RIP John Clarke: we don’t know how lucky we were

By Ewan McDonald

John Clarke: 'There's not many people who can shine in two countries with two completely different styles of comedy'
John Clarke: 'There's not many people who can shine in two countries with two completely different styles of comedy'
Tears across the Ditch as John Clarke, one of New Zealand and Australia's best-known comedians, dies suddenly

John Clarke, one of New Zealand and Australia’s best-known comedians and satirists, has died at the age of 68.

Known on one side of the Tasman as the slow-talking, casually insightful farmer Fred Dagg, and on the other as the rapier-witted genius of The Games and A Current Affair, Clarke died yesterday of natural causes while hiking in the Grampians National Park in Victoria.

He enjoyed success as an author, actor, editor and screenwriter – and may be the only artist whose gumboots are on permanent display in a national museum, Te Papa in Wellington.

Clarke’s first manager, NZ television industry veteran John Barnett said: “He’ll be missed all round the world. People in the – in the funny business if you like, they all knew John. Everybody knew John. And everybody respected him. The most incredible number of people will be completely devastated by what’s happened.”

Comedian Guy Williams called the deadpan Clarke “our greatest ever political comedian”.

“He’s often not properly recognised for it because he worked mainly in Australia,” Williams said. “New Zealand has only produced a few export quality comedians and he was one of them.”

“Moving to Australia meant he would have to almost start again from by shedding Fred Dagg, a very risky move that is a testament to his talent.

“His work on the famous current affairs show A Current Affair and later on the ABC was so funny and scathing of political hypocrisy in Australia that he won over them over too.

“There’s not many people who can shine in two countries with two completely different styles of comedy and that is an unbelievable achievement in my eyes.”

Kiwi comedian and writer Oscar Kightley said simply, “he was the greatest.

“He was ahead of his time. At a time when New Zealanders didn’t think we were funny, John Clarke showed that he was a comedy genius.”

Comedian Jesse Griffin pointed out that “John personified that dry, Kiwi, understated humour … you can see it through the work of Flight of the Conchords and Taika Waititi’s films. That celebration of the mundane, that dry observation… he was the first to really bring that out in a performative way.”

Cartoonist Tom Scott, who co-wrote the screenplay for the animated movie Footrot Flats, in which Clarke voiced Wal Footrot, said: “It’s one of the very rare occasions where people are grieving both sides of the Tasman.

“Australia is a more primitive, backward country than New Zealand on matters of equality and social justice and racial issues, so John was even more important to Australia than he was to us.

“A lot of liberals in Australia turned to John for a little dose of sanity in the Howard years.

“I saw him recently doing a Donald Trump impersonation and it was brilliant. I thought John, tucked away in Melbourne, was just as funny as Jimmy Kimmel, just as funny as Stephen Colbert, just as funny as Bill Maher, just as funny as Seth Meyers.”

Born in Palmerston North, Clarke studied at Victoria University before heading to London, where he gained his first breakthrough with a part in the 1972 Barry Humphries comedy The Adventures of Barry McKenzie.

Clarke came home in 1973, and was in the cast of New Zealand’s first sitcom, the student-flat comedy Buck House.

By then, Clarke had already pioneered his iconic character Fred Dagg in short TV sketches and a Country Calendar spoof edition.

Dagg’s instant success turned into TV specials and a short film, Dagg Day Afternoon, a nationwide tour, books, and even records – most famously, We Don’t Know How Lucky We Are. Fred Dagg’s Greatest Hits remains one of New Zealand’s best-selling albums.

Clarke moved to Australia in 1977, and soon made an impact, particularly in a series of satirical interview slots with Australian writer Bryan Dawe which mocked major Australian politicians.

In his later career, Clarke worked as a writer and script editor on major Australian cinematic works, including The Man Who Sued God, Death In Brunswick, Spotswood and Crackerjack.

He was also behind The Games, a series which mocked the Sydney Olympics organising committee.

Clarke was also a prolific writer, publishing more than 20 books in his lifetime – including A Dagg at My TableThe Howard Miracle and a novel of surrealistic genius, The Tournament.

He was inducted into Australian TV’s Logies Hall of Fame in 2008 and his mock interviews with Dawe become a show of their own, Clarke and Dawe, in 2013.

In Australia, prime minister Malcolm Turnbull said Clarke “understood the very essence of Australia” and his satire “made our democracy richer and stronger”.

The ABC’s managing director, Michelle Guthrie, said the unexpected loss of Clarke would be felt by “everyone at the ABC and by audiences across the country who had come to love his biting sense of humour”.

“Australian audiences have relied on John Clarke for always getting to the heart of how many Australians felt about the politics of the day and tearing down the hypocrisy and at times absurdity of elements of our national debate,” Guthrie said.

Clarke’s family said he had died while walking with his wife, Helen.

“John died doing one of the things he loved the most in the world, taking photos of birds in beautiful bushland with his wife and friends,” his family said. “He is forever in our hearts.”

Clarke is survived by his two daughters, Loren and Lucia, grandchildren Claudia and Charles and son-in-law Stewart Thorn.

“We are aware of what he has meant to so many for so many years, throughout the world but especially in Australia and New Zealand,” the family said. “We are very grateful for all expressions of sympathy and love which John would have greatly appreciated.”



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