John Clarke was a God of Mischief, visiting to simultaneously bring us the truth and make it easier for us to handle.
Some days the news bores you. Some days it depresses you. And some days you get a piece of news that kicks you right under the ribs, knocks all the wind out of you, leaves you on your knees, gasping for breath, wondering if you can even get up again.
The news that while you weren’t looking, the world suddenly became bleaker and darker and so much less funny. The news that, without warning, he is gone.
A world without Clarke is not a world I’m familiar with. I count myself fortunate to have known him even a little, while cursing that I will never get to know him better — his generosity and kindness stood out in even the briefest encounter.
But as an artist: Oh, I knew him well.
As a kid, I was transfixed by his double act with Bryan Dawe, popping up at the end of A Current Affair to apply their stunningly precise comic scalpel to whatever was in the news: turning the issue inside out and dissecting it in a way that made it easier to understand than the news did, and faster and funnier to boot.
(Clarke and Dawe)
Of course, back then I wasn’t necessarily across all the political issues of the day.
But even without the background, I could appreciate the wit, the wordplay, the absurdist rendering of solemn reality, and the glorious rhythm of the conversation.
Clarke and Dawe performed satire as if it were music
Point and counterpoint, melody and counter-melody, questions bouncing off answers, jokes weaving in and out of each other, repeating and reinventing themselves as the interview rose and fell, spun this way and that in its tangled-yet-perfectly-plotted route towards a tipping point of mad, fractured logic, and swept to a triumphant conclusion.
They played these symphonies week after week, year after year, decade after decade – a seemingly endless stream of masterpieces.
There was a lot more to Clarke’s career than just those interviews, of course. He’d been a star in New Zealand, where he created Fred Dagg, a character iconic enough to inspire reveries more than 40 years later.
He’d come to Australia and won us over on The Gillies Report, a foreign invader who took this country’s pulse better than anyone born here.
He wrote poems, columns and books, stole scenes in movies, wrote and starred in sitcoms.
He could transmute the dull, sad world into something magical, with finely-sculpted words, that familiar sardonic drawl, and bright, sparkling eyes that would always give him away; here was a God of Mischief, visiting to simultaneously bring us the truth and make it easier for us to handle.
To say that Clarke was the greatest satirist Australia or New Zealand has seen is stating the obvious.
The fact is any practitioner of the art around the world could rightly envy the body of work he left behind.
Colbert, Stewart, Oliver, they could all learn a thing or two from studying Clarke and the way he could turn the deadly serious into the hysterically funny without ever losing sight of why it was so serious in the first place — and make it look effortless.
His refusal to impersonate is what made him so brilliant
There was also a purity to Clarke’s satire that is incredibly rare in the world of comedy.
The myriad clips circulating in the wake of his passing have one very notable thing in common, how recognisable he is in all of them.
The face and the voice are always present and correct.
In his interviews with Dawe he eschews costumes completely, playing a range of politicians and public figures while never donning a wig, applying fake wrinkles or trying to match his voice to his target’s.
This refusal to impersonate, to go down the road of so many impressionists who dub their own work “satire”, is the crux of what made Clarke so brilliant, and so valuable.
Others could focus on appearances, individual mannerisms and personalities. Clarke’s business was ideas.
Looking at the map of his chosen subject, he saw many possible targets, and unerringly aimed at the one that needed to be fired on.
His arrows flew straight to the incompetent, hypocritical heart of powers that expend great effort and expense to keep us from thinking too hard about what they’re doing.
Indeed, Clarke was in the business that every satirist — every journalist — should be in, the business of disrespect.
Reverence for our betters is the friend of every politician and millionaire, and the enemy of truth and transparency, and the satirist’s goal should be to shatter it at every turn.
If they don’t, then it’s all just wigs and funny voices.
Comedy by nature is a cynical business; Clarke never was
Clarke knew that what is most important in the world is ideas, and satire, real satire, is the process of stripping ideas of their facade of dignity.
By abandoning artifice and shunning disguise, Clarke ensured that ideas remained his quarry, and that there was nowhere for him to hide. Without props and gimmicks, his own ideas had better be up to scratch. They always were.
But perhaps more than anything else, he was just so, so funny.
John Clake retained his joy and his belief that the world, for all its grimness, could be a marvellous place. (Flickr.com: John Clarke)
His humour was often deployed for the purpose of satire, but he could be just as funny on any topic. It wasn’t only politics that he saw with clear eyes, it was all life itself.
Comedy by nature is a cynical business, and spending as much time as Clarke did combing the most depressing parts of the news for comedic fodder could make a man bitter and misanthropic.
Clarke never was. He retained his joy and his belief that the world, for all its grimness, could be a marvellous place.
You could see it in his gleeful revelling in the sound of nonsense: “farnarkeling”, “flukem”, “wiffenwacker”.
You could see it in the cheeky-schoolboy smirk he so often failed to conceal at the end of an interview.
As scathing and incisive as his comedy could be, it was infused with an overwhelming, generous humanity that was the essence of the man.
He loved what he was doing, he rejoiced in it. He was having fun, and it was infectious.
Now, the man who made the world easier to stand is gone, and we’re left here on our knees, weeping for a giant who fell too soon.
But to have shared the world with him and received his gift is a stroke of luck we scarcely deserve. We were blessed. May we never forget it.