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Rhys Darby On The Magic Of Ed And Stede On ‘Our Flag Means Death’ And Getting Back To Stand-Up

You’ve been aware of and delighted by Rhys Darby and his comedy stylings for awhile. You’re cool, I can tell. But there are some people who are just now discovering him thanks to his work on the always hilarious and sometimes tender HBO Max pirate comedy Our Flag Means Death (which just got it’s second season renewal). To them, Darby represents another perfect Hollywood story of overnight success, but he’s been steadily working for twenty years, popping up in numerous projects, and establishing himself as an international stand-up comedy wildman with a handful of specials to his name.

Darby doesn’t mind the disconnect, by the way. He’s happy to earn a paycheck, put his kids through school, and keep getting laughs wherever and however he can without straying from who he is. “I’ve always been very confident that I’m a geek, a loser, and I’m just sort of doubling down on it,” he told us when we spoke ahead of a micro stand-up tour that begins June 30 in Red Bank, NJ.

We spoke with Darby about getting back on stage, leaving the world of the underground, the power of his beautiful friendship with longtime collaborator and Our Flag Means Death co-star Taika Waititi, and what he wants to see from their on-screen romance in season two of the show.

So much of your stage style involves a lot of physical comedy. It’s not a very reserved stand at a mic stand kind of thing. How does one get to the point of feeling free to put themselves out there like that and to not be worried about vanity or looking silly? Not that you look silly, but I’m curious about the evolution of that.

Well, I was always like that really. So I have no inhibitions once I’m on stage. I’m quite happy to be as goofy as possible. And the way I perform is definitely physical, but I also play characters and I like so many different facets of comedy. Anything that can make people laugh, whether it be through movement or sound effects. The root of it all is playing as a kid on my own with my toys and doing all the voices, doing all the sound effects of the spaceships and the guns and things like that. And then kind of just doing it as a teenager on the back lawn for my mom (as a teenager) and she wasn’t really interested. And then it just kind of went from there. The comedy that I create really is quite alternative and it’s surreal in its nature just because that’s my sense of humor. I like being really silly.

And so I think so right off the bat, I was going to be a little out there on stage. And it doesn’t worry me. I think that’s how I express comedy. And over time, if anything, I’ve scaled it back in and I’ve controlled it. So when I first started doing it, it was actually pretty crazy. It was like, I don’t know, like a young Jim Carrey style, but I would play different characters and I’d move between them and do these big, outrageous voices. And I’d try and do a lot in one. I had this thing when I was very young. I felt like the people needed to laugh constantly. And so if they weren’t laughing and there was a gap in laughter, I’d be like, “Oh my God, shit. Do something else. Pull another face.” So I was really, really immature at that point. And then over time, you get confidence with the fact that “No, it’s okay. They can just laugh at the bits that you want them to laugh at. Just perform well.” And so you learn to control it. I love the idea of being able to pause and make people think, and then take my time between things.

Is part of this also the challenge of reinvention and changing?

I think it’s important to have your set pieces that you know are going to get guaranteed laughs. But on the night, you can go anywhere. And I’m very happy to use the audience, use the vibe of the night, what’s going down, and create on the spot. Because as an improviser, I think that’s in my wheelhouse. And so there’s nothing more exciting for me as a performer that’s been doing it for so long, than coming up with something on the night that I’m happy with. And I’m like, “Oh my God, I still got it. This is funny. Hey, write this down.” Rather than just doing the same old stuff.

So that’s definitely a key to longevity because you can get real tired of your old stuff. It’s like music. It’s got to be the same as the old stuff so the fans know it, like it, but it’s got to be different. I mean, how many sketches can I do that involve a robot? Or a thing like that. At the same time people go, “Do the robot!” So you’ve got to.

You’ve been a presence for a while with Flight of the Concords and everything. I don’t need to read your resume to you, I’m sure you know. But what has it been like to experience the overnight success that took 10 or 12 years to get here with Our Flag Means Death?

It’s been good. It’s just been happy for me as a family man, just to be working for a start. And especially in this day and age, where a couple of years ago I thought, “Oh man, I’m no longer relevant. I’m just a heterosexual white guy. My only cool thing is that I’ve got an accent.” And then next thing you know, Our Flag Means Death comes in and all of a sudden I’m a lead actor in a really popular series, that is popular for all the obvious reasons that the show is brilliant and representation and things like that. You can’t write that that’s going to happen. That just fell on me. And if that hadn’t happened, I would just be continuing on doing my character roles, getting what I can and creating probably my own stuff.

I’ve always remained slightly in the underground. I used to call myself “King of the Underground” because I was very good in certain circles. If you knew who I was, or you knew the alternative comedy scene that I was in, you’d know me. And I’d pop up with little guest parts in movies and things like that. They’re always good, but now I feel like it’s boiling over and I’m being pushed out of the underground to head up to the surface. And so I’m new to a lot of people. I’ve been like, “Hey, I’ve been around for years. Go back and check out what I’ve been doing.” And people have been. And that’s been really cool.

What do you think it is specifically about the Stede and Ed relationship that just resonates so much with so many different people?

You’ve got two guys who don’t really know who they are in terms of who they should love and what love is to them. And a guy who takes a ridiculous risk, leaves his wife and kids to go and become a pirate, but is still very, very fancy and is from a background that is hard to get out of. So he can’t really change, but he needs someone who is basically the opposite to be able to change him. And that person, which if you look at Blackbeard, he’s got a very deep and dark background as well, and he’s looking for the opposite to change himself and they meet in the middle. And I think that’s why it’s so special.

And I think there’s some really resonating aspects to it with people who don’t have confidence or aren’t in the right group, don’t fit in, things like that. Everything that resonates for the LGBTQ community. And I think, on top of that, you’ve just got this beautifully made show and there’s no queerbaiting. We go all the way. This turns into a romance between two men and I think it just ticks the boxes for everybody. And the fandom online proves that this is what people want. And it feels good to be delivering that. When we were making it, of course, I didn’t know. I knew what we were doing and I wanted to do my best job at doing it. But I had no idea how much love was going to be given. So yeah, I feel really, really proud.

Our Flag Means Death

Obviously, the writing is there and the characters are there, but how much credit for the chemistry between Ed and Stede goes to you and Taika having known each other for so long, and the kind of intimacy of friendship and knowing someone?

Oh, it’s a huge factor. I mean, if either of us were actors that were just cast that didn’t know each other, I don’t think the chemistry would be there. Because we are playing people that are falling in love. And we know what that would be like with each other because we do love each other as friends. We’ve had each other’s back for a long time and we’ve been on this journey coming from New Zealand and trying to make it in Hollywood and make it in America, conquer the world, sort of together. He’s had my back and I’ve always been there for him whenever he needs me. And so it just felt like a natural thing.

On top of that, we are both perfectionists. We’re very similar in a lot of ways with how we create our art and how many takes we want to do. But also, at the same time, we want to make it up as we go along because we like the instant magic you get from improv and things like that. So we did these scenes together, and especially with the dramatic ones, we are challenging ourselves to make it feel as real as possible. And it’s easy for me to get upset or for him to get upset when we see each other upset because we know each other. And so yeah, it digs deeper and I think that’s why it’s come out so well.

This is so fresh and so great, but also there are will they/won’t they tropes and the Moonlighting curse [the idea that a show ends when sexual tension is resolved], and we saw so much resolution in season one. Are you happiest when Ed and Stede are together or are you happiest when there’s the chase aspect of it?

I think the fans are going to want to see it all again. Because the best parts are friendship brewing then when they’re together, but not together, they’re very, very close friends and you see, that’s probably the really, really fun stuff, because they’re just a great duo. And then they get together and they fall in love and then it could become quite soppy and a bit boring there, because love, when you’re in love…

You never see those moments where it’s just people just loving each other, hanging out, having fun. But you guys are fun. I’m good with either.

Yeah, no, I agree. And Taika likes that as well. We like the mundane, just hanging out and having conversations and going back and forth and having less action. I think that will definitely happen. But I think there’ll also be the idea of trying to find that buddyship again. I have no idea what’s going to happen. That’s right down to the writers. All I know is that when we’re together on the same side, rooting for each other to get through some crazy thing, that’s when it’s really, really fun to watch.

Season 1 of ‘Our Flag Means Death’ is on HBO Max. For more on Darby’s stand-up tour, go here.