Watch: Jemaine Clement on whānau, racism and the New Zealand public

In a rare television interview, Māori Television’s Te Ao with Moana meets one of New Zealand’s funniest and most prolific creatives, Jemaine Clement. They talk about his earliest memories of growing up in the Wairarapa, the differences between Kiwi and overseas audiences and more in the exclusive video above.

Of all the audiences in the world, Jemaine Clement reckons Kiwis are the toughest.

“They’re not expecting anything good. People in the early days would say, ‘oh I wanted to laugh so much, but no one else started, so I decided not to’.”

A lot has happened in Clement’s life since those early days – a Grammy award; multiple Emmy nominations; acting credits on major Hollywood productions, including Men In Black III and the upcoming Avatar sequels.

He’s also recently wrapped a second season of the American mockumentary series, What We Do in the Shadows, which was named one of the best shows of 2020 by the New York Times.

But Clement remains as grounded and lacking-in-ego as ever, despite being named one of the top 100 sexiest men by Australian magazine Who in 2008, and sometimes being mistaken for Benicio Del Toro.

Clement admits that he and his Flight of the Conchords bandmate, Bret McKenzie, were genuinely surprised when they were a hit with overseas audiences.

“When New Zealanders would hear the New Zealand accent, they’re like, ‘Oh, I’m not going to listen to this.’ But they don’t have that concern [overseas]. So we were surprised… And as we’ve played, our shows just got bigger and bigger. It was a massive surprise.”

Clement spent his early life growing up in the Wairarapa, being raised by his Māori mum and kuia.

He has fond memories of going on marae trips and meeting his Māori relatives at family reunions. But he says unfortunately, te reo wasn’t a big part of his upbringing.

“My grandma didn’t speak Māori. She was of the generation that would be punished at school if she … that was her first language, but, uh, you know, they’d get hit if they spoke,” he said, through tears.

His kuia profoundly influenced him in other ways though, such as through her sense of humour.

“She was funny lady … sometimes intentionally, like she would come up with a good joke, and sometimes completely unintentionally … I mean the basic idea of humour is to surprise, and she was always surprising with what she would come up with.”

Clement is still close with his mum – one year, he took her to the Emmys as his guest, which he says was a lot of fun.

“She watches all of these shows. I don’t watch them, I don’t know who anyone is at the Emmys. But she knows all the shows.”

Over the past year, Covid has forced Clement to take stock and adopt a slower lifestyle, which is something he is grateful for.

“I think last year I realised I was pushing myself too hard and doing too many things … So, when everyone had to stop travelling, I appreciated that and took a step back and thought, I don’t need to be going too hard all the time,” he said.

You can hear more about Clement’s thoughts on making fun of racism, the time he met Prince in person, his writing process and more by watching the full interview with Moana Maniapoto in “Te Ao with Moana” at the top of this story.

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