Memories and accolades from Michele A’Court, Kim Hill, Oscar Kightley, Guy Williams and more
One of the sharpest wits this country ever produced has died at the age of 68. John Clarke, originally of Palmerston North, created an inspiring example for New Zealand comedy initially as laconic farmer Fred Dagg and latterly as one half of the Australian satirical duo Clarke & Dawe.
Here then are reminiscences, thoughts and reckons about Mr John Clarke, Dip Lid, PhD in Cattle (Oxen), a man who leaves a transtasman legacy to rival Phar Lap.
We will continue to update these tributes as they arrive …
Michele A’Court: The sharpest satirical wit ever to stab at antipodean culture and politics
He was my first local comedic hero. My Dad, not otherwise a fan of comedy (I know!) adored him and could sing along to, “We Don’t Know How Lucky We Are” (I hear Dad’s voice rather than Clarke’s when it gets to his favourite line, “We don’t know how propitious are the circumstances, Frederick”.) The LP (yes, I said LP) was on high rotate in our house, and his TV shows were appointment viewing.
And look at how he evolved – from a black-singlet farmer taking the piss out of our agricultural obsession to the sharpest satirical wit ever to stab at antipodean culture and politics. Wet afternoons have been cheered up mightily round here by trawling through online feasts of Clarke and Dawe. Legend has it that it took some firmness for Clarke to insist on playing all those characters without using silly wigs and teeth – he would capture their spirit, he said, not try to have their face or voice. TV execs apparently found that weird. But he was proved so fecking right.
There are other delightful stories about him fighting the bosses and winning. TV producers here wanted him to come home and make some television, and then in the same conversation (according to scuttlebutt) criticised The Games for being too “Sydney-centric” to work for Kiwi audiences. We heard he told one NZ television-maker that this lack of respect for the intelligence of local viewers was exactly why he wouldn’t come back.
He said something in an interview (with Kim Hill, I think) that resonated with me: that the best comedy is like a secret between the comedian and their audience, that they “get” each other, but the producers who stand between them – the gatekeepers – often don’t get it. So you sneak the good stuff past the gatekeepers, and look your audience right in the eye, and they nod back with recognition.
I feel robbed – I’d hoped to meet him one day and kiss the hem of his garments. He was (is?) patron of the NZ International Comedy Festival and was invited each year to come over for it, but he hated to fly. Someone talked about putting him on a boat once. But it didn’t happen, and now it won’t.
Giovanni Tiso: A translator from English into English
This is devastating news. He was a really generous and, well, serious man. We needed him.
I’ll tell you my John Clarke story. I was a huge fan before setting foot in NZ, thanks to my partner and the tapes she brought on her OE. Then two years ago I asked him if he would be part of the Aotearoa issue of Overland. He phoned at home. Justine nearly dropped the phone.
I thought he might give us a satirical piece, but he sent in this amazing eulogy for his mother instead. And then over a series of weeks, on the breaks while he was working on a film, he would phone to check in about the editing.
We literally spent hours on the phone, it was surreal. He was that much of a perfectionist. “Nobody gets faulted for rehearsing too much.” And we talked about a lot of stuff that had nothing to do with his piece, because he was just interested in things and people. Including translation, which fascinated him. He sent me a recording of Seamus Heaney in Melbourne, because we both knew Marco Sonzogni. And he described his job as being a translator from English into English, which I just loved.
Then the issue went to print and I said it to him I was sad and I would miss our chats. “Yes, our relationship may slow down somewhat.” He was so funny and warm and smart. Ah, damn it.
Kim Hill: The Great God Dead-Pan
Gutted. I think I thought he might have been immortal. The Great God Dead-Pan.
I last spoke to him on the radio during the Australian election, and he delivered a kind of Aussie Politics 101, serious and droll at the same time. And he told a story about how the Wall St Journal sent a reporter to Sydney in the lead-up to the Olympics and were intrigued to see a television programme about the people who were organising the Games! Could they speak to the CEO? And John obligingly gave them an interview, which he claimed was run, with a photograph, in the Wall St Journal … “which had no notion that it might be in any way ironical.”
Very clever, very funny and – it seems to me unusual to have all three traits – thoroughly decent.
Oscar Kightley: The blueprint for why and how New Zealanders are hilarious
Plain and simple, John Clarke has been our greatest. He was the first who looked at us as people and set the blueprint for why and how New Zealanders are hilarious.
And he never stopped. Right up until this year he was leading the way. The biggest thrill was when he agreed to do his Fred Dagg character for Bro Town and then agreed to a cameo in our sketch show Radiradih. It was like being touched by greatness.
Melanie Bracewell: A comedic genius, and great company at Mitre 10
As soon as I heard the news of John Clarke’s death, I called my dad. I don’t know why that was my first reaction. I’ve never called my dad to announce a celebrity death before, but I just had this urge to speak to him and find out if he’d seen the news. He’d just heard about it literally seconds before answering the phone and I could tell just by the sound of his voice. We spoke as if John was a member of the family. I’ve never met him.
My biggest memory of John Clarke’s work was when I was growing up and listening to tape recordings of Clarke and Dawe in the car while my parents shopped at Mitre 10. They liked to shop at Mitre 10 for hours but I’d be happily entertained as a preteen, laughing hysterically at jokes I’m not even sure I properly understood at the time. A lot of the time he was mocking Australian politicians I hadn’t even heard of, but I thought it was comedic genius. I even remember lending the tape to a friend at school and she didn’t give it back for ages because she lent it to another friend. It went through a chain of people before it was finally returned. Still, I felt proud in the fact that more people had heard it.
John Clarke was a genius. I’ve appreciated so much of his work throughout the years, and I know that his work will continue to inspire me despite this terribly sad news.
Neil Finn: Irreverent and ruthless, but never cruel
So wise and irreverent, ruthlessly exposing the absurdity and vainglorious efforts of the pumped up and self-important among us, but never cruel, a gentle and warm-hearted man by nature.
I was fortunate to spend a few hours in his good company over the years. and as Sam Neill just reminded me, he once selected Tim and I as lock forwards in his mythical All Blacks … eternally grateful.
It’s a huge loss and our love and best thoughts go out to his family.
Roger Hall: Dagg’s early days at Vic
I was hugely involved with a show called One in Five at Victoria University (produced it, performed in it, wrote a lot of it along with Dave Smith and John himself). It was a last-minute substitute for a cancelled Capping Show and the traditional large cast was replaced with just five: Cathy Downes, Helene Wong, Dave Smith, me, and … John Clarke.
To say it was a hit is an understatement – a rare show where everything and everyone clicked. Dave Smith impersonated the entire National Band by himself; I impersonated Holyoake for about the hundredth time; Cathy and Helene sang Stand By Your Man (as The Two Easy Pieces), and were school girls on crossing patrol. John, as John Rowles, flung his head back once too often in mid-song and toppled backwards to the ground. But – and here is the point for this tribute – in this show Fred Dagg seems to have begun kicking in the womb as revealed in two sketches. John wrote and performed a long solo phone conversation talking to a Trev about a party he and his mates had had and in the process wrecked whichever house it was … It brought the house down. The Dagg voice was there, and almost all of the persona.
I wrote a sketch about a farmer who phones Town and Around about finding a couple of dead sheep in his paddock. Could they send a camera team? (Later, it is revealed that he’d shot the sheep himself so he could meet Relda Familton.) John strode on stage in black singlet, shorts, hat, and gumboots, carrying a blunderbuss. He didn’t have to say a word. People were laughing fit to bust. Dagg was on his way.
Ben Hurley: Satire so good even the victims loved it
It takes a true master of the art of humour to satirise people so well that the very people you are mocking become your biggest fans. Kiwis can be a sensitive bunch, not always great at laughing at ourselves so if you’re going to do it, you better be bloody funny. He was, and always will be. His mockery is timeless.
Don McGlashan: the Nureyev of humour
If humour is common sense dancing, John Clarke was Nureyev. He proved that you can laugh at this strange part of the world, and still keep your mind and heart fully engaged.
Bill Manhire: A lover of comedy and poetry
I loved John Clarke because he was a brilliant comedian, but also because he loved poetry and knew a lot about it. The consoling thing is you can safely turn a statement like that into present tense, because none of it goes away.
Guy Williams: Our greatest political comedian
He was our greatest ever political comedian but he’s often not properly recognised for it because he worked mainly in Australia. New Zealand has only produced a few export quality comedians and he was one of them. RIP.
This content, like all television coverage we do at The Spinoff, is brought to you thanks to the excellent folk at Lightbox. Do us and yourself a favour by clicking here to start a FREE 30 day trial of this truly wonderful service
Join The Spinoff Members for as little as $1 to help us hire more journalists and do more investigations. Or get a free Toby Morris-designed tea towel when you contribute $80 or more over a year.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the days' best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.