New Zealand's greatest comedy export is a cosmic weirdo, and he's not afraid to admit it. He talks reincarnation, space travel and the shit year that was 2016, with Maxim Boon.
"I want to be the first comedian in space," Rhys Darby declares as we discuss his bucket list career goals. "I think getting beyond this world and actually working in space would be a dream come true. If there's a spaceship heading to Mars in my lifetime, with a crew of fascinating people that are going to create to the next human civilisation, then maybe I'd want to be on that ship, even if I'm in my sixties or seventies. But as an entertainer. People are still going to need entertainment in space, right?"
It's a bold ambition, but the New Zealand-born comedy star already has plenty of experience braving strange new worlds right here on planet Earth. Since 2014, Darby has been based in the heart of America's notoriously ruthless showbiz heartland, Los Angeles. There, the standard issue dog-eat-dog mentality - the default setting for the Hollywood elite Darby now calls neighbour - is lightyears away from the affable NZ character of this much-loved funnyman.
And to his credit, during his rise to international fame, the comedy actor has retained an unbreakable connection to his native Kiwi culture, reflected in the endearingly awkward, bumbling charm that has become his quintessential signature. Whereas other antipodean imports to the American TV and film industry have commonly lost all trace of their cultural origin - the likes of Russell Crowe, Karl Urban and Sam Neill amongst the most high-profile examples - Darby has not only retained his New Zealander identity, he's made it his trademark.
This is in no small part thanks to the way his side-splitting talents were first introduced to the world. As Murray Hewitt, the adorably byzantine band manager and NZ-US cultural attache, with hair like a lego-man and "ginger balls" to match, he became a beloved cult figure on hit HBO comedy series, Flight Of The Conchords.
It's been ten years since Darby, alongside Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie, first charmed the States with his Kiwi quirks, and since then, he's built up an impressive resume screen credits. Landing his first major movie role in 2008, starring opposite Jim Carrey in Yes Man, Darby followed this with appearances in a string of film and TV hits including The Boat That Rocked (2009) and NZ-made indie triumph Hunt For The Wilderpeople (2016). Later this year, he'll be making his summer blockbuster debut in the hotly anticipated reboot of Jumanji. But predating this world-reaching screen success, Darby was putting in the hard yards refining his craft on the live comedy circuit, first in his native New Zealand and then, following the success of his first solo show at the 2002 Edinburgh Festival, in the UK.
His innate Kiwi-ness may now be the quality turning the heads of American casting agents, but it was during his time in Britain that Darby first realised what an asset his national heritage was. "I'd always been obsessed with the great British comedy actors — Monty Python was absolutely everything to me — so I wanted to get over to the UK and be part of that. But when I finally arrived there, I found that having a unique New Zealand angle became an advantage. I was one of the few acts that had this accent and this style of performance. It's funny thinking about it because I wanted to get there and be part of something, but being outside of that was the thing that opened doors for me," he explains. "So I used that to my advantage, and in America, the biggest land of all, they really took to it. So yeah, it's become something to be proud of, the way I speak and think. Because it's got that different level to it - it's different to the stock standard stuff people and can see and hear almost anywhere."
There is, however, one New Zealandism Darby is keen to shed. "I think sometimes New Zealand gets stuck in this idea of itself as this tiny rural country, a remote island at the bottom of the world. But that, 'We don't really matter, let's just get our head down and stick to farming' attitude didn't really click for me. I always felt from the beginning that I would try and seek the big time. I believed I could make it, that I was just as good as the big British stars I really admired."
It's not only his determination and globetrotting that have helped Darby forge such an accomplished career. As a performer, he boasts an extraordinary level of versatility, showing fine form at stand-up, improvisation (as showcased in the recent Australian incarnation of Whose Line Is It Anyway?), acting, singing, writing and even a dabble in political activism. "It's something that's just emerged over time," Darby insists. "The only idea I had at the beginning was that I wanted to be involved in live comedy and I wanted to eventually end up acting. I'm happiest when I'm performing, and I've never said 'No' to anything. I'm a big yes man. Actually, being in the film Yes Man was a real watershed moment for me. I think that experience showed me where my career might be headed. Some stand-ups might only write one kind of joke or perform in a certain way. For me, comedy felt like a much bigger universe."
Another aspect of Darby's personality has proven just as magnetic as his New Zealandness: he's a shameless nerd. "I've always been obsessed with paranormal stuff and robots and things like that. I've always done goofy sound effects and mimicked ray guns and what have you on stage" he smiles. "I don't know if you believe in things like this, but I think if you put yourself out there, if you show that you're really into these kinds of things, then one thing leads to another and you end up being part of them." Revealing his inner-geek has led the comedian to some surprising opportunities, including a guest appearance on The X-Files and a recurring role voicing Coran on the Netflix remake of anime saga Voltron.
He'll be proudly wearing his paranormal heart on his sleeve when his latest stand-up show, Mystic Time Bird, arrives in Australia next month. However, a deeply personal trauma has given this new outing a mercurial undercurrent of emotional candour, alongside the expected kookiness. "My mother passed away last year, and I was stuck in Hawaii working, with a lot of time to myself, and I really started to think about who I was and whether I wanted to continue in comedy. I felt like a lot of me was doing it for mum, and I wasn't sure how much I was really getting out of it personally," he shares. "So, I went to get some advice, and I found this mystical man - a kind of shaman if you will. And he believed that I was a bird in a previous existence. So yeah... it's possibly the weirdest show I've ever put out there."
Darby hopes by embracing his most eccentric qualities he'll set an example for other kindred misfits. "There's a lot of people who probably grow up thinking, 'I'm a geek. I don't fit in here. I'll just hide away in my bedroom and play computer games.' It feels like it's so easy for people to feel insecure about not fitting in at the moment. But if you can be proud of the fact you're different and put yourself out there as a bit of a weirdo, then all the other weirdos will come out of the woodwork to work with you. I think that's why I've managed to fit in in LA. Hollywood is home to a whole bunch of weirdos."
But for all its delicious Darby-brand dorkiness, there's a serious side to this latest live outing that is perhaps more prominent than any of his previous shows. Using comedy as a springboard for appealing to an audience's social conscience has become an increasingly familiar presence on the Australian stand-up circuit, most notably in Hannah Gadsby's Barry Award-winning show Nannette — a furious, excoriating performance railing against the influences of misogyny and homophobia still very much present in our modern society. Darby believes this trend reflects the way comedians naturally respond to the world around them.
"It feels like the world has become a lot more delicate. One of the things I talk about in the show is the fact we should give more of a shit about the planet. It's about us as humans pulling our heads in a bit and realising we're not the only species on this rock. I think, as someone with a platform, I should raise awareness," he reveals. "Last year was a shit year. We lost Prince. We lost Bowie. We ended up with a whole messy political situation internationally. I think we all went into ourselves a little and thought, 'What is life all about? What is it about humans that makes us fear each other?' I think that kind of emotional state, mixed with the weirdness that our whole lives as comedians is about showing off in front of hundreds of people, has made many comics question whether or not they should use their performances to say something important. And I think the answer to that is yes. Yes we should."
First published 17 June 2017, for The Music