This past week Australia lost one of its legends. If you are not from Australia you may not know the name John Clarke, and if you don’t, I am sorry. I am sorry that you never got to experience his brilliant work. He was the country’s greatest satirist, delivering a virtuosic four decades of comic commentary on most every aspect of modern life (we might be lousy with Hollywood-ready actors, but quality satirists are fairly thin on the ground here; someone needs to place Shaun Micallef in some kind of cryogenic stasis for protection). Clarke was also, I’m fairly certain, a genius, and by all accounts, an incredibly generous, warm, and kind human being. There is little I can say to add to the richly deserved praise that has been offered to eulogise Clarke since his shock passing, but I have grown up admiring him, and thought I should say something anyway, for whatever little it is worth…
That’s a sentiment that people express when someone of great importance dies. There seems to be no way to express, verbally, the loss. Language is too small, too imprecise. Ironically, it is precisely the right sentiment to embrace when hearing the tragic news of the loss of Australia and New Zealand’s greatest satirist, John Clarke. Because Clarke’s greatest strength was his way of weekly exhibiting the way that words fail.
Clarke is perhaps best known, now, for his weekly satirical take on the news, but he was, in the true sense of the word, a polymath. Over the course of his prolific career he wrote sketches, screenplays, stage plays, poems and novels; he was an actor; a director; a producer; a documentarian. He worked in film, television, theatre, and radio; and he is warmly remembered by the innumerable comedians and creators with whom he collaborated, or inspired, or personally mentored and supported behind the scenes. (Please be stunned by the breadth of his output here: http://mrjohnclarke.com/) But throughout it all, uniting his disparate creative endeavours, was an abiding fascination with the fluidity of language – its use, and more frequent misuse – and the absurdities that resulted from this rift between truth and expression.
Born in New Zealand, he became famous in the 1970s for creating and performing the character Fred Dagg, a New Zealand farmer and social commentator with several sons named Trevor (the favourite son was Trevor). Dagg was a sketch comedy character with a dry, unassuming delivery, but he allowed Clarke to indulge some deliriously nonsensical linguistic play. In the voice of Dagg he could present a shambolic 21st birthday speech that was speckled with unintended insults, that intimated debaucherous anecdotes which cannot be told, cannot be told, that escalated into a recursion of well-meaning banalities (‘You’ll all here agree with me, more or less 100 percent, in going along with me, in joining with myself, in going along with Trev’s mother and I…’), and has poor old Mrs Ballis getting caught in the wool press. Elsewhere he could recount how that story of Hamlet was just a rip off of a bit of trouble that happened up his way a few years ago to Herb Davison’s son, Trev.
When Clarke moved to Australia he was soon a principle writer and performer on The Gillies Report, a topical sketch program that employed the talents of its titular actor, Max Gilles, to impersonate sitting politicians. A few years later, Clarke would continue this political satire in the form of brief sardonic dialogues that appeared weekly, in one form or another, for the majority of the next thirty years. He and collaborator Brian Dawe would stage a mock interview that often involved Clarke playing the role of a real-world government official or public figure, someone embroiled in one of the week’s more pressing stories who was being asked to clarify their policy position, or explain the ‘official’ version of events.
IMAGE: Clarke & Dawe
Unlike the parodic style that was the signature of The Gilles Report, in his Clarke & Dawe interviews Clarke did not try to offer a traditional impression of the people he portrayed – he was never made up to look like the person he was playing, hidden beneath stupid wigs and make-up – because it was never technically that specific public figure that was the target of his incisive wit (he did, however, have an acute ear for incorporating their turns of phrase into his dialogue). Instead, what unfolded was a masterful account of the way in which the language of politics and media make a mockery of the pursuit of truth. (The ABC have assembled a fairly good selection of their sketches – they miss a few great ones, but there is a nice cross-section of their work).
Just as he had no interest in affecting an impersonation of any one figure, he was similarly nonpartisan in his mockery over the years, skewering all sides of the political spectrum – because his real target was linguistic hypocrisy. He explored the way that the logic of politicians could happily fold in on itself, how empty platitudes and a desperation to sanitise uncomfortable policy realities created a kind of pseudo speech, divorced from reason and clouded in self-delusion. As one of his dialogues explains, an ‘Australian usage of the English language’ actually means the exploitation of language for political expediency:
Bryan (interviewer): What is it called when you say something you know to be false?
John (playing the role of Lars Torders): A policy.
Ironically, the result of Clarke’s linguistic play frequently presented some of the most incisive descriptions of the world’s most pressing issues. From the ghoulish dehumanising of Australia’s asylum seeker policies, to his unsettlingly prescient critique of the modern media, either as an oversimplifying, reactionary ouroboros of Twitter clickbait (a point articulated in the immediate aftermath of the US election), or the distracted narrators of petty squabbles at the expense of legitimate analysis (such as in ‘It’s the Planet, Stupid’, a title with a crucial comma) In the United States The Wall Street Journal once even cited a Clarke & Dawe video as the best summation of the European financial crisis.
Arguably Clarke’s most celebrated single work, The Games (1998-2000), was a Logie and Australian Film Institute Award winning sitcom set behind the scenes of the preparations for the 2000 Sydney Olympic games. (It was even popular enough to be allegedly ripped off by the BBC’s Twenty Twelve.) The series, which ran for two seasons, was created and written by Clarke, in collaboration with Ross Stevenson. It was the fictional account of a handful of bureaucrats, led by Clarke, Dawe, and Gina Riley, who were heading the organising committee of the games. The series, brought to life with Clarke’s signature absurdist loops of dialogue, exposed the impossible position that such a committee was placed within.
IMAGE: The Games
It was the ideal setting for his satire: an enterprise with superficially lofty ideals, mired in contradiction, spin, and compromise. Because as Clarke revealed, beneath the grand symbolism of the Olympics as an athletic competition about human excellence, the truth was a nebulous confluence of differing agendas, one regimented by obsessive rules and protocols, propped up by advertisers dictating special treatment to push their wares, pestered by the needs of governments all over the world who were looking to bathe in the reflected glory while inoculating themselves from controversy, harassed by journalists incessantly sniffing around for stories of failure, and perpetually mere moments from disaster.
Consequentially, it was a series that allowed Clarke to explore his many avenues of satiric interest, wherever he cared to roam. It simultaneously covered finance, government, marketing, media, myth making, and office politics (the mandated team-building episode in which John’s role-playing animal is an aphid is hysterical). It catalogued the manipulation of budgets, the weathering of daily governmental point-scoring, and the placation of sporting bodies and sponsors. It was able to ponder whether anyone really wants a ‘clean’ Olympic games, confront the dismaying inability of the then-sitting Australian Prime Minister’s unwillingness to apologise to the country’s Aboriginal people, and philosophise over whether a 100 metre running track really needs to be 100 metres.
Even with its tie to the minutia of the Sydney Olympic games, for anyone outside of Australia curious about Clarke’s comedy it remains perhaps the most accessible of his work. It should be stated that it is also a series that does not get enough credit for its experimental style, which not only blurred the divide between fiction and reality – frequently employing real public figures and celebrities in its narrative – but also pioneered the now ubiquitous ‘mockumentary’ sitcom style of having a film crew act as the observers shaping the story.
Clarke’s contributions to cinema were diverse. He was a scene-stealing presence in films such as Death in Brunswick (1990), playing a laconic gravedigger, and Never Say Die (1998), playing an uncharacteristically honest car salesman. He was the voice of Wal in Footrot Flats: A Dog’s Tail (1986). He wrote film adaptations for Shane Maloney’s modern suburban comic crime noirs Stiff (which he also directed) and The Brush Off, both of which were screened as television movies in 2004.
Despite being best remembered for his work in television and film, it is perhaps in his literary output that the extent of his genius is best glimpsed. His book The Tournament (2002) (which I will admit to not yet finishing) transplants the Modernist movement into one long tennis tournament, refashioning the twentieth century’s greatest thinkers and artists into players, coaches, and commentators, playing out their intellectual disputes in a unifying sport metaphor.
He also wrote a collection of poetry, The Complete Book of Australian Verse (1989) (followed by an expanded reprinting, The Even More Complete Book of Australian Verse (1994)), which claimed to be a collection of all of the original Australian poets who had been ripped off by the English and American poets of the past. Not only did Clarke expertly mimic the style and structure of the writers he was referencing – repurposing them into figures like Dylan Thompson, Sylvia Blath, W.H. Auding and Stewie Smith – he simultaneously parodied the themes of the original while speaking to quintessentially Australian experiences.
To use but one example: Kahil Gibran, author of the mystic philosophical prose/poem The Prophet becomes Kahlihliji Bran, whose ‘prophet’ is being sought out for horse-racing tips at a local bar, waxing lyrical in absurd contradictions (‘Paradox is that which is not paradoxical / Only the living know death. Only the dead are living’) as he tries to weasel himself a free drink and escape before being called out for his nonsense.
For John Clarke, language was malleable and fragile. Powerful, capable of descriptive elegance, but too frequently made to fail; too often twisted into dissembling vapidity. And over the course of his career he exposed it all. In the chicanery of political spin, in the cold dehumanising calculus of euphemism, in the nonsensical bellyflops of the media – like few others John Clarke could see through the facade of rhetoric, past the bluster and the fraud, to the cowardice and bewilderment and grasping beneath. He dissected language surgically, and reassembled it as a ridiculous pantomime of itself, allowing even those of us blind to its tricks to be in on the joke.
And for several decades, on multiple platforms, across myriad subjects, John Clarke gifted his wit and insight and craft to the world, his skills only ever sharpening with time.
There is no satisfactory way to summarise a career and a life such as John Clarke’s.
Because words fail.
Even if he never did.