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Bret McKenzie Biography


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Birth Name: Bret McKenzie
Born: 06/29/1976
Birth Place: New Zealand


Born Bret Peter Tarrant McKenzie on June 29, 1976, in Wellington, New Zealand, to Deirdre Tarrant, a dance instructor, and Peter McKenzie, an actor and horse trainer, he grew up with an affinity for music. The young McKenzie became proficient in as many as 11 instruments, and found his way into as many performances as he could throughout his childhood, among them a title role in a theatrical version of "Oliver Twist" when he was 11 years of age and membership in a band, The Blue Samanthas, that would win a Wellington battle-of-the-bands contest in 1993. He attended Wellington College, where he expanded his skills on the debating team and producing school plays, including a version of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" - precursor to New Zealand's later national affiliation with Tolkien's mythic arc. He moved on to Victoria University of Wellington, where he met Clement, a small-town kid from Masterton majoring in theater and film, with whom he participated in a loose-knit drama club. McKenzie and Clement both dropped out of school and each went out on auditions for TV shows and commercials, but scored little work in the limited market. McKenzie at one point took a job wearing a 3D tugboat costume to advertise a boat-ride business.

As a side project in 1998, the two began working on a musical act that incorporated their wry, observational sense of humor, even as McKenzie kept his hand in a raft of ventures - among them the up-and-coming reggae/funk band, The Black Seeds. In 2001, he netted what would become a curious bit role in Jackson's epic production of "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" (2001). With father Peter McKenzie cast as Elendil, the great king who died vanquishing the evil Sauron in the odyssey's prologue, Bret got the non-speaking role of an elf counsel at the pivotal summit that creates the Fellowship. Though McKenzie got only three seconds of screen time, a Tolkien fanatic named Iris Hadad zeroed in on the comely elf and dubbed him "Figwit;" an acronym for "Frodo is great . . . who is that?" and started a website called Figwitlives.net. Jackson gave the Figwit notoriety a celluloid wink in the third film, "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King" (2003) by bringing McKenzie back and giving him two brief lines. McKenzie's fiancée Hannah Clark and two of their friends later produced a tongue-in-cheek "documentary," "Frodo Is Great . . . Who Is That?" (2004), which featured interviews with trilogy stars Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen and Orlando Bloom, as well as Jackson, weighing in with affected deliberation on the mysterious origins of Figwit. McKenzie even submitted his autograph for a Figwit card in Topps' official "Lord of the Rings" trading card set, though laughing off the phenomenon as making him "famous for doing nothing."

McKenzie and Clement, meanwhile, refined their act into a touring duo, putting together a repertoire of original songs they considered "weird" but audiences found hilarious, and began working the comedy angle by default. In one song, they extolled a woman's beauty by suggesting, "You could be a part-time model/But you'd probably still have to keep your normal job." They compiled the tunes in their first album, Folk the World Tour, in 2002, and that year journeyed to the UK to play the alternative act-friendly Edinburgh Fringe Festival. They returned in 2003 and received a nomination for the Perrier Award for the festival's top comedy entry, losing the similarly offbeat U.S. comedian Demetri Martin. Martin also introduced them to James Bobin, producer and director of Sascha Baron Cohen's cult hit series "Da Ali G Show," (Channel 4 [UK], 2000; HBO, 2003-04). Bobin's friendship would later prove pivotal to the struggling comedians. Back in New Zealand in 2004, they pitched a TV pilot to the national broadcaster TVNZ, but network execs considered it too quirky and niche-oriented to become a mainstream hit - which would become a minor national controversy as they lost the homegrown talent to more prescient media overseas.

Flight of the Conchords won "Best Newcomer" at Australia's Melbourne Comedy Festival, returned to Scotland and went on to North America to play comedy festivals in Montreal and Aspen, CO. The crescendo around them earned McKenzie and Clement a six-part radio series on BBC Radio 2 the next year, "The Flight of the Conchords." Presented as a "mockumentary" - a la "This Is Spinal Tap" (1984) - and made mostly with improvised gags on a hand-held recorder, the radio show saw the kiwis playing themselves as bumbling fish-out-of-water trying to make a name in the UK, flummoxing their maladroit manager (fellow New Zealander Rhys Darby). The basic concept, which would win them a Sony Radio Academy Award in Britain, would remain extant via another relationship developing with innovative U.S. pay cable network HBO. Talent spotters for both HBO and NBC had caught their act on the festival circuit in 2004, yielding a one-off special in 2005 on HBO's ongoing "One Night Stand" (1989- ) series. NBC gave them a deal to develop a pilot, but the network wound up passing on their ideas.

McKenzie and Clement made a documentary, "Flight of the Conchords: A Texan Odyssey" (2006), about their trip to the trendy South by Southwest festival in Austin, TX, and when NBC's rights lapsed, HBO commissioned its own pilot. The twosome returned to their fish-out-of-water premise, playing themselves but cohabitating in a small New York apartment, navigating an indifferent cityscape with their now-trademark deadpan obliviousness. With the boys lapsing seamlessly into fanciful music videos of their songs within the narrative, McKenzie described it as "[s]omething like 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' (HBO, 2000- ) crossed with 'The Monkees.' (NBC, 1966-68)." McKenzie and Clement suggested a familiar name to HBO execs to help them helm the project, James Bobin, and HBO greenlit 12 episodes of the show. "The Flight of the Conchords" (2007- ) premiered on the channel in June 2007, with HBO's creator-friendly operating style allowing them to realize their charmingly self-flagellating vision. Darby reprised his role as their incompetent, musically ignorant manager, Murray, who also works for the New Zealand consulate, itself depicted as a dowdy suite in an unmarked office building, its walls adorned with tourism posters proclaiming "New Zealand: Just like The Lord Of The Rings!" and "New Zealand . . . Why Not?" Kristin Schaal played Mel, the president and lone member of their fan club and nigh-psychotic stalker. Clement and McKenzie played themselves as sweetly idiotic and socially dysfunctional. In one episode hearkening back to his onetime job wearing a tugboat costume, McKenzie got a job holding ad signage on street corners, becoming so successful at it he "sold out" and quit the band, to be replaced by a boom box. The New York Times summarized the show as "funny in such an understated way that it is almost dangerous to make too much of it . . . the humor lies in a deadpan exchange of inanities, punctuated by long, puzzled silences." As to observations of the Conchords' consciously limited range, McKenzie himself admitted, "I think my sad and happy don't play that differently on screen." Flight of the Conchords also signed to Sub Pop Records, which released a new EP, The Distant Future, in August 2007 to capitalize on the show's buzz.

By mid-August, HBO had already renewed the series for a second season, though McKenzie and Clement's quickly filling schedule and work on their third record delayed production and postponed season two until early 2009. In the meantime, Wellington named them "Wellingtonians of the Year" for 2007, and in February 2008, The Distant Future won them the Grammy award for Best Comedy Album. They celebrated in appropriately muted fashion with a free show at a Wellington video store. The win set the table for their eponymous third CD to debut on Billboard's U.S. chart at No. 3 later that spring. They and their TV writing team also netted three Writer's Guild of America award nominations, and, in July, "The Flight of the Conchords" wracked up four Emmy nominations: Bobin for his direction, Bobin and the Conchords for Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series, and two for Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics. The Australian magazine Who also listed McKenzie and Clement in their 2008 ranking of the "100 Sexiest People."