'Comedy Beatles' sing the right tune on HBO

HBO got more than it bargained for when it greenlit a half-hour comedy series for New Zealand musicians Flight of the Conchords. While many of HBO’s successful series have produce boffo DVD sales and now a major motion picture in “Sex and the City,” the Conchords already had a following offshore.

If anything, “Flight of the Conchords” has further galvanized the Stateside cult status of duo Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, whose tours of the U.S. sell out at small- to midsized venues.

“Their show is the result of their touring,” says showrunner James Bobin, who first approached the duo in 2003 about a potential comedy series after spotting them at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. HBO caught onto the Conchords after the show’s exec producer Stu Smiley booked them at the 2004 U.S. Comedy Arts Festival.

Given Bobin’s forte for translating offshore comedy Stateside with “Da Ali G Show,” HBO had no qualms in keeping him paired with the Conchords. Bobin foresaw a “new-style comedy format” that married a character-driven story with the duo’s musical sendups.

“Bret, Jemaine and I went to the Museum of Television and Radio and watched episodes of ‘Cop Rock,’ which taught us how not to approach a TV musical,” Bobin says. “It was the only show I could think of that was close to our template.”

Trading in Wellington for Manhattan, the concept of “Conchords” wasn’t far off for McKenzie and Clement, who as former flatmates played coffeehouse gigs back in their homeland. Manhattan provided a fish-out-of-water backdrop for their flannel-clad straight-man style, mixing them in a concrete jungle of fickle women and self-absorbed Gothamites.

Since airing last June, “Conchords” has scored warm reviews as well as an average audience of close to 1 million viewers in its Sunday 10:30 p.m. slot — a number on par with the last season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

However, it’s the duo’s satirical ballads plus their unassuming, slacker sexiness that has a struck a nerve among auds. What girl can’t resist the lyrics: “You’re so beautiful … Like a high-class prostitute … You could be a part-time model.”

“They’re the comedy Beatles.” Bobin says. “I think we live in an entertainment world where performers like to flaunt how great they are. The Conchords don’t do that. Even when they stumble onstage, people like it.”

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