June 01, 1991

Interview with John Clarke

Filed under: Archive,Interviews


From Wanted For Questioning: Interviews with Australian Comic Artists

(Editors) Murray Bramwell and David Matthews, Allen and Unwin, 1992.

John Clarke

John Clarke had already had a whole career before he arrived in Australia in 1977. In New Zealand he achieved the kind of national prominence that Paul Hogan achieved in this country. Enjoying equal success in television, radio and live performance, Clarke and his alter ego, Fred Dagg, almost single-handedly created new comedy in New Zealand. Humorists like Barry Crump, the Good Keen Man, had worked the farming stereotype before but Fred Dagg, despite his black singlet and gumboots, was an Everybloke who had a touch of rock and roll about him as well.

In Australia Fred Dagg took on new meanings and headed for more precise targets. Introduced first on Robyn Williams’ ‘Science Show’, Clarke’s two- and three-minute editorials on ABC Radio achieved, over a three-year period, a lethal combination of comedy and social and political criticism. Published as The Fred Dagg Tapes and Daggshead Re­visited, they remain vivid documents and classics of their kind. Other projects followed — two series of The Gillies Report’ for ABC Televi­sion, ‘The Fast Lane’ series, more books, including The Complete Book of Australian Verse, transcripts of his interviews for ‘A Current Affair’, and A Royal Commission into The Australian Economy, a highly successful stage work, written with Ross Stevenson. He has also written and directed a short film, Man and Boy, and appeared in numerous films including, recently and memorably, Death in Brunswick.

The interviews which began as radio work for the ABC and are now a highly-rated fixture on Channel 9, epitomise John Clarke’s excep­tional invention. When much comedy based itself on impersonation, Clarke’s public figures all bore an uncanny resemblance to John Clarke. It was not what they looked like but what they were saying that took our attention — particularly when it was twisting so amusingly on the relent­less rack of Clarke logic.

I first met John Clarke five years ago — even though we grew up in the same town in New Zealand and for a while went to the same school.

My claim to fame is that I nearly knew John Clarke. Recently when we looked through his school photos we realised that we knew every kid in Palmerston North in 1960 except each other.


What is your relationship with your audience — especially a large, unknown one?

The relationship between you and your audience is a very important one. And it raises questions. If they approve of what you do — do you still do it? Are you any longer the you you used to be? You can get the wrong audience. You have to figure it out. Do I keep doing the thing that is getting this audience or do I change in order to get what I want?

Michael Leunig, for instance, has been at it so long, he’s worked out by osmosis and Darwinian principles which audience he wants. If you are on stage there is only one sense in which you have an audience and that is the people who turn up to your concerts. It’s a quantifiable part of the community in all sorts of demographic ways. Whereas let’s say the word ‘sensitive’ applies to appreciating Michael’s stuff— and ‘open’ and ‘generous-spirited’. I’m not saying that it appeals to that section of the community, I’m saying that it appeals to that section of you. I wouldn’t say that anyone is necessarily excluded from the possibility of being able to make that creative act. But one reason why people like Michael so much is that the sort of creative act that is required of them is one that ennobles them a bit, that speaks well of people.

That interests me because in a Jungian way, and Michael’s informed by Jung in many ways, that seems to be a requirement of society. The tribe requires that there be McEnroe, who’s talented but everybody hates him, that there be a Falstaff perhaps, that there are certain figures — and one of them is Leunig. I wonder whether he’s Lear’s Fool — I mean roughly speaking — who is amusing but actually wiser than the king. If you accept that Jung is saying that there are certain myths that are representative of us, it suggests that if Leunig were not there we would find somebody else. I don’t think that’s right. I don’t think we could invent Leunig. There wasn’t a Leunig in the previous generation — that’s all there is about it. There isn’t a Leunig in New Zealand or in England. I have a feeling that if somebody does something a bit peculiar and interesting and fabulous, the myth is defined to fit it. We give it a label and a jumper and it runs around in the back pocket, that’s its job. But until it got there we didn’t know which thing to put the jumper on.

Everybody’s had a go at what humour is, what its purposes are, what different types exist. Some things are silly, some satirical, some designed to amuse children and only children, some to amuse adults and only adults, some things are only for drunk men, some are designed to amuse people with certain interests. If you have stayed in the caper long enough to have a few campaign medals you’ve had a go at a few of them. But there are others you don’t bother with.

What about the social aspect of humour? In what way does political humour intersect with its subject? Humorists in this country seem to have particular licence to say things about power and its uses.

You could argue, as I have done, that Australians are very pungent, disrespectful of authority, that they are famous for questioning the deeds of the Emperor’s tailor; and that satirists, cartoonists particularly, are much more acerbic, idiosyncratic, demanding, precise and artistically varied than are the cartoonists in Britain — and that they give the people in power a constant caning. It’s rather invigorating to see when you first come to this country. But you could argue that the government in this country, by and large, is not that powerful and that there have been a series of recent prime ministers who have been failures and tragedies of almost Shakespearian dimensions. That the real power in Australia is held more obviously by a small group of billionaire bullies, than is the case in Britain — and they are not the people that get the caning. So it could be said that satirists, about whom it is often said that they are such great snipers, are constantly shooting the messenger.

So does this fuel quietism?

That’s precisely the conclusion that one would draw. I think satire is helpless if it doesn’t have a positive aspect to it. I don’t mean it should avoid decrying and pulling things down but I mean you’d want it to be providing something like an answer. It should behave as if it knows an answer and it would have to be a consistent one. It can’t keep changing its position in order to say: ‘Bang’. It’s got to be a bit cogent.

It’s a defence of the throw-the-Molotov-and-run school that they’re not obliged to do anything but murder cant wherever they find it.

But it’s no use if it’s only murdering the Honourable Member for Cant. You’ve got to work out what the problem is.

Are some subjects too hard to get at? Libel laws tend to curtail freedom of speech.

That’s right but I think we ought to be able to work that one out because a message is received in the same context in which it is sent. I’m concerned that it doesn’t get so simplistic that you have a person with a bag marked Treasurer slipping on a banana skin so that you are pretending that something is satirical when in fact people are laughing because he’s slipped on a banana skin. There’s nothing wise about that, there’s no critique of anything being offered. There’s no need for the word Treasurer to be on the bag except that’s the way you make your living. But I’m equally aware that if your argument is, for instance, that power corrupts, you’ve got to be careful that the persons you are criti­cising for being corrupt are the people with the real power because you might be criticising the meat in the sandwich. In the case where you think the government is in the hands of someone else are you going to criticise the government or the someone else? Australia is famous for criticism of the government. Disrespect for the government will take you some of the journey but with disrespect you’ve got to be careful — unless it is proper anarchy, which in most cases it’s not — that you’re not aggrandising yourself.

Are there no-go areas in comedy? Is there such a thing as bad taste?

I can’t think of anything that would be funny in all circumstances or anything that wouldn’t be funny in some circumstances. Circumstances matter a great deal. Perhaps humour is a relative concept. There is a difference between something funny during the First World War and on American television in the 1980s.

That’s not just topicality?

No. In some contexts you’d never mention death and in other contexts that’s all there is to mention. That’s an extreme example. In some con­texts you need a joke to make people laugh and in some you wouldn’t. In some contexts you say something that has the audience bring their personal baggage with them, they know who you are. This is why it’s easy to be the funny kid at the back of the class. You are presented with a context where you’d have to be a complete dingbat to fail.

You’ve tried a lot of things, from the topical to work that is its own world — do you have a preference?

There are two ways to answer that question. One is that because this is what you do for a living it’s a bit driven by what will work in the context in which you currently make a living. For instance, if you were doing a movie there’d be no point developing farnarkeling, and if you were doing television there’d be no point moving your eyebrows one centi­metre to the left because no-one’s going to notice.

There is an enormous range of comedy I like. As a kid growing up in the days of radio there wasn’t much I didn’t like. Of the British I could name you the things I didn’t like. Of the American I could name what I liked because by and large I wasn’t much impressed by that American monologue school. In those days they sat on stools — like Shelley Berman. Newhart was the best exponent.

As a child I enjoyed reading but I read non-fiction. I wasn’t interested in fiction because when you open a book and you know it’s fiction you’ve got to say to yourself: This person’s imagination will now dominate mine. And it won’t. But if you know something is true then it’s a slightly different statement. Then you can choose to not be interested but you can’t deny its truth. But you can deny that your imagination is not as good as someone else’s or deserves to have tyre marks all over it from some imperialist other person’s imagination. There’s something about fiction that’s always meant bogus, and something about stand up people who pretend an experience was real when it was fiction. With Newhart there was something genuine about the way he performed but I wasn’t much persuaded by that American school. I thought Spike Jones was funny, he was musical. And I thought Stan Freberg was brilliant. He was satirical about attitudes and products in America I’d never heard of.

But in Britain, although it was more constrained and constipated and class-addled, it was more character based. And it turned out later that the character-based form of British radio comedy, which is the form of British television comedy, was established and formulated in a pro­gram called ‘ITMA’, a wartime program, its title being an acrostic of It’s That Man Again. The man was Tommy Handley, a pre-eminent presenter and funny man. He was a prominent stand up, very perky, somewhat in the manner of Ted Ray or a sort of heterosexual Bruce Forsythe. A happy man: ‘Hey, we’re all happy here tonight’. Well, he was the man that was it again. And each week various people walked in to the pro­gram at the same point and they each had key lines that they repeated each week and this became known and they’d get a round of applause. They were characters, stereotypical but not obvious stereotypes before they were done. It was a hugely successful program and they tried and tried to get people to write for it because it was written by one bloke who came up with the form and wrote every single episode on his own. Tommy Handley dropped dead one day and the guy, the prominent comedy writer, found it very difficult to write anything else and he slid into genteel poverty. That was Ted Kavanagh, who came from Auck­land , which is perhaps irrelevant or perhaps the key, I’ve no idea. That was the form on which the comedies I listened to as a kid were based. Notably ‘The Goon Show’, which was far and away the most significant thing for me — daylight was second.

What about ‘Take it from Here’?

No, not for me. Hancock I remember fondly — three or four episodes I thought were terrific. ‘The Goon Show’ is the beacon on the hill in my childhood. It was the thing that clever kids at primary school — who were a bit older than I was — did characters from. Especially Bluebottle and Eccles, who are perhaps the least interesting characters. The most interesting characters were not the idiots. They were Grytpype Thynne and so on. The other thing about ‘The Goon Show’ is that it might be Lewis Carroll but it’s non-fiction as well. It is Britain. It was the absolute map of that sort of seedy military decline that was happening through­out the 20th century but was particularly obvious during the Second World War. Not to mention its psychological purpose in Milligan’s life, which was very important as well. Here was something that was about things children could never understand and yet accessible to everybody.

And television?

New Zealand got television later than Australia did and we in particular got it in our house rather late — my parents being deeply suspicious of anything that would interrupt the serious aspects of life, things like our education — which was actually catastrophic and required inter­rupting urgently. I remember going to other people’s places to watch television. People who had television sets were well off and if they had one there’d be three or four hundred people in their lounge room watching it. And nobody at the movies. It was largely American. I thought the medium was interesting and the programs were complete shit. The most interesting part was that it was electronic and flickered.

Then in about 1967, during my first year at university, came the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore series. I used to look in the comedy bin at record shops and I had two or three of their albums. When ‘Not Only But Also’ came on I realised television wasn’t just a visual magnet, it was also capable of being brilliant. I was very interested in that. In fact when I left university I worked in television and had access to programs which in those days were on film. I used to watch the ones I liked again and again. ‘Not Only But Also’ I must have watched about a hundred times and ‘On the Margin’ written and performed by Alan Bennett. I watched everything by those people. It was so clever and underplayed. That mixture is pretty mesmerising. But it really mattered to see Cook and Moore. I’d be less good at what I do now if I hadn’t seen them.

Much has been said about understatement.

I know it’s often described as an English trait but I don’t believe all that. There’s plenty of American understatement. I think it’s a human characteristic rather than an English one. Most of the things said about particular people’s humour are said by practically everybody. I’ve often heard, since I’ve been in Australia, about the famous laconic quality of Australian humour. If you read books about Canadian humour you’ll find that one of the things that characterises Canadian humour is its laconic quality. And you read about English understatement. You also hear it of Jewish comedy, for instance. These things don’t have any national division — class perhaps, but not anything else.

Is it a technical thing? Is it the only way to deliver a line?

I think it depends on your personality, what you like. Some people adore Robin Williams. He is one of the most famous comedians on earth. He may be the most famous but he doesn’t understate anything and I’ve never been the slightest bit interested in anything he does. I saw a thing on television about Steve Martin, about whom I know not much. But two things impressed me. One was that he had a phenomenally successful career as a stand up, as a live appearance man — and, at the time he had his largest audience, he gave it away. Something in him thought: I’m very successful but I’ve got the wrong audience. Everybody around me is telling me this is absolutely fabulous. Why is it that I’m not interested in this? Why am I not required to invent anything? I do the same thing every night and they laugh in the same places.

The other thing he said was that his study of philosophy gave him an understanding that was basically existential. I wonder if that had to do with his age because I’m fairly sure that when I was at university the existential view was pretty much the view taken. There was not a pre­dominant political ideology and it was totally non-vocational. At university I never had a serious thought towards what I was going to do afterwards. But I was aware of what life was about — the haphazard character of things. Meaning was as haphazard as gunfire, it could hit you or not. I later read this book called The Perfect Stranger by P.J. Kavanagh, Ted Kavanagh’s son — and there were parts of that where the expression of the dislocation from his own life was absolutely beautifully written. I thought it was a very good expression of that sort of feeling. The distance between the apparent — what a photograph of your life would look like when you are living it and you don’t feel it.

To make yourself available to that perspective is there a cost personally, a feeling that your life is not your own?

I don’t think my life is dedicated to a task but some things seem to have a pattern and not always retrospectively. You sometimes feel yourself moving in a particular direction. You could shut your eyes and say you are moving west but there are other times when you realise that you are living through a time that has no great meaning and you forget. There are whole sections of my life that I don’t recall much detail about. It’s just erased — not that I hated it but it just didn’t go in. I was never driven and never ambitious. I didn’t know where I was going and I was in no hurry to get there. I think that made me a bit more patient — I’m impatient in all sorts of ways — but it’s a lifetime thing.

The poet Philip Larkin said he spent his life waiting for poems to turn up. You work under very exacting conditions and are expected to deliver the goods. Is there a paradox?

There may be — although I think an awful lot of the aspects of my work are aspects of work. There are lots of jobs I’ve had where the same things applied. You were expected to do certain work by a certain time. There were quality requirements, some of which you imposed yourself. And there are certain things you don’t do well, for instance, so they don’t give you that job. My feeling is that I’ve tumbled in a haphazard way into something that makes perfect sense for me to be doing. I think I’m like everyone else and what I do is like what anyone else does. I’m interested in it because it’s me. I’m interested in me because I’m all I’ve got, that I know anything about. But I don’t think that what I do is intrinsically any more interesting than anyone else or that I do it more interestingly than anyone else.

Do you wonder about the next thing? Do you look back and wonder where particular things came from?

No. It depends on your mood. Sometimes you look at things and think that’s not bad and sometimes: Why did I do this? It’s dreadful.

And the independent arbiters — are there ones you have?

Like what?

People’s response. . .

Yes. I’m not sure — people sometimes say — I think you give people expectations. One of my problems in doing Fred Dagg in the old days was that I gave people expectations that I was far broader and far more a mainstream entertainer than I wanted to be and it was my fault. I behaved in that way because it was the only way to make a living. New Zealand was a very small place. I was on television and I was going all right but I couldn’t be on it all that often because there was only one channel and I’d overstay my welcome pretty swiftly. So I had to be a bit sparing about that. And I got twenty dollars a time and that meant twenty dollars every three weeks and yet it was working very well. But I couldn’t make a living. So I had to go on the road, do things that looked, sounded and smelt like mainstream entertainment.

I found it very lonely and non-collaborative, unstimulating, unim­aginative. I wasn’t able to live my life the way I wanted. It was a lot of hysterical false crap — simply to hear the sound of rotating turnstiles, the novelty of which wore off pretty swiftly. It depends on what the audience likes about what you do.

Audiences can be possessive though.

They can be, but you can resist that. You can hide. You get the audi­ence you ask for. You’ve got to be sure that you tick the right box or you get the wrong lot. In the case of New Zealand you have to have a general audience. In Australia it’s possible to make a living without having a general audience. For instance, you can make a living as a jazz trumpeter. In New Zealand you’d have to be a jazz trumpeter, the trumpeter in the National Orchestra, the trumpet person who does the television commercials, the town crier and the person who makes an­nouncements at railway stations. You’d have to be everything that even faintly bears on trumpeting. That’s what I like about being somewhere a bit bigger.

You are the best judge of what you are doing. Audiences are great and you need them, but you also get back what you say. If you want to get back certain things then you say certain things. It takes time to get into a position where you can do what you want to do now. You can have an idea for something you want to do but you must accept that it is impossible for you to do it now. It may be possible somewhere else but in Australia and New Zealand practically everything will be against you. Circumstances will be against, infrastructure will be against you. If you thought of a really terrific idea for a television program you couldn’t go out and do it tomorrow. It moves slowly. But there are benefits — you’ve got to find a plus or you go crazy — you can refine and edit before you get to the start line, improve the idea, mull it over. It is quite difficult to do something off the beaten track. You’ve got to find ele­ments of it that are totally normal. It’s the wooden horse. Whereas on stage you can go on and once you’re on, if it works, you please the audience and it doesn’t matter what it is. You could do nothing, you could do something, without words, with words, on your own or with someone. No-one cares as long as it works. But if a television program is twenty-three minutes long then that’s what it’s got to be.

We are often told we are in a Renaissance at the moment.

Ridiculous isn’t it?

But it is the ruling mythology.

But only because the mythology is written by idiots. If history is written by teenagers then it’s not going to be worth reading. Anybody with any appreciation of real history would appreciate that these things are con­stants. For ten years there was an upsurge in the number of people who got up and tried to be amusing in two or three theatre restaurants in Melbourne. Whether or not this constitutes a comedy boom notwith­standing, it is possible to pick some reasons why this happened. Especially since it consisted of television stations waking up fifteen years later to the next generation of entertainers and then finding fifty percent of them in the aforementioned theatre restaurants. But it is not because there’s a funnier generation. You can take all sorts of views — one of them would be that it happened on stage in Melbourne because all the funding bodies are in Sydney and therefore a generation was going to have to find a way of being creative, a generation who did not live in Sydney; that it did not involve the screen because all the television stations are networked out of Sydney, or involve the movies, or involve the newspapers or the magazines, most of which are networked out of Sydney or require getting a grant. So I think there are social reasons and once that happened a lot of people went to Melbourne where it appears to be happening and fifty percent in the famous Melbourne comedy boom don’t come from Melbourne. I remember reading when ‘The Gillies Report’ was on that it was a great Melbourne phenomenon — and it was written by, among other people, me and Patrick Cook, and neither of us was from Melbourne, and a whole lot of people in it didn’t come from Melbourne either. It doesn’t change the program but the perception of things was completely wrong. The thing that requires an explanation is not the thing that requires an explanation.

The Royal Commission took aspects such as cabaret and the format of the inter­views and took them into theatre. How did the Belvoir Street commission happen?

They were aware that it was being written — for television actually but television is going through such parlous times that only the people who own it make any money. But we were writing it thinking: It can’t be on television if we don’t write it. Anyway, the Belvoir Street Theatre in Sydney heard of it and they knew we’d already done one for the stage in Melbourne a couple of years previously and they asked if they could have a look at it with a view to getting stage performances. They said: ‘Hey we like this, let’s get it up as a stage production’. So we sidetracked slightly and wrote a version for the stage. It was a very good collaboration. I like collaborating and I’ve been lucky working with some terrific people in New Zealand and here.

In the case of A Royal Commission it was something like Ross [Steven­son] and I had done before. It was a very good thing to do with a very good cast both here and in Sydney. Ross and I were working our way through a whole lot of issues which are often discussed but not as if they ever connect. In news and current affairs what we frequently get is a photograph of the mark of the day and the kick of the day, but you never see the game. We wanted to do it so it was interconnected. Partly that was a fantasy because to join this you have to cut a few corners here and there and you make a few connections. But you can’t just go rep­licating reality, you have to build an element of fantasy and narrative and so on. It was a very rewarding exercise to do: to have such fantastic performers in something that was an original work about here and now and asked some serious questions, which we ought to do, and it was a bit bloody vigorous, which it should have been.

You were prepared to trust the idea that it could carry information?

In the interviews one person always asks the questions and another answers and there is a degree of performance in that. In the Royal Com­mission we had to impose all sorts of structure because we were borrowing a form which was a very useful one but we also had to impose dramatic devices. We also had to impart a lot of information in order to proceed to the next bit. It was quite didactic from time to time.

What about economic jargon?

We needed to establish that the criteria by which we assessed these people’s ideas and behaviour are in logic and morality and not in the usual language of economics. Everyone writes as if capitalist mainstream economics is the only form of economics — that’s bullshit.

And no jokes in it?

Where are the jokes in Sandy Stone or Beckett? If you take them out where is the humour? I don’t know the answer but it intrigues me because I think you sense it. Where is it? In the intent? Is it in you? Is it just an undercoat with no gloss? Do you do the rest of the painting?

Speaking of the interviews as well as the Royal Commission — do you wonder what Keating, say, thinks of what you say about him ?

I don’t care. I don’t mean that I don’t have any regard for him. He’s just not the person I’m talking to. I’m talking to everybody except him.

So it’s not personal?

Oh I hope it’s not too personal. I don’t think that you or I or Bob Hawke or Paul Keating or whatever are going to necessarily behave differently in one another’s positions unless we can describe why. It’s to do with the position — and that the person is redeemable if they change their stance. You’ve got to think that.

There are some lovely bits of unusual hydraulics you can put under things. Like the things I do in the interviews in collaboration with Bryan Dawe. I’m very lucky to work with him on that. We can highlight issues but if we do it with the character and personality then we murk the waters by pretending to do one thing when we are doing another. And that’s actually why when you’re good there’s no point being the nyah-nyah school. I don’t think there’s any point booting people when they’re down. And I don’t think there’s any point in kicking somebody simply because he’s up. But I do think there are issues and paradoxes and I think it is hard to express an idea without conceiving its opposite.

Greensborough, Melbourne, June 1991

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