Archive for satire

VALE: John Clarke

Posted in criticism, literature, movies, stupidity, television, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on April 19, 2017 by drayfish

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…

John Clarke umbrella

Words fail.

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:  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.

John Clarke Clarke and Dawe

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.

John Clarke The Games
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.

John Clarke

Poetry Unearthed By Legitimate, For Real, Authentic Poetic Research (Now With Facts!)

Posted in criticism, literature, stupidity with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 1, 2015 by drayfish

What was before a Chicken or Egg?

I despise April Fools Day.

A completely arbitrary mark on the calendar, used to justify telling outrageous lies and spreading often galling misinformation. And for what?  Just to make others feel stupid?  To exploit their trust in us?  To laugh at how foolish they must be to ever take at face value something we – their friend, family, colleague, newspaper, government, or scientific body – have told them.

Clearly the only real fool is anyone stupid enough to take the hard-earned faith of their fellow human beings and toss it in the trash for a cheap gag.  You’d have to be a shameless, self-destructive narcissist to do anything so glib and facile.

So anyway, apropos of nothing, I did some research on the weekend, and found a heretofore undiscovered poem by the iconic Romantic poet, John Keats.

Yeah.  That happened.  Why not?*

Like his poem ‘Bright Star’, said to have been discovered in the front cover of Keats’ collection of Shakespeare’s poems, I tracked this one down in his thoroughly dogeared copy of 101 Chicken Jokes for Transcendently Tortured English Poets (3rd edition).

I include it here without alteration, including his haunting postscript.

Let history make of this bombshell what it will…

On Looking Into Why Everything Tastes Like Chicken

by John Keats

Oft have I sought to roost in solemn dark,
to scratch for seeds and preen a lyric phrase,
Only to wake, my nests dissolved away.
A nightingale? A Grecian urn? A star?
What was all that about? What drunken haze
Sought ‘truth’ in chirps, space gas, and lumps of clay?
But lo – at last – a vision clears the strife:
two-legged waif, a symbol left unuttered,
Eternal, fowl conundrum: Which came first?
We, the cockerel’s dame, ripe with sunlit life,
Poised upon the threshold of the gutter,
Designed to fly, but doomed to walk the earth.
O chicken – ruffled, squat pedestrian!
Thou knowest where to cross; not why. Not when.

Signed, John Keats

And yes, I am the real John Keats – the one who wrote ‘Ode on Melancholy’ and all that stuff. So anyone who finds this poem should probably be given a Nobel Prize in Literature, or something.

And also a Playstation 4.)

He was a true visionary.

John Keats by William Hilton

IMAGE: Sony Fan Boy John Keats by William Hilton the Younger (National Portrait Gallery London)

* Because facts.


Posted in criticism, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 25, 2012 by drayfish

‘Satire is a lesson, parody is a game.’
– Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions, 1973

IMAGE: GTA: San Andreas (Rockstar)

With GTA 5 on the horizon, and details now starting to dribble out in the lead up to its release, I wanted to take a look back at what, to me, remains the crowning jewel in the – well, whatever the GTA franchise has in lieu of a shiny crown.  …A money-clip, maybe?  And so, I want to gushingly voice my affection for GTA: San Andreas, a game that I shamelessly, helplessly love.  A game that, despite its mammoth size, I must have played several times over, and that still to this day feels fresh and lively, and with something quite striking to say.*

And yes, although I admit it’s greater technical achievements, I must state that even though I quite enjoyed GTA 4, I could never quite love it or invest in it the way I did its predecessor.  Indeed, I still can’t.  While it does have that wonderful Rockstar quality of feeling like a fully realised world (it’s certainly no Red Dead Redemption, but that environment does breathe); the gunplay is a lot tighter (it’s still GTA so it’s not great, but smoother); and there is a story to tell with some larger than life characters and exciting set-pieces – once GTA 4’s narrative faded to black there really was nothing else pulling me back in.  I just didn’t feel compelled to keep existing in that environment.  To people-watch, or goof around.

To me the whole thing just felt a little too dour, and weirdly (for a game that was on a newer generation of consoles), I felt I kept running up against invisible walls that San Andreas always seemed to avoid:  Wait, I’m only going to be in this one city?  Not a whole state?  And there’s almost no buildings for me to enter just to screw around in?  …But I can make him eat until he gets obese, right?  Right?  What about flying a plane?  You took what out?!

The Ballad of Gay Tony add-on did inject a bit more of that much needed sense of frivolity and freedom; but honestly I would have appreciated such distraction more in the standard game.  Frankly, I think you almost have to play GTA 4 with the two additional DLC stories to get the full experience; it works much better as a compendium, with three intersecting narratives (GTA 4, Ballad of Gay Tony, and Lost and the Damned) than the standalone rags-to-slightly-nicer-bloodsoaked-rags  tale of Nico Bellic.

But in any case, San Andreas…


There are few games I’ve played that have had such wonderful pacing, and such a gleefully elegant ramp up from piercing social commentary  to full-blown campy nonsense.  San Andreas really seemed like Rockstar went all out (in all the best possible ways).  It felt like they knew it was going to be the last game on that round of consoles, and so they threw everything at it to make it that generation’s videogame opus.

Want a grim portrayal of class structure and the cycles of gang violence and despair that weigh down the disenfranchised?  Well, here you go.  We’ll start you out on Grove Street, with little more than a singlet and a bicycle to get on with, and let the absorbingly gritty sense of poverty and seething alienation press in upon you…

Want a series of infantile double entendres spewing out of the radio and splayed across billboards to mirror back to you just how little difference there is between this gauche caricature and the real world’s media hysterics?  Well here’s a dozen radio stations with wacked out DJs (and some sublime tunes) to spackle fill the atmosphere of that heady ’90s slide into mass-market sludge…

Want to tear-ass around in the countryside in a clapped out pick-up truck literally hunting for yetis with a shotgun?  (This is not a mission – I just dare you to stop yourself from doing it.)  Welp, there’s a rusty old gun, a rusty old truck, and some rusty pants.  Go nuts…

Hey, that building looks base-jumpable – wanna try?  If your answer is ‘Whoo-nelly, yes’, then you’ll find a parachute awaiting you at the top of the stairs, sir.

Do you like hearing Samuel L. Jackson and James Woods yell at you?  Well switch that volume way up, ’cause they have some questions to pose to you about your life choices…

By the time that you get to Vegas, are flying around on a jet pack and planning to Ocean’s Eleven the biggest casino on the strip you feel as though you have played seventeen (number arrived at randomly) of the biggest games on the market.  Train heists; street brawls; dance parties; (very minor) stealthing; chases.  It’s a customisable racer; a shooter; a dance game; a flight, real-estate, and dating sim.  You get to dress and feed and exercise your player character – customise him (within the framework of his set identity) to your specification.  There’s even a primitive (but thoroughly absorbing) territorial gangland warfare RTS thrown in for good measure.  Perhaps it’s true to say that the game is a jack of all trades and a master of none, but who gives a damn when the whole package is this much unfiltered joy?**

Ah yes: but the physics could perhaps be a little tighter, you say.  Sorry?  What was that?  I was parachuting out of a 747 as it sank into a death spiral…

But the shooting is still a little janky, you note, and the reticule sticks like glue.  Sure, sure.  Imma let you finish, but hold on while this tin-foil hat wearing hippie gets me to flamethrower his crop of illegal substances and makes me drive him, my head swirling, away from the FBI.

What about the sneaking, you say; surely I’d agree that the sneaking is pretty rough?  Okay: I am currently boarding an army airline carrier to steal an F14 fighter jet (that I’m going to shamelessly exploit for the remainder of the game), and fly away partially fuelled by the giddy rush of glee pumping through my veins. …I’ll reply when my smile wears off.

But why does every Rockstar protagonist have to do so many ‘favours’ for random people, you ask?  Yeah… I’d love to respond to that, but I’m a little busy driving this crop harvester off the ‘Vinewood’ hilltop*** in a pimp suit whistling Willie Nelson’s ‘Crazy’…

I rest my case, your honour.

It’s a wondrous grab-bag of comedy, genuine emotional depth, and generous lashings of gameplay; it leaps effortlessly (and somehow organically) from pseudo-realist**** poignant drama to broad satire, from playful heist caper to overwrought action blockbuster; and all without ever forgetting that the player is meant to be invested in the events, and having fun along the way.

It is this sense of dizzying, goofy play that Saints Row 3 seems to have embraced (and blown out whole-heartedly to its most free-associative extreme), and that, unfortunately the GTA 4 base game chose to largely abandon in an effort to root the narrative in a more grounded solemnity.

In contrast, just like in GTA: Vice City, in San Andreas we are left to explore a hyperbolic, but familiar presentation of a recognisable world, one seen through a loving, but satirically distorted lens.  Here (in a frankly more revealing manner than GTA 4) we see the glittering modern detritus of faded celebrity, grasping commercialisation, political fear-mongering, skewed class systems, and fantastical conspiracy.  As social satire goes, we might be less in Animal Farm territory and more up the Dr. Strangelove end of the pool – but that does not make the statements any less pointed, or the ride any less thrilling.

We take an illuminating journey with CJ up the social strata of a world that has splintered into a chaotic miasma – and if the upcoming GTA 5 can return even a fraction of that heady, anarchic sprawl, I suspect I will be swept away with irony and joy all over again.

IMAGE: GTA: San Andreas (Rockstar)

* Indeed, I even very recently repurchased it for PC, but I cannot get my head around the mouse controls…  People: that is not how a //GTA// is to be experienced!)

** There is a section with David Cross (Tobias from //Arrested Development//) that may go down as one of the most infuriating missions of anything I have ever played, but that moment of nonsense aside, the game is, to my eyes, sublime.

*** Read: ‘Hollywood’ hilltop.

**** And yes, that is an intentional oxymoron – the game is filled with such impossible collisions that evoke a playful nonsense without ever sacrificing the investment at its core.

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