John Clarke and Bryan Dawe in brilliant disguise as themselves.Television is a medium of imitation. If something is successful, a flood of imitators will flow over the viewing public in its wake. This is why, for example, there were more than 7000 shows in the 1990s that ripped off Friends, and why Australia now has more celebrity chefs per square inch than any country on Earth. If there’s one iron law of TV, it’s that anything that works gets copied. It’s a good system, which ensures huge amounts of content are generated without anyone having to think too hard for too long.
Which makes it curious that since 1989, John Clarke and Bryan Dawe have been performing mock interviews, first on A Current Affair and continuing on the 7.30 Report (now just 7.30), that have been widely acclaimed as the very best political satire Australia has to offer, without anyone really having a crack at copying them.
There are a few reasons for this. First, they’re just too damn good. Anyone trying to do what Clarke and Dawe do would be climbing a very high peak – the chances of reaching the top are remote.
Second, they’re too simple. Clarke and Dawe’s interviews are quickfire affairs, just a few minutes of two men in suits sitting in chairs talking to each other in their own voices. Anyone trying to copy them wouldn’t have much to latch onto without making the facsimile way too obvious.
But it’s still strange that in all that time, nobody seems to have learnt any lessons at all from Clarke and Dawe, even while they are almost universally acclaimed as geniuses. Not that there’s been no other great satire on Australian TV – the Working Dog and Chaser teams have done their bit – but nobody has recognised what the brilliance of Clarke and Dawe should be telling us.
First of all, it’s important to note what John Clarke does when impersonating a politician: he doesn’t impersonate a politician. That is, he sits in that chair, and he is playing the role of the prime minister or the opposition leader or the foreign affairs minister, but he’s doing it with his own face and with his own voice and with not the slightest attempt at disguising the fact. In every interview, he is John Clarke. This is a method harking back to Chevy Chase as Gerald Ford on Saturday Night Live, but one that for some reason has gone out of fashion. The ”modern” way of sending up a politician is to put on a wig, slather on some make-up, assume a voice that is a vague approximation of the real person’s, and then fail to write any decent jokes.
And despite the fact that Clarke and Dawe, by eschewing funny voices and concentrating on coming up with funny ideas instead, have lasted 24 years while a cavalcade of ”satirists” have come and gone with their wigs and vocal tics, no one seems to have cottoned on that good satire has a very specific hierarchy of needs, and ”resembling” the person you’re satirising is a long way down the list.
Clarke and Dawe’s interviews are things of beauty: hilarious, direct and pinpoint accurate. If only there were a few more people willing to recognise that genuine satire is more than impressions, we might be getting a lot more laughs out of our great leaders.
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Shanghai Night Net.