One of the funniest people on either side of the Tasman, John Clarke’s brand of droll wit (always delivered with a wickedly understated authenticity) defined the high-water mark of Kiwi and Australian comedy for 30 years. Spawned in the early 70s, his gumboot-clad character Fred Dagg marked a defining moment in the development of New Zealand comedy. Clarke passed away on 9 April 2017.
In basic terms, Clarke invented humour in NZ … he came up with a comic language. Every attempt to be funny or real in a NZ way follows from here. Steve Braunias, Metro Magazine
This edition of Prime TV’s history of New Zealand television looks at 50 years of entertainment. The smorgasbord of music, comedy and variety shows ranges from 60s pop stars to Popstars, from the anarchy of Blerta to the anarchy of Telethon, from Radio with Pictures to Dancing with the Stars. Music television moves from C’mon and country, to punk and hip hop videos. Comedy follows the formative Fred Dagg and Billy T, through to Eating Media Lunch and 7 Days. A roll call of New Zealand entertainers muse on seeing Kiwis laugh, sing and shimmy on the small screen.
From early teleplay The Evening Paper to the edgy Outrageous Fortune, this episode of 50 Years of New Zealand Television talks drama and comedy. Key players, from actors to executives, recall a host of signposts in the development of storytelling on Kiwi TV screens. John Clarke recalls 1970s sitcom Buck's House; Paul Maunder remembers the drama that likely helped introduce the DPB; and TV executive John McRae recalls worries about the projected cost of global hit Hunter's Gold, and mentioning the word 'placenta' on the first episode of Shortland Street.
When TV began in New Zealand in 1960, posh English accents on screen were de rigueur. As veteran broadcaster Judy Callingham recalls in this sixth episode of Kiwi TV history: "every trace of a New Zealand vowel was knocked out of you." But as ties to Mother England weakened, Kiwis began to feel proud of their identity and culture. John Clarke invented farming comedy legend Fred Dagg, while Karyn Hay showed a Kiwi accent could be cool on Radio with Pictures. Sam Neill and director Geoff Murphy add their thoughts on the changing ways that Kiwis saw themselves.
Part concept film, part biopic, part historical record and part comedy, Leanne Pooley’s documentary was made to mark the Topp Twins' 50th birthday. New Zealand's favourite comedic, country singing, dancing and yodeling lesbian twin sisters tell their personal story: from their 'coming out' to Jools' brush with breast cancer. The film features archive material, home movies and interviews with the Topps' alter egos. Alongside local box office success and dozens of international awards, Girls won the People’s Choice award for favourite documentary at the 2009 Toronto Film Festival.
Who Laughs Last profiles Roger Hall, New Zealand’s most successful playwright. Three decades after the opening of Hall's Middle Age Spread became a hit, the original cast return for 2006 follow up Spreading Out. The Shirley Horrocks doco explores the secrets behind Hall’s successful brand of comedy (25+ stage plays, plus TV series and musical comedies) and closely explores the popularity of Middle Age Spread and Spreading Out. Among those interviewed are John Clarke, Ginette McDonald, the late Grant Tilly, and Hall himself.
This long-running chat show gathered a loyal following for its recipe of sports fandom mixed with playful pratfalls. Regulars in the circus wrangled by producer Ric Salizzo included larrikin ex-All Black Marc Ellis, straight girl Lana Coc-Kroft, 'That Guy' Leigh Hart, and Graeme Hill. This 23 November 2005 final features plenty of sporting guest stars and ‘best of’ moments: from World Nude Day to a litany of laddish moments from Ellis. Rumours of presenter intoxication would only have been stirred by the mayhem of the closing set destruction, accompanied by band The Exponents.
This animated TV comedy series is a modern day fairytale following the adventures of five kids growing up in one of Auckland's grungier suburbs. With a fearless, un-PC wit and Simpsons-esque celebrity cameos, it managed to be primetime and family-friendly. The popular show was made by Firehorse Films, and developed from the brazen and poly-saturated comedy of theatre group Naked Samoans. Screening on TV3 for five series it won Best Comedy at the NZ Screen Awards three years running and a Qantas Award for Ant Sang's production design. "Morningside for life!"
Kim Hill interviews comedy legend John Clarke at his home in Melbourne. In this excerpt, Clarke talks about how easily humour travels and how Kiwis can be funny, and looks back at the birth of his iconic Fred Dagg character in the early 70s, with his black singlet, a hat given to Clarke by his sister, and some torn-off trousers from state television's wardrobe department. Clarke talks about New Zealand being far from alone in claiming to have a laconic, understated style of humour, and how he thinks the country is seen overseas.
If a single word could sum up the free-wheeling flavour of alternative music and comedy in Aotearoa during the 1970s, that word would surely be ... Blerta. The 'Bruno Lawrence Electric Revelation and Travelling Apparition' included foundation members of the NZ screen industry (Lawrence, Geoff Murphy, Alun Bollinger) plus other merry pranksters. Drawing on the Blerta TV series and beyond, Blerta Revisited (aka Blerta - The Return Trip) is an anarchic collection of comedy skits, musical interludes and films culled from the Blerta archives. Costa Botes writes about Blerta here.
John Clarke created an unofficial Kiwi national anthem when his alter ego Fred Dagg first released 'We Don’t Know How Lucky We Are' in 1975, simultaneously celebrating and poking fun at national pride. This video is a 1998 update of the song, instigated by TV's SportsCafe. Times change, but the recipe remains the same: "good clean ball and for God's sakes feed your backs!" Alongside a roll call of celebrities, politicians and sports stars — Sean Fitzpatrick, Chris Cairns, Zinzan Brooke — Clarke spreads the grateful gospel at the United Nations.
A jandal-shod journey through Kiwi pop culture. Kiwiana takes a light-hearted look at the fashion, art, architecture, attitudes, and icons (Buzzy Bees, Edmonds, Swanndri, Pavlova etc) we call our own. Directed by Shirley Horrocks, and shot by Leon Narbey, it featured personalities Gary McCormick, Ginette McDonald, John Clarke, Peter Jackson, and others. Screening at a time (1996) when New Zealanders were just beginning to appreciate these neglected everyday objects as ‘collectibles,' it rated highly, and inspired a sequel, Kiwi As.
This 1995 documentary about New Zealand humour features classic TV comedy moments from Fred Dagg, Barry Crump, A Week of It, McPhail and Gadsby, Letter to Blanchy, Billy T James, Pete and Pio, the Topp Twins, Gliding On, Lyn of Tawa and Funny Business. Tom Scott, John Clarke, David McPhail and Jon Gadsby talk about the nature of New Zealand satire; Pio Terei, Peter Rowley, and Billy T James producer Tom Parkinson discuss the pros and cons of race-based humour; and the Topp Twins explain the art of sending people up rather than putting them down.
Indie production house Communicado made their name with a stable of television shows that celebrated Kiwi culture. After the success of late-80s show That’s Fairly Interesting, the company began work on Magic Kiwis, a show devoted to heroes of popular culture. Mostly the cavalcade of Kiwi celebs were stars of entertainment (Howard Morrison, Split Enz) and sports (Susan Devoy, John Walker), with the odd politician thrown in. Over three series, the half hour shows combined classic clips and interview footage, all tied together in trademark upbeat style.
After their house explodes and they bump into a gunman, journalist Alf (Temuera Morrision) and his American girlfriend (Beverly Hills Cop’s Lisa Eilbacher) head to the West Coast, on the run from the cops and mysterious forces. The conspiracy plot is mostly an excuse for chases, capers and crashes galore, all imbued with plenty of pell-mell shenanigans (this time heading north in a red Falcon) by Goodbye Pork Pie director Geoff Murphy. The movie marked Temuera Morrison's first big screen starring role. This excerpt sees John Clarke cameo as a used car salesman.
This documentary backgrounds the process of turning Murray Ball's comic strip into New Zealand's first animated feature. Who will voice the iconic Dog? Pat Cox, the original producer, stays off-screen; but there are interviews with perfectionist Footrot creator Murray Ball, fellow Manawatu scribe Tom Scott and John Clarke, who argues he narrowly beat Meryl Streep to provide the voice of Wal. Amongst the making of footage, the late Mike Hopkins (who won Oscar glory on Lord of the Rings) lends his feet to the sound effects. Tony Hiles writes about the making of the film here.
In 1986 Footrot Flats: The Dog's (Tail) Tale and its theme song ‘Slice of Heaven’ were huge hits in New Zealand and Australia. The adaptation of Murray Ball's beloved Footrot Flats comic strip marked Aotearoa's first animated feature. There were a lot of big questions to answer: Will Wal become an All Black? Will Cooch recover his stolen stag? Will the Dog win your hearts and funny bones? Punters answered at the box office. This John Toon-shot trailer doubled as a promo for the Dave Dobbyn-Herbs song, and smartly leveraged both. Tony Hiles writes about the film's making here.
Wild Man is the missing link between 1970s musical legends Blerta, and the burgeoning of Blerta trumpeter Geoff Murphy as a director whose talents knew few bounds. The Blerta ensemble relocated to the mud-soaked West Coast to create this tale of pioneer con men and silent movie style pratfalls. Bruno Lawrence and Ian Watkin arrange a fight — and betting — in each town they arrive in, while Bruno channels his inner wild man from under a leopard skin. Wild Man was released in cinemas alongside John Clarke and Geoff Murphy’s Fred Dagg comedy Dagg Day Afternoon.
The airport interview with the visiting overseas celebrity was very much a staple of 70s New Zealand TV — but in this encounter the location looks suspiciously like NZBC's Avalon studios, and rock star Hiram W Violent bears more than a passing resemblance to John Clarke (of Fred Dagg fame). The wardrobe department has had a thorough ransacking and the question of Hiram's ability with the guitar remains thankfully moot. The interviewer is original Grunt Machine presenter and actor/musician Andy Anderson (who later starred in Gloss and The Sullivans).
Famous as New Zealand television's first ever sitcom, Buck House was a rollicking and relatively risqué series that centred on the comings and goings of university students in a dilapidated Wellington flat — the eponymous 'Buck House'. Stars of the show included John Clarke, Paul Holmes, and Tony Barry (Goodbye Pork Pie). Despite (or more likely because of) its bawdy humour, occasional coarse language and alcohol abuse, the pioneering comedy sated the needs of many Kiwi viewers desperate for TV with identifiable local content and flavour.
Nationwide replaced Gallery as part of the NZBC’s first foray into nightly current affairs. In 1974 and 1975, it ran for 20 minutes on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays (with Inquiry on Wednesdays and World Scene on Fridays). It was produced by Rod Vaughan; The reporters included Ian Fraser, Keith Aberdein, David Beatson and conservationist Guy Salmon. Prime Minister Norman Kirk famously took great offence at a series of skits featuring Fraser and John Clarke involving remits at the 1974 Labour Party conference. Nationwide was replaced by the equally short-lived Tonight in 1976.
Current affairs show Gallery took on controversial topics of the day, most famously in a Brian Edwards interview which solved a Post Office industrial dispute live on-air. Produced by Des Monaghan, it began as a studio-based programme that discussed political issues, but was soon expanded. Edwards’ confrontational style of interrogating public figures was new to New Zealand TV, and polarised viewers. It saw Edwards (the "mad mauler") become a household name, and earned him a reputation as a hardline interviewer. He was succeeded as host by David Exel.