John Clarke and Bryan Dawe are without doubt the finest satirists working in Australia today, or for that matter the world. Tight, intensely witty and infallibly moral, they stun me over and over again.
If, due to the vicissitudes of fate or some crippling injury sustained as a result of living in a dank cave all your life has prevented you from ever seeing them in action, have a squint at these:
I buy the transcripts of these ‘interviews’ wherever I find them: often in op-shops, sadly – but someone else’s loss…
Most recently I stumbled across More Great Interviews, and the dedication contains a fascinating and telling insight into Clarke and Dawe’s craft: Clarke says of Bryan Dawe ‘It is a very amusing privilege to work with someone whose understanding of speech rhythms is supernatural, who is an unerring judge of character and who considers a day without mischief a wasted day.’
Understanding speech rhythms, unerring judgements of character and mischief. When you think about it, that combination is the key to what Clarke and Dawe do. And I’m beginning to suspect that it lies at the heart of all really good satire, too. Really good satire needs to feel completely natural. It must be morally astute and it must have a streak of devilishness in it.
Perhaps the most famous example of satire in English letters is Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’ – if you haven’t read it, you can find it here. What you notice about it almost instantly is that its effectiveness depends on how neutral, how utterly dead-pan it is in tone. Again: it feels natural to read; the rhythm of the prose lulls you into thinking that its recommendations are going to be utterly banal.
John Clarke is a spookily accomplished man. Have a listen to him chat about W H Auden with Clive James here and you’ll see exactly what I mean. Or read The Tournament.
I think he was really onto something in that dedication. And have a look at this. It dates from the dawn of the 80s, and is contained within another op-shop find: The Fred Dagg Scripts.
‘Gidday. Now there’s been a great deal of talk recently about the troubled business of sacred sites and how to pull the ground out from under them. And I think it’s become quite clear by now that until we have some proper discussion about the cultural and historical aspects of the problem, it’s going to be very difficult for us to formulate a consistent philosophy.
The main stumbling block at the moment seems to be a determined refusal to understand exactly what these sacred sites actually mean to the people concerned. And why the Aboriginal people are unable to grasp this I don’t know.
The white man’s deeply religious concern for certain sections of the sweeping plain is fairly well documented by now, as are the complex and arcane rituals associated with the worship of the land and its mystical properties.
In fact the company I’m connected with in Western Australia, Mystical Properties Ltd, has published a very tasteful coffee-table book, explaining everything from the exploratory drilling phase, or the Dreamtime as we call it, right through to the final extraction of the worshipful essence itself and the imprecations that go on in the temples until the primitive chanting of the closing prices.
These books have been given away to the Aboriginal people in the region as part of a programme of education which culminates in the taking of communion.
In fact only recently, as you might have seen in the press if they bothered to print anything favourable to us, we flew into the area with 44-gallon drums of wine and gave it away to the Aboriginal people in a gesture old as time itself.’
Try reading it aloud. It’s as smooth as silk – effortless: like drinking water. But it’s clearly a highly refined product. And then the end of the second paragraph turns and bites you with the swift deadliness of a taipan.
It hardly needs saying that it’s intensely mischievous and morally impeccable. The fact that the moral problem it exposes plagues Australia to this day is not comforting at all.
And let’s close with one of my favourites: