Ya couldn’t write it!

Being positive about comedy is not something we’re often accused of on this blog (mainly by the sort of person for whom criticism or comment equals negativity, admittedly), but it’s well known that we have a lot of time for Clarke & Dawe. Here’s why: every week for more than 20 years John Clarke has been writing two and a half minutes of some of the best satire you’ll find anywhere in the world, which he performs with fellow satirist Bryan Dawe. Highly intelligent, stuffed with gags and brilliantly performed, this is at the pinnacle of comedy in this country – and as an insight into Australian politics it puts a lot of serious analysis to shame.

So, with a compilation of some of Clarke & Dawe’s best sketches (Clarke & Dawe – The Full Catastrophe) having been available for about five months, and those who bought it hopefully having watched all 584 minutes of it by now, it’s perhaps pertinent to ask: Why haven’t Clarke & Dawe been more influential? Or at least, why don’t they appear to be? Is it, as one of The Chaser team once argued, because John Clarke has the high end of satire covered, the implication being that no one should try and join him there? Or is it because it takes decades of hard work and experience to get to Clarke’s level of highly skilful satirical writing? Most comedy writers, who are in their 20s, 30s or 40s, haven’t lived long enough to have written as much as the 60-something John Clarke has – and it’s Clarke’s practised brilliance that makes him a great writer.

John Clarke started his comedy writing career, as many great comics have, in university revues. After a year or so travelling around Europe and working in London (during which he got a small part in Barry Humphries’ film The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, as one of the many drunken mates of the titular character), he returned to his native New Zealand and gradually worked his way into television, eventually getting the chance to perform a topical sketch in the guise of Fred Dagg (a character he’d started to develop in his university revue days) on the popular programme Country Calender each week. These sketches were, Clarke says, largely improvised rather than scripted, but they were pretty funny (check some of them out the DVD The Dagg Sea Scrolls), and Fred Dagg rapidly became a huge star. But Clarke didn’t like the fame that came with his success, and at the same time felt that he needed to improve as a writer, so moved to Australia in the late 70’s and took a job writing and performing Fred Dagg monologues for ABC radio.

For about four or so years there was a Fred Dagg sketch on ABC radio almost every weekday. How many Clarke wrote per week I’m not sure, but over the four or so years he would have written at least 200. During and after that time, Clarke was also writing film scripts, sketches for TV, columns for newspapers and much more besides, eventually teaming up with Bryan Dawe in 1987 to make what became the Clarke & Dawe sketches for ABC radio, before they took the concept to TV in 1989.

I was reminded of the sheer amount of writing John Clarke has done when I read an article about the book Outliers: The Story of Success by journalist Malcolm Gladwell, in which Gladwell argues that in order to become successful at something you don’t need talent, but aptitude, inclination and hard work. The latter is the most important, Gladwell says, and in order to be really good at something you need to spend 10,000 hours doing it, or three hours per day for 10 years.

If there’s anyone who falls into that category it’s John Clarke. Another example is Tony Martin, whose early career in radio advertising in New Zealand saw him writing 15 radio ads a day. Martin has described in his recent book A Nest Of Occasionals how exacting he had to be at this task, with only limited time to include everything the client wanted in each ad. Without this experience would he have been good enough to get a job writing for various ABC comedies in the mid 1980’s, let alone be the skilful word smith he is today?

This is one of the reasons why we worry about the future of scripted comedy on this blog. With so many TV comedies being unscripted panel shows, and so many radio comedies being semi-planned but largely improvised gab-fests, where are comedy writers going to get good at writing? Even if the potential next Tony Martin is currently huddled over a laptop churning out radio ads in some regional branch of Austereo, where can they go from there? Even the sort of low key slots for scripted radio comedy that John Clarke got in the late 70’s are few and far between. And while the ABC, at least, gives up-and-comers the opportunity to make sketches for Triple J TV, or the odd short episode sitcom (such as The Urban Monkey with Murray Foote or Beached Az), the rest of the industry seems to be doing bugger all apart from commissioning the odd misguided sketch show that no one wants to watch (Double Take).

Perhaps part of the problem is, as Rob Sitch once argued, that it used to be accepted that up and comers could learn their craft quietly. Presumably Sitch was talking about his own start in comedy here (writing and performing in a university revue which was so successful that it went on a national tour, before the team were offered a TV series, The D-Generation) but describing The D-Generation as a show in which up-and-comers could learn their craft quietly seems somewhat inaccurate given that it aired nationally and was famously given the timeslot before repeats of The Young Ones, guaranteeing it an audience. Perhaps what Sitch means is that back in the 1980’s comedy was less hyped, there were less commercial and budgetary pressures, and more artistic freedom. This was probably because there was no serious competitor to TV back then, as the internet is now, meaning you couldn’t obtain the latest HBO or BBC comedy years before a local network screened it – if they screened it at all.

The internet, and to a lesser extent Pay TV, have changed the rules, and TV comedy has had to become cheap and populist to survive. But as my colleague 13 schoolyards pointed out in his last blog, why make endless panel shows, when scripted comedy could be made for the same budget, and if it’s decent, be even more popular. It doesn’t matter that Clarke & Dawe is two men, two chairs and a black backdrop, because the writing and the performances are so good. There’s no reason why an equally well-written and performed sitcom or sketch show couldn’t get a good audience, although given the lack of opportunities for comedy writers to get work on TV, it’s looking a hell of lot less likely to happen.

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