Two young men from New Zealand are playing acoustic guitars and rapping in front of a live audience. This is supposed to be funny in itself, and indeed, the audience is appreciative. The joke isn't particularly clever or original, and the two men, Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, exhibit no ambition to transcend the simple, ancient gag of nerdy white guys rapping: "Yes, sometimes my lyrics are sexist / But you lovely bitches and hos should know I'm trying to correct this." "Other rappers dis me / Say my rhymes are sissy / Why? Why? What? Why? / Be more constructive with your feedback!" "Ain't no party like my nana's tea party!" But the audience laughs; the audience loves it. Encouraged, the two men begin to improvise, instigating a playful call-and-response with the audience. "When I go ooh, all the ladies go ahh!" The audience complies, and so on. Finally McKenzie instructs, "When I go ooh, all the ladies go, Ooh, Flight of the Conchords, you're so big!" Lazily, he strums a few chords. "Ooh!"
And all at once a primal squeal erupts from the audience, a roar of pure, concentrated female human lust. It is an earth-shaking, magnificent sound, one that is rarely heard outside of Beatles concerts in the early '60s, or midnight book-release parties for new installments of Twilight. It is the scream of collective female sexuality unbound, and it says:
"OOOOOH, FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS, YOU'RE SO BIG!!!!!!"
McKenzie and Clement sit onstage, frozen, out of character, apparently genuinely astonished. There is an awkward silence.
"Wow, thank you," mumbles McKenzie.
Clement scratches the back of his head shyly. "Thank you, ladies," he says. "You didn't have to say that."
And the audience collapses in nervous, embarrassed giggles. What have they just revealed about themselves? What just happened? What just happened? To an outside observer, the question is mystifying. Even to fans of Flight of the Conchords, such a level of adoration might seem out of proportion. After all, it is an unspoken secret among their fans that Flight of the Conchords are really not very good. Their humor is always gentle and inoffensive, but falls squarely in the tedious Eddie Izzard genre of hyper-quotable British-Commonwealth whimsy, whose appeal is perilously inextricable from its foreign accent. As parodists, they are excruciating at least as often as they are on the money. As comedians, they are mediocre at worst; as musicians, they are mediocre at best. McKenzie's voice is reedy and weak; Clement's is frequently off key. Perhaps this is part of the joke, but if so, the joke is rather feeble. This is cast into especially sharp relief during the rare moments on their TV show when McKenzie and Clement do manage to hit that magical sweet spot of tunefulness and hilarity, usually with the help of a talented director (like Michel Gondry); and even then, half the pleasure is visual.
There is, however, another unspoken secret among Flight of the Conchords fans, and it is peculiar that it has gone unspoken for so long. Most of the fans -- the really devoted ones, the diehard fanatics who run the fansites and write the slash fiction and shriek "You're so big!" on command -- are women.
Why should this be? On the surface, the answer is obvious. Just look at Bret and Jemaine: they are so cute.
In 2007, Salon.com selected them for their list of Sexiest Living Men, reasoning: "A guy with a guitar is hot. A guy with an accent is hot. And a guy who can make us laugh is really, really hot. What, then, could be better than a man who embodies all of the above? Two men who do." Fair enough -- but the question remains: why do they make us laugh? And why is it so hot when they do?
This is why: there is a sexual undercurrent to the comedy of Flight of the Conchords. It is largely unremarked upon, and passes unnoticed by critics and male fans and, possibly, by McKenzie and Clement themselves. Like a dog whistle, it is perceptible only to women, and in response -- without understanding quite why, only sensing it on an instinctual level -- they go wild.
For McKenzie and Clement are the most sexually objectified men on television, outside of gay porn. So much of their comedy depends on their sexual passivity, on one or both of them taking the female sexual role, submissive to sexually dominant women. Over the course of two seasons of Flight of the Conchords, Bret McClegnie and Jemaine Clemaine (as their characters on the show are named) have been pressured into sex, coerced into sex, forced into sex, tricked into sex, and drugged into sex. They have been violated, degraded, and humiliated by the women who fuck them. In every episode, they are sexually harassed by a predatory female stalker named Mel. They have been sexually taken advantage of, and then made to feel ashamed for it. They have been tied up; they have been forced to wear uncomfortable, sexually provocative outfits. They have even been driven into prostitution. There is no female sexual indignity, short of an unwanted pregnancy, to which Bret and Jemaine have not been subjected.
There is no other show on television so focused on the bodies of its male characters. The feminization of Bret and Jemaine really took hold in the sixth episode, "Bowie," which centers on Bret and Jemaine's "body image issues" -- a gendered phrase if there ever was one -- and Bret's perceived struggle with bulimia. Bret attempts to regain his confidence by exposing his body in public, but finds that this only makes his self-esteem worse. The simplicity of the gender role reversal is brilliant: the plot wouldn't be a joke at all if Bret and Jemaine were women.
The sexual objectification began a bit later, in the eighth episode, "Girlfriends" -- one of the show's best episodes. In "Girlfriends," Bret dates a sexually aggressive woman named Lisa, whose advances make Bret uncomfortable. An entire gender-studies thesis could be written about the gender switch that is the central joke of this episode. When Bret confides to his friends, they suggest that he's "asking for it" by "showing too much skin." Bret attempts to cover up, but Lisa persists. She forces herself into his apartment and wakes him up in the middle of the night, coercing him into sex using familiar male guilt tactics: "Come on. Just give me a little sugar. You've been kissing me all night, Bret. It's been driving me crazy. You have to give me just a little something something. It's kind of an unspoken rule." She finally coerces him into sex with a sob story about being deployed to Iraq the next day. Bret capitulates, and the sex is violent and one-sided, ending with Lisa fast asleep on top of Bret. Feeling dirty and violated, Bret retreats to the shower with his clothes on, like a confused schoolgirl -- and the next day, he is humiliated to learn that Lisa has tricked him. She isn't going to Iraq, and having used him, she has no interest in seeing him again. Bret protests, in one of the show's greatest lines ever, "But you said you loved me! You had sex on me!" The episode ends in a perfect tableau of gender-switched slut-shaming when Bret finds himself pursued by a gang of rapacious women, who sleazily ask, "Are you Bret? We hear you like to have a good time."
Bret and Jemaine suffer date rape once again in the tenth episode, "New Fans," wherein a predatory groupie coerces them into dropping "acids" and then gets them to have a threesome with her. They are reluctant, but too polite to say no. The episode ends with the revelation that a webcam has been installed in Bret and Jemaine's shared bedroom, and that their female stalker, Mel, watches them every night.
All this role reversal is funny, of course, in the same way that nerdy white guys rapping is funny. But unexpectedly, it also happens to be sexy, perhaps uniquely so for women. If men want to see beautiful women's bodies sexually objectified, they need only look to the entirety of Western culture. But what about women? The conventional pop-science wisdom is that women are less visual than men in their sexual arousal, but it's difficult to argue this convincingly when women have so little to be visual about. Even gay porn is not meant for their eyes. What do they have? Now they have Flight of the Conchords.
And so the eroticization of Bret and Jemaine continues into season two, and this time around, McKenzie and Clement seem to be in on the joke. In "The New Cup," Bret and Jemaine fall into hard times and turn to prostitution -- selling themselves to women, of course. The premise is surreal, and Flight of the Conchords plays it absolutely straight, from Jemaine's skimpy, skintight hooker-outfit, to people's mixed reactions of moral outrage and paternalistic concern at his plight. "Jemaine," sings Bret, in a parody of "Roxanne, "you don't have to be a prostitute! / You can say no to being a man-ho!.../He sends cheap thrills to pay expensive bills / But check your resumé -- you must have other skills! / Do you have any other skills? Like typing?" And a pole-dancing Jemaine sings, with all the damsel-in-distress bathos of your typical movie prostitute: "I cannot see my way out. / Male prostitution seems to be my only option." The aesthetic of "The New Cup" is noticeably different from that of, say, "Girlfriends." This time around, Bret and Jemaine seem to be sexually aware of their own bodies, vamping for the camera like the scantily clad girls who writhe in MTV videos. The episode's other song, "Sugalumps," was criticized by some fans for being too similar to the Season One song "She's So Hot (Boom)." But watching them side-by-side reveals a profound difference in Bret and Jemaine's physicality. In the Season One song, their movements are simply goofy -- they flail around asexually like young boys: But by Season Two, Bret and Jemaine appear to have developed an awareness of how their female fanbase sees them. When Bret spreads his legs he is not entirely kidding, and Jemaine, especially, has perfected his veneer of passive fuckability: staring vacantly into the camera, slack-jawed, caressing himself, bucking his hips and throwing his head back in a "take me" position, he is a perfect caricature of receptive female hotness. This season, Bret and Jemaine have been advertising their bodies to women in a manner that might really be unprecedented. Male comedians jokingly put their bodies on display all the time, but who, besides McKenzie and Clement, has ever dared to take that extra step and pose sincerely, for the sexual gratification of their fans, just as female celebrities do? It cannot be a coincidence that within the first seven episodes alone Bret and Jemaine have pole-danced, whored themselves, dressed up for kinky sex with a fetishistic woman; they've been tied up, painted in a nude portrait, and mistaken multiple times for lovers -- that eternal female fantasy. They've thrust their pelvises in all-black-leather getups; they've slathered themselves in hair gel, eyeliner, and lip gloss, posing like supermodels; they've gone shirtless too many times to count. There can be no doubt remaining that they are playing to their audience.
The final episode of Flight of the Conchords will air this Sunday night. After that, according to HBO, the show will end for good, leaving a hole in the fantasy lives of women. Fans have complained that Season Two has been underwhelming anyway, and many people will wonder at the massive outcry when the show disappears. What, they'll wonder, are these fans going to miss?
This is what we're going to miss: porn. Porn that only we recognize as porn -- porn that's just for us, porn that we have spent our whole lives searching for, but never found until Flight of the Conchords. We'll miss knowing that at least one show out there recognizes us as sexual beings with our own sexual desires, and simply gratifies them, without objectifying us in the process. This is why we love Bret and Jemaine.
Also, just look at them. They are so cute.