Much has been written, said and broadcast since the recent death of writer, actor, satirist and polymath, John Clarke. Now this is my opportunity to add to the seriously sad, shocking and celebratory cacophony that Clarke has left in his wake. But Clarke would not have approved of that last sentence with its overwrought alliteration and hyperbole because Clarke’s way with words was never cheap and clunky, but always precise, dextrous and daring.
I first met John in 1998 when he was making the mockumentary The Games for ABC TV. We had a friend in common, and he, Bryan Dawe, had asked me to sit in on some early script readings. The Games ended up being a 13-week master-class in writing, performance style and direction.
You had to have been living in a cave not to know of Mr. J. Clarke’s very particular brand of satire and seeing John in action up close that first time was at first exciting and scary and then just plain fun. And hard work. John was a perfectionist, and did not stop until he got it right. No matter what it was. Whereas Bryan would nick out for a fag or a coffee- like the rest of us- John always seemed content just to sit and wait patiently until the rest of us mere mortals finished fluffing about.
Everyone in that cast was impressive, let’s face it, but John was just so special-smart.
The second time I met John Clarke was at Bryan’s in Phillip Island where they both had a house and it was then that I really got a taste of the intellectual promiscuity of the man. A Socratic conversationalist, John could talk the leg off an iron pot sure, but he never forgot about you. He wasn’t a monologist, but a critic, philosopher, nature lover, poet, artist, social commentator, environmentalist, swimmer, writer, comic, and the kindest and driest and most seriously funny and curious bloke you could ever have the pleasure of sharing a bowl of soup with.
John was highly relational. He was excellent at friendship and very good at the fleeting more casual relationship like ours.
The third time I met John was last year when he and Bryan asked me to interview them at Fed Square at the release of their Special 25-Year DVD Box Set of Clarke & Dawe.
A quarter of a century is a long time to survive any kind of relationship but John Clarke and Bryan Dawe’s, like any healthy partnership, had moved and responded to the times. Their particular kind of work with its simple no frills format belied the layers of meaning and its daring approach to social and political satire and commentary. They were there at the start; they were there before The Office, before Utopia.
Clarke & Dawe became shorthand for smart, subversive and a deadpan style of lampoon and Clarke’s writing and the pair’s collaboration was the ultimate gentle slaughter of the sacred cow. It’s a dirty (funny) job but someone’s got to do it.
John’s eyes – yes it’s a cliché but they were sparkly and cheeky– and his voice was not at all actorly or lovely, but samey and a bit nasally even. John was neat, trim, unadorned and pleasing in a nice bloke kind of a way. All this meant, of course, that when Clarke appeared as ‘himself’ with no attempt to resemble the figure he was parodying in the segments with Dawe, his appearance, in effect, never got in the way because there was a neutrality to it. John was a canvas. Not quite blank, but sufficiently un-distracting to convince us that he could be anyone, if the writing was good enough. And it was. Always.
Increasingly people have turned to political satire for the news – The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, Have I got News for You, Shaun MCCallieff, Charlie Pickering – who offer up pithy, entertaining and often some of the sharpest contemporary commentary around. Perhaps fake news has replaced real news. Perhaps some people actually think John Clarke is Malcolm Turnbull or Scott Morrison or Pauline Hanson?
Before we all did the Fed Square interview, John and I had a couple of conversations on the phone to discuss its possible format and content. The first conversation went for 35 minutes and the second for 80. After, my brain was in over drive. The dopamine and serotonin were wrestling for supremacy. I was on fire. Excited. Talking with John, following John along his paths of creative improvisations was like being in an intellectual labyrinth. We talked about so many things that I didn’t know I even knew anything about. Some of them I didn’t. Lots of them I didn’t.
With John as teacher and guide you experienced your best self. His generosity and subversive tutelage got you riffing in places you’d never contemplated previously.
During the interview a few days later at Fed Square I asked him at one point:
‘So if satire is an art in which vices, follies, abuses and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, corporations, government or society itself into improvement, is your work driven by cynicism or angry faith?’
‘That’s a very interesting question,’ he said. ‘But I would have to say neither cynicism nor anger. Faith, yes. Faith, and a fair amount of amusement.’