For those of us who spent our early 20s in the late aughts—trying to survive the end of the Bush administration, bootcut jeans, and the inexplicable popularity of LCD Soundsystem—watching Flight of the Conchords return to HBO for their 2018 special, Live in London, was a sobering reminder of how much time has passed since then. The New Zealand comedy-folk duo, Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie, still looked good, but with their salt and pepper hair and beards, they were noticeably older than the wide-eyed transplants who graced the channel with a two-season series a decade prior. They knew the audience would be thinking this, and used it to their comedic advantage.
“We’ve been trying to stay young, trying to preserve ourselves like those sexy man-boys you saw on TV,” McKenzie deadpanned to the audience between songs. “Us being up here, we remind you of your own mortality.”
Indeed, the two men, now in their 40s, seemed like cultural relics on stage. It’s not that their jokes were dated or that their material didn’t pass a modern sniff test. In fact, much of their all-purpose humor about being bumbling hopeless romantics is fairly timeless. It’s that, for most fans, the two had been M.I.A. for years. They’ve kept busy individually—Clement has acted in films like Moana and McKenzie supervises music for The Muppets—but seeing the two of them together, playing their acoustic songs about murderous robots and David Bowie in outer space, was like being transported to a simpler time, when pop culture had room for something as quirky as a pair of lovably naive Kiwis and their innocuous brand of folk humor.
In addition to slipping in some new material, the two led the audience on a trip down memory lane, dusting off classics like “Hurt Feelings” and “Inner City Pressure.” But one song’s inclusion in the setlist was surprising: “Bus Driver’s Song,” a tune that doesn’t appear on either of the band’s two American albums and is not available on Spotify or Apple Music. You’d have to dig up a copy of their 2002 self-released debut CD to hear a proper version, and it probably wouldn’t make most fans’ lists of favorite Conchords songs if you gave them infinite spots. Musically, though, with its acoustic dueting and gentle harmonies, it’s some of Flight of the Conchords’ strongest work. It also distinguishes itself from the rest of their catalog by one very distinct characteristic: It’s not funny.
The first time I can remember seeing Flight of the Conchords perform “Bus Driver’s Song” was in college, over a decade ago, on a comedy special which aired very early in their career, judging by how shaggy and free of grays their hair was. There was a palpable confusion in the audience, who were eager to laugh but weren’t sure when to do so. The song doesn’t employ any of the duo’s clever wordplay or self-deprecating banter. There are no quotable jokes or laugh-out-loud moments. Instead, the gag is premise-driven, leaning on first-person storytelling.
McKenzie adopts a character for the song—a local New Zealander giving a guided tour of the small town where he grew up. The tour veers off the rails halfway through the song, when the guide becomes distracted by the sight of Paula Thompson, a woman he has known since childhood, and for whom he’s still carrying a torch. “I always thought I’d marry Paula, but some things just don’t work out that way,” he sings. “That’s the most important thing you’ll learn on the tour today. That, and the fact that there will be a toilet break at the information center near the manmade lake.”
The guide continues to point out the surrounding attractions—the sock factory, the Presbyterian fair, the local swimming pool—but his mind is clearly somewhere else. At one point, he describes Paula’s hair as “flowing like the Waimahanga River, which, incidentally, is to your right.” In what could be deemed the punchline of the song, the guide thanks the guests for taking the ride and asks that, if they see his wife in town, they not mention the details of the tour. “You’ll recognize [her] because she looks a hell of a lot like Paula, actually. But, uh, she’s not Paula, that’s for sure.” The song concludes with the guide wishing aloud that he could drive the bus back in time, and repeats the line “Take me back!” until he apologizes to the tourists for getting emotional.
What was most impressive about “Bus Driver’s Song” is that the two comedians—in their early 20s when they wrote it—were flexing wisdom well beyond their years. The song is a young person’s impression of an older person reflecting on life and dwelling on what could have been. Their ruminations on a life-long unrequited love felt somewhat tragic and surprisingly earnest—for two guys who would pen a song called “Too Many Dicks on the Dance Floor,” anyway.
That was my level of appreciation for the song then, as a former young person. But seeing it performed over a decade later on Live in London, I realized how much I’d grown into the song’s character and its sentiment of eulogizing time you can’t ever get back. What once seemed like a funny premise suddenly became a lot more relatable.
That’s the main takeaway to be learned from leaving your 20s behind—doors have closed and you must accept it, lest you dwell in the past forever. You dream less about the way things could be, and start accepting them the way they are. It’s why the original Flight of the Conchords show worked when it aired. Two young men sharing a dingy, two-room apartment in Chinatown with nothing but their guitars and rock star dreams was funny because it was relatable. Two middle-aged men in the same situation would be sad and pathetic.
So when McKenzie sang “Take me back!” on the live show, what once came off like a clever bit of narrative songwriting now hit a lot closer to home. I thought about all of my own roads less traveled—the jobs and relationships and living situations I’ve left behind and how life might’ve shaken out differently if I’d stayed with them. I thought about the missed opportunities and the dreams I was too scared to chase for reasons that seem trivial in hindsight. I thought about all the Paula Thompsons in my life and the torch flames that just won’t burn out.
There are plenty of Flight of the Conchords jokes I still quote to this day. Whenever I’m stripping down, I can’t help but think of Clement singing, “You know when I’m down to just my socks / It’s time for business / That’s why they call them business socks.” And I am physically incapable of hearing the name Steve without saying in my best New Zealand accent, “What kind of a rapping name is Steve?” But “Bus Driver’s Song” has stuck with me most intimately. I think of it whenever I’m feeling nostalgic. Sometimes I’ll find an old photo of myself or I’ll catch a glimpse of my face in the mirror and find my own greys that have seeped into my hair and beard, and I’ll hear McKenzie’s voice in my head: “Take me back.”