Like director Peter Jackson, Rhys Darby's career was partly defined by formative viewings of Monty Python. For Darby the show is "my happy place". With his dad mainly out of the picture early on, Darby felt as if the six male Python actors were his dads. "I really adored each and every one of the Pythons," he said in this extended interview for TV series Funny As. "I was obsessed with every single thing they did."
Another television show that had a profound effect on Darby was British comedy Dad's Army. It inspired him to join the army — "I wanted to be an old man protecting New Zealand from the Nazis." During three years in the army in Burnham, near Christchurch, he thrived on making other cadets laugh by doing impressions of officers. Eventually Darby realised that he "was actually wishing to be the actor playing a soldier, not being the actual soldier."
Darby left the forces, and began studying art theory at nearby Canterbury University. Aged 21, he found "my true vocation straight away." He started writing sketches for the the univeristy's capping revue. Eventually he hit the stage himself, wearing purple tights and making strange shapes with his "spaghetti" legs.
A job waitering at theatre restaurant Excalibur's led to him meeting fellow funny man Grant Lobban, who was working there as a chef. The pair made each other laugh, came up with the name Rhysently Granted, and began performing around Christchurch. Darby met his future wife, Rosie Carnahan, while performing at her cafe The Green Room.
Darby followed Carnahan to Auckland, after she was offered a job at the city's newly opened Classic Comedy Club. Darby asked for a chance to go on stage, and began developing his own stand-up routine, which involved heavy use of slapstick and self-generated sound effects. Later he performed on episodes of TV's Pulp Comedy, including this one.
In 1999 Darby joined Chris Brain, Jeremy Elwood, Terry Frisby and Tarun Mohanbhai to form stand-up group the Brat Pack. After three years performing around New Zealand, the group headed to the 2001 Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
A year later, while Darby was performing solo in Edinburgh, he first bonded with comedians Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie. That year they were the only Kiwi acts performing. Darby helped hand out fliers for the Flight of the Conchords show, while McKenzie handled lighting duties during Darby's. When Clement and McKenzie's music-based act won their own BBC Radio series, Darby was asked to play a semi-improvised role as their manager. "It just came naturally to me to do a roll call. I said, 'All right, who have we got here, Bret?' He was, 'Present.' 'Jermaine?' 'Yeah, present. You know I'm here — you can see I’m here.'"
By the time Darby, Clement and McKenzie hit Edinburgh in 2004, Flight of the Conchords were attracting overtures from American TV networks. When cable channel HBO signed the Conchords up for a series, thoughts that the band's manager might be more realistically played on-screen by an older actor were swiftly cast aside. Said Darby: "We found right from the radio series that we connected and improvised really well as a threesome". It was "a sort of no-brainer" for Darby to play their manager on-screen too.
Darby has described band manager/deputy NZ cultural attache Murray Hewitt as "highly strung and incompetent, but he's got a big heart". The success of Flight of the Conchords' two seasons — and Darby's performance — had unexpected after-effects. Some Americans began turning up at Halloween parties dressed as Murray. Others complimented the cast on their supposedly fictional accents and nationality.
In 2007 Darby was asked to join his idol Jim Carrey. He played a nerdish variation on his Conchords character in Carrey's movie Yes Man. Travel was in the air. In this period Darby released DVD Rhys Darby Live: Imagine That, documenting a stand-up gig in Los Angeles, encountered a silverback gorilla while visiting Rwanda for Intrepid Journeys, and flew to England to play one of the 60s radio DJs in The Boat that Rocked (American title: Pirate Radio).
Back in New Zealand, he hosted the second season of pop culture compilation show Rocked the Nation. He also cameoed in feature-length ghost story Diagnosis: Death, and an episode of The Jaquie Brown Diaries's second season. He co-wrote and added his voice talents to animated short Fot: The Next Big Thing.
Darby's Kiwi work also includes an oft-quoted scene in Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi's hit comedy What We Do in the Shadows — as the leader of a band of werewolves, trying not to swear — plus sketch show Radiradirah, and this early episode of current affairs panel series 7 Days.
His first starring role arrivd in 2011, via big screen romance Love Birds. Darby played Doug, a down on his luck nice guy who finds new hope thanks to an injured shelduck, and a lovable animal specialist (Brit Sally Hawkins, from Happy-Go-Lucky). The film reunited director Paul Murphy and writer Nick Ward, from hit movie Second-Hand Wedding.
Darby went on to present comical web series Reasons to be Scared of the Future, before creating and starring in Short Poppies. The fake reality show saw real life reporter David Farrier (Tickled) encountering eight "ordinary" Kiwis, from a ufologist to a solo mother. All were played by Darby. The show's guests include Sam Neill, adventurer Bear Grylls and Stephen Merchant, the British co-creator of The Office.
In 2016 Darby cameoed as Psycho Sam, who helps the heroes in Taika Waititi record-breaker Hunt for the Wilderpeople. That year he won praise after guest starring on a reboot of The X-Files, as a cellphone salesman with a monstrous secret. In a hit remake of Robin Williams movie Jumanji and a 2019 sequel, he played the guide to the game. He also got to keep his Kiwi accent across three seasons of American comedy series Wrecked — as one of a group of survivors trapped on a remote island.
In 2018 Darby starred in a Tourism New Zealand promotional campaign, as he tried to solve the mystery of why Aotearoa was being left off world maps. Two years later travel show Rhys Darby: Big in Japan saw him jumping in a river during winter, and endeavouring not to slice off his fingers with a samurai sword. He also worked with Big in Japan director Dean Cornish (and other friends) on Kiwi web comedy The Alone Rangers. The show was made during the 2020 Covid-19 lockdown on Darby's property north of Auckland.
In 2022 Darby starred in comedy series Our Flag Means Death for HBO Max, as Stede Bonnet — a real historical figure from the Golden Age of Piracy, known as "The Gentleman Pirate". He is joined by longtime friend and collaborator Waititi, as the notorious pirate Blackbeard. “When you’re just in front of the camera with one of your best mates, you can actually have fun, have a good laugh, and pretend to be pirates,” he told Den of Geek in March 2022. “It’s like we’re kids again."
Darby has lent his voice talents to everything from Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, to Kiwi TV series The Barefoot Bandits and Kiwi-Chinese movie Mosley. In late 2018 he released his first kids' book: The Top Secret Undercover Notes of Buttons McGinty, which he wrote and illustrated. Darby lives in Los Angeles with wife Rosie and their two sons.
Profile updated on 17 May 2022
Rhys Darby website. Accessed 17 May 2022
'Rhys Darby - Funny As Interview' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Rupert Mackenzie. Loaded 19 September 2019. Accessed 12 December 2019
Karl Puschmann, 'Turning Japanese: Inside Rhys Darby's new travel show Japanese' (Interview) - NZ Herald website, Loaded 31 May 2020
Aaron Sagers, Our Flag Means Death Makes a Gentleman Pirate of Rhys Darby (Interview) - Den of Geek website. Loaded 2 March 2022. Accessed 17 May 2022
Mark Seman, 'Let's get "Wrecked" with new TBS comedy' The Laugh Button website. Loaded 29 April 2016. Accessed 12 December 2019
Grant Smithies, 'Flight of the Conchords' Rhys Darby' (Interview) - The Sunday Star-Times, 1 January 2009
'Short Poppies' TVNZ website. Accessed 12 December 2019
Unknown writer, ''Brilliant' Rhys Darby gets rave X-Files reviews'. The NZ Herald website. Loaded 3 February 2016. Accessed 12 December 2019