A DAGG’S LIFE

The early days of John Clarke of­fer in­sight into the imp­ish, dis­qui­et­ing hu­morist, writes Graeme Blun­dell

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Tv -

sig­nif­i­cance. As are the glimpses of a stocky sin­gleted and gum­boot- wear­ing young man called Fred Dagg ( ef­fort­lessly in­hab­ited by Clarke) in a bush hat caught on black- and- white TV, who ob­vi­ously loves fall­ing over sheep fences.

That is when he is not riff­ing bril­liantly on such top­ics of na­tional im­por­tance as cor­rup­tion, oil dis­cov­er­ies, cen­sor­ship, na­tional elec­tions and the po­lit­i­cal non- in­ter­view.

‘‘ You can get away with a cer­tain loose­ness in your writ­ing if you’re stupid enough,’’ Clarke says of the an­cient sketches. ‘‘ And I was pre­pared to be pretty silly to make it work. But in the long run I was go­ing to have to sit some ex­ams.’’

The Scrolls pre­serves ev­i­dence of con­sid­er­able di­ver­sity of be­lief and prac­tice within early New Zealand com­edy, when Clarke was learn­ing the craft of mak­ing peo­ple laugh for a liv­ing; some­thing he has al­ways taken with the great­est of se­ri­ous­ness.

‘‘ My only strength was that I came from the au­di­ence,’’ he re­veals. And, from the start, he pos­sessed a kind of in­stinc­tual idea of what that au­di­ence might like to watch. ‘‘ So the job for me was: how do you go from be­ing in the au­di­ence and do­ing roughly what you would like to see, and do­ing it with­out any­one notic­ing?’’

Mov­ing to Melbourne in the mid-’ 70s, Clarke de­vel­oped a first- rate ca­reer as a TV satirist ( The Gillies Re­port , A Cur­rent Af­fair and The Games );

ILOVED the life, the creative pool I was do­ing laps in,’’ co­me­dian John Clarke says, his voice dis­tinc­tively nasal but ever a bearer of hap­pi­ness. As al­ways he is con­cerned with the plea­sures of the laugh­ter he pro­motes so ef­fort­lessly, its me­chan­ics, hy­draulics and the strange ter­ri­to­ries it has trav­elled across.

Not with­out dif­fi­culty, 59- year- old Clarke is re­call­ing the days when he started per­form­ing as an un­ruly stu­dent in the late 1960s at Vic­to­ria Univer­sity in Welling­ton, the south­ern­most na­tional cap­i­tal city in the world.

‘‘ I was re­ally just an elec­tron bounc­ing around in the uni­verse, so I’m grate­ful that any or­der came out of that chaos,’’ he drawls.

Also an ac­tor, satirist, writer and di­rec­tor, Clarke has been re­spected, ad­mired and loved by Aus­tralians for 30 years. But where did this imp­ish and dis­qui­et­ing hu­morist come from, with his pierc­ing, un­der­stated ob­ser­va­tions of our lives and his un­par­al­leled abil­ity to get a laugh out of say­ing a sim­ple yes or no?

The an­swers are re­vealed in The Dagg Sea Scrolls , far more than a col­lec­tion of mem­o­rable television mo­ments, hys­ter­i­cal though most of them are. The 46 sa­cred min­utes, which con­tain rare arche­o­log­i­cal black- and- white cel­lu­loid and es­o­teric vaudeville turns in huge are­nas full of long- haired stu­dents, are of great his­tor­i­cal

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