John Clarke: Comedy Superman

Posted on 23 July 2012

On Fridays the Melbourne Australian Film Television and Radio School runs a series of free talks at ACMI. Upon occasion the speakers are people connected with the comedy industry. This Friday I had the pleasure of hearing John Clarke speak.

John Clarke has been tickling people’s funny-bones since the 1970s. His first screen appearance was in The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972). However, he fully established his career in comedy when he wrote and performed as the character Fred Dagg in New Zealand. He is probably best known internationally for his twenty-five year collaboration with Bryan Dawe in the Clarke & Dawe interviews.

Comic Development

Clarke began his journey as a comedian while enrolled in Arts Law at Victoria University, Wellington. At that institution he also studied English and Philosophy.

The English curriculum included examining some of the great comic authors and playwrights. Here he came to understand that you have to get the form right when creating comedy for a medium. A satirical play only works if it’s a good play first, then you include the satire.

Clarke cited his course in logic within the philosophy curriculum as especially influential.

Logic investigates how ideas are connected to language. It helps in the examination of how the speech of politicians and media makers can be persuasive without making sense. For instance someone can make a case whereby the premises are true, but still lead to a false conclusion (Masked Man Fallacy, eg: I know the minister, I do not know who destroyed the public documents, therefore the minister did not destroy the documents). Understanding fallacies in logic makes it possible to measure the truth value of arguments in public debate. Exposing the fallacies can make for good comedy.

Clarke warned at this juncture that, “Comedy can be subversive, but it can also be propaganda. Be careful of what jokes you tell. You need to be thoughtful and responsible.” (One of my favourite quotes of the evening.)

In his early years as a performer Clarke claimed to try everything without a lot of quality control. With his Fred Dagg character he learned the value of editing and disguising jokes. “Don’t look like you’re trying to be funny.”

Comedy is a relativist matter, and context has a lot to do with it. Types of funny go from ROFL to smiles. “I’m very happy with smiles,” he told us. The main thing is to learn how to be yourself. Clarke said he spent many years trying to be Peter Cook, then was fortunate enough to spend some time with Cook. It became evident he needed to forge his own style.

Clarke’s experience covers many media. He has done stage shows, tv, radio, film, released records, and been in ads. “I had to make a living at (comedy) because I wasn’t doing anything else.” As such he strongly emphasized, “The right to say ‘no’ has to be purchased.” You have to do pretty much whatever is offered in order to build up visibility and a reputation.

Clarke & Dawe

The comic interviews John Clarke does with Bryan Dawe began as a newspaper article in the late 1980s. Clarke wrote the article as if it were an interview with state premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen. In it Sir Joh explains the workings of his comedy routine: the Queensland government. After all he couldn’t seriously be running a government in that manner.

The article had people asking Clarke to turn it into a sketch. Jana Wendt liked the idea so much that she arranged a segment for Clarke and Dawe on Nine Network’s A Current Affair. They performed on that program for around ten years. After a break they returned with the segment on ABC TVs 7:30 Report Thursdays.

Clarke & Dawe satirises current events and political debate. They present their mock interviews in a dry manner without actually imitating the voice or mannerisms of the people they are satirising. Clarke said that speech rhythms have a lot to do with the success of the comedy.

Since these segments are topical, Clarke prepares two to three scripts each week. When it comes time to film they select the most apposite script at the time. He then edits all of his own material. “I want to be the director not because I love directing, but to ensure my comedy gets through.”

Clarke has done an amazing job of brand managing this series. When Kerry Packer re-purchased Nine he negotiated with Clarke about keeping him on the network, but at a pay cut. Clarke agreed…so long as he held the rights to all of his segments that ever had or ever would be created on that channel. He continues to own his segments on the ABC. The interviews have been published as books and made available on DVD. When it comes to contracts, you have to be brave enough and cheeky enough to ask for what you genuinely want, and in such a way that it sounds reasonable to the other party.

Advice to Young Comedians

When asked what advice he would give to up and coming comedians, John Clarke stressed three important points.

Find out:

  • Who you are,
  • Who you are being,
  • Who are your best friends for honest, kind, and wise feedback.

When you are on stage or in front of a microphone or camera you will always be playing a character, even if it’s a character of yourself. You will have to find the comedy you. You will have to “unlock the other you for which you can write.” When you can access that person, you will have a much easier time coming up with material.

If you care about your art, you must make yourself available to feedback in order to keep growing as a performer. Sometimes you can be lucky enough to have a supportive partner to give both feedback and encouragement. In any case make good friends.

I sincerely hope I have another chance to hear from Mr Clarke about his work. It was a wonderful couple of hours.

Peace and kindness,

Katherine


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