John Clarke Interview: ‘Thanks for joining us.’
The moment John Clarke and I enter his office, he picks up a golf club. Even before he takes off his hat. No prizes then for guessing why furniture is scarce and his work space is open plan – more room for practice swings. A large desk squeezed off to one side is home to mounds of paperwork that could easily be decimated by a light breeze. Clarke manages to rustle up some chairs, but even when he sits, the golf club is never out of reach.
Clarke seems acutely aware of his energy level. His pale blue eyes are comedic enough that they could tour by themselves, but their animation is kept strictly under control. By contrast, his voice is absolute deadpan. It’s almost what you’d call a classic Australian drawl if it wasn’t for the fact that New Zealand would declare war on us if we ever tried to claim John Clarke, a born and bred Kiwi, as one of ours. Sam Neill, Phar Lap and the movie, The Piano we shamelessly attempt to pass off to the rest of the world as Australian success stories and the Kiwi nation quietly turns a blind eye. But Fred Dagg?! Never. They’d sooner give us the All Blacks.
Now in his 50s, Clarke, classifies himself as ‘just an ignorant bugger, stumbling about in the dark’, but rarely has an individual captured a nation so whole heartedly. At the peak of his popularity, the character of Fred Dagg had a 99% recognition factor amongst New Zealand’s three million population and a 97% approval rating.
While at university, Clarke first attempted law, then commerce and finally arts before packing it in after a year. In the latter course he majored in philosophy but advises me ‘My knowledge about Jung, you could write on the head of a pin with a pneumatic drill. But I know the sort of territory he occupies, and you need to know something about some things. The philosophers helped, although I was very poor student. So I still think of myself as developing a view of the world. I don’t think there are many subjects where I’d say “This is my opinion and I’m sticking to it.”’
His early jobs, he remembers put him in touch with some of the best writers in the business, but not exactly on the level Clarke would’ve preferred. ‘I was at a script conference a few years back with James Mitchell who wrote Callan and When the boat comes in. He just looked at me every now and again and finally came over to me and said “Have we worked together before?” I said “No, I used to deliver your groceries.”’
What did drive Clarke’s interest, he remembers, was making people laugh, ‘My early approach to doing material, was completely instinctive. I didn’t know what I was doing and there was no job description because when I was at the age I’m describing, nobody in New Zealand was doing this for a living at all. So before I started, I thought “If I’m going to do this, I need to work out exactly what it is I think about some things. Because there is no point doing that sort of material if I don’t actually believe it.”’
‘You need to know, for example’, he continues ‘if you get a phone call from the Gestapo saying “Hitler is being inaugurated next Tuesday and we’d be very honoured if you’d come along and do 20 minutes.” You’ve got to know what you think about that. If you don’t give a fuck, then you’re a certain type of comedian. But people should think about these things. If you don’t, you get what’s happened before in history.’
Clarke’s inclination was to focus on satire, the most powerful weapon in the comedy arsenal. For Clarke though, there was a deliberate motive behind choosing it. ‘I thought that what we were being told was consistently boring, repetitious and very often the absolute opposite of what I saw happening. So if the government came out and said “We are, of course deeply concerned about unemployment.” It was a sure sign that they weren’t. I think what I wanted to indicate was that there’s a part of everybody that isn’t fooled and I just wanted to tick that box in the multiple choice test on every individual.’
Clarke, like everyone, has his heroes in the industry. But if he is made to single out one above the others, it’s a man called Spike. ‘Milligan is a bit of a colossus in any kind of reading of humour. When I was young, if I wrote something that I thought was funny, it would be a bit Milligany. He was the person that you’d copy.’
‘Copy’ is usually a dirty word in this business but Clarke’s attitude is that comedy is a trade that needs to be mastered just like any other. ‘You need to imitate’ he insists. ‘Imitation is the mother of learning. But if you keep imitating, you’re never going to get rid of the training wheels. So long as you’re stealing someone else’s material, you shut the creative part of your own brain down because you don’t need it. Then you’ll wonder why your field of vision is slightly narrower.’
One of the influences that might have aided Clarke in selecting a possible career he says, was absent most of his early life. ‘I grew up without a television. My parents didn’t feel that we needed one and they were right. We eventually got one when I was about 15 and I looked at everything for a minute on the basis that it was glittery and that it shimmered and flickered. But after a very short period I realised most of it was crap.’
Clarke finally got around to giving the medium a second chance and admitted that there were some redeeming qualities to it. ‘The good things on TV in the 60’s were very, very good. So it was an excellent time to grow up and look at what television could do and what the possibilities were. Of course, that’s not what television has become. Television is now the retail trade. But there was a time when it was really pretty spectacular.’
According to Clarke, the dissipation of quality programs was something that could have been avoided. ‘I think it really began fading when British broadcasting began to decline because it got less money. It was seen as costing too much. They forgot for a moment that it was one of the most successful export industries in the world. And of course all of the ground they have surrendered is now occupied by mainstream American product which is produced for a family in Iowa. Mainstream American comedy has very seldomly been genuinely satirical. What it’s trying to do is get the biggest possible audience by offending the smallest possible percentage of people.’
When it comes to truly devious satire, Clarke challenges anyone to find better material than that being produced in our own back yard. And it’s on that point that his critical eye becomes rather more contemptuous. ‘I think what’s happening to the ABC is a disaster. It’s the central mechanism in Australian broadcasting and it’s being impoverished and whittled away. The market for commercial networks in Australia is Australia. But the market for a national broadcaster is Australia and the world. We should be exporting a lot of stuff out of our national broadcaster. So it should earn money too. I’m not arguing that it should be just an overfed lame duck. But where are documentaries about Australia and the way we live going to come from, if not from the national broadcaster? Who will be the broadcaster of record? It’s not going to come from commercial television because that’s too small a market segment for them to go for.’
Clarke made his largest inroads into the minds of Australians through his weekly sketch on A Current Affair. An assignment that ran for seven years, and in the process he revolutionised the art of impersonations. Clarke made no attempt to resemble the character he was portraying in any way, explaining ‘The principle reason for that is the person isn’t the point. If anybody thinks John Howard is running Australia, then they’ve missed the point already.’
Clarke’s scope for satire rapidly extended beyond the political scene to include the banking sector, entrepreneurs, sports people, multinationals, the church and the media itself. The need for independence then, he argues, is crucial when working as a satirist. ‘You need to be capable of criticising anybody who you think is saying something stupidly or not telling the truth or accusing the poor of having no money or a cabbage of being a cabbage.’
The patter of an afternoon shower flickers through the window and dampens Clarke’s mounds of paperwork. He’s unperturbed by it as it is yet to threaten the golf club, and so continues. ‘It seems silly to talk about the interviews in too much detail because we’re not isolating radium here, but the fact is that people aren’t that stupid. When the Prime minister says, for example that “Things are getting better because we’re only firing 10,000 people a week at the moment and it used to be 15,000, so this is an excellent result.” These great orthodoxies are not only being said by the proponents of this very limited, economic philosophy that someone got out of an in-flight magazine in America, but the media are also quite good at helping to promulgate all this rubbish.’
Where then does Clarke feel things are headed in this country? Is he optimistic about our future? His eyes come to life. ‘Yes I am. There is always a great reason to hope. I don’t think it takes a long time for things to be turned around. But I think things are very depressing at the moment for people experiencing serious disadvantages. And there will continue to be a lot of these people as long as the economy is regarded by politicians as a kind of scientific machine kept in secret somewhere in treasury. And we go and check the dials every day and we pull this level if interest rates are a bit high. It’s not something you can reduce down to a set of formulas. Economic behaviour is simply one aspect of human behaviour.’
In all his time noting the events taking place in our nation, which of them would Clarke say concerns him the most? ‘The great change in my life is the power shift from elected national governments to unelected international corporations. Australia and New Zealand, to a great extent, have handed the mechanisms of decision making about the sort of society we are, over to other people who may or may not live in this country. People are going to feel disenfranchised by their own democratic process, if it appears that, no matter which way they vote, it has absolutely no impact on what sort of country they’re living in or what sort of administration they get.’
It’s one thing to critique the machinations of government, but Clarke did it as a foreigner. Does he then, sense any negative reactions from the locals? This time Clarke is only too happy to respond in the negative. ‘I was very, very generously accepted over here by people who had never heard of me.’
Clarke adds that this sort of behaviour demonstrated by the Australian public is indicative of the qualities of the human spirit. ‘I think people are whipped up to be intolerant and it’s easy because there are a couple of very good triggers. Colour is one, gender is another. Sexual preference and religion also. Very good ones these things, because you’ve only got to say “Somebody hit your car, and that person was purple.” And you start think that it’s maybe purple people that are the problem. But if people aren’t whipped up, if they’re relaxed about these issues, then they can behave completely differently.’
And it’s the way this part of the world behaves that has induced Clarke to chose to reside with us ‘I really like the capacity people have to make their own fun. I think Australians and New Zealanders do it in a much more relaxed way socially. Partially because there are fewer ‘Wrong way, go back’ signs, class wise. Partly also because I think the language we use is unconsciously playful. I think Australians and New Zealanders talk much better with their eyes and ears. They’re not just talking with their mouths. I’ve been in plenty of places in my life where there’s been something funny happening, but not everybody there knew it.’ One corner of Clarke’s mouth curls into the faintest of smiles. ‘I’ve always liked that about them.’
But humour also has an ugly side. It was the constant demands on Milligan to be funny that drove him to bouts of insanity. ‘That’s true’ Clarke concedes, ‘but Milligan, you should remember, was doing something that was pretty astonishing. He wrote The Goon Show every week and it was a half hour long and it went to the English speaking world. So the pressure on him in terms of market share, output and quality of output has probably never been repeated.’
Over the years, Clarke has been able to gradually attune himself he says to meet the demands of the job. ‘I used to do a daily piece on ABC radio and I found that that was sometimes a bit daunting, but ultimately there’s nothing like work to free up other work. You mustn’t be immobilised by the amount of work you have to do because that’s when you fire on all six cylinders. Quite often a deadline gets stuff out of you that you otherwise wouldn’t have thought of.’
Ideally, Clarke would like to dismantle the stigma of humour and show it as a talent that is within everyone’s capabilities. It is, he feels just a question of finding your strengths. ‘People are bit inclined to think that because something like Seinfeld is funny, therefore ‘funny’ is what Seinfeld does. That’s not the case any more than saying a car is a Cortina. There are oodles of possibilities and despite the fact that these things you see on television are international, most of them are also extremely regional. Seinfeld being a perfect example. It’s the same as the region that you’re from. It’s just down to the particularity that you’ve got in your language, experiences and social group. Comedy is like anything. If you’re good at running, you’ll practice, get a trainer and watch other runners and go to events. It’s also realising that there’s a difference between sprinting and marathon running and between field events, track events and road events. You don’t have to sort them all out, but at least be aware that they are all there.’
Of the ‘some things’ he claims he knows, this for Clarke, is the defining truth. ‘There’s not just one thing called “Funny” and another thing called “Not funny.” There are all different sorts of “Funny’s.” They all look the same, but if you take them apart and see what makes them tick, they’re all different.’
This piece first appeared in the book, Comedians in the Mist (Harper Collins) in 1999 and was later reprinted in the Canberra times.