For nearly 30 years John Clarke and Bryan Dawe kept us laughing on Australian television with their incisive, deadpan comedy interviews taking aim at Australian politics (and more).
This week, tragically, that came to an end.
Clarke died following his completion of The Ex-PM, now his last ever role, after suffering a heart attack hiking in the Grampians.
Late yesterday his longtime collaborator Bryan Dawe reflected on their enduring act and friendship.
“It wasn’t Clarke and Dawe that was the most important thing for me,” he told Fairfax. “It was the in-between. It was the space between our work as Clarke and Dawe: the conversations, the phone calls, the emails, the fun, the empathy, the understanding. The friendship. And all that means.
“John is such a big canvas it is impossible to explain how I feel,” he continued. “I got to experience this man’s humanity, his generosity, his brilliance and above all, his kindness.
“He was such an insightful, generous, gorgeous human being, and I’m so fortunate and honoured to have been his friend and co-conspirator for so long.”
In 2012 I asked John Clarke about his early appearances on A Current Affair, and he generously acknowledged Jana Wendt’s role in their success.
“Jana was a key factor in making it work,” Clarke said. “It was an unusual idea, especially for Channel Nine, where I go on and pretend to be someone I’m manifestly not. No props and cossies. It’s almost a critique of the fact that they are pretending to be who they are pretending to be….
“Jana liked the idea and she was very smart, she was onto it straight away. She made a rule which helped us immeasurably. The rule was this: ‘I’ll back this idea but don’t ever show me what they’ve done until they show it Live on air.’
“Jana was a serious host. (ACA) got a bit silly later but Jana, as you know, is very intelligent and goes way beyond being a host. She’s multi-lingual and so forth.”
Clarke and Dawe presented their act every Friday night on ACA for 8 years before moving to The 7:30 Report where they continued to take aim at politicians, corporates, media, royalty and more. They began on radio in 1987, but it was Wendt’s support that cemented their place in television.
“A host of a show that we go on needs to understand us and we need to understand the host. For example we normally do more than one interview because we’re not quite sure which subject is going to be more apposite by 5 to 8. So we try to help the programme, but it always helps if the programme tries to help us. We need to be bedded in and Jana’s understanding of that was as good as anyone’s,” he explained.
“If you imagine people in television who wouldn’t have got it. Imagine trying to sell this idea to somebody. So it was absolutely crucial, and I didn’t realise this until she did it. But what must have happened is that she must have approved of the idea, and apparently made a rule without talking to us that she was not to be shown anything.
“It would cut back to her and on a couple of memorable occasions she wasn’t there because she was under the desk! It was a great gift. Imagine trying to buy that response! It’s just a genius idea.
“So she helped immeasurably and it became thematically linked to what we were doing and it helped sell the idea. Once the idea was sold people got used to the way of reading us.”
Jana Wendt also recalled the pair’s unique style in a rare statement to TV Tonight:
“It was a charmed idea. Clarke made no concessions to costumes or any attempt at impersonation. His targets were mostly hypocrisy and stupidity. If you were a news junkie his ‘subjects’ were immediately recognisable. If you weren’t, it didn’t matter because hypocrisy and stupidity are recognisable anyway, as there is so much of them about. Sometimes he just had fun and revelled in the craziness of the idea,” she said.
“Early on, I had watched a few of John and Bryan’s pieces before the show, but found it worked better if I watched them live for a true reaction. The down side was that I sometimes laughed so much I could not hold it together on air. For me, John and Bryan’s pieces were the anarchic highlight of every week. No other segment could have allowed a current affairs show to admit that parts of what purports to be serious, isn’t.”
John Clarke first teamed with Bryan Dawe after developing the idea from a regular newspaper column for The Times on Sunday.
“I wrote the first few for the paper and a couple of people said to me ‘You should perform that,’” he said.
“Most of these things respond well to good writing, so I was trying to get that right. Once I decided I had a little bit of a handle right I decided to do some on radio and the ABC asked me to do something. I’d done a whole lot of Fred Dagg monologues and I didn’t want to do monologues.
“A producer in Melbourne who had approached me about it said ‘Yes, you can do that, it sounds like a funny idea.’
“So I said ‘I’m going to need another voice, would you read the questions?’ So he did and I said ‘You’re hired because you understand the comedy and you have good speech rhythm.’ And his name was Bryan Dawe.
“And we’ve been doing it ever since.”
Over the years not much has changed with the simplicity of the act, except that audiences now understand the comedy, which affords Clarke and Dawe more creative freedom.
“I think their way of watching it has changed and they are much better at watching it. They don’t miss a single thing. You can do the smallest thing in television now and it will be picked up. I know that when Bryan and I are sitting there, and we’re in a pretty standard interview style, visual grammar shot, waist up, two geezers…. You can do the smallest thing in that shot and the audience gets it. It’s wonderful,” he said.
“But it’s a gorgeous thing that we do. We love doing it every week, we’ve never gotten sick of it. And it’s changed, it’s not the same as it used to be. It’s a bit like what it says in your Passport that you’re a journalist but what you do 25 years later is completely different.
“Every week for 25 years,” he says proudly. “It’s great fun and a good little writing discipline.”