In Melbourne, John Clarke chews the fat on Flight of the Conchords, Billy T. James, Stephen Colbert, and Larry David. Illustration by Elina Nykänen.
“Gidday, how are ya?” John Clarke walks into Fitzroy’s stylish Birdman Cafe, brimming with affability and generosity. To nationwide regret, Clarke left New Zealand for Melbourne in 1977. He’s lived here with his Melbournian wife Helen ever since.
As for his iconic Fred Dagg, he wanted to quit him while he was ahead. Clarke explains this to me in his characteristically vivid style: “As my grandmother used to say, ‘Always leave the table slightly hungry. Don’t make a pig of yourself.’ I’ve often tried to express this, but haven’t ever done it properly: the business of Fred Dagg is something in the New Zealand character that hadn’t been expressed in quite that way before. It wouldn’t have worked if the audience hadn’t understood that. So it’s a kind of contract between me and the audience. That’s a precious thing, so you can’t keep milking it. You’ve just got to get out at the point where everybody likes it most and leave it be.
“That’s why it really irritates me that people try and make themselves look like Fred Dagg in advertising, make themselves sound like Fred Dagg in advertising, because they don’t have the right to do that. They’ve never asked me, I haven’t been paid anything, and it’s just a fucking rip-off. I always made sure that I didn’t do that.”
Clarke’s eyes glint and dart with mischief, as though he’s confiding in you, which he is. On his father: “His mode of performance as a human being was often mischievous and charming.” On being a comedian: “I’ve had a lot of jobs in my life; I’ve only ever liked one.”
He looks sad when I ask him what he thinks of Billy T. James. “Billy was hilarious. Billy died too young, tragically. He was terrific. What a talent.”
This year Clarke celebrated his sixtieth birthday. Radio New Zealand film critic Simon Morris was one of the small group of close friends present. “Having known John for 40 years giving you a quick quote on the man is a bit like summing up the Roman Empire in a limerick. Though if anyone could—or would—do that, John’s your man. Especially if he was meant to be doing something else at the time. It’s funny, over here everyone thinks of John as a great performer, which he is, of course. But really his strong suit is writing, especially capturing something in a few words.”
Morris’s comment brings to mind Clarke/Dagg’s pithy Rogernomics putdown: “The idea that a beautiful day had no value unless you could sell it.” Clarke adds the ideology was “An absolute disgrace. Its ramifications were catastrophic for New Zealand.” He thinks it’s farcical Roger Douglas is running for Parliament again. “Don’t let it happen. It’s too silly isn’t it?”
Earlier on in 2008, Clarke was inducted into the Logies (Australia’s equivalent of the Emmys) Hall of Fame. “It’s their seniors’ card… I haven’t been invited onto Dancing Fuckwit Celebrities or anything.” His and Bryan Dawe’s hugely popular weekly satirical interviews currently screen on ABC TV; a comprehensive DVD of Clarke and Dawe unleashes later this year. As does Season Two of Clarke’s Olympian TV series The Games.
Tucking into a hearty plate of spicy beans and eggs, Clarke enthuses about university. “I sort of majored in English… I’d had a particularly poor secondary schooling you see, and I wasn’t very well equipped. I had no methodology. I hadn’t been taught anything; I was lucky to survive it. It’s the key experience for me, university. These people [Victoria staff and fellow students] would never know how important they are.”
In his introduction to A Complete Dagg, Barry Humphries describes John Clarke as Australia’s greatest comedian. Steve Braunias has asked whether Clarke could be the greatest living New Zealander. Brit Peter Cook encouraged Clarke to broadcast his newspaper columns. “I thought aw, maybe I should.” Braunias adds: “In basic terms, Clarke invented humour in New Zealand… he came up with a comic language. Every attempt to be funny or real in a New Zealand way follows from here.”
Clarke’s book The Catastrophe Continues, featuring 21 years of his funny, satirical current affairs interviews, comes out in November. The writing includes his fiendishly funny “The Front Fell Off,” based on a true story of an oil tanker caused environmental catastrophe off the West Australian coast. Then there’s the Mastermind contestant whose special subject is John Howard. “The people knew too much,” Clarke says of the last days of the Howard regime. “The circus moves on now.”
Clarke memorably swipes Howard crony Nick Minchin (“I’d say Nick Minchin’s view of reality is subject to relatively open question. He has a very strange perspective on the world”) and former Labour leader Mark Latham (“A nong. He’s the kind of bloke who’d be doing a donut on your lawn in a Monaro while asking for your vote”). He’s always been an equal-opportunity satirist. “You have to be. I’ve never been a member of any political organisation. What I do is largely responsive in any case.” I interject, quoting Stephen Colbert’s maxim “Reality has a well-known liberal bias.” The Colbert enthusiast agrees.
Billy T. James and John Clarke.
Clarke agrees we live in times that are sometimes beyond satire. “Superbly exemplified in Bush’s extremely Christian response to [Hurricane] Katrina. How can you say anything about that? A man who claims to be a Christian!” Unsurprisingly, he’s not waving the flag for mavericky McCain. “Tina Fey has got Sarah Palin fixed up nicely. Sarah’s selection for high exposure has not been the work of adults.”
Ever down-to-earth, he’s not a fan of Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. “It’s about the neurotic anxiety of some self-centred bloke in Los Angeles. Why would that interest me? I’m much more about where I am, where I come from, always having been.” Clarke’s mother, who was an actor and is still a writer in her eighties, instilled his performing arts awareness and experience.
He recalls watching Groucho Marx as a little fulla. “Language has always interested me, which is handy for a writer.” Clarke’s book The Even More Complete Book of Australian Verse, recasting the great poets as Australians, is drop-dead brilliant. Highlights include William Esther Williams’ The Carnival (on Labour Party blues) and Balmain plumber Arnold Wordsworth’s Lines Composed About Halfway Across the Pyrmont Bridge: “Stand back, because when she goes, she bloody goes.”
During his “Withnail and I” OE in London, Clarke cut his filmic teeth with a small part on Barry Humphries and Bruce Beresford’s The Adventures of Barry McKenzie. “I was like a kid on a primary school trip watching the separator at a milk treatment plant.”
Like Flight of the Conchords, who he currently working on a project with, Clarke left New Zealand because of the difficulty developing new ideas in New Zealand television. “Conchords is very New Zealand. They take the performance out of it, hide the joke. It’s so downbeat. I think it’s delicious. I’ve always liked their stuff. I first saw them when they came here years ago, they were principally a musical act at the time. Good for them on their HBO success. The idea that they wouldn’t work on television, it’s delicious isn’t it?”
He’s a staunch media critic. “The general moronic tone of the badly written media, puffery and celebrity bullshit. People are inclined to be a bit surprised about global warming. Science has known about it for decades. It’s not been in the news until the last few years. That’s a failing.”
“Not only is the media not doing its job properly, its perpetuating a story, fantasyland. So yeah, I don’t think the standard of the media is terribly high. This is substantially to do with cost requirements within media organisations. At the moment there is a world wide credit and banking crisis, which comes as a huge surprise to the media since their concern has not been wisdom, research or the well-being of the community, but money.”
Clarke cites the credit crunch as another telling example of how the media has failed to properly inform the citizenry, at considerable cost. Funnily enough, on the plane over, reading Dagg’s prescient “The Romance of Banking,” I laughed to the point I was having difficulty breathing. My fellow passengers were looking on with alarm.
It’s clear Clarke thoroughly enjoys living in creative Melbourne, working with friends like Gina Riley (who plays Kim in Kath & Kim and Gina in The Games). What does he think of Underbelly, Melbourne’s Sopranos? “We’re allowed to dodge the actual bullets, but we’re not actually allowed to watch it.” (Clarke, who hasn’t seen Underbelly, clarifies that he thinks Justice King’s decision to ban the television series in Victoria was wise given a fair whack of the content is still sub judicae.)
Still very fond of his homeland, an influence which courses through his work, Clarke says New Zealand and Australia’s strengths are similar. “Healthy, practical, self-reliant, egalitarian etc. Even if these are fantasies they are different fantasies from European ones.”
Clarke, dramaturge on Fitzroyian Casey Benetto’s dynamic, uproarious musical Keating!, animatedly reminisces about sensational John Howard numbers ‘Power’ (“I won’t say sorry, I won’t say please”) and ‘The Mateship’ and show-stopping Alexander Downer riff ‘Freaky’.
In the best comedic tradition—think Blackadder’s final scene—Keating! was ultimately dead serious. Last November in Sydney, I was moved watching Mike McLeish perform ‘The Light on the Hill’, Keating’s concession to Howard’s “mainstream values” victory. “But, still, I dream,” Keating poignantly sang of a different Australia, “Of a country rich and clever/with compassion and endeavour… I’m still dreaming of the light on the hill.”
There’s a lot of interest in Clarke writing a Redux version of The Games, possibly around London or Canada’s Winter Olympics. His cracker faux-doc classically probed Reconciliation (or rather lack of). Since Kevin Rudd’s election and apology, Clarke thinks Australia is now doing much better on this front. “There’s now an honesty about the issue and related issues. I hope they get the right people involved. There are all sorts of different opinions about how to best do it, in both the indigenous communities and the non-indigenous communities. Australia is a very big place. It’s very hard to get a national, approved, fits-for-all-cases initiative. It’s impressive to me the headway they’ve been making; I hope they get it right.”