Rhys Darby, the New Zealand comic and actor best known for playing Murray Hewitt in Flight of the Conchords, released a new stand-up special late in 2017. It’s called Rhys Darby I’m a Fighter Jet and nobody appears to have reviewed it yet. In fact, I totally forgot it exists until I saw Darby’s delightful appearance as a non-player character in the Jumanji sequel last week, so now seems like a good time to check in on his latest one-man show.
I say “one-man show” because Darby’s work generally falls toward the more theatrical end of the stand-up spectrum. He’s an intensely physical performer—in one of my favorite bits of his, “Robot Man,” he describes his antics as a newfangled form of mime, this time with sound—who luxuriates in long, silly act-outs, often leaping across the stage to play multiple characters in a single scene. You won’t find much pointed social commentary in his work, though what you may find is an exhilarating escape from reality. In I’m a Fighter Jet he opens with a lengthy riff on his skinny jeans, positing a thief who gets a hand stuck trying to nab the wallet from Darby’s back pocket. Later he reminisces about his days in the New Zealand army in the early ‘90s: Instead of firing bullets during training exercises, soldiers literally shouted “bullets bullets bullets!” This spins into an absurd tall tale about the army inheriting used fighter jets from the United States, which they dredged out of the ocean and pretended to fly. The nonsense occasionally distills into moments of lucidity: It was a low-budget army, but now things have changed, that is, they’ve gotten worse; he joined because he wanted to rescue POWs, but he ended up rescuing sheep. The silliness is often silly enough that you yearn for him to spend a bit longer reflecting more earnestly on his experiences. Then he’ll heighten the bit even further and the wish is quickly forgotten.
One thing I missed, watching I’m a Fighter Jet, was Darby’s deadpan, which he used to masterful effect in previous specials. (See: that robot bit again.) Here he tends toward broad, breathless exuberance, a tact that occasionally feels like overcompensation for thinner material, as in the titular fighter jet bit, or another about avoiding his wife. An exception is his take on choose-your-own-adventure books, where he reflects with a marvelous combination of guilt and mischievousness on how, whenever he’d turn to some page only halfway filled with text—the fatal choice, in other words—he’d then turn nonchalantly back and go the other route, with none the wiser. It’s a moment of delicious understatement, the sort of mundane observational stand-up that stumbles sideways into philosophy. One of the special’s set pieces, a sequence about when he accidentally did mushrooms on his honeymoon in Thailand, contains similar moments in a overall bumpier ride. The riff on two homeless caterpillars who need his protection falls rather flat; the one-sided conversation he has with a woman (well, the back of his head, it turns out) about how he’d like to go to Iceland, where he understands people to believe in fairies from another dimension, is a clear highlight. It’s like a spigot turns on that unleashes his most shameful subconscious thoughts, which turn out to be his deep curiosity about the Icelandic fairy folk. Like any comic, Darby is at his strongest when he’s at his most specific, and his most specific is so idiosyncratic that much of the tamer material feels dull beside it. Thankfully his sharpest is well worth waiting for.
Rhys Darby I’m a Fighter Jet is streaming on Amazon Prime.
Seth Simons is Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Follow him on Twitter.