Rhys Darby talks to Brian Donaldson ahead of his UK tour, which comes to Birmingham next month.
While most of us are happy enough to get a public endorsement from a teacher, boss or partner, Rhys Darby can retire from showbusiness today knowing he was once given a massive thumbs-up from one of his comedy heroes. Kiwi comic Darby has long been a fan of rubber-faced physical funnyman Jim Carrey, but when the pair worked together on the movie version of Danny Wallace’s Yes Man, the appreciation became mutual: “He’s just absolutely brilliant. He’s got that Peter Sellers madness inside him” said Carrey of Darby who will hope to channel more of the legendary Goon in his first ever UK tour, entitled This Way to Spaceship.
“That was a goldmine; he didn’t need to say that,” says Darby. ‘He had done press for the film in New Zealand when he said that, so good on him. I was obsessed with Jim’s films when I was younger, and hoped one day to meet him and lo and behold the first film I do was with him. I think I just refused to believe that it was real and I didn’t take a minute to realise the full situation until the film was done. At the premiere I noticed myself up there on the screen with him but even then it felt like I had been superimposed into a film. But the audience seemed to love it and I then felt yeah I deserved to be up there and thanks to the Flight of the Conchords, I felt that a lot of people loved what I was doing and so not as many people would have said, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’”
Fewer and fewer people are asking that question of Rhys Darby these days. His movie CV is burgeoning since that Yes Man debut having appeared in Richard Curtis’ The Boat That Rocked and nabbed the lead role in New Zealand romcom Love Birds, while fans of UK TV panel shows will be aware of him from Mad Mad World, the ITV1 affair featuring news, events and clips from around this crazy old globe. The show was presented by Paddy McGuinness with Darby taking on the role of team captain in opposition to Rufus Hound.
“There was some performance-based shenanigans in there,’ recalls Darby. ‘It wasn’t just sitting behind a desk, there was a bit more madness going on, a little bit Shooting Stars with games and things, more of a Saturday night feel to it. And there was a bit of dancing. I was doing my usual serpent arms thing where they battle for supremacy underneath the oceans.”
No matter how many game shows he appears in or red-carpet premieres he turns up for, many people will simply always see Rhys Darby as Murray Hewitt. To some, his long-suffering (and occasionally insufferable) band manager in the HBO series Flight Of The Conchords (22 episodes of which aired on BBC4 from 2007 to 2009), was the best thing about the show. His involvement with Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement has a distinctly casual Kiwiness about it.
“They were in Wellington and I was based in Auckland, but I knew of them from the country’s comedy festival.They’d only just formed the Conchords the year I left New Zealand and it was two years after that that they went to do the Edinburgh Festival. We were the only Kiwi acts there so we connected up. They were approached by the BBC to record a radio pilot. Jemaine asked if I wanted to play the part of their manager and I had nothing else on, had an hour or so for lunch, so I said, ‘Oh yeah, I could come down and give it a bash’. The rest is history.”
However, there was a little spot of history being rewritten when the radio show became a US TV production. 2The boys said I could develop the character however I liked and so I named him Brian Nesbit. The only reason they changed it in America was because they thought the BBC owned the characters of that original radio show.”
While the Flight of the Conchords TV bandwagon may have ground to a halt (there is still talk of a potential movie which Darby says everyone is keen to make happen in the future), the recognition continues to this day. A recent issue of Loaded magazine featured a top 100 cult TV characters poll, which Darby consulted with interest. “I thought, ‘There’s a chance I could be in here’ and as I was flicking through it I was thinking, ‘I’ll be annoyed if I’m not in here, a hundred is a lot’. But Murray is in there at no 17 and I was happy with that. Though I was beaten by Zippy at no 12.”
Still, Rhys Darby has a head start on anyone in Rainbow (even Bungle) when it comes to performing innovative live comedy shows. His Edinburgh Fringe debut came in 2002 with Rhys Darby Is The Neon Outlaw and he has returned with four further solo efforts. This Way to Spaceship marks his debut UK tour. Intriguingly, the show is based on his soon-to-be-published book, which he describes as “an autobiographical science fiction novel; it’s a handbook about what you should do to survive the up and coming Armageddon at the end of 2012. I have this idea that if the rumours are true and the world does blow up, the superpowers have got spaceships ready with a special invite list to get on board. What with me making waves on the Hollywood set, obviously I’ll be on the list.
“So this book is carefully disguised stories of my life about how I got to where I am now, with advice on conversation starters at parties, fashion tips, how to work your way up the social set and get known. All total nonsense of course. For those who haven’t received an invite for this spceship, the last two chapters feature methods to find the ships and how to infiltrate your way in there; the last bit is about life in space and how to deal with alien attacks. I also put in 26 hand-drawn illustrations as I fancy myself as a bit of a drawer.”
As difficult as it might be to imagine how on earth all this could be crafted into a live cultural happening, it should be remembered that Rhys Darby is a one-man tinderbox on stage. His shows are a spectacular mixture of bizarre sound effects, energetic physicality, surreal stand-up and, it goes almost without mentioning, dinosaur impersonations. So, what came first here: the idea for a live show, which turned effortlessly into a book or a tome that suggested itself as a stage extravaganza? “Initially I was going to do a book tour with maybe 20 minutes of stand-up but by the time I finished the book it kind of made sense to then turn it into a stage show because it would be a good way to try and sell it and also to tour a whole package.”
These days, Darby splits his time between Los Angeles and New Zealand with his wife and their two young sons, which seems as far away from the initial career path in the military he had appeared destined for. “I think I just watched too many 80s war movies: Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, Hamburger Hill; oh man I just wanted a piece of that. The basic training side of it was very Full Metal Jacket, there was certainly a lot of abuse and holding very heavy artillery shells above my head and running through swamps. I guess I liked the adventure side of it.
“I wasn’t sure what I was doing with my life and I thought maybe I should be a commander in charge of a battalion but those dreams were dashed when I realised I didn’t even have a good sense of direction. I was good at marching, but apart from that I just seemed to make people laugh. I grew out of that idea but I was there for three and a half years and then left to go to university. It was a weird chapter of my life, but looking back I was quite late to mature; I probably should have joined the scouts but I went straight into the real army. Luckily, as it was New Zealand, we didn’t really get deployed anywhere, it was more of a civil defence outfit.”
At university, Darby studied sociology and philosophy and got his degree in art theory. “I guess it made me think a lot, broadened my mind. After that I got a job in an art shop selling prints, but that only lasted about six months when it closed down due to a lack of sales. But I spent a lot of that time sitting in the shop writing comedy.” Writing comedy was one thing; getting a chance of performing his material in New Zealand was almost as easy as finding an enemy to declare war upon.
“There was nothing happening there and to this day there’s only one full-time purpose-built comedy club in the country; there’s more of a scene now, with a good dozen or so comics making a living from it. When I was starting out there was one club and three or four bars offering the odd gig and at the time I was doing three shows a week in Auckland. I found that I’d be doing Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday and the weekend audience was like, ‘Hey, I saw you on Tuesday!’ It would be the same people coming along.”
The British comics who jetted over for the New Zealand Comedy Festival became a beacon of hope for Darby. “I enjoyed hanging out with them and they suggested that I should make the move as my act had universal appeal. And so I did and never looked back. I came over with some friends; we were 24 or something and it was time to go on an adventure.” That adventure shows no sign of slowing down for Rhys Darby.
Rhys Darby appears at Birmingham Town Hall on 18th July.
Tickets can be obtained by calling the box office on 0121 780 3333 or visiting www.thsh.co.uk