RIP John Clarke: The Dagg is Dead

Stop all the clocks, cut off the phone

No more will we hear; his flat monotone

Silence the pianos; the bastards have won

No more of The Games; the end of the fun


He was my North; my South; my East and West

A bit of a Dagg; ahead of the rest

No tuning in; before Thursday night’s news

No wry antidote; for the Hanson Trump Blues

Not much shakes me these days.  Seen it all before.  Good people come and go.  Bad people come and stay.  The dog dies and after a spell I find a replacement for the morning walks.

But John Clarke dead at 68?  He was like Grandad’s ticking clock on the shelf that chimed the hours.  Regular and reliable.  Poking bears with sticks (in the nicest possible way) and suggesting that Emperor XXXX (insert name here) had mislaid his pants this morning.

I first encountered him in the 1970s as a gum-booted, terry towelling hatted sage called Fred Dagg.  Allegedly from the Shakey Isles but Phar Lap, Joh Bjelke and Russell Crowe all vouched for him so we claimed him as our own.

Fred had a flat monotone delivery, but he could smell a phoney upwind in a cyclone.  He was in on the scam and hoped the readers wouldn’t buy it; but a man’s got to make a living; and there is only so much you can do or say……

You always got the feeling that he winked at you just after he gave his spiel.  You felt it but you never saw it.  Forty years before THE property bubble, Fred warned us:

There are three types of houses:

  1. Glorious commanding split-level ultra-modern dream homes, which are built on cliff faces;
  2. Private bush-clad inglenooks, which are built down holes;
  3. and very affordable solid family houses in much sought after streets, which are old gun-emplacements with awnings.

A cottage is a caravan with the wheels taken off.

A panoramic, breathtaking, or magnificent view is an indication that the house has windows, and if the view is unique, there’s probably only one window.

I have here the perfect advertisement for a house, so we’ll go through it and I’ll point out some of the more interesting features, so here we go, mind the step.

‘Owner transferred reluctantly instructs us to sell’ means the house is for sale.

‘Genuine reason for selling’ means the house is for sale.

‘Rarely can we offer’ means the house is for sale.

‘Superbly presented delightful charmer’ doesn’t mean anything really, but it’s probably still for sale.

‘Most attractive immaculate home of character in prime dress-circle position’ means that the thing that’s for sale is a house.

‘Unusual design with interesting and solidly built stairs’ means that the stairs are in the wrong place.

‘Huge spacious generous lounge commands this well serviced executive residence’ means the rest of the house is a rabbit-warren with rooms like cupboards.

‘Magnificent well-proportioned large convenient block with exquisite garden’ means there’s no view, but one of the trees had a flower on it the day we were up there.

‘Privacy, taste, charm, space, freedom, quiet, away from it all location in much sought-after cul-de-sac situation’ means that it’s not only built down a hole, it’s built at the very far end of the hole.

‘A must for all you artists, sculptors and potters’ means that only a lunatic would consider living in it.

‘2/3 bedrooms with possible in-law accommodation’ means it’s got two bedrooms and a tool shed.

‘Great buy, ring early for this one, inspection a must, priced to sell, new listing, see this one now, all offers considered, good value, be quick, inspection by appointment, view today, this one can’t last, sole agents, today’s best buy’ means the house is for sale, and if ever you see ‘investment opportunity’ turn away very quickly and have a go at the crossword.

John had a wealth of talents and achievements. Poet, actor, scriptwriter among them. He seemed extraordinarily well-read and wise. Where did it all come from? How did he do it? Where did he find the time? Too late to ask now. Just be grateful that he did and he was.

But the shtick that served him best was the Fred Dagg persona revised and updated to suit the times. The Shakespearean “fool” in a reporters coat and tie -speaking truth to power – while trying to keep his job and his head attached to his neck. The world weary sage reporting the day’s events factually in a deadpan monotone that gave little away, but somehow suggesting this was a crock of…………………

In poetry Clarke “discovered” dozens of unheard Australian talents like Sir Don Betjeman, Dylan Thompson (“a martyr to the turps”) and this one from RACV Milne:

Rob Rob Bobbity Bobbity James Lee Hawke M.P.
Took great care of his image because he was quick to see
That if you are photographed standing with blokes
Whose boats do well on the sea,
Millions of voters will fail to notice
The blokes will be charging a fee.


As this is a sporting website “it would be remiss of me” not to mention his services to the IOC, most particularly the Sydney Games and his uncovering of corruption and incompetence – particularly in the construction of the “100 Metres” track.

JOHN Mr Wilson. Do you know who is the current 100 metres all-comers Australian record holder?

MR WILSON Can I guess?

JOHN There’s not much point in guessing, Mr Wilson.

MR WILSON Is he an African American?

JOHN He’s not an African American, no.

MR WILSON Is he that Canadian from Jamaica?

JOHN No, he’s not a Canadian from Jamaica.

MR WILSON I give up.

JOHN The 100-metre record in this country, Mr Wilson, is currently held by Bryan.



(Mr Wilson extends his hand)

MR WILSON Congratulations.

BRYAN Thank you.

JOHN A new mark, Mr Wilson, set at a blistering session last Wednesday. I wish you’d been there.

We were down there and we had a bet

MR WILSON Was this wind assisted?

JOHN No, and we’d had a couple, and in my view, Bryan is not in quite the nick he was in the same at the same stage of last season.

(Mr Wilson considers the position)

MR WILSON So you’ve measured the track?

JOHN Yes, we’ve measured the track, Mr Wilson.

MR WILSON So you know how long the 100-metre track is?

JOHN Yes, we do.


JOHN How long is it, Mr Wilson?

MR WILSON You know how long it is.

JOHN I want to hear you say it.

MR WILSON Ninety-four metres.

JOHN Ninety-four metres. Ninety-four metres. We’ve got a new event, haven’t we, Mr Wilson?

BRYAN The 94 metres.

JOHN In fact we’ve got two new events haven’t we? The 94 metres for men and the 94 metres for women.

BRYAN Hang on. Would that replace the 100 metres or would this be a new event, because there’d be a cost element there, wouldn’t there?

MR WILSON No. That’d be in place of the 100 metres.


MR WILSON You don’t have a 100-metre event. You haven’t got a 100-metre track.

I always had the sense that John loved sport, but that it was too much of a ‘bread and circuses” distraction from the important things in life not to be given equal opportunity ridicule. He particularly loved (loathed?) the po-faced seriousness and self-importance with which sport was reported and governed.

In the 80’s John gave us the Australian “nearly but not quite” sporting hero Dave Sorenson and his international Farnarkeling exploits with the Arkle on the Umlat.


John Clarke seemed to carve out a unique niche – amusing himself while informing us.

In 2002 he wrote a book called The Tournament – an account of an imaginary tennis tournament played in Paris among 128 representatives of what could be called the modernist project: artists, musicians, dancers, philosophers, writers and a few wild cards such as Amelia Earhart. The oldest is Tolstoy, the youngest Benjamin Spock.

Each chapter is a day of play-offs between cultural titans – Einstein v Thurber, Conrad v Faulkner, Dali v Joyce – whose various styles of play, as described in the arcane lingo of tennis commentary, reflect their lives and work as we know them.

Coco Chanel plays Sarah Bernhardt in a little black dress; Marcel Duchamp describes his own strokes as art; James Joyce confounds his opponent, SuperTom Eliot, by mumbling a nonsense monologue through his final winning set.

Explaining his humour and his reason for writing it, Clarke talked about his belief in democratic virtue and the everyman’s satirical instinct to mimic and make fun of the absurdities around us.

“Kids are very good at amusing one another about the things that are happening to them; I see satirists in bus stops all the time. A lot of people have a very good satirical instinct. Democracy is sort of alive in that way, in a way that it’s not going too well in all sorts of other pockets of life. The world is full of ideas, full of interesting ways of looking at things. It’s all an antidote to being lied to.”




  1. Colin Ritchie says

    Brilliant PB! He will be sadly missed.

  2. Bob Morrow says

    R I P one of the world’s funniest men. If I would have ever been asked who would you like as a passenger on a long car trip my answer always would have been John Clarke

  3. Neil Anderson says

    When the news of his passing broke, I immediately thought of his role in the film ‘Death In Brunswick’.
    He nearly stole the show from respected actor Sam Neill. So natural in his role as a grave-digger he didn’t appear to be acting…like all great actors. Perfect casting taking laconic to a new level.
    When the frantic Sam character approaches him saying he wanted help to get rid of a body, the laconic deadpan delivery came back, ” You want to wake up to yourself Karl.”

  4. His political interviews were genius. And the Mastermind quizzes were absolutely brilliant.

    Well done here PB. Wonderful stuff.

  5. Braham Dabscheck says

    Nice piece Peter. Hit the nail on the head like one of his ripostes. A sad day when a comic genius leaves us to wander on alone through the mist.

  6. Stainless says

    Great piece PB befitting a great person.

  7. rabid dog says

    Sad news indeed PB. Here’s one of my favourite ‘skits’:

  8. Keiran Croker says

    One of a kind from Fred Dagg to Clarke & Dawe and everything in between. Thanks for the reflection Pete. Well done.

  9. David Zampatti says

    It’s an irreplaceable gift to just be funny. Straight-faced, reading-the-telephone-book funny.
    And that’s what John Clarke was, and is. Funny, and irreplaceable.

  10. Yvette Wroby says

    Thank you Peter,,

    the world is a little bit greyer today. We have known him long enough to all be a bit John Clarke. He will live on through us.

  11. I was a huge fan of his answers to the quiz, published monthly in The Age, with this a favourite-

    6. False. You are perhaps thinking of a urinary tract infection. Sepp Blatter is the head of FIFA.

    A sad day indeed.

    Great tribute Peter.

  12. Well penned Peter.

    I first recall John Clarke when he appeared on the Gillies report, mid 80’s. That was my,and i daresay Australia’s, introduction to Fred Sorenson and farnarkling. How bizarre.

    Vale John Clarke,


  13. Luke Reynolds says

    Great tribute PB.
    What a shock it was yesterday to hear of his passing. Absolute genius.

  14. A wonderful and fitting tribute, PB.

  15. He was our political & social mirror to ourselves.

    And your special subject Mr. Clarke is phonies & bullshitters.


  16. Thesaurus Rex says

    Thanks Peter for posting. Yes, a great shock & massive loss to Australian humour. The word ‘genius’ gets carelessly tossed around way too much these days, but in appraising the oeuvre of Mr John Clarke it finds a true home.

    I too followed the Kiwi ex-pat from his early Fred Dagg Double-J days (bought all of the 1970s tapes & books). To your list of Dagg real estate ‘guide’ gems I would add “If it says the view is unique, then there’s probably only one window!”

    So much variety … there’s the sheer audacity & imaginative quantum leap of reinventing (& relocating) the Canon of Great British Poets to regional Australia as dinki-di greats of Australian poetry – with names like Shagger Tennyson & Gavin Milton! Clarke’s sublime riff on the newly “discovered” “Australian master poets” were incisively, deeply humorous, & both wise & pretentious-sounding at the same time! Absurdly funny stuff, especially when uttered in John’s wonderful flat, disinterested monotone voice … “he was sentenced to five years for insulting a lobster in a Sydney restaurant”.

    The political interviews – the one-liners just rolled off JC’s silver tongue, skewing national and state pollies left, right & centre:

    “I’m not interested in the doing the most intelligent thing … I’M JEFF KENNETT!”

    Prime Minister Hawke’s robust response to the question of how fit he was after a recent op:
    (so fit that) “I”M A DANGER TO SHIPPING!”

    What a turn of phrase … Clarke had such a razor sharp, punchy, economical & hilarious way with words.

    And so much more unsaid – I haven’t even touched on his brilliant riffs on finance, business, the public service, the economy & the environment (pure gold like “we will move the boat OUTSIDE the environment”).

    John Clarke’s sudden, most untimely death leaves a Sydney Opera House-sized hole in Australian and New Zealand satire – & I shall never forget that voice – like Billy Bragg’s so distinctive, & like Joe (Dragnet) Friday’s so deadpan matter-of-fact.

    Vale John … we could never thank you enough for so long entertaining & delighting us and enriching the lives of so many people – all the way from Palmerston North to Perth – of two Antipodean countries.

  17. Demonymic says

    That’s right Rex, although John Clarke lived many years of his life in Melbourne, there are very many fans in NZ (including the “Pollies”) who treasured him as a home-grown product & are mourning his loss just as deeply as Australians.

    Nowhere more so than in his native Palmerston North – which you can’t drive through without seeing “The Big Gumboot’, tiny PN’s tribute to the great comedian & his iconic character Fred Dagg.

    There were countless gems emanating from Clarke’s fertile mind, but I especially delighted in the masterful way in the skits he would hold up the language of “officialise” to the light of deserving ridicule. As comedians & comic writers go, he was an ace!

    To invert the title of John’s most famous song from the early Dagg days, on behalf of Aussies & Kiwis alike, many of us “DO know how lucky we are” to have had him light up our lives.

  18. Wow, awesome tribute peter!

  19. E.regnans says

    Thanks PB.
    A giant of language, nuance, humour.
    An eye for the absurd, the human.
    Such an immense body of work left to us.
    Thanks for this reflection.

    J Clarke’s work includes these two very recent pieces for Meanjin.
    Summer 2016

    And Autumn 2017

  20. Paul Spinks says

    Fine tribute, Peter.
    I read an account that JC (not the Jesus one, though perhaps John was a comedic spiritual leader) was a non-drinker – that would give a man time (and memory).

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