Jemaine grew up in Masterton and went on to study theatre and film at Victoria University. There, he met key collaborators such as Bret and fellow Laureate Taika Waititi. With Taika, he created numerous theatre shows throughout the nineties. As a duo, Jemaine performed with Taika in the comedy group the Humourbeasts, which won the 1999 Billy T Award. For Taki Rua productions, the Humourbeasts toured The Untold Tales of Maui to critical acclaim. Jemaine also starred in Waititi’s comedy romance film Eagle Vs Shark.
Almost twenty years later, Jemaine and Taika co-directed What We Do in The Shadows – a “mockumentary” following the daily trials and tribulations of eight-hundred-and-something-year-old vampires in Wellington. The film premiered at Sundance, receiving largely positive reviews, and was nominated in eight categories at the 2014 Rialto Channel New Zealand Film Awards, of which it won four - including New Zealand's best self-funded film of 2014. In a recent conversation with the Arts Foundation, Jemaine said that the main benefit of working with good friends like Taika and Bret is the speed of communication. If you can short-cut the need to explain a direction or humour in a narrative, you are able to maintain the story’s natural edge.
The runaway success of cult TV show Flight of the Conchords can be traced back to 2001, when Jemaine and Bret first took their full-length show as the comedy band Flight of the Conchords to Calgary International Festival. In 2003, their follow up show Folk the World took the now well-trodden path from BATS Theatre, Wellington, to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where it was nominated for England’s coveted Perrier Award. Consequently, the pair created an award-winning, improvised, self-titled series, which aired on BBC radio in 2005. By now, the duo were attracting the attention of American television networks and were invited to perform in LA by executives from cable network HBO. HBO asked them to participate in an episode of stand-up comedy show One Night Stand. The show's success encouraged HBO to sign the Conchords to make a pilot for a potential series - one of only four by HBO that year. The resulting series saw the pair playing versions of themselves, trying to make it big in New York. For four months they alternated five days of filming with weekends working on scripts and music.
Jemaine’s popularity as awkward, understated, Kiwi comic actor has also led to roles in Hollywood movies such as Dinner for Schmucks, in which he stars alongside Steve Carell. According to USA Today reviewer Claudia Puig, Jemaine "nearly steals the movie" as a pretentious artist whose "off-the-wall remarks, bizarre costumes and animalistic tendencies are absurdly comical.” Despite Hollywood acting success, Jemaine’s career highlight is playing at the Hollywood Bowl with Flight of the Conchords, as this is where some of his idols have played, including Monty Python, Richard Pryor and Stevie Wonder.
Jemaine has also become recognised as a voice actor, starring in animated hit Rio, 2010's Despicable Me (as one of the evil minions), and on The Simpsons, where he sneaks a mention of Wellington's Botanic Gardens into an episode. Clement also plays Boris, the bug-eyed alien assassin who fiddles with time in the third Men in Black movie, and in 2016 played the villainous giant crab Tamatoa in Disney’s Moana. Jemaine also stars as the voice of one of the sheep in The Pen, a series of shorts he made with Wellington animator Guy Capper. Jemaine explained the writing process for The Pen: Guy and Jemaine generate ideas together, from which Jemaine produces a script. However, when they sit down to record, they often end up improvising. Jemaine said that improvisation often provides the best content as the energy present in the moment is carried to the audience.
In 2017 Jemaine received an Arts Foundation Laureate Award.