John Clarke, the man behind New Zealand cultural icon Fred Dagg, has died

John Clarke, the man behind an NZ icon, has died.

One of New Zealand and Australia's most well-known satirists, John Clarke - the man who created comic character Fred Dagg - has died at the age of 68. 

Dagg was hailed as the father of modern Kiwi comedy after it was confirmed that he had died on Sunday of natural causes while hiking in the Grampians National Park in Victoria. 

Clarke was best known for creating the laconic farmer Fred Dagg, but also enjoyed success as an author, actor, editor and screenwriter.

Comic actor John Clarke has died at 68.

Comic actor John Clarke has died at 68.

Live: The man behind NZ icon Fred Dagg has died
Fred Dagg was NZ in the 1970s
What a Dagg! The day John Clarke came home to Palmerston North


Clarke's first manager, television industry veteran John Barnett said: "He'll be missed all round the world. People in the - in the funny business if you like, they all knew John. Everybody knew John. And everybody respected him. The most incredible number of people will be completely devastated by what's happened."

John Clarke as Fred Dagg in 1978.

John Clarke as Fred Dagg in 1978.

Comedian Guy Williams called Clarke "our greatest ever political comedian".

"He's often not properly recognised for it because he worked mainly in Australia," Williams said. "New Zealand has only produced a few export quality comedians and he was one of them."

Williams said Fred Dagg was "obviously up there with Billy T as one of New Zealand's most iconic and loved characters", but it was a shame most Kiwis weren't aware of all his work once he crossed the Tasman. 

"Moving to Australia meant he would have to almost start again from by shedding Fred Dagg, a very risky move that is a testament to his talent. His work on the famous current affairs show A Current Affair and later on the ABC was so funny and scathing of political hypocrisy in Australia that he won over them over too! There's no many people who can shine in two countries with two completely different styles of comedy and that is an unbelievable achievement in my eyes.

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"This is a very selfish view but I'm amazed and sad that I never got to meet him. The Fred, the award for the best New Zealand show at our comedy festival is named after him, and I hope that I can win it some day."

Kiwi comedian and writer Oscar Kightley said simply, "he was the greatest".

John Clarke as Fred Dagg in 1976.

John Clarke as Fred Dagg in 1976.

"He was ahead of his time, I think. Before we were blessed with the likes of McPhail and Gadsby and Billy T, at a time when New Zealanders didn't think we were funny, John Clarke showed that he was a comedy genius."

Kightley had worked with Clarke on a number of projects, including Bro Town and Radiradirah.

When Kightley was looking to get Clarke involved with Bro Town, where he voiced Fred Dagg, he travelled to his home in Melbourne to convince him to take part. 

"He was a legend ... When people talk about the giants, he was the biggest, that we all kind of hung on to. Anyone who works in comedy now would know that."

Kightley said he took inspiration from Clarke and aimed to make comedy that took an inward look at real life.

"He was being funny about real things, but it was just his understated subtle take. He was an absolute grand master and you know, we've lost an icon really."

Comedian Jesse Griffin said Fred Dagg was a heavy influence on his own musical alter-ego, Wilson Dixon.

"John personified that dry Kiwi understated humour which certainly has influenced me, and you can see it through the work of Flight of the Conchords, and Taika Waititi's films, and The Front Lawn," Griffin said. "That celebration of the mundane, that dry observation... he was the first to really bring that out in a performative way. He will be sadly missed."

Cartoonist Tom Scott, who co-wrote the screenplay for the animated movie Footrot Flats, in which Clarke voiced Wal Footrot, said: "It's one of the very rare occasions where people are grieving both sides of the Tasman.

John Clarke as Fred Dagg riffing on Daylight Savings in 1976.

John Clarke as Fred Dagg riffing on Daylight Savings in 1976.

"Australia is a more primitive, backward country than New Zealand on matters of equality and social justice and racial issues, so John was even more important to Australia than he was to us.

"A lot of liberals in Australia turned to John for a little dose of sanity in the Howard years and I saw him recently doing a Donald Trump impersonation and it was brilliant and I thought John, tucked away in Melbourne, was just as funny as Jimmy Kimmel, just as funny as Stephen Colbert, just as funny as Bill Maher, just as funny as Seth Meyers.

"He was still absolutely 100 per cent relevant and necessary and it wasn't as though he was in his autumn years, with his best days behind him, he was still firing. He was a wonderful dad, a wonderful grandfather and a very good friend; a lovely man."

The actor Tony Barry worked with Clarke in one of his first major acting roles, the 1975 sitcom Buck House. 

"He was such a beautiful man, but more important than that he was a jester of great magnitude and moral courage. He could take the piss in a manner that politicians and such couldn't take offence. The size of his heart was matched only by the size of his brain. He was very smart but more than that he was wise, he was aware of just how much the world needed the wisdom that he was able to impart."


John Clarke as Fred Dagg.

John Clarke as Fred Dagg.

Born in Palmerston North, Clarke studied at Victoria University before heading to London, where he gained his first breakthrough with a part in the 1972 Barry Humphries comedy The Adventures of Barry McKenzie.

Clarke came home 1973, and was in the cast of New Zealand's first sitcom, the student-flat comedy Buck House

By then, Clarke had already pioneered his iconic character Fred Dagg in short TV sketches and a Country Calendar 'spoof' edition.

Dagg's instant success turned into TV specials and a short film, Dagg Day Afternoon (which Clarke made with Goodbye Pork Pie director Geoff Murphy), a nationwide tour, books, and even singles - most famously, We Don't Know How Lucky We Are. Fred Dagg's Greatest Hits remains one of New Zealand's best selling albums.

Clarke moved to Australia in 1977, and soon made an impact, particularly in a series of satirical interview slots with Australian writer Bryan Dawe which mocked major Australian politicians.

In his later career, Clarke worked as a writer and script editor on major Australian cinematic works, including The Man Who Sued God (2000) and Crackerjack (2002). 


Prime Minister Bill English denies he got his accent off Fred Dagg.

He was also behind The Games, a series which mocked the Sydney Olympics organising committee.

In 1987, Clarke returned home to play the part he'd been auditioning for for more than a decade, Wal the Kiwi farmer in the film adaptation of Murray Ball's Footrot Flats

Clarke's company Huntaway Films, formed with Sam Neill, delivered TV movies based on the Murray Whelan novels written by Shane Maloney about a political spin doctor turned MP played by David Wenham.

Clarke's last works for a New Zealand audience included adding Fred Dagg's voice to episodes of Bro Town and the sketch show Radiradirah.

Clarke was also a prolific writer, publishing more than 20 books in his lifetime - including A Dagg at my TableThe Howard Miracle and The 7.56 Report


Prime Minister Bill English said Clarke's "humour captured the experience of life in NZ and Australia".

Clarke was "a man who showed us how to laugh at ourselves and created a rural vernacular for New Zealand".

English said he particularly remembered, from recent years "his satire about the Sydney Olympics was just brilliant".

"Those Clark and Dawe skits that they do - very dry, and sometimes brilliant.

"Going back it was just the songs, the cartoon character and the songs about 'if it weren't for your gumboots' and 'how lucky you are'."

Asked if he got his accent from Clarke "or did he get it from you" English said: "I feel flattered. I put a lot of work into this accent. I'm pleased you noticed."

But he didn't call any of his children "Trev" though? "I would have to call the whole lot Trev – all six of them – it wouldn't have worked too well."

Broadcaster John Campbell called the news "bloody sad". 

Filmmaker Taika Waititi said Clarke was "hugely influential". 

"He was one of the fathers of NZ's style of comedy. We all copied him at some point."

New Zealand's national museum, Te Papa, emphasised Clarke - and Dagg's - place in the cultural landscape with a picture of Dagg's trusty gumboots. 

Broadcaster Hilary Barry said: "Thanks for all the laughs John and for giving us Fred, a true kiwi gem."

John Clarke - a timeline
1948 - born, Palmerston North
1972 - gets break through role in The Adventures of Barry McKenzie
1973 - returns to New Zealand, in Buck House, New Zealand's first sitcom
1974 - first appearance as Fred Dagg, in Country Calendar
1975 - releases first singles as Fred Dagg including We Don't Know How Lucky We Are, followed by first album, Fred Dagg's Greatest Hits
1976 - releases Gumboots and album Fred Dagg Live
1977 - makes sketch film Dagg Day Afternoon with Geoff Murphy
1977 - moves to Melbourne, Australia, appears as Dagg on Australian radio
1979 - final album, The Fred Dagg Tapes, released
1982 - nominated for Australian Film Institute award for writing work on film Lonely Hearts
1984 - performs as Fred Dagg on Australian satire show The Gillies Report, introducing world to fictional sport of "farnarkeling"
1985 - co-creates comedy series The Fast Lane
1986 - returns to New Zealand to voice Wal Footrot in Footrot Flats film
1988 - apperars alongside Temuera Morrison in Geoff Murphy's Never Say Die
1989 - starts doing satirical interviews with Bryan Dawe on A Current Affair
1990 - stars with Bryan Brown, Russell Crowe and George Takei in POW film Blood Oath (also known as Prisoners of the Sun), also stars in black comedy Death in Brunswick with Sam Neill
1996 - publishes writing collection A Dagg At My Table
1998 - writes and acts in mockumentary series The Games
2002 - appears as villain in film Crackerjack, publishes novel The Tournament about a tennis competition starring giants of 20th-century literature and thinking
2004 - works with Sam Neill on films Stiff and The Brush-off, based on Shane Maloney's "Murray Whelan" book series
2006 - works on Bro Town with the Naked Samoans comedy group
2008 - inducted into Logies Hall of Fame
2013 - mock interviews with Bryan Dawe become own show, Clarke and Dawe
2017 -  dies while hiking in the Grampians National Park in Victoria, aged 68

 - Stuff


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