Dawe, Morrow and Gessen – Satire and The Rise Of Populism

Satirist Bryan Dawe (left) and comedian Julian Morrow at Integrity 20. Photo by Frances Harper

Actor/satirist Bryan Dawe has such a low-key, laconic approach to ‘giving a talk’ that the journalistic instinct to take notes deserted me. Dawe is the surviving half of the satirical act Clarke & Dawe, but he is much more than that. He told the audience at Griffith University’s Integrity 20 Summit that when it came to political satire, he and John Clarke had never been short of material over 25 years of producing their weekly TV show.

Dawe introduced one of his best-known satirical characters, boozy retired judge Sir Murray Rivers QC; Dawe as interviewer/straight man to Sir Murray’s confused bigot. His presentation was funny; funny and sad, as he often referenced his late partner in satire John Clarke, who died in April this year. Dawe’s ‘talk’ would have been illuminating for the year 11 and 12 students attending Integrity 20, as Dawe summarised his unhappy days at school where he left early after being told by a careers adviser he would not amount to anything because he came from the ‘wrong postcode’.

Dawe joined Julian Morrow of The Chaser and The Checkout for a discussion on satire, comedy and how to know when you’ve gone too far. When asked that question by panel chair Rebecca Levingston, both agreed that nothing was off limits.

While agreeing that one could satirise and make jokes about anything, Morrow conceded that The Chaser’s skits post-9/11 were “too soon”. Levingston prompted Morrow to revisit the time The Chaser (a TV satire show), penetrated security at the 2007 APEC conference in Sydney with a fake motorcade transporting a ‘Mr bin laden of Canada’. As Morrow recalled “We never expected to succeed.”

Both satirists agreed that there are powerful people who always try to have good satire shut down, probably because nothing is funnier than the truth, greatly exaggerated. The trick, said Dawe, was not to engage with critics, trolls and others whose power base was being diminished by The Chaser’s sharp sketches or by John Clarke’s familiar introduction: “Thanks for having me, Bryan.”

Bryan Dawe’s presentation was the ideal tone for Integrity 20’s afternoon session, which followed serious and at times contrary debate about hate speech, free speech, censorship, the global rise of populism and how to destroy democracy.

Masha Gessen, photo by Bengt Oberger, Wikipedia CC

You may have heard Richard Fidler on Conversations interviewing Masha Gessen, an exiled Russian American journalist and author. Her speech ‘How to Destroy Democracy’ and later contribution to a panel discussion on populism was a highlight of Integrity 20.

New York-based Gessen outlined the seven lessons in ‘imagining the worse’, in which the rise of populism destroys democracy. These include destroying the sense of participation, conspiracy myth-making, and engaging in the ‘forever war’, (which in the US means a 16-year war against ‘terrorism’, an unidentifiable foe, with no end point in sight).

Gessen, an outspoken critic of Donald Trump, also referred to the way democracy could be destroyed simply by degrading language.

“Trump is a master at that. He lies and lies to convince you that something that’s not true is true. There’s no way for a journalist not to quote his lies.

“Trump says he’s the subject of a witch hunt when that’s the opposite of what he means. He creates word salad and makes it difficult to work out what it all means. It’s a direct assault on how we all live because language is the main tool we use to co-exist.”

Even while Gessen was articulating this I was thinking about former PM Tony Abbott’s ludicrous comments about goats, volcanoes and climate change. However daft the comments seemed, journalists had no option but to quote what he actually said at a climate conference in London.

As Ricky Gervais said this week in a thought-provoking tweet:

Some opinions are so stupid they hurt my feelings. But that’s my problem. It’s a person’s right to hold as stupid an opinion as they like. (@rickygervais):

A panel discussion followed on the global rise of populism. Panel chair Luke Stegemann summarised the rise of populism in countries including Italy, Poland, the UK, France and Germany. “Australia is not immune by any means,” he added, citing the resurgence of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation and how it taps into the frustrations, racism and bigotry of people who are angry about immigration and furious about globalisation and the perceived impact these issues have on their jobs.

One ought to keep in mind that populism − a movement for the people and against a privileged elite − can occur across a broad political spectrum. It is possible, as panellist Geoffrey Robertson QC observed, to have left-wing populism.

The origins of populism date back to the 1800s when rural peasants revolted against their robber baron landlords. Today it is more about polarising the electorate and pitting angry poor people against (poor and possibly angry) immigrants and asylum seekers.

The privileged elite seem to survive with wealth intact, whichever way the populist wind is blowing.

Rachel Kleinfeld of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said the common perception was that supporters of populism are racists and bigots.

“There is a racist fringe but the core of populism is about high inequality and why people don’t understand why politicians don’t listen.”

Geoffrey Robertson said young people were disenchanted about the rampant capitalism that democracy encourages. This was in response to Kleinfeld’s comment that only 52% of people aged 18 to 29 think it is preferable to live in a democracy. Robertson said the key threat imposed by populist leaders was the attempt to replace an independent judiciary with their own people.

Kleinfeld made comparisons between Donald Trump and outsider president Andrew Jackson (1828-1834), who enjoyed two terms and put his successor, Martin Van Buren, in place to ensure 12 years of a populist government.

The Atlantic made much of the Trump/Jackson similarities.

“Jackson, like Trump, won over many white working-class voters, who brushed aside critics who warned that he was unstable and a would-be dictator. He maintained their loyalty even though, like Trump, he was of the elite.”

I can’t recall who started it, but it seemed all panellists agreed that Trump, despite being widely reviled, would easily take another term in office. They didn’t say so, but it seems obvious that Trump has a like-minded and seemingly un-impeachable successor in Mike Pence sitting on the bench (wearing a Martin Van Buren t-shirt).

If you were not yet confused about populism and its multiple meanings, Cas Mudde, a professor at the University of Georgia, coined the phrase “thin ideology”. This means to merely set up a framework: pure people versus a corrupt elite. Thin ideology can be attached to all sorts of “thick” ideologies such as socialism, nationalism, anti-imperialism or racism.

I will leave it to the reader to decide what type of populism exists in Australia.

Monday I’ve got Friday on my mind

I leave you with a tribute to the late George Young, who co-wrote the song from which this essay takes its name. Young and co-writer Harry Vanda and their band The Easybeats had an international hit with Friday on My Mind in 1967. Here’s a terrific cover from Richard Thompson and band from the album 1000 Years of Popular Music. (Please don’t listen to the Bruce Springsteen version that comes up after that…Ed)


Thanks for having me, Bryan – a tribute to John Clarke

Cyclone Malcolm, image used with permission from the website mrjohnhclarke.com.

John Clarke has died of natural causes while bushwalking in Victoria’s Grampian Mountains. Clarke, best-known for the long-running ABC political skit Clarke & Dawe, was 68.

Sad way to start a week, hearing about the demise of Mr John Clarke, Dip Lid, PhD in Cattle (Oxen), advisor and comforter to various governments. Still, we like to think he is now having a celestial ale with the likes of Murray Ball, Bunny Walters and Phil Garland.

Clarke, the same age as your correspondent, initially found fame in his native New Zealand by creating the iconic gumboot-wearing, singlet-clad Kiwi farmer, Fred Dagg, father of seven boys, all named Trev.

John Clarke had a long and varied career in Australian film and television. He wrote film scripts, starred in films (he was the voice of Wal the dog in Footrot Flats), and was a regular on television in the 1980s and 1990s, including The Gilllies Report and a series he wrote and starred in, The Games.

He also wrote the original script for The Man Who Sued God, starring Billy Connolly. Don Watson wrote the final screenplay, but as movie reviewer David Stratton observed, Clarke’s ultra-dry approach to satire (exemplified in the Olympics spoof, “The Games”), can be detected at the heart of the film.

Clarke was best known for his ‘mockumentaries’ – satire in the form of the television interview. His long-running collaboration with Bryan Dawe first ran on the Nine Network in 1989 then was relaunched in 2000 on the ABC’s 7.30 Report.

For 27 years John Clarke and Bryan Dawe continued to broadcast a weekly satirical interview in which prominent figures spoke about matters of public importance. John pretended to be someone he wasn’t pretending to be and Bryan, the straight man, contained his frustration.

They outlived other ABC attempts at satire including The Roast, The Glass House and Good News Week, all axed or moved to short-lived stints on commercial TV.

Satire, rare as a hen’s pecker

Sharp, subtle satire is thin on the ground in Australia. Good written satire is rarer still. Toowoomba residents might remember Sir John Branscombe, a satirical writer of merit hiding behind a pseudonym and a pith helmet. Branscombe used clever anagrams to pillory 1980s-era politicians with his series of letters from the remote mountain village of Motowoboa, ruled by one King Elvic. It’s a shame no-one has revived this subtle style of satire, where you get away with a lot by inventing a Swiftian world that vaguely resembles the one you live in.

When Mad as Hell won a Logie in 2016, Anthony Morris (SBS) asked whether Australian satire was on its way back or too far gone to be saved. Morris took us back to 1966 when the Mavis Bramston Show won three Logies, arguably the last time we had good satire on Australian TV. Twenty years later came the Gillies Report (aided and abetted by John Clarke and Brian Dawe). The 1980s was a period when comedy spiced with satire prevailed – the Aunty Jack Show, the Norman Gunston Show, Rubbery Figures and Australia, You’re Standing In It.

It’s easy to dismiss the Logies as a popularity contest,” writes Morris. “But comedy is meant to be popular – if nobody’s laughing, then it’s not working.”

“Put another way, Rove McManus has 16 Logies, including three Gold; The Chaser team has none.”

Last year, Mad as Hell and Gruen won Logies which sums up the state of satire in Australia, not counting in this context the Clarke & Dawe Thursday spot on the ABC.

When inducted into the Logies Hall of Fame in 2008, the then 60-year-old John Clarke typically quipped: “I’m inclined to regard this as a youth encouragement award. I’m deeply grateful and will do what I can.”

The final episode, maybe

Good evening Prime Minister and thank you for coming in at such short notice.

My pleasure, Bryan, or should I say my sadness for your loss.

Not just my loss Prime Minister, also John’s family and the people of Australia who admired his keen sense of political satire.

And his virile baldness, Bryan, although I never quite got his pretending to be me, or Tony, or Julia, or the little bloke from Queensland. He didn’t look like any of us or try to sound like us.

Yes but he got away with it through deadpan humour and taking on some of the traits of the person he was impersonating.

Quite, Bryan, but why am I really here?

We wanted to ask you about your trip to Papua New Guinea.

What trip to Papua New Guinea?

You know, across the waters from Cape York, where you keep asylum seekers locked away, out of sight and mind.

Oh that Papua New Guinea.

You’ve been accused of interfering in PNG’s sovereignty by visiting just a few days prior to a general election.

Well the ABC said that. I never said that.

They also said you were ‘tight-lipped’ over the fate of refugees held on Manus Island, even when a PNG court has ruled that their detention on Manus is illegal.

I don’t know about tight-lipped. It’s just the way God made my face.

You congratulated Papua New Guinea for making “significant progress” in resettling 1,000 asylum seekers who are in their fourth year in PNG. We’re hearing that fewer than 20 have been resettled, is that right?

Well I’m not there now, Bryan. It’s very hard to know what’s going on when you’re not actually boots on the ground in PNG. As they say in the Highlands, Mi no save nating long dispela samting! Nice touch providing Niugini Gold in the green room, by the way.

And then you went on to India for what were said to be business meetings. Was one of those meetings with executives from Adani?

Oh good try, Bryan. No, we try very hard to stay out of State government affairs and if Queensland wants Adani to build an export coal mine in their State, good luck to them I say.

So you did meet with Adani?

Don’t put words in my mouth Bryan. As I said, it is State government business, even though the Federal Environment minister has the last word on approvals.

So is he going to approve it?

Early days, Bryan. Early days. But now let me ask you a question.

Oh, well, why not?

Many of my colleagues have been fans of Clarke & Dawe, for years, Bryan, years. They have all the boxed sets from the ABC or their own private copies. Sometimes we watch replays before cabinet meetings. You’ve become famous, but now you’re a man down. What are you going to do about that?

Someone will step up, Prime Minister.

(Waggles eyebrows and makes like Groucho Marx). I like to follow the horses, Bryan. But the horses I like to follow also like to follow the horses.

Don’t give up your day job, Prime Minister. Thanks for coming in.

The pleasure and the sadness was all mine.