Episode 36: John Clarke

John Clarke was a freelance writer, performer and author.

Penmanship podcast episode 36: John Clarke, interviewed by Andrew McMillen, 2014. Published in 2017.John died suddenly on Sunday, 9 April 2017, aged 68. I had spoken to him a few days beforehand, and we had made plans to record a conversation for this podcast while I was visiting Melbourne that weekend. Since that cannot happen, I am bringing you a special episode based on a day that I spent with John in November 2014, when I was reporting a story for The Weekend Australian Review about the creative process behind Clarke & Dawe, the weekly political satire program that John wrote and performed alongside longtime collaborator Bryan Dawe. As I wrote in my article, Clarke & Dawe was more often than not among the week’s sharpest commentary on up-to-the-minute matters relating to Australian politics and public life. Together, the two performers sought to make us laugh while also making us think.

This was a dream assignment for me, as it involved spending a day in John’s company as he wrote a couple of scripts, met with Bryan to film the program at an ABC television studio, and supervised the final edits of a two-and-a-half minute program that would be broadcast around Australia the following evening. In between these tasks, there was plenty of time for conversation; at no point did John seem rushed, and he had a kind word and a wry joke for everyone he crossed paths with. This episode consists of excerpts from some of the writing-related discussions he and I had that day, as well as a few amusing asides. I’d also encourage you to read my article for The Weekend Australian Review, which is called ‘In The Line of Political Satire’. I put a lot of effort into the writing and rhythm of this piece because I knew John would read it, and that man rarely wasted a word.

Our first conversation that day took place in a Fitzroy cafe on Wednesday, 12 November 2014. My recording device was a small digital recorder placed on the table between us, or held in my hand as I wrote in my notebook while on the move. The audio wasn’t captured with this podcast in mind, as Penmanship did not exist at the time. The recording at this first location has the most ambient noise, so you’ll hear a bit of the coffee machine in action, as well as some other voices in the background. Please bear with me, as the audio quality does improve throughout this episode, as we move to quieter locations. There is about 20 minutes of audio in this cafe section, cut into four segments. Some of the cuts are quite abrupt, but I’ll briefly introduce each section to give some context throughout the episode.

CLARKE, John, Dip Lid, PhD in Cattle (Oxen). Advisor and comforter to various governments. Born 1948. Educ. subsequently. Travelled extensively throughout Holy Lands, then left New Zealand for Europe. Stationed in London 1971-73. Escaped (decorated). Rejoined unit. Arrived Australia 1977. Held positions with ABC radio (Sckd), ABC Television (Dfnct), Various newspapers (Dcd), and Aust Film Industry (Fkd). Currently a freelance expert specialising in matters of a general character. Recreations: Whistling. Address: C/– the people next door. Or just pop it inside the door of the fusebox. Should be back Friday. Died 2017.

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3.30 This first excerpt sees John discussing the weekly format of Clarke & Dawe, and how he liked to sometimes break it up by latching onto current events.

3.30 “One of things about doing that once a week is that, if you’re given the opportunity to shift the form slightly, you do, because the opportunities aren’t always there to do that. So if we can get a different metaphor, or another way of dealing with it, which happens whenever there’s a big other event, like the Olympics, then you can infuse it with the same concerns that the audience and us are looking at. Then you’re not condemned to exactly the same model each week. Now and again, you jump out of that model.”

5.00 The next excerpt discusses John’s views on the audience for Clarke & Dawe, as well as how he has developed his instincts as a writer by attempting to amuse himself first.

5.30 “I’m in the audience for our stuff. I mean, if I’m thinking about what might work, I’m not thinking about what might amuse you. I’m thinking about what might amuse me. I’m thinking about pitching it so that I would get it, because a lot of this is instinctive. You need to understand the instinct, and keep in touch with it. If you start trying to please someone who isn’t you, and you do something that doesn’t work, you can go, ‘That’s just what I do for a living’.”

7.30 John says his thinking on this matter has been the same since he was a child

9.30 “The audience part of me is a key instinct. How else are you going to assess what you’re doing?”

10.00 This excerpt discusses the rhythm of the dialogue that powered Clarke & Dawe, as well how John attempted to draw viewers in by writing marginal iterations on a familiar format.

10.00 “I would think that the same things apply in normal conversations as apply in what we do. There’s very similar mechanisms. We pick a form that’s designed to contain all of that. There are lots of times in your life where you’re engaged in dialogue.”

13.00 “Quite a lot of it is to just with the fact that, in our talk […] there are things that make it enjoyable. One of them is rhythm, for example. Sometimes we’ll shoot the same interview twice, and that one’s much funnier than that one. The words are the same, but it’s the rhythm.”

14.00 “It’s not exactly ‘jokes’. There are jokes. We’ll put a joke in there if we know one – old army gags, and anything that amuses us.”

15.00 John says that the speaking style on Clarke & Dawe is kind of like the verbal equivalent of handwriting, or something. If you don’t do that, then I think people don’t need to listen to you quite so carefully. We’re trying to draw people in a bit.”

15.30 This next excerpt is the last one in the cafe, and the longest recording from that location. Here, John discusses the origins of the Q+A format of Clarke & Dawe, which started as a newspaper column and then became a radio segment, before it became a television program. Through it all, John made no attempt to impersonate the appearance or voice of politicians and public figures, and here we discuss why he chose that approach.

16.00 “I like our audience. Our audience is a very good audience […] because you can do stuff that’s so small, and a lot of it is to do with reading the way we behave.”

16.30 “The business of pretending to be someone else is an interesting one, because I’m pretending to be someone else, but I’m not pretending to be them. That’s an interesting idea.”

17.00 “The democratic ideal is that each of us has the capability to do that thing. Part of the idea of a democracy is that those people [public figures] are us. It’s not absolute nonsense. It’s a bit surreal, but at a deep level, it ain’t too far from at least the comforting notion that that is the case.”

18.00 John says the idea of not dressing up or changing his voice “started from the fact that, when I first started the idea, I wrote it as a newspaper column. What I was trying to do was adopt the form. The first one that was published in the newspaper was an interview with Joh Bjelke-Petersen, the lapsed New Zealander who was running the state you come from [Queensland], with a huge gerrymander and a few designs which emerged later.”

19.00 “He was being completely silly. He said he was going to have a run at Canberra, and he wasn’t even in the country. He said things that were manifestly ridiculous all the time. I thought, the problem with this is that when you see an interview with him, he’s treated seriously. What would it be like if we treated him in a different way? So I did the standard interview that people do with a comic. The first question was: ‘Joh Bjelke-Petersen, when did you first discover you could make people laugh? Was it a schoolyard thing? Was it sort of defensive, basically?’”

21.00 John later shifted the newspaper Q+A column idea to ABC Radio, which is how he met Bryan Dawe

21.30 “We did a few on radio to tease out the idea, and to work out how the fun could be in the writing and the performance. So it’s not just either of those, it’s both.”

22.00 The idea then moved to television when John was approached by Channel 9, where the dialogue format first aired on A Current Affair, which coincided with Australian politicians starting to realise that they couldn’t afford to not talk to the public through the television, to seed their messages into the electorate

23.30 “There was beginning to be a quite performative element about what they [politicians] were doing in their public manifestation. Therefore, it’s nice counterbalance if we remove anything performative, including even the appearance and sound of the person. We not only don’t do impressions; we’re almost monotonous, so it’s up to you.”

24.00 The next few excerpts were recorded in John’s office in Fitzroy, which was a short walk from the cafe. This office consisted of two rooms: a large one surrounded by floor-to-ceiling shelves that included personal archives and storage, as well as DVDs, CDs and books that were sold through his website, mrjohnclarke.com. The second, smaller room featured a desk, a chair, a laptop computer and a phone. This second room is where John wrote two Clarke & Dawe scripts from scratch, in a couple of hours, occasionally interrupted by phone calls that he placed to reporter friends so that he might better understand something that was in the news at the time. (See the bottom of this page for a photo of John working at his desk.)

25.00 “When the European economics collapsed, we did a thing that got very popular about that. I was sitting here thinking, an amusing aspect of this terrible shambles in the European economies what they each owned billions, but they owed them to each other. And that sooner or later, there was going to have to be someone who had some money. It was a carousel of mutual indebtedness. I thought, that’s a funny idea if I can get it right. I looked on the internet […] and then I found in The New York Times a graph which perfectly represented with arrows even I could understand what each country owed to the other country!”

26.00 After that episode (‘European Debt Crisis‘, 20 May 2010) appeared on Australian TV and published online, it was mentioned by an editor at The New York Times as a perfect representation of the problem

27.00 “People were looking around at the time, and I thought what they’d done was a perfect at-a-glance exposition. But then he’d forgotten he was the chicken, we were the egg!”

27.30 This next section is a short snippet recorded just before we walked across the road for lunch – toasted sandwiches and coffee.

27.30 John says he is not fussy about which writing software he uses. “I think that computer uses mainly Word. I think in this computer I use something that’s in the Mac system. I just open it up and type. It’s a typewriter. It has no other influence. I don’t have other devices that plug into it, and I don’t have any great desire.”

28.00 This next excerpt was recorded after John had finished writing the two scripts, and before we headed to the ABC studio at Southbank to film. Here, John reflects on narratives and storytelling, as well an unrelated snippet about the glasses he was wearing while writing that day.

28.30 John mentions a school friend who has become a ‘narrative therapist’: “I said, ‘what’s that?’ Well, it’s something to do with some strand of psychology. He said, ‘in a nutshell, what I do is, people come to me with some sort of psychological problem which is affecting their life sufficient for them to get pissed off and worried, or forced with a cattle prod by people they know to come and do something about it. They come and see me, and I get them to tell me the story of their life, and I help them edit it’.”

33.00 “You get to an age where you need reading glasses. This happens to everybody. So you go along to a person who looks at your eyes and says, ‘Yes, yes, yes, very interesting. Here’s a prescription for these glasses.’ Basically what he’s saying to you is, ‘You’re in your 50s, aren’t you?'”

34.00 This next bit is the final section recorded in John’s office, and it’s about how much he enjoyed the simple act of writing in order to better understand the world around him.

34.00 John has all of his scripts on file, either on paper or on a computer.

34.30 “I think one of the reasons I like writing is that I like handwriting. It’s like walking. It feels good. […] My handwriting used to be halfway decent. Even if my handwriting’s no good, I physically liked the fact that you could set down an idea. I still like this about writing in a different form. I physically like writing an idea I’ve had, and writing an idea I haven’t had, which emerges because you’re writing. They’re both good. Don’t you think?”

36.00 This next excerpt was recorded in a dressing room at ABC’s Southbank studio, after John and Bryan Dawe had finished filming several takes of both scripts. This was the same room where I had the privilege of watching the pair of them rehearse their lines. Both of their eyes were on the pages as they got their minds and their mouths around the words for the first time. They didn’t laugh, but you couldn’t have beaten the grin from my face. After watching these two men performing in character on television throughout my whole life, it was an incredible thrill to see it taking place right in front of me. Two masters at work.

36.30 This excerpt begins with an anecdote that John asked me to leave out of my article, which I did, but I’m sharing it with you as I think the lesson – about how writers can go about developing their capacity to perform at a high level – is too good to be left unheard.

36.30 “I remember years ago, in 1972, when I was living in England […] I was in the first Barry McKenzie picture as an extra. They were very nice to me. I’ll never forget it, because it’s pretty important really […] I remember one time we were at a piss-up, basically, after we’d finished shooting. There was a guy there. I said ‘what do you do?’ He said, ‘I’m a writer.’

38.30 “It was Clive James. He did have this capacity, but he couldn’t break through. So what he was trying to was to demonstrate the capacity regardless, because the capacity was going to be of use to the system that he wanted to break into. He was right about that. It was extremely well-deserved. He later denied that he’d done that, but even if he wasn’t doing it, I was impressed with it as an idea.”

40.00 “You can be shit-scared of an aspect of it [the work], but you must believe that somehow you can do it. You must also believe that not everything you do is going to be brilliant. You’re going to fuck it up, and you’re going to need a bit of help, and you’re going to grateful for the wisdom of that person, or the eye of that person, and that way, you’re going to learn. If you don’t keep learning, you’re not going to be very engaged in it, and you’ll want to give it away.”

41.30 John references a quote from Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, who said there was a point in his life where he was trying to be a writer. There was a moment where he had a realisation about exactly what his style was, and what he wanted to do.

43.00 “He described what the realisation was, and it was a definitely recognisable idea that he had. I think you need to go through […] they sound mutually exclusive, because you need to be confident, but you don’t want to be arrogant. You need to be sensitive to what wise people – not fools, but smarties – are saying to you.”

47.00 “We have different responses to things. One of the things that’s never said about the arts is that, if you and I look at a painting […] We might both say, ‘I like that’. But we won’t be having the same experience, because the painting will be resonating against our [separate] memories. You are unique in that case.”

49.30 “When you go to an art exhibition or a film and it bores you shitless, it’s because […] you’re being deprived of a creative experience that you might have otherwise had.”

50.00 After the dressing room, we visited an editing suite, where John viewed rough cuts with his producers before sticking around to advise on final cuts before the program was ready for broadcast. The other voice you will hear belongs to editor Kala Lampbard, and this short anecdote came out of the pair of them reflecting on the development of her daughter and John’s granddaughter, who are the same age.

50.00 “My mother said that the first day I went to school, she saw me on the lawn after I came home from school. I’d brought some other kids home with me. I was five. I’d gone to school as this lovely little soft boy that my mother adored, and she said to me, ‘Hello John, what are you doing?’ And I said, ‘I’m riding my bike! Can’t you see, you dumb cluck!’ And she said, ‘My heart disappeared into the ground. You’d become this monster!’ […] One of the things she needed to understand was that, yeah, I’d gone into a different group, and it was kind of inevitable. And horrible for her.”

52.00 The final scene in this episode is the longest, and it was recorded in John’s car, as he drove me from the ABC’s studio in Southbank to where I was staying in Brunswick. We talk about the structure of his workweeks, the Clarke & Dawe DVD that was soon to be released at the time (Operational Matters), as well as how he managed his career as a freelance writer and performer to ensure that he had several streams of income at any one time. The conversation continued for quite a while after pulled over near the house where I was staying. More than anything else you’ve heard up until this point, I think this particular conversation is a perfect example of how deeply John thought and cared about writing, as well as how much he remained curious about everything and everyone around him.

52.30 The Wednesday we spent together was the rare example of a “routine day” in John’s life at that time, in November 2014. Sometimes he’s involved in other projects as a writer, a producer, an actor, or a script editor.

54.00 Outside of this interview for my article in The Weekend Australian Review, John was unsure whether he’d be doing much more promotion for the Operational Matters DVD, as the ABC has a “strangely ambivalent attitude toward promotion”.

55.30 “My instinct is that a DVD of ours would be a gift product around Christmastime, and in the retail outlets, it vaguely ought to sell itself to a degree. If it’s got a picture of us on the front, people know what they’re getting.”

56.00 “Retail is interesting to me, because I’ve always had to make a part of my income out of retail. When I was first doing television, I think I got paid $30 an appearance on New Zealand television.”

57.00 “I realised pretty early on that there’s a large dislocation between impact and income. So I’ve always been aware of the usefulness of having some product in the market, because otherwise I don’t think I could always make a living. And there’s certainly no income between late November and February, unless you’re a shop Santa, in this business.”

58.30 “I’ve always tried to put into any contract my capacity to buy at the wholesale rate the product, so I can sell it – which also puts us into direct contact with our audience. Then if you’ve got a new product, you can just ping out a message, and that first rush of sales will often underwrite the production of the thing.”

59.00 The retail aspect of the online store mrjohnclarke.com was managed by an assistant of John’s, named Stu

59.30 “The first record I released in New Zealand was a Fred Dagg LP, released in November 1975. […] They said, ‘righto, here’s a contract’. The cost of a record at that time was NZD$9.99. I said, ‘I’d like it to sell for $4.99’.”

61.30 I said, ‘how many records are you expecting to sell?’ […] They said, ‘Well, John, if you sell 3,000 copies in New Zealand, you’re going pretty well, and if you sell 5,000 it’ll be the biggest selling record released in New Zealand in five years’. My agent said, ‘Well, in that case, you won’t mind putting the royalty up after 20,000 copies? […] And again after 30,000 copies, and 40,000, and after 50,000 copies?'”

64.00 “The record was released for $4.99 on 17 November in 1975, and by Christmas Eve, it had sold 87,000 copies. It was the biggest selling New Zealand record in New Zealand history. And I thought, ‘ooh, that’s comforting, because what we said was true. Our instinct was right. They said, ‘you don’t know anything about the record market’, and we said, ‘you don’t know anything about the Fred Dagg market’.”

64.30 “In fact, a lot of the time in my subsequent years, my market has been about my age. When I was doing Fred Dagg on New Zealand television, I wasn’t a lot older than these kids. But now, if we walk down this street, there’ll be a whole lot of young people who won’t recognise me because they don’t look at the ABC very much. But very few people of my age will not have seen my somewhere, because I’ve been around for a long time, and so have they.”

66.00 “I’ve only a few times done a product that didn’t have any relationship with a primary use [such as an existing TV show like Clarke & Dawe]. It wasn’t the secondary use of a primary thing. And they were projects that I just fiddled with.”

66.30 John wrote a book of verse, The Even More Complete Book Of Australian Verse (Text Publishing, 2012), whose “paper-thin claim is that all of the great poets of the world actually came from here, and I’ve discovered works by all of them.”

67.30 I ask John how many revenue streams he has right now, in November 2014.

69.00 “On [1998 mockumentary TV series] The Games, I got a fee as a producer, a performer, and a writer […] But I did quite well out of that, because I’m in three parts of the equation.”

69.30 “[John’s wife] Helen and I are reasonably cheap to run. We’re also typical of our generation in that there’s not a lot of superannuation in my line of work. Job security, sick pay, all of that – they don’t exist. We don’t have entitlements. Our advantage is that we have a house.”

70.30 “We get by. And also, a day when we don’t have any income, but we have a good idea, that’s a good day because that might be some income another day. But it’s terribly swings-and-roundabouts. If you wanted to do any financial planning, you wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.”

71.00 I ask what the Clarke & Dawe contract is worth to John.

72.00 “I’ve worked for pretty well everybody over the years.”

74.00 John on the difference between commercial television and the ABC, which has a remit to be a national network, hence why it’s so valuable, especially to people living outside of cities.

76.00 “When we were doing The Games, we never missed a week [doing Clarke & Dawe], because that contact we have with an audience every week is pretty delicious to us. It’s nice. It would be much less enjoyable all round if it wasn’t there every week.”

76.30 “We’ve always wanted to do it, and we’ve always wanted to stay there. We liked doing it, but we haven’t always had time to… we didn’t always have a whole day to prepare it, for example. Cobbling it together, there was a fair bit of ad libbing.”

78.00 John and Bryan have been doing about 46 episodes of Clarke & Dawe per year for more than 20 years, as well as the extra script that’s filmed but not broadcast.

78.30 “There are these customers called completists, so these days, the advice is it’s much better to do them complete, because otherwise people will go, ‘Where’s that thing?!’

79.00 “The weekly show would be the main thing [source of income]. This year I haven’t done a film, so my main income is from [Clarke & Dawe]. […] As long as I’ve got some money coming in, from some reasonably regular source […] then you can do things you’re not getting paid for, too. Things like, young people write a script, they send it to you, and you can read it, then you go and have a chat and help them.”

82.00 “One of the reasons why being a writer, or engaged in writing in some way, I reckon is an interesting thing to do, is because if somebody’s not paying you to do it, you can still do it.”

83.30 “I’ve just written a family history. Nobody paid me to do that, but something in me wanted to do it, and I’ve always wanted to do it […] I’m glad I did it. I feel I understand things a bit better about where everybody came from, and what the hell’s going on.”

85.30 “If writing genuinely engages you […] I’ve started writing about a few people I met in my life who were very interesting people. […] I should be able to synthesise that, and write it. Why is that person so interesting, or so impressive? Why is that life, and why has nobody written about that life? So I’ve tried to open up the computer and have a bit of a crack at writing some of these things about people that I’ve run across, not even to do with my work, but to do with them, really. One of these days that’ll become something. I don’t know what it is. Who the hell knows?”

86.30 “I think one of the uses of talk and writing is that you don’t always write something because you know what you want to say. You sometimes know what you want to say because you start writing.”

87.30 “Sometimes, when I’m not being employed to do anything, I’ll sit there and go, ‘I might write something about so-and-so.’”

88.00 “There are a few books that I keep going back to. There’s a very good book, a favourite of mine, by an American sportswriter called Red Smith, who was writing in the 1930s, 40s, 50s, 60s or something. Long dead now. But he wrote very beautifully. I don’t know much about him. I only read collections of his writing after he died. He wrote one book called To Absent Friends […] It’s a collection of pieces he wrote after some people died, including some horses. So not the obituary piece […] He’s not trying to get onto the coattails of what actually happened, it’s much more to do with his own ruminative process.”

90.00 John gives a couple of examples of memorable chapters from Red Smith’s To Absent Friends.

94.00 “So I read this book, and I was reading about all these people. I knew none of them, and I’d never heard of him [Red Smith], but I felt good after reading each piece. I thought, ‘What a fantastic idea for a book’.”

94.30 John went on to read more about Red Smith, and he found an interview where Red mentioned a memorable lesson about writing and editing that he learned in 1910, on the first day of New York University’s very first writing course.

96.00 “The teacher said, 50 minutes is up. I’ll have to ask you stop writing in 10 minutes. I would remind you that while you can’t write a lot in 10 minutes, if you’re intelligent, you can cut a fair bit out. [Red] said, ‘I never forgot that. That’s a great thing to learn’. […] ‘I should be editing my stuff, not someone else. I should be making those decisions. I’m not auditioning this shit for someone else – this is what I fucking mean!'”

97.30 “I’ve written shitloads of stuff that no-one else will ever see, but it’s an early draft of something that you then get better and better at doing Writing is possibly changing. Maybe your generation’s learning to write in 42 character lengths, or something. I don’t know. But mine didn’t. I think sometimes when I’m writing [something], I don’t worry about the length, because I don’t have a length in mind. I have a story, and the impression I want to give you about that person. The effect I want to have on you is my head, not the length of it, or even how I’m going to do it, or even the structure, or even where I’m going to start.”

98.30 John says that Helen and my kids are normally the first people to see anything that he’s written, and they’ll sometimes tell him to start somewhere else, after he has cleared his throat.

99.30 “If you’re a bit lucky with the people you know, and they’re going to offer you criticism which is not designed to hurt you, and is honest and intelligent, and doesn’t come from doing the same thing you do. They’re not trying to do the thing the way you do it. But if you can’t have the effect you want to have on the people who you have that sort of regard for… ‘Do it again, John, go and have another crack at it. There’s a good boy!'”

100.00 “I’ve always been a fiddler like that. I’m so stupid; my education wasn’t entirely successful. I don’t know that I respond terribly well to structured learning, so I’m afraid I’ve always been at the mercy of the haphazardry of learning things myself by coming off my bike rather a lot.”

102.00 “A lot of the pleasure you get is not in the professional part of it at all, in a sense. But how you make a living, that is an interesting question. And it’s always been my main question. How do I make a living? Because if you wanted to make a living as an entertainer, the money’s in live performances and advertising. Money’s not over here, where I’m farting around in the sandpit with my friends. Playing pretend!”

103.30 “I have done almost everything. I’ve given everything a look, but I didn’t enjoy every aspect of it. The things I’ve ended up doing, I really do rather like. I’m lucky. But you do have to buy the right to do that. Otherwise, you’ll end up writing something that you don’t have any regard for, for somebody you don’t much care for. I’ve done that, and I’m not very nice under those circumstances. I’m not very happy. I’d rather do my thing badly, than someone else’s thing well, because I’m going to learn here.”

105.00 “Getting old is an interesting process, because you don’t want to do what you used to do. I don’t want to do what I used to do when I was doing stuff on the telly when I was in my 20s. I couldn’t do what I do now without having done that, but I don’t want to keep doing it. You need to develop; you change your mind. As [Irish poet] Seamus Heaney says, the nucleus stays the same, but with any luck, the circumference moves out.”

Pictured below is a photograph of John Clarke at work in his Fitzroy office on 12 November, 2014, taken by Andrew McMillen.

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