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John Clarke remembered: The man who found our funnybone

John Clarke. Photo/Fairfax

The godfather of Kiwi comedy looked back at his early days in this 2008 profile.

"Yeah, gidday. I'm not here. I'll ask me to ring you back later."

That'll be the phone. Finding John Clarke on the other end is an assault on your sense of reality. The voice - ominously uninflected and flatter than roadkill - hurtles you back to the 70s, when Clarke took our slightly delusional self-belief, often misdirected pioneering resourcefulness and phlegmatic sense of humour, poured it into singlet, shorts and gumboots and clapped a hat on it.

Fred Dagg's immortal outfit now resides in Te Papa. Clarke hasn't lived here for over 30 years. He's been busy making an indelible mark on Australian television with the brilliant Olympics mockumentary, The Games, and the weekly satirical interviews with long-time partner in crime Bryan Dawe.

TVNZ bought the first series of The Games and put it on late. "They didn't like the first four episodes, so they didn't play them," says Clarke. Prime bought the second series.

As for the acclaimed Clarke and Dawe interviews, in which Clarke pretends not to be a public figure of the day and Dawe interviews him, no such luck. In the 90s, when they were screening on Australia's Channel Nine, Clarke heard the channel had a news exchange arrangement with TVNZ. "I contacted TVNZ and told them that they could use this stuff for free. And in 20 years they've played none. Ever."

By 2000, the interviews had shifted to the ABC. "But I've always thought, even if we're giving it away to New Zealand, I'd much rather that my mother, for example, would be able to see what I'm doing. But, no."

I remind him that the Conchords, whom Clarke rates highly, weren't funny enough for TVNZ either. "Isn't that pathetic," he marvels. "Isn't that pathetic."

You either laugh or you emigrate. Clarke tells these stories more in amusement than rancour. And, of course, he'd long since buggered off.

You have to go to Melbourne to actually meet the AWOL icon. He suggests a cafe in Fitzroy, the bohemian, increasingly bankable inner-city suburb that is home. It's called Birdman Eating and is genial, unpretentious and a little bizarre. Not unlike, as it turns out, a conversation with John Clarke.

"I see New Zealand's thrown the car into reverse," he observes, of our election result. It's nice to know he still takes an interest.

Clarke's been described as "ordinary to the point of genius". He married his Australian wife, Helen, in Wellington's Old St Paul's in 1973. He describes her as "one of the world's more tolerant women" and "the best judge of me". They have two grown-up daughters.

Today, dressed in black sweater and jeans, Clarke could pass for a professor of literature, which is fitting. At 60, he's doing well in the distinguished department. He has an honorary degree from our Victoria University. This year he was inducted into the Logies Hall of Fame. He is now officially a national treasure in both countries.

With The Fred Dagg All-Purpose DVD & Music CD and a book celebrating 21 years of Clarke and Dawe, there's been quite a bit of publicity. This is not his thing. "I normally balls it up in some way or another." There's the packaging. "If you do a book and you are being allegedly amusing, the publishers will generally want a photograph of you on the cover in a Mad Hatter's hat, slipping on a banana skin. Just in case."

Self-promotion? "You don't run up and down the sidelines barracking for yourself. If you're on television every week and you don't get enough ego satisfaction, there's something the matter with you."

As his famous alter ego Fred Dagg in 1977.

But then his style has always been to keep partly under the radar. "I'm from the audience" is his mantra. Ask him about himself - the sense that there's a lot going on beneath that laid-back surface - and he's happier talking about his character. "Fred Dagg needed to be a character who was unfazeable and spoke with enormous confidence in a slightly surreal manner about everything. Everything would be fixable with some stuff I've got in the truck."

Still, that is exactly the spirit that has enabled Clarke to carve out his eccentric career in the conventional medium of television. His modus operandi is still audacious. In The Games, the actors used their own names. "The Americans thought we were real," he says. "And we are real. Those are our names. We are on television, organising the Olympics. What's not real about that?"

By now it's no surprise to find Clarke is a fan of such surrealists as Spike Milligan and Samuel Beckett. The Clarke-Dawe interviews are stunningly absurd. Whether Clarke is being George W Bush or John Howard, he looks and sounds exactly like ... John Clarke.

It's his way of taking to the cosmetic, media-coached current affairs interview with a metaphorical spanner.

"They've been trained in how to do an impression of themselves. I wanted to take all that away. I wanted the audience to be able to decide what it was watching, because it should be deciding what it's watching when it's watching the real person."

There's the immortal "The Front Fell Off", about the 1991 oil spill off the coast of Western Australia:

Bryan: What sort of standards are these oil tankers built to?

Senator Collins: Oh, very rigorous maritime engineering standards.

Bryan: What sort of thing?

Senator Collins: Well, the front's not supposed to fall off, for a start.

There's a DVD in the making. Clarke's daughter has been on YouTube, checking which clips are the most popular. "The numbers are breathtaking - a million hits for some of them ... Because they were thought to be a real, too - 'This bloody idiot is the Australian Minister for the Environment.'"

Clarke's work is the opposite of lowest common denominator television - "How dare you underestimate the intelligence of the audience. You fool!" Sometimes even he doesn't know what he's up to. He didn't really figure out The Games until he bumped into a painter. "'Your show is a secret between the people who are making it and the people who are watching it,' he said."

Clarke grew up sharing that sort of secret with comedians like Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, on shows like Not Only... But Also. He made himself watch without laughing. "If you laughed, you might miss something and you couldn't ever see it again. It wasn't recordable. I was recording it, really, for replay later to my friends."

This discipline was no doubt useful to his later deadpan persona. Clarke's unmistakable tones have become the default Kiwiana voice - as heard on recent commercials for Kiwibank and Yamaha - whether he likes it or not. He does not. I suggest to him that it's a sort of compliment, but he's not having it. This is because Clarke rarely does commercials himself.

"It's a bit difficult to do commercials if you are on the telly each week critiquing other people's behaviour and motivations," he says. "Also, these people have been paid millions of dollars to do it. And I'm scratching around trying to make a living." So, it's the worst of both worlds? "It is."

He did make some commercials once, with a huge koala, for Qantas. "I actually rang Air New Zealand and said, 'Qantas want me to do some work for them and I'd be happy to do it for you and I'd do it for you for less.' And they told me to f--- off."

Hopeless. But he doesn't seem bitter. Whether he's talking about his own experience or the shortcomings of Australian telecommunications, humour is a good outlet. "Exactly. I'd be a lot more boring if I wasn't being a bit amusing about it. I'd be an absolutely bloody grumpy old turkey." Still, it's a pity we haven't valued him more. We haven't got so many geniuses that we can afford to export them to Australia.

That would be the gumboots. We've decamped to Clarke's office down the road, a wonderfully under--renovated old building where the loo is still out in the backyard. There are gumboots. Not the gumboots. "Skellerup wrote to me and said they were turning 50 in the week that I was getting the special Logie for being old. They said, 'Could we present you with a pair of gumboots?', and I said that would be nice. So they sent me these." They're ... impressive "Yeah, well. They've got a bit posh. Sort of a speed gumboot."

There are also lots of maps on the wall, for someone who, I hear, doesn't like flying. "I've never been to New Zealand on a boat. If I go to New Zealand, I fly," says Clarke, possibly sick of being interrogated about this. True, he doesn't like planes - "They're hideously claustrophobic and it'll get worse. They'll have you standing up. They'll ram you in" - but who does? "I'm boring. I like my routine. The idea that it'll be better if we go somewhere else is one that's never appealed to me."

And yet, in 1977, he left. But it wasn't about greener pastures. "If I'd wanted to make money, I'd never have left." Dagg business was good. "I didn't make a fortune but when I came here no one knew who I was. I had to start again."

He took some knocks, early on. "Oh, yeah. I got kicked off [ABC] radio. That was me being kicked off for being subversive ... I was pissed off and hurt. I was like a small child, really, and it was because it hadn't happened to me before." But it was all for the best. "I went and worked in films and had a marvellous time."

You can forget how much Clarke has done. He started out doing satirical revues with people like Paul Holmes, John Banas and Ginette McDonald. He went to London in 1971, where he hung out with Barry Humphries and had a bit part in The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, the movie that brought such Australian lyricism as "technicolour yawn" and "pointing Percy at the porcelain" to a startled world.

Back in New Zealand, he missed the collaboration. "By the time I got Fred Dagg happening, it was just me. Everyone else had gone straight by then." Time to move on. "I hope I don't sound as if I think I had a sort of a plan because I don't really ever think I had one."

This pinball progress has allowed him to do things like a movie, Death in Brunswick, with his old mate Sam Neill. Neill tutored him on toning down for the big screen. "We'd be doing take 15 and I'd by now be doing it in a Pakistani accent and on a pogo stick from the ceiling, because that was making the crew laugh. Sam leaned across and said [long-suffering stage whisper], 'Just do what you did in take one.' I had no idea."

He likes the variety of work he's had in Oz - a film here, a book there. "I'm a diversified small business, I suppose. I've learned not to be alarmed by the slightly Saharan sections that open up from time to time. Because I know something will happen or I'll think of something."

In the end it can seem like Clarke went to Australia to escape a statistic. Back in the 70s, a survey showed that 99% of New Zealanders recognised Fred Dagg. In New Zealand, he had to be a mainstream entertainer or starve. "I don't here. So that's a relief." And he doesn't need a fortune. "Helen and I are reasonably cheap to run."

'Walking towards a vacuum with confidence." This is how Clarke describes his creative process. He has a wonderfully fractured world view, born, possibly, of early exposure to impermanence. "There's always a sort of binary, which I wonder if you're not particularly aware of, if your parents have separated. You're aware of the two-ness of everything," he says. "There's a kind of drop shadow behind reality."

Clarke's father, who worked in retail, died this year, aged 93. "My mother's a writer and a performer. Although my father wasn't not a performer or a writer. He was good with words." He shows me some photos a former classmate has sent, of his boyhood home. "That's a typical Palmerston North bungalow," he says, with what sounds like affection.

Still, you have to ask. Has he still got feelings for New Zealand? "Yeah, well, I love New Zealand. New Zealand's where I come from. I've got a New Zealand passport. I'm a New Zealander resident in Australia."

And there's a lot of New Zealander resident in his work. "I used to stumble about in interviews, describing Fred Dagg as a way of expressing a kind of affection that I saw in the New Zealand community." He keeps coming back to that. "It's about the ability of people to amuse one another without jokes, which is to do with liking one another. We don't say, 'I like you.' We say, 'Look at that bloody beautiful sunset.'" It is, he says, a sort of deflected intimacy. Which may be a fair description of the relationship Clarke has with his country of birth.

If Clarke fits in well in Australia, it's partly because he's like a younger member of a generation of Australians - Clive James, Barry Humphries, Germaine Greer - who were a lot smarter than they sometimes appeared. "Look limited," says Clarke, "but don't be limited." He did a talk on the poet WH Auden with Clive James. "I'm up the shallow end in the Renaissance Man department," says Clarke modestly.

He plays down the honours, too. "You're going to get the odd person want to give you something when you're 60 and have been hanging around for a long time in a flimsy business like television or film," he says, of the special Logie.

Was that an emotional experience? "No it was professional. The emotional thing was that they asked me who I would like to present it to me and I said Bryan. Because I thought it's really for him as well ... The crowd was very generous. Half of them didn't know who the hell we were. Because we're not 12." It was a nice moment, he allows, standing up there with Dawe.

Though he maintains he could easily give it all away. "If I suddenly came into private millions, I wouldn't do anything." Surely not? "I'd be the same person. I'd just be being silly with my friends. I wouldn't have to do it for a living." Maybe. But behind the laid-back demeanour you detect a deceptively fierce, colonial ambition. "I'm still possessed of the same sort of insecurities and blind arrogance that gets me to the start line," he says.

And, yes, there is an element of anger. Clarke has a very hard stare. "I've probably got all sorts of anger in me ... I suppose in the end the enemy is really just hypocrisy. Again, I come from the audience. People are shouting at their television sets. I'm whispering on it."

But he doesn't like to analyse too much. "It's a bit late in an interview to say this, but I'm not the best judge of a lot of these things. I'm just paddling like a duck to get the job done."

And in the end it doesn't matter where you do it. "You live in your head," he says. "You are your own project in this life."

This article was first published in the December 27, 2008 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.