This essay is part of Episodes, a monthly column in which senior contributor Valerie Ettenhofer digs into the singular chapters of television that make the medium great. This entry revisits one of the funniest and most surreal episodes of Flight of the Conchords: “Mugged.”
In 2007, Juke flip phones were all the rage, “Soulja Boy” was on every radio station, and all the cool kids were obsessed with a two-man comedy band from New Zealand. Not every trend that year was built to last, but Flight of the Conchords sure was.
The HBO series, which follows the fictional exploits of the real band of the same name, only ran for two short seasons. Its stars and co-creators, Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, left a third-season deal on the table, deciding to focus on less exhaustive projects instead. The 22 resulting episodes are about as beloved as a cult classic can get. Flight of the Conchords arrived in an era of indie comedy dominance but forged its own path with its silly, self-effacing sense of humor and fish-out-of-water protagonists.
One of the joys of the series is that, despite its relatively small back-catalog, every fan seems to have a different favorite episode. I’ve always been partial to its good-natured nods to the ever-turning wheel of fortune and episodes that position the guys as fools wandering into surreal situations. In “The New Cup,” for example, Bret buys a $2.79 cup that makes the guys’ finances spiral out of control, ultimately leading Jemaine to an unsuccessful career as a sex worker. And in “New Zealand Town,” the guys become popular after getting addicted to hair gel, then lose their audience when they run out of the stuff.
The earliest and most wonderfully bizarre twist of fate episode of Flight of the Conchords, though, might be the series’ best: “Mugged.”
It opens with Bret on a phone call. He’s talking to his mom, insisting he doesn’t need a gun because America isn’t as dangerous as she thinks it is. We only hear his side of the conversation, but in typical Flight of the Conchords fashion, every understated line is hilarious. “That’s Bruce Willis, though,” he corrects her as she presumably continues campaigning for him to arm himself. “He’s acting.”
Meanwhile, Jemaine pesters Bret from his spot on the living room couch. He’s off-topic, insisting Bret tell his mom about all the TV stations in America. How many are there? “A lot,” Bret says. “More than four.”
The show’s fictionalized versions of Bret and Jemaine are endlessly loveable, in part because of their small-town naivety. They were rural shepherds before coming to America, and they don’t seem like they’ll ever get used to the big city. When they face strife, they frequently under-react, keeping things low-key even in the strangest circumstances.
The theme of ever-present danger continues through their band meeting with manager Murray (Rhys Darby). The guys want to do gigs at night, but Murray insists it’s too dangerous. He says they could be run over, get pickpocketed, fall down a manhole, get murdered, or even just be ridiculed. Another reason to love Flight of the Conchords’ protagonists? They’re a couple of complete and total sweeties, the kind of guys who are just as scared of being made fun of as being murdered.
Murray gives the duo some safety gear to make navigating New York feel less perilous. He gifts them NYC hats and t-shirts, so they’ll fit in, and oversized maps, too. “Keep them open every time you stop,” he says, giving the exact opposite of good safety advice. Dressed like a couple of tourists, Bret and Jemaine ride their bikes into a graffiti-covered alley. Murray, after all, says it’s better to take abandoned side streets to avoid crowds.
Then comes the titular mugging. Bret and Jemaine run into a pair of low-lives named John (Lenny Venito) and Mickey (Luther Creek). The strangers ask for a cigarette, and when the guys say they don’t smoke, things escalate. “He’s a psycho killer, qu’est-ce que c’est,” John says, making The Talking Heads sound ominous. Bret says the pair only has $15, but when the guys ask for it, he tells them it’s actually in the bank. This sounds like an ill-planned lie, but it’s not: our heroes really are broke as hell.
That makes them terrible robbery targets. Their only other possession is a “camera-phone,” a flip phone with a camera glued to it. When the muggers call the pair “English f****ts,” they finally snap. Except, naturally, snapping in the world of Flight of the Conchords means slipping into musical reality to perform a goofy rap.
The guys perform “Hiphopopotamus Vs Rhymenoceros,” a Conchords song that existed before the HBO show. Like most of their raps, it veers between ridiculousness and genius. “My rhymes are bottomless,” Jemaine insists, before taking several beats of silence to think of another line. Bret questions claims that his rhymes are “sissy,” then says “There ain’t no party like my Nana’s tea party,” with an adorable cutaway clip to match.
The scene is shot like a rap music video, with all low angles and tough poses, except when it cuts to Bret and Jemaine doing a geeky little dance routine. When they come back to earth, Mickey asks if they just started “dancin’ a little bit” in the middle of the robbery.
Flight of the Conchords can be uproariously funny, but its most important quality might be its imagination. Characters, mostly aggressive Americans, often question facets of Bret and Jemaines’ masculinity. In response, they escape from the restrictions of reality into songs that are often about their innermost feelings. They sing about crises of confidence, male friendship, and wanting to be David Bowie. It’s the antithesis of toxic masculinity, and it’s the part of the show that’s gotten even better with age. The bandmates have a very simple, open-hearted perspective, and the greed and grime of New York City never manage to change them.
It’s only natural, then, that these guys have a hard time grasping the concept of a robbery. When John and Mickey chase them down with a knife, they finally realize this isn’t just a conversation. Jemaine’s corduroy jacket gets caught on a fence, and Bret makes a run for it, leaving his buddy behind. “I’m too scared, man!” he says plainly.
Two days later, Bret returns to the alleyway with Murray and their epically American friend Dave (Arj Barker) in tow. Dave is wearing camouflage and carrying what looks like a paintball machine gun. Jemaine hasn’t been home in two days. “He may be dead,” Murray says in his New Zealand accent. “He maybe did what?” Dave asks. This exchange goes on for a while — long enough for it to start to seem stupid, then circle back around to hysterical.
The guys reminisce about Jemaine. He was always so helpful, Murray says. For example, he helped Bret when his head got stuck in a chair and when his hand got caught in a jar. “What a f—king asshole,” Dave says ruefully as if it’s a compliment. This scene is basically the opposite of a Saturday Night Live sketch. Instead of everyone beating one joke to death together, each actor is on a completely different comedic and tonal wavelength. The result is disorientingly hilarious. Like the best bits of Flight of the Conchords, it’s overlaid with super-quick jokes and throwaway lines you might not catch until your second or third viewing.
Meanwhile, Jemaine is stuck in jail with John. The pair bond over the fact that their besties both left them behind. John talks about shooting a guy and then learning his friend had called off the hit. Jemaine compares it to a time Bret stood him up at the movies. They form an uneasy bond. When Jemaine gets out, he’s annoyed with Bret for leaving him to die, but no one is very sympathetic. “Old news!” Murray half-shouts at their next band meeting. “No one likes a moaner!”
Jemaine goes out with John and his girlfriend. They shit-talk Bret, only for the camera to cut to a wider shot, revealing Bret’s been sitting with them the whole time. This is neither the first nor the last shot in the episode that comically reveals the presence of a previously unseen character. Somehow, it gets funnier each time it happens.
Bret goes into overdrive trying to make it up to Jemaine. In a montage, we see he’s written an apology on a sheet, made his pal a cup of hot tea, and baked him a pizza with his face on it. Jemaine’s simply not having it. He lets Bret scald himself with the tea and says he’s not hungry for pizza. These guys may have a childlike sense of innocence, but sometimes they’re also just childish.
As will become the norm in the series, the duo eventually makes up via song. They break out into an obvious “Where Is The Love” parody called “Think About It.” They wax poetic on issues they know nothing about, like global health, fast fashion, and gangs of roving youths who stab people with cutlery. The song, like the rest of the episode, pokes gentle fun at the very American panic around street violence. By the time they get to the song’s end, they seem like a united front once more. That’s good because just then, they run into Mickey and John again.
This time, the two pairs meet on good terms. Mickey gives them their camera-phone back and even gets the photos on it developed. They’re all of Bret and Jemaine hanging out — awww. Unfortunately, Mickey and John’s friendship didn’t fare as well as the Conchords’. The criminals had big dreams to kidnap a rich kid, but now John’s stealing an old woman’s purse, and Mickey’s too depressed to join in.
It’s a tale of two friendships, but the illusion of common ground is shattered when Mickey invites the guys to a white supremacist meeting. It’s a jarring moment that puts a sudden end to this surreal episode. We never hear from John or Mickey again. Our naive heroes, forever unfazed by life in the big city, decide to go for pizza instead.
Related Topics: Episodes