Comedian John Clarke, beloved in Australia and New Zealand for his dry satire, dies at 68

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Clarke has been a fixture on Australian commercial and public television for more than three decades from regular satirical spots on news shows to scripted comedy and features


After Australia’s then-Prime Minister John Howard refused to formally apologise to indigenous Aboriginal people for past atrocities, an actor who happened to have the same name as the nation’s leader read out a moving apology on a television show.

The 2000 skit on The Games was one of many culturally iconic moments dreamed up by John Clarke, a comedian and political satirist beloved in Australia and New Zealand.

Clarke’s family said the 68-year-old died Sunday of natural causes while taking photographs of birds in the Grampians National Park, a three-hour drive from his home in Melbourne, Australia. Friend and former colleague Ross Stevenson said Clarke died from a heart attack.

His death had people from both countries reminiscing about the skits and songs Clarke performed that often touched on the essence of life Down Under.

The apology in The Games, a mock documentary about the 2000 Sydney Olympics, resonated and was later read out in Parliament, becoming part of the official record.

Watch: the Australian ‘sorry’ skit dreamed up by John Clarke

“I speak for all Australians in expressing a profound sorrow to the Aboriginal people. I am sorry. We are sorry,” the actor John Howard says on the show.

“Let the world know and understand, that it is with this sorrow, that we as a nation will grow and seek a better, a fairer and a wiser future.”

Stevenson, who co-wrote the show, said the apology was Clarke’s idea.

“Every word of it was his,” Stevenson said. “It’s remarkably brilliant and poetic.”

Stevenson said Clarke had a great appreciation for the absurdity found in daily life and was driven by a passion for social causes and anger about injustice.

“He maintained that rage,” Stevenson said. “It never diminished for him.”

He said his friend’s death came as a shock because Clarke lived a healthy lifestyle and kept himself fit.

“As he liked to say, he dearly loved to commit golf,” Stevenson said.

Watch: the use of English language in Australia

Clarke was perhaps best known for his 27-year collaboration with Bryan Dawe producing weekly satirical political interviews.

Born in Palmerston North, New Zealand, Clark achieved fame in his home country before moving to Australia in the 1970s. He created the persona Fred Dagg, a gumboot-wearing farmer and archetypal good bloke.

As Dagg, Clarke performed a song about his gumboots, which are now on display in New Zealand’s national museum, Te Papa: “Now there’s rugby boots and racing boots, and boots for drinkin’ rum. But the only boots I’m never without are the ones that start with ‘gum’.”

New Zealand Prime Minister Bill English took time during a media conference Monday to reminisce about some of Clarke’s skits, saying he was “a man who showed us how to laugh at ourselves and created a rural vernacular for New Zealand.”

Jay Cassells, another friend and creative collaborator, said Clarke was a voracious reader and had a particular interest in poetry. He said Clarke was also a careful student of human nature but had the knack of being generous rather than cruel in his critiques.

Cassells recalled once leaving a show with his friend in Melbourne when an eager fan came up to Clarke and said “I love your work.”

“Oh,” Clarke replied. “You’re the one.”

Clarke is survived by his wife Helen; daughters Lorin and Lucia; grandchildren Claudia and Charles; and son-in-law Stewart Thorn.

-SCMP