Five Up, The Comedian

ARTS, EDITORS’ PICKS, Features, Interviews
Catching up with ex-pat Kiwi humourist John Clarke, who Barry ‘Dame Edna’ Humphries describes as “Australia’s greatest comedian.”

John Clarke invented humour in New Zealand,” Steve Braunias wrote. “He came up with a comic language. Every attempt to be funny or real in a New Zealand way follows from here.” Braunias added Clarke could well be the greatest living New Zealander. Five years after a substantial interview with Pamutana’s finest export, I caught up with him over a cuppa at Melbourne’s Arcadia Cafe. Clad in a Swandri and a Kiwi fishing hat, Clarke was ever down-to-earth and (exceedingly) affable. We talked about John Cleese, humorous Russian dissidents, French arrogance, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

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ALEXANDER BISLEY: “If you ever want to kill yourself but lack the courage, I think a visit to Palmerston North will do the trick,” John Cleese said. From here, you riposted that your hometown’s tip be renamed The John Cleese Memorial Rubbish Dump. The suggestion was adopted.

JOHN CLARKE: I congratulate the Palmerston North authorities on getting down the wicket to some very average bowling.

AB: New Zealand politics hasn’t featured on Clarke & Dawe.

JC: Well, why would it? Bryan and I could talk about New Zealand politics, but we’d need to spend quarter of an hour giving an introductory tutorial setting up the context or we’d need to broaden it so much that it was meta-politics. A lot of our stuff operates on precisely the opposite observation, that specificity is good. It’s phony to pretend to be expert in something you’re not. There are things I know that are going on in New Zealand, some things I’ve got some concern about that I read about, and I will keep reading about them. But you don’t want to be accused of, “what would he know, he doesn’t even live there.”

AB: That can be a problem in journalism today, people have the urge to comment on everything and spread themselves too thin. Clive James has done that.

JC: When I came to Australia, I didn’t say anything until I felt I understood. I read and I absorbed, it’s a totally different environment in which to write structurally, culturally. There are obviously similarities, but if you’re going to do something satirical then your argument better work. Otherwise you should go and do mother-in-law jokes and take your ten pounds. That’s never interested me.

AB: Australian politics has fertile comedic material, particularly with the election around the corner. Your Tony Abbott “It’s a Jungle Out There” interview was terrific.

JC: Thank you. I rather like the idea that now on television everybody lies so much the only people telling the truth need to have their identity hidden. There’s something about the visual drama of that, and the audio that I rather like.

AB: Channel 9 have Underbelly Nine: Squizzy coming out. It seems never ending.

JC: It’s certainly going to be never ending. Why would they let it end? It prevents them having to look very far for their drama.

AB: Last time you talked about dealing with these gargantuan cultural bureaucracies and their cumbersome and restrictive processes. (This situation is not limited to Australia.)

JC: The position’s completely different now, the bureaucracies are twice the size they were when I said that. They discourage intelligent young people, and if they’re discouraging too many young people, in 15 years time you’ll have an awful lot of crap.

AB: There tends to be an established, reductive formula they go after, doesn’t there?

JC: That’s right. It’s very sort of fad-ist, and so on. Even in formats. It’s slightly because governments haven’t wanted to take responsibility for forming policy in relation to content, it’s very hard to proscribe, it’s very hard to define, it’s very hard to generate, and so they’ve left it in the hands of these plausible idiots who know the right clichés and the right language and they can all shove stuff round at meetings for forty minutes. So it goes. There’s not much direct contact between the people making the programmes and the audience. That’s the real thrill of the engagement.

John Clarke and Bryan Dawe.

AB: Those Chaser guys are on-to-it.

JC: Well, they got going first by starting a magazine. People have strategised their way around this by accident or by design and in that case they had a magazine and were noticed for having a magazine and were attracted into broadcasting. But had they proposed the programme version of the magazine to any of the broadcasters they would have been rejected.

AB: You know them?

JC: Yes, I watched them develop. Most of the people know others in the industry. By and large there’s mutual regard. There’s room for everybody, and each other aren’t the problem.

AB: I love Bill Maher’s show. I watch it on the Internet.

JC: Yes, I download it off the Internet. He’s genuine—he’s got an investigative line, and an attitude, and he has interesting guests and I really think he’s being responsive to what have been some momentous problems in the American media.

AB: You have a diverse audience: age and political philosophy.

JC: I hope so, because my relationship with an audience is the most important part of the engagement. The worse the product is, the more promos you need. If you have a relationship with an audience, which understands your sort of stuff, and what interests you and how your stuff is pitched—[A1] like Simon [Morris] for example; he has a very dedicated audience who know the sort of thing they’re going to get. That’s a very important relationship. There’s no use saying that’s the case if it isn’t. You can say something’s interesting or important or unique, which is always almost a lie, anyway, when it isn’t. And you can bullshit your way to getting a lot of people to be watching your programme at 8:30, but if the thing’s not interesting they won’t be there at 11. I’d rather be on a train that got more people on it as it went. That’s a pretty important aspect of the thing because otherwise the people who run the industry mediate everything.

AB: That’s one of the commendable things you do with The 7:56 Report, there’s no bullshit marketing. You keep it quite pure.

JC: It’s a commando raid, and the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. If you’re doing stuff for television, a lot of your subject matter is television. If you look at what Bryan and I do every week, it’s about whatever we want it to be about. I don’t really mind what people write about it, but I very often see people writing that it’s about politics; it’s like saying The Games is about sport. It’s like the box in which a cartoonist draws a cartoon; it’s mainly “not the other part of the paper.” It’s very difficult to drum up the defining characteristics of what’s inside the box because that’s up to us. But people need to know it’s “not the rest of the paper,” it’s a slightly different frame of reference. It might be surreal, it might be about television, it might be insightful, and it mightn’t be.

AB: How do you see humour?

JC: I’ve always felt like humour is a way of transmitting something that isn’t being transmitted in other modes of engagement. If it doesn’t, then what’s the point? If it’s just doing the same thing as everything else then why would we bother with it? Why would we laugh at something that comforts a bad idea?

AB: There’s an excellent documentary on the Russian group Pussy Riot. The British director was telling me about the vital importance of humour as a weapon, and how people like Vladimir Putin just don’t have a good sense of humour.

JC: The Russians are very good on that subject because humour was one of the sustaining aspects of Soviet society. The cartoonists in Russia at that time were not only brilliant, they were enormously brave and they didn’t all survive. It’s very important. The most delicious thing is to do something that isn’t a joke and which only the prison guard doesn’t laugh at. In Ancient Greece irony was “the glory of the slaves.”

AB: Tell me about comedic influences who still influence and inspire?

JC: There are plenty of people. Anybody who has got the ability to do what I’m saying has got my admiration regardless of whether they do it professionally or not. One of the other things that I’ve always said is that a lot of the people who have influenced you are not famous. They’re people you know who can do this, who love it and who share it. Most of the people who have an influence on you are close to you.

AB: Fred Dagg is an exemplar of that.

JC: That’s right. It’s also an inventive character, so it’s slightly surreal. It’s designed to look real and to be bolted to the ground. If he were accused of being surreal he would be troubled, but we need to use our imaginations. This is one of the things people can do together. They’re going through a common experience, they’ve got all the common references, but you can invent a plausible way of looking at things which is, at least momentarily, the most enjoyable thing in the world. That’s the point—if it teaches you something. It’s quite a good thing to question arguments. In comedy, if it doesn’t question arguments, then what’s the point of it?

AB: A classic example of these points you raise, a favourite of mine, is the hilarious M. Chirac on nuclear testing. [‘The Front Fell Off’ foreshadowed the Rena oil spill disaster.]

JC: The French have a certain arrogance: it’s not a new idea [laughs wryly]. When I was a kid, if you saw a prominent figure interviewed in any public forum they had the right to harrumph a lot and be put out by the questions, and in some cases to patronise the interviewer or to critique the questions in an insulting way, “How dare you?” and all that sort of stuff. As time went by, that became increasingly suicidal and it’s now almost the opposite.

AB: Indeed.

JC: The other thing is, is if you’re doing something once a week you’re calling your own bluff a bit, and that’s a good thing to do too because it forces material out of yourself and you need to fashion something out of nothing and if there’s no news that week then sorry pal, come up with something else. Because you do have to. And there’s a long tradition in it. That’s a good thing because I think that the difficult question in any creative enterprise is not content, it’s form. The good thing about the interview form is that it’s dialogue. Like when I was young and doing stage shows in Wellington, it always occurred to me that if you’re doing a monologue, put a phone on the table because it will allow you another voice in, even if you just pick it up and say hello. Otherwise you are stuck with this—stand-up is really the least interesting form known to man.

AB: What about Wanda Sykes and Eddie Izzard?

JC: Eddie does it by creating an entire new enchanted garden and walking you through it. He’s not talking about how funny it is to be a man who gets pissed.

AB: He’s (usually) operating on multiple levels, multiple languages.

JC: He absolutely is. It’s all about language; it’s about ideas. A conversation that he had a half an hour ago will come and a character from it will come into the conversation and you understand that completely because he’s an enchanter. But it’s not really when he peoples the stage with other creatures, delightful creatures. A lot of standups are not doing that. I think dialogue is pretty interesting and it’s Beckett, it’s Joyce, it’s 20th century literature, it’s us, it’s the way we carry on. And if we’re not always talking to one person and we’re addressing a bigger group, then we do talk in a slightly different way and you can quite easily do that in an interview. You can say, “Who’s watching this? The whole public? Right. [Addressing an audience] Ladies and Gentlemen!” All those little subnotes that we all use all the time and we hear like lightning and we see on television and we don’t miss a trick—they’re all there and I would rather make something little than make it big. So, my attempt is to be very still and to draw people in to a private world that they think is in us but it’s in them.

AB: Like The Games: Series 2, which I was enjoying during the Wellington earthquake.

JC: Oh, were you? It doesn’t always have that effect.

AB: Can you talk on or off the record about some of the projects you’ve got in development?

JC: Not really, I’m not the only person involved. Some of them are in creative development, and some of them are in production development. So not really. If you think of an idea like The Games, for example, you’re developing it in your computer, your mind, and in your group way before anybody ever knows about it. That’s one of the reasons why episode one isn’t a first draft. Other people are a wonderful editing opportunity. So that’s the case with lots of things. You think of an idea and you mull it over and you think about it. The stupidest thing you can do is talk about it on the record because it might not even end up being what you are doing, especially if you’re not the only person involved.

AB: What have you been reading?

JC: When I need to know stuff about particular subjects for my work, I go online and try to find the best material and if necessary, I ring the people that wrote it and say, “Can you explain paragraph three to me? I’m a bit slow, I didn’t get it.” Immediacy is more important than it used to be. In the ’60s, if you wrote something about the current government you were thought to be almost outrageously…

AB: Premature.

JC: Whereas now you need to write about what the government did today. I’m inclined to regard much change as positive.

AB: I see you’ve got Mr John Clarke on Twitter, and that’s got a solid following.

JC: That’s not me doing that. But something needs to come out of our office because otherwise we just get bombarded with requests or inquiries. Of course, any form that you adopt should be made entertaining.

AB: I find it useful having you there.

JC: There are certain things you need in my line of work. Certain other things that you need that I haven’t got, like a mobile phone.

AB: Good, I refuse to get a smartphone.

JC: It is a good thing because I mainly like to work when I’m sitting down. But when I’m standing up and walking around I don’t like to work. Walking is very important. Let’s not bugger it up with talking, which is also very important but they’re separate.

AB: One of many comic topics you’ve written cleverly about: the national union of grandparents. You’re enjoying that?

JC: Very keen. I go to all the meetings. It’s good fun. That was when I had small kids, now I’ve got small grand kids. If you wait long enough this will happen to you. I took my granddaughter to the museum last week and her favourite thing at the museum is the escalator, so we went up and down that a few hundred times. Very good fun.

AB: You’re too busy to see much in the Melbourne International Film Festival?

JC: I’ve got a daughter who’s going through everything at the film festival, she gives me a debriefing and a bit of a tutorial, but I’m actually a bit flat-stick at the moment. But one of the reasons that a film festival is so wonderful to go to is that you can’t really go to it and do a lot of other things because you just sort of miss the front and the back. You need to go to it like when you’re at university and that’s what you do.

AB: Be immersed in it.

JC: On an unrelated note, have you seen The Great Gatsby?

AB: I was a bit apprehensive. I’m not often a fan of the 3-D phenomenon (I saw it in 2-D). I think it’s often gratuitous, and I’m not often a fan of Baz Luhrmann’s work. I really dislike Moulin Rouge

JC: What do you think of it in relation to the book?

AB: American excess and unfairness, it captures that at the end, that very powerful line about how people like Daisy and Tom retreat to their vast wealth and carelessness.

JC: Well, the reason I ask about Gatsby is that things benefit by being extremely well written and it was a very, very good book.

AB: I’m off to listen to Adrian Wootton talk about it now. He’s talking about the great writer’s tragic last days.

JC: Well, he was an alcoholic and if you’re an alcoholic… shocking. So he was initially a good short story writer and most of the action in that book is a short story at the back about a car accident. The preceding stuff is a whole set of observations made by the beautifully named Nick Carraway. A whole lot of American values are questioned and set up to be inverted. I haven’t seen any of them [the film adaptations]. There’s a better version in my head.

Read more about John Clarke’s past and present projects at Thanks to Alice May Connolly and Aaron Caleb Bardo for transcription assistance on this article.