A successful comedian has to be smart. I mean smart. The few who can reliably leave you in stitches are always giving voice to penetrating insights, often in ways that can make you look at things differently, and even laugh at your own foibles. I don’t have the slightest idea where Amy Schumer and Samantha Bee rank on the I.Q. scale, but you can bet it’s high; you can bet those two have brains up the wa-zoo. To make really effective fun of something, you must first have the wit to understand it, subtly and thoroughly. It should thus have come as no surprise (though it did, in some quarters) that Al Franken turned out to be an effective and well-briefed U.S. Senator, if one sadly doomed by past indiscretions. A good comedian, or comic writer, is by nature someone who understands people and their motivations, and is a keen and thoughtful observer of politics in all its forms.
Among comedians, I’ve always had a special place in my heart for political satirists, the ones who expose the utter nonsense fed to us by those who’d keep us in a constant state of unknowing complacency. Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Samantha Bee, those are the deadly serious comics who impress me the most. They don’t just make light of the idiocy, they shatter it with logic, they reveal its rancid underpinnings better than any pundit ever seems to, however sage. They have the gift of making you laugh yourself stupid even as they sow the seeds of seething outrage.
As for satirists, my favourite has always been New Zealander John Clarke, who, in a team with apparently long-suffering straight man Brian Dawe, sat for a mock interview once a week on the Australian Broadcast Corporation as part of the national news. Each session, lasting between two to three minutes, pitted Dawe as interviewer against Clarke in the role of some major political or social figure of the day, from Prime Ministers and members of their cabinets to anonymous bureaucrats, economists, bankers, capitalists, what have you. In each, Dawe would struggle to pin his quarry down with simple, direct questions, while Clarke deployed every conceivable rhetorical trick to avoid answering. His responses to the simplest of queries were masterpieces of deflection, obfuscation, sarcasm, and sometimes a benign sort of pitying contempt. He dissembled, misdirected, prevaricated, pivoted, spun, mumbled, answered questions with questions, anything to prevent any sort of straightforward, honest response from slipping out, all of it delivered with a mastery of language that reminded one of nothing so much as a Shakespearean actor. Posing as a cabinet minister responsible for national defence, and probed on the ongoing disaster in Iraq to which Australia had committed armed forces, he’d say something like “well, Brian, our intervention in Iraq has, hitherto, and quite famously, been something less than an… unalloyed success”.
They performed this routine for upwards of 27 years, and it never got old. Early on, the persona adopted by Clarke was likely to be simply arrogant, and a little cross at the line of questioning, as in The Front Fell Off, which serves as most everyone’s introduction to the duo:
Another classic in this vein was A Concern For the Whale:
Is this oil executive proposing to dig up the sea floor in a whale breeding area? No, because it’s not a whale breeding area – that is to say it won’t be, not once they get out of the way. They aren’t stupid, Brian, they know enough to avoid trouble, you can see them jumping through bloody hoops at Sea World.
As the years went on, Clarke’s characters grew ever more nuanced, ever more subtle in their emotional responses. They might be smug and condescending, as if Dawe was a little boy trying to climb up on a chair and pose questions at the adult’s table. Sometimes they could be almost gleeful, Clarke playing some third party expert who laid bare the various absurdities of Brexit, the financial crisis, or Cypriot money laundering; in these segments, the usual evasiveness would be supplanted with a frank propensity for devastating and entirely insightful statements of the unvarnished truth, which were liable to be as appalling as they were hilarious. Sometimes he played cabinet ministers who were obviously befuddled and thoroughly out of their respective depths, squirming in their chairs and looking for help from the gallery. One of my favourites had Clarke playing Brendan Nelson, the apparently newly-minted Minister of Defence (it’s a pity that I can no longer link to it online, the clip seeming to have disappeared from YouTube, but I attach my own archived copy below). Dawe gives the poor, clueless politician a hell of a time with questions that are completely in keeping with things the Minister should know, but of course does not. “Military strategy?”, he asks. “You want me to talk about military strategy? “. How on earth should he have anything to say about such things? “You do know I’m a doctor?”, he asks, as if he hopes for medical questions instead. Casting repeated sideways glances at what must be aides just offscreen, he provides the canned answers on the Iraq war, only to be left completely nonplussed by Dawe’s inevitable follow-ups; when he asserts, taking his cue from his helpers, that the new strategy is to seek the cooperation of Syria and Iran, Dawe responds, quite sensibly, that it’s his understanding that Syria and Iran are in fact hostile states unlikely to help, at which Clarke/Nelson can only turn once again to his aides for further clarification, saying “Now Brian makes a very good point – weren’t they the Axis of Evil? We were we threatening to bomb them, weren’t we?”
At one point, as if beseeching Dawe for mercy and understanding, he pleads, feebly, “It’s a bit of a lolly-scramble how these ministries are worked out, Brian”.
A favourite device was to portray the interview subject as a recalcitrant school boy, say the P.M. as Head Boy, being questioned by Headmaster Dawe:
The very best of these was one titled School Blues. It was another portrayal of the P.M. (John Howard at this point) as a school boy, this time being dressed down for poor performance on exams, some of which he’d missed altogether. It contains gems such as this, as the P.M. is justifying his bone-headed answers to various exam questions:
BRYAN DAWE: It’s a shame you didn’t get there, John. Turning to this economics paper, this is a real worry.
JOHN CLARKE: What did I do wrong?
BRYAN DAWE: Question two, “who is responsible for interest rates?” You wrote “the Prime Minister, if they’re low –“
JOHN CLARKE: The Prime Minister if they’re low, yes –
BRYAN DAWE: “And the bogey man if they’re high”.
JOHN CLARKE: Yeah, that’s right.
BRYAN DAWE: John, who is the bogey man?
JOHN CLARKE: Bogey man’s kind of an interest rate…spook.
BRYAN DAWE: An interest rate spook, who puts up interest rates?
JOHN CLARKE: Puts up interest rates, yeah.
BRYAN DAWE: Presumably late at night.
JOHN CLARKE: Yeah, when it’s dark.
BRYAN DAWE: John, there is no bogey man. Interest rates are set by central banks and are largely a product of international trade balances. You know that.
JOHN CLARKE: The Prime Minister could sometimes get them down.
The whole thing is hilarious, the one to watch if you’re picking only one:
The duo’s skewering of the Australian political scene, uncannily like our own, was so engaging that you started to become interested in the various personalities, Tony Abbott, Julia Gillard, Joe Hockey, Malcolm Turnbull – I’d often find myself looking up the news behind the satire, and wishing we had somebody here who could do to our leaders and economic masters what Clarke and Dawe were doing to theirs.
I make it a habit to look them up on YouTube every couple of months, or any time I need a laugh, and just yesterday I was enjoying their dissection of the latest American election cycle, when this caught my eye in the comments section:
I can’t believe he’s dead.
People often speak, hyperbolically, of their hearts sinking, but at that my heart truly sank like a stone. I looked it up, and sure enough, John Clarke died suddenly just this last April, while out on a nature hike, I suppose of a heart attack. He was only 68.
It’s a sane and soothing approach to temper one’s sense of loss by appreciating the minor miracle that you ever had the chance, however briefly, to take such joy in anything so special in the first place.
Sure, I guess. Yet it’s more in my nature to feel only that another light has gone out. Now it’s a little darker. That’s all.
I’ll miss John, terribly.