John Clarke was the greatest comedian in the history of Australia, even if he was a Kiwi. Most famously a satirist, Clark was also a writer, actor, and advocate for mental health. He was one half of 7.30's Clark and Dawe for nearly 30 years, and the brains behind The Games—the satirical coverage of Sydney's Olympics, which was so dry that foreign news organisations took it seriously. He was the man who told you that the front fell off. Then, when you asked "why?" he'd tell you, "Well it did." And now he's died at the age of 68, survived by his wife and two daughters.
Clark was born in Palmerston North, New Zealand in 1948. After finishing high school, he worked on a shearing gang: "It was glorious, it was just fantastic," he said of the experience years later. "I loved it, the smell of lanolin. I can't walk into a wool shed without wanting to peel a couple of old ewes off and poke them down the chute."
Clarke's star began to rise in the early 1970s when he introduced his iconic character, Fred Dagg, to his native New Zealand. Dressed in a singlet and bucket hat, Dagg would opine about his seven sons (all named Trev) and start in on the long dry larrikinisms that would become his trademark. Corkers include Dagg trying to sell a used car with typical honesty: "It runs like a haunted shithouse." His 1976 album, Fred Dagg's Greatest Hits, is one of New Zealand's highest selling records to this day.
Clarke moved to Australia in the 1970s, working on such iconic films as The Adventures of Barrie McKenzie and Paul Cox's Lonely Hearts, for which he was nominated for an AFI. In 1984, Clarke worked on cult ABC show The Gillies Report. It was here that his mastery of comic form moved from mimic to startling projection, his word trickery and running gallop of puns and self-reflecting gags nowhere more apparent than in his brilliant sports commentary for the fictional sport of Farnarkeling.
Clarke found his straight man in 1989, when he and collaborator Bryan Dawe began putting together five-minute satirical interviews at the tail end of Channel Nine's A Current Affair. They would become the Lennon and McCartney of political satire. The format was deceptively simple: John Clarke would take on the role of a prominent Australian public figure, Bruce Dawe would grill him. Clarke would squirm and obfuscate, and between them they'd lay out the absurdity of the nation's goings on—reducing Australia's most influential figures to the level of snotty nosed school boys in the principal's office.
Clarke and Dawe moved to the ABC in 1997, airing every Thursday night at the end of the 7:30 Report. In 2013, they were given their own time slot, with Clarke and Dawe setting the tone before the Thursday night news.
The 27 years of Clarke and Dawe sketches are an amazing time capsule of Australiana and politico hackery. They could demolish a government in five minutes. Whereas other Australian satirists (see The Chaser and The Glass House) relied on shock and big budgets, John Clarke and Bryan Dawe just needed the news of the day, a dark room, and one another.
No one navigated Australia's hypocrisies like Clarke and Dawe. By honing their shrink ray on the outrages of the day, Clarke and Dawe underscored absurdity and inconsistency with surgical precision. The Tampa Tragedy, the Iraq War, Clive Palmer—John Clarke imbued them with their quintessential tackiness, cruelty, and stupidity.
There are too many golden moments to choose from. Clarke as Joel Fitzgibbon telling Dawe that some birds are cats and that "the owl is often regarded as the cat of the air, Brian." As a puffed up Tony Abbott: "We'll get those previous changes through… by changing them back to what they were beforehand." Or as a preening Andrew Peacock trying to explain what "the reality is" means "what is it? it is… what do you mean what's 'the'? It's the entire Liberal party platform." One keen tragedy here is that Clarke and Dawe seemed to be getting only more brilliant with age.
But John Clarke also leaves behind a diverse and sadly overlooked literary legacy. His poetry and short stories—or as he'd say "bags of tell"—were a brilliant collision of Banjo Patterson, Kurt Vonnegut, and Ern Malley. His comedy sparkled due to his bridle grip over Australian language and slang, as typified by Fred Dagg explaining how to write the great Australian novel: "You will need a plot of some sort. This is just a device to give you something to write about while your character is in the toilet or changing hats or something." He was, as he told ABC Radio last year, a "student of form. If the form's being varied, you need to know what it is. Then you can make fun of it."
For me personally, John Clarke was a guiding star. To give you an idea of his hold, my Tinder bio simply reads "just a Clarke looking for a Dawe." My family continue to sit around Clarke and Dawe as if it was Franklin D Roosevelt's fireside chats. He was Australia's greatest satirist, perhaps one of the world's, and his ability to minimise grand horrors to their most fundamental silliness became, in my eyes, the noblest of pursuits.
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