“The Front Fell Off”: A Tribute To Australia’s Exorcist John Clarke

"He possessed the shells of Australia’s greatest dunces and its proudest fools."

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Satirist John Clarke has died at the age of 68, hiking in Victoria. The New Zealand-born Clarke was Australia’s greatest comedian, and that in itself is a typically murky Clarke-ism.

From Fred Dagg to The Games, Barry McKenzie to farnarkling, from The Gillies Report to Clarke and Dawe — John Clarke’s barbarous pen glided through the Australian cultural landscape with the sharp-edged surety of a sheep shearer’s clippers (a job Clarke once held and loved).

After spending the day pouring over Clarke and Dawe clips on YouTube, I want to take a more personal approach in remembering this egg-headed giant of goofs, so indulge me if you will in what Fred Dagg would call, “my following bag of tell”.

I grew up with a Labor backbencher for a father and an inability to communicate with strangers with anything other than impersonation. John Clarke was somewhat of a deity in my house. My family (to this day, really) would gather around the “squawk box” to watch Clarke and Dawe as if the pair were the ghosts of Curtin and Chifley intoning some great new truth from the hill. They were my window to comprehension, for an Australia I otherwise found baffling and infuriating.

As I’m writing this, a friend just messaged to tell me her immigrant parents were deeply comforted by The Games; they were “brought together” by the shows bold-faced Australianness. “For a little while at least, we didn’t feel like outsiders,” she told me. That says a lot about the empathic brilliance of John Clarke.

We watched the news for the story; we went to John Clarke and Bryan Dawe for the truth.

John Clarke became Australia’s exorcist. He possessed the shells of Australia’s greatest dunces and its proudest fools. He could embody the swagger and know-it-all-ism of a young Keating, the doddering lack of surety of late career Hawke, the sweaty desperation of Alexander Downer, the preening of Andrew Peacock, the quiet rage and discomfort of John Howard, the pious viciousness of Rudd, the slow-wreck of Gillard, the mad fervour of Abbott, the fat-mouthed cluelessness of Joe Hockey (brilliantly), and the vacuous stare of our current PM, Malcolm Turnbull, to a tee.

In wearing these masks, John Clarke (and Bryan Dawe) were able to give the nation a weekly trepanning, draining us of the bile of newspeak and hackery that clogged our humour. They were precise surgeons, and in their elevating of the tragic to the heights of absurdity they were able to draw out the foundational Australian silliness. Clarke and Dawe gently reminded us that things were the way they were because of fools.

This healing magic hinged on John Clarke’s ability to slide into the skin of Australia’s most obstinate duds, as if they were tailor-made boots. It is difficult for me to picture John Howard without picturing the furrowed brow and desperate obfuscating of John Clarke. He was the Ockham’s razor of impersonation — both blowhard and mumbling no-nothing; at one moment a frustrated minister with a phone to answer; at another he was a school prefect snivelling while he dobbed on his peers. Clarke flipped seamlessly between roles, revealing the nation’s guilt complex and conscience all at once.

He made his name as a master of wordplay, the Ern Malley of the A Current Affair (where Clarke and Dawe actually began) generation. John Clarke was a master formalist, and he understood that the assault on the logic of language from the media and politicians was an assault on logic itself. He inverted their nonsense, reverse-engineering it to make it a sputtering vehicle of truth, that could “run like a haunted shithouse”.

Characters like Iggy Norant, consultant, could bring forth the inhumanity of Australia’s asylum seeker debate, with Clarke’s fine-tuned channeling of the average Australian voter/know-nothing. In ‘A Concern for the Whale’, he is the pleasantly heartless BHP representative, reducing his doublespeak to “we were going to be build a dirty big hole in the seabed ‘cos there’s a quid in it but we got caught and we’re embarrassed about it.”

In their three-minute spoof of the documentary The Howard Years, he brilliantly sums up 12 years of Howard’s leadership:

Clarke: It wasn’t our policy, that was the difficulty.

Dawe: Did you say so?

Clarke: I said so privately.

In an typically prescient bit from 2007, the pair skewer Tony Abbott’s relationship to the controversial Cardinal Pell, with the not-yet prime minister defending Pell’s stance on “independent thought” and “women”: “what are we going to do about women? Plenty of issues there.”

Of course the quintessential Clarke and Dawe back-and-forth is the iconic “the front fell off” routine from 1991, in which senator Bob Collins is thoroughly dragged. This clip is the John Clarke formula distilled to perfection: an idiot dryly intoning logical chicanery and wide-eyed nonsense to a respectfully curious host. “What’s the minimum crew requirement?” asks Dawe. “Ah, one I suppose.”

And the classic exchange:

Dawe: Wasn’t this built so the front wouldn’t fall off?

Clarke: Well, obviously not.

Dawe: How do you know?

Clarke: Because the front fell off and 20,000 tonnes of crude oil spilt in to the sea and the sea caught fire, it’s a bit of a giveaway. I’d just like to make the point that that is not normal.

John Clarke’s work and legacy extends beyond Clarke & Dawe, of course. He had his hand in so much great Australian comedy. The Games (the mockumentary of the Sydney Olympics) is a staggering work of genius in and of itself — one that managed to convince the foreign press it was the real deal. His poetry and short stories are another window into his fabulously dry wit, and his fondness for deconstructed language and the absurdity it allows.

But Clarke & Dawe had entered into a renaissance recently. The skullduggery and madness of Tony Abbott and the wet-mouthed dipshittery of Joe Hockey were a shot to the arm for the pair. In 2016, when the world was falling to pieces and when satirists everywhere were clambering for reinvention and volume in what was becoming a cottage industry glutted by mediocrities and ‘fake news’, John Clarke and Bruce Dawe kept a steady hand on the tiller.

Clarke, in the last year, has produced some of the greatest satire anywhere — his brilliance extending beyond Australia. Something happened in the time Turnbull and Trump were elected that brought the duo to new heights of dead-eyed surrealism. They comfortably reignined as the comedic champions of Australian TV, achieving in five minutes what other satirists couldn’t muster in a season. Just last night I sat in bed laughing at Clarke’s depiction of a neutered Scott Morrison, explaining how he and Turnbull pulled off a successful two man pub test.

As of writing, my tinder bio still reads “just a Clarke looking for a Dawe”. I am struggling to imagine an Australia, or a version of myself without John Clarke, that vital bullshit filter in the nation’s fragile ecosystem. In the golden age of Murdoch, spin and malarkey, John Clarke was a guiding light and — by all accounts — a decent bloke. John Clarke charted the trajectory of mendacity in Australia for over three decades. “We know where we are now,” he said at the end of a recent Clarke & Dawe sketch, “which is tragic.”

I just hope that they play farnarkling on the other side.

Patrick Marlborough is a writer and comedian based out of Fremantle. He writes regularly for VICE magazine, and has maintained steady work as a bullshit artist for some time. He’s on Facebook here and tweets at @Cormac_McCafe.