct, he is also involved in two other spin-offs: a Shadows TV series set in New York, which debuted in 2019, and werewolf movie We're Wolves.
Clement has since featured in further movies. In 2015 he was seen in People, Places, Things, in which Clement stars as a teacher balancing his job, his art, and solo parenting, and Jared Hess comedy Don Verdean. He co-stars as a professor in 2020 comedy I Used to Go Here, is set to appear in James Cameron's Avatar sequels, while his small screen roles include acclaimed Marvel Comics spinoff Legion and Sarah Jessica Parker comedy Divorce.
In 2017 Clement was named as a recipient of the Laureate Award by The Arts Foundation.
Profile updated on 8 January 2020
'Flight of the Conchords - Funny As Interview' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Rupert Mackenzie. Loaded 19 August 2019. Accessed 15 January 2020
Jamie Dunn, 'The Old Ones: Jemaine Clement on his new vampire flatshare comedy' (Interview) The Skinny website. Loaded 10 November 2014. Accessed 8 May 2019
Amelie Gillette, 'Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords' (Interview) A.V. Club website. Loaded 27 July 2007. Accessed 8 May 2019
Megan Lehmann, 'Rio: Movie Review' - The Hollywood Reporter, 7 April 2011
Joe Otterson, 'What We Do in The Shadows' Series Lands at FX With Pilot Production Commitment' - Variety, 22 January 2018
Dani McDonald, 'Wellington Paranormal: Inside Jermaine Clement and Taika Waititi's latest venture' (Interview and Video Interview) - Stuff website. Loaded 18 December 2017. Accessed 8 May 2019
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) - The NZ Herald, 3 October 2004
M.E.R, 'Flight of the Conchords' - Current Biography, March 2008, page 21 (Volume 69, Issue 3)
Unknown writer, 'Sundance debut for Kiwi vampire spoof' Stuff website. Loaded 17 December 2013. Accessed 8 May 2019