John Clarke is New Zealand's first comedy legend. He made comedy on both sides of the Tasman, taking the character of laconic farmer Fred Dagg to national stardom before relocating to Australia, and starting over as a political satirist. In 1987 he provided the voice of another famous farmer — Wal, in the movie version of classic comic strip Footrot Flats.
When he passed away on 9 April 2017, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull argued that the weekly satirical sketches by Clarke and Bryan Dawe had been "required viewing", and "kept politicians on their toes". In New Zealand, Kiwi comedian Jesse Griffin argued that Clarke's "dry Kiwi understated humour" had been an influence on him, Flight of the Conchords, Taika Waititi, and The Front Lawn. "That celebration of the mundane, that dry observation ... he was the first to really bring that out in a performative way."
Clarke's mother acted in local theatre in hometown Palmerston North; as a child he occasionally got dragged on-stage, when an actor went missing. At Victoria University, he dabbled in various courses, and was working backstage on a comedy revue when Roger Hall told him he should be up on-stage. In uni show One in Five, Clarke impersonated singer John Rowles flinging his head back so far he eventually toppled over.
Clarke's university mate Simon Morris recalls a peformance where he was "riveting", amidst the chaos of the rest of the show. "He was a great improv person, old John". Clarke shot through to London, after a brief gig as a purchasing officer in state television, and a number of years in a shearing gang. He fell on his feet, earning fifteen pounds a day acting in notorious Aussie abroad comedy The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972), featuring Barry Humphries.
The following year Clarke returned to New Zealand, whose people inspired much of his early comedy. In 1975 he joined the ensemble cast of late night series Buck House, New Zealand's first TV sitcom. Based around a bunch of students in a rundown flat, the show was risque for its time. Clarke turned up in the second season, as Ken, a new tenant from the country, alongside his Downstage Theatre colleague John Banas. Buck House was where Clarke’s signature line “that’ll be the door”, was first widely heard. The same year Clarke turned up on this episode of music show Grunt Machine, as visiting rock star Hiram W Violent.
The character of gumboot wearing, black singleted, and hilariously deadpan farmer Fred Dagg had first began to form during late 60s university revues. In 1972, Clarke did a small sketch as a rural character at the end of a news programme. The following year Dagg made his screen debut, after Clarke was invited to inject some humour into current affairs show Gallery. The name was cooked up by Clarke and Gallery reporter David Exel (Clarke talks about the character's origins in this episode of Face to Face with Kim Hill.) Dagg went on to appear in short sketches on current affairs shows Nationwide and Tonight at Nine. Clarke often directed himself. In 1974 he starred in a special ‘spoof’ episode of Country Calendar featuring a family of multiple Daggs, some of them played by John Banas.
At the time stand-up comedy in New Zealand was virtually non-existent; Fred Dagg joined the Kiwi tradition of character comedy. As comedy veteran Paul Horan argues in this interview, his style of comedy "slotted into who we were; it wasn't over the top, but it was eloquent ... he was clever, and didn't speak down to you." Initially Clarke improvised much of his material, admitting later that he had sometimes "performed his way out of trouble".
Fred Dagg proved a sensation, which Clarke capitalised on in varied appearances, plus a proposed movie whose script (written with Roger Simpson) ran to 160 pages, but never went into production.
Dagg was starting to take over Clarke's life, but the screen appearances were not enough to provide a living. In 1976 Dagg began an extensive tour of the nation. Dagg books and singles became sizeable hits, notably 'The Gumboot Song' and 'We Don’t Know How Lucky We Are' (which was updated and rereleased in 1998). Recorded in a morning and priced cheaply so kids could afford it, Fred Dagg’s Greatest Hits became one of New Zealand's biggest-selling albums.
Wary of both overexposure and becoming stale, Clarke relocated to Australia in 1977. There had also been run-ins with Kiwi state television over a proposed Fred Dagg series. Clarke heard through the grapevine that the NZBC's Head of Light Entertainment said he wasn't funny; he spoke later of dealing with "directors who thought they were comic geniuses and regarded me as a hired hand. I have never had those problems in Australia".
Dagg did not expire immediately. Clarke's friend Geoff Murphy was having problems securing a cinema release for his 73 minute Wild Man (Clarke appears four minutes in, as a travelling salesman). A Fred Dagg short would seal the deal. Clarke flew back, and jumped in a car with Murphy and company to shoot bionic ram tale Dagg Day Afternoon in just six days. Dagg would make few screen appearances after a series of five minute episodes which screened in late 1978: The Fred Dagg Lectures on Leisure.
In Australia, Clarke did time as a dam worker, Clarke's sly wit in impersonating the pompous and powerful soon made an impact, via satirical material created for radio and TV. His first appearance on Australian radio was a lecture by Fred Dagg on a science show. Having formed a comic partnership with writer and radio presenter Bryan Dawe, the two presented satirical weekly interviews on various slots for the ABC over 25 years. Making little effort to sound like the person he was imitating, Clarke generally played a public figure finding ways to avoid Dawe's questions.
The interviews often screened as part of a news and current affairs slot, allowing more freedom than if they'd been made as a straight comedy show. After 2010 the sketches also went on YouTube, where viewers sometimes reached as high as a million. "I don't need to know what the politicians are like because I'm not being them," Clarke told Melbourne's Age newspaper in 2015. "They're just carrying the virus we're trying to deal with. It should be about the ideas ... We're not banging anybody's drum, we're not pushing any party barrow ... We're principally there to amuse an audience with the subject matters that are already concerning the public generally."
The duo also starred in one of Clarke's favourite creations: series The Games, which satirised bureaucracy and unethical dealings in the lead-up to the 2000 Sydney Olympics. The show, he said, "was written as a satire, and played as a drama and shot as a documentary". Clarke created and co-wrote with radio DJ Ross Stevenson, and won an Australian Film Institute award and a Logie for Oustanding Comedy.
His earliest encounters with Australian television included appearances on mid 80s comedy show The Gillies Report — where he reported on his beloved sport of farnakeling. In the same period Clarke directed short film Man and Boy, inspired by an old work colleague, and co-created comedy The Fast Lane (1986), with Andrew Knight (Fast Forward). The series follows two private investigators, one inept.
Not just a funny man, Clarke was widely regarded for his skill as a dramatist. He wrote the original script for hit Aussie feature The Man Who Sued God (starring Billy Connolly) and co-wrote WWl mini-series Anzacs. He helped out on the screenplay of award-winning romance Lonely Hearts — director Paul Cox argued "he contributed a lot". On screen, he acted in acclaimed prison camp drama Blood Oath, played a villainous developer in Crackerjack, and best mate of the anti-hero in cult comedy Death in Brunswick. The film features Clarke in a memorable gravedigging routine, alongside his friend Sam Neill.
In 2004 Clarke established production company Huntaway Films, in partnership with Neill and lawyer /producer Jay Cassells. The company were behind TV movies Stiff and The Brush Off. Both starred David Wenham as a bumbling political fixer. Clarke adapted them from the novels by Shane Maloney, and directed the first.
In 2013 Clarke was nominated for an Australian Film Institute award for three-part series Sporting Nation, in which he charted the country's relationship with sport.
There were occasional appearances on New Zealand screens. He provided the voice of Fred Dagg on selected episodes of animated hit bro'Town, and made contributions to sketch show Radiradirah, which featured many of the bro'Town team. In this extended audio interview, he talked about his life and career.
Clarke passed away of natural causes on 9 April 2017, while tramping in Australia. He had finished an acting role in TV series The Ex-PM just days before. He was 68.
Clarke's daughter Lorin talks in detail about her father in this extended interview shot for comedy history series Funny As. John Clarke's influence on Kiwi comedy is demonstrated by how often Clarke won praise during interviews for the show. Among those paying tribute are his old capping revue colleagues Roger Hall (56 minutes in), Dave Smith, Helene Wong and Simon Morris, his London friend Ginette McDonald, and fans Paul Horan, Jeremy Corbett and Jesse Griffin. Musician Fane Flaws recalls witnessing Clarke in action as Fred Dagg, 78 minutes into this interview.
Profile updated on 29 May 2020
Mr John Clarke website. Accessed 10 April 2017
'Lorin Clarke - Funny As Interview' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Rupert Mackenzie. Loaded 25 September 2019. Accessed 9 October 2019
'Fane Flaws - Funny As Interview' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Rupert Mackenzie. Loaded 13 September 2019. Accessed 9 October 2019
Roger Hall - Funny As Interview' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Rupert Mackenzie. Loaded 14 October 2019. Accessed 15 January 2020
Simon Morris - Funny As Interview' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Rupert Mackenzie. Loaded 25 September 2019. Accessed 9 October 2019
Face to Face with Kim Hill - John Clarke (Television Documentary) Director Norman Sievewright (TVNZ, 2003) David Dale, 'Two politicians as one' (Interview) The Age. Loaded 21 June 2015. Accessed 24 September 2015
Karl Du Fresne,'Is NZ Too Small For Fred Dagg?' (Interview) in TV People (Wellington: INL Print, 1979)
Trisha Dunleavy, Ourselves in Primetime - A History of New Zealand Television Drama (Auckland University Press, 2005)
Matt Elliott, 'Fred Dagg Profile' AudioCulture website. Loaded 10 April 2017. Loaded 10 April 2017
Steve Killgalon, Glenn McConnell, Kylie Klein-Nixon and Shaun Bamber, 'John Clarke, the man behind New Zealand cultural icon Fred Dagg, has died' Stuff website. Loaded 10 April 2017. Accessed 10 April 2017
David Stratton, The Avocado Plantation - Boom and Bust in the Australian Film Industry (Sydney: Pan Macmillan Publishers Australia, 1990)
Unknown writer, 'Fred Dagg creator John Clarke dies at 68' - The NZ Herald, 19 April 2017