10 Apr 2017

John Clarke: New Zealand's deadpan mate

9:38 pm on 10 April 2017

First Person - Let's be honest. It wasn't his style, but we should really be celebrating "Sir" John Clarke. Find me a more beloved contributor to the Kiwi identity not wearing a knighthood; I'll wait.

John Clarke as, left to right: Dave (Death in Brunswick), Phillip Lang (A Month of Sundays) and Fred Dagg

John Clarke as, left to right: Dave (Death in Brunswick), Phillip Lang (A Month of Sundays) and Fred Dagg Photo: Screenshot / Supplied

This is just for perspective. I can't mourn him as a fellow comedian/satirist/whatever. I'm a fan. We all are. It's New Zealand, we're talking about John Clarke - if sport beats this on the news, my TV's going out the window.

At this point Clarke would arch an eyebrow: "All right mate, settle down - I've only died. Some people work in Treasury."

Truthfully I'm too young for Clarke's glory years in New Zealand. Being an '80s kid, I missed out on the euphoria of Fred Dagg.

'We Don't Know How Lucky We Are' and Footrot Flats speak to me more as nostalgia than pure comedy. 'The Gumboot Song' was a catchy tune we sung in class. But then, what other Kiwi comedian is having their material taught to children?

I can tell you a truth, as a New Zealand comedian: Fred Dagg was the moment we knew we were funny as a nation. There were comedians before him, but in Fred Dagg we finally had a solid fixed point of going, "Mate! That's funny!"

Billy T provided a similar moment, when we knew we could laugh at each other. It's why 90 percent of people who go, "Kiwi comedians aren't funny!" usually follow it with, "Haven't been bloody funny since Fred Dagg and Billy T." Those guys are our national comedic barometers. It's why the two big comedy awards are named after them.

If Billy T was the cheekiest bro around, with the iconic full-body laugh, then Clarke was your deadpan mate with an equally iconic smirk and head shake. You know the one. Sometimes he'd pre-empt a joke with it, sometimes he added it after a punchline for an extra zing in the silence.

Some comedians are of their time. In many ways that's how Fred Dagg became an icon; by so purely encapsulating an identity in a moment. I think that's why John left him behind. I'm glad he did. Clarke and Dawe is seminal satire. It's my genuine favourite double act, and I wouldn't have started writing political plays without it.

For those that see his moving to Australia as a betrayal, or selling out - let me reframe it for you:

John Clarke straight-faced Australia into giving him a career mocking their politicians for several decades. And they loved him. Go check the Australian news sites and you'll see their best and brightest singing his praises. They're even claiming him. How good is that? Australia claiming the man who released 'The Taihape Years'. He's the greatest strategic offensive we've ever launched across the ditch.

And he seemed to only get better. Clarke ensured, by continuing to vary his political targets, that he remained of the times. He followed one of the key rules of satire: be relevant.

For many he'll always be a barometer; for those of us working in comedy, particularly political satire, he's a beacon, a lesson - he's Colin bloody Meads.

James Nokise is a comedian, theatre-maker and political commentator - currently on the Cosmic Shambles tour.

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