Monday, 10 July 2017

John Clarke

In these strange times, I offer you some comedy. Not my own, of course. No, we can do far better than that. I would like to tell you about Mr John Clarke.

John Clarke was a New Zealand-born comedian, who died in April. He died relatively young (68), and suddenly (he collapsed while out walking). The news sent me off to look up some of his material. Guess what? He was a genius.

Clarke was born in 1948, in Palmerston North, of all places, but left New Zealand in 1979. I was five years old at the time, and once he disappeared beyond the Kiwi comic horizon, I had every excuse to never hear of him. But everyone had heard of his first creation: Fred Dagg. Fred was a farmer in a black singlet and gumboots. A “dag” is local slang for a shit-encrusted piece of wool hanging from a sheep’s rear, and, making a connection that could not fit more perfectly the stereotype of Kiwi preoccupations, also means an amusing and eccentric character. That was all I knew: the name and the look.

In New Zealand comedy, Fred Dagg is forever chased, like an errant sheep pursued by a tireless farm dog, by the word “groundbreaking”. I suspect you have to be a mildly homesick Kiwi living half way round the world to sit through many hours of it. It is decent stuff, but what makes John Clarke a genius is what he did much later.

He moved to Australia in 1979, and after a decade of sketch comedy he developed a revolutionary style of comic impersonation. In 1989 he and Brian Dawe started producing short mock political interviews. But rather than put on make-up to look like, say, the Prime Minister, or to dress like him, or even to try and imitate his voice, Clarke always appeared exactly the same way: as John Clarke, in a suit, talking with his normal voice. Instead of satirising the Prime Minister’s mannerisms, he satirised only what he said. Every week he was there, and he looked exactly the same and talked in exactly the same way, but each time he claimed to be someone else: the opposition leader, an economist, a banker, a PR agent. He was not interested in getting laughs from the way these people looked or talked: only in the stupid things they said.

This has been going on since 1989, and it lasted right up until the last piece he and Dawe filmed, only five days before his death.

Let’s start with the piece that shows up near the top of any YouTube search. In 1991, according to this New York Times story, the bow of a burning oil tanker tore loose off Australia's western coast, and dumped an estimated 2.9 million gallons of light crude oil into the Indian Ocean. Here is the official response, as presented on Clarke and Dawe:

If that makes you wish you could hear what they had to say after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, your wishes are duly granted:

Many of the pieces obviously focus on local Australian issues, and were topical for the week they were broadcast, and as funny as I am sure they are, I have no idea what they are about. But in 28 years, you can be sure there is plenty to satisfy everyone.

For example, back before Brexit, everyone was worried about Grexit. If you cannot remember what Grexit was, here is an explanation:

The humour is not just perceptive on economic and political issues, but takes obvious pleasure in language. Needless to say, language itself sometimes turns up as the topic:

My absolute favourite (of the small fraction of total shows that I have seen so far), is this piece on Australian immigration policy.

If you enjoyed all of that, you must be hoping to hear what Clarke did with Donald Trump. Sadly all I found was this piece immediately after the US election.

Would there have been more? The orange menace would have been a true challenge for Clarke’s style. He probably would have had to invent something entirely new: pouring forth Trumplish in an ordinary voice would not be funny at all. It would probably be even less bearable to watch than Trump himself.

Maybe Clarke would have kept to other topics. There were plenty of them. Here is the last piece he and Dawe produced:

After all of that, you might be more curious what sort of comedy Clarke created earlier in his career. One of the earliest pieces I found appeared, of all places, on the long-running farming show Country Calendar. I mention that detail mainly as a warning to any New Zealanders reading: even now, decades since I last heard it, that theme tune induces a desperate urge to change the channel. The Fred Dagg episode is an odd piece of humour, and God knows how odd it looked in the parched Kiwi comedic landscape of 1974. If you are wondering what kind of Kiwi farmer stereotype is being referenced by all the bottles of milk and boiled eggs, you are not alone. I have no idea.

There are better Dagg collections, but most of them require an imaginative leap into the alien world of 1970s New Zealand. Just what was it like back then? Don’t ask me, I was too busy trying to count the wheels on my tricycle. To help us all out, here is some commentary from two true authorities on comedy. Ten years before Fred Dagg sprung from his bed wearing his gumboots, John Cleese and Eric Idle toured New Zealand. This was only a few years before they formed Monty Python. Watch this interview from 20:15, and then try to drag yourself away after five minutes, after Cleese advertises Cloudy Bay, and declares, “It really was a bizarre country.”

Those five minutes (especially the bit about horrified young New Zealanders returning from world travels, versus their dull stay-at-home friends), might be just enough to set you up for the brilliance of Fred Dagg’s hit song “We don’t know how lucky we are”. It taps into, and then mocks, a vast ocean of insecure national pride. It even kicks off with the legend of Maui, which, thanks to recent Disney efforts, you can all perhaps appreciate. Watch this re-enactment from 1998. Enjoy it over a banana split:

That was fun, but all those boogieing politicians made me cringe.

There is plenty more of Fred Dagg available on the internet. The first part of a 1995 documentary on NZ television comedy begins with Fred Dagg, and includes some great clips, and commentary from John Clarke. There are good interviews with Clarke about his work, among them a long talk between Clarke and an old hand of NZ television, Ian Fraser. Clarke and Dagg turn up in the oddest places: that last discussion took place during a conference of the New Zealand Food and Grocery council! There is also a wonderful tribute piece, full a excellent clips, interviews and insights.

There is lots more out there. I have not watched, for example, any of the mock documentary series The Games, about preparations for the 2000 Sydney Olympics (and pre-dating The Office by three years). There are 26 episodes of it. All I have seen is the famous “100 metre track” scene, which I will leave here for your enjoyment.

We didn't know how lucky we were.

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