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Humour’s warm refuge

by Angus Trumble, 25 July 2017

John Clarke, 2004 by Julian Kingma
John Clarke, 2004 by Julian Kingma

On Sunday 9 April 2017, the writer, comedian and satirist John Clarke died of a heart attack whilst hiking in the Grampians in the Western District of Victoria. He was sixty-eight.

The key to his particular form of mostly political satire was keenness of observation; precision in the writing; complete dryness of delivery; and, above all, hitting upon the truth. He mastered the medium of television with supreme economy, most notably in partnership with Bryan Dawe. Tributes flowed freely, especially from public figures who were most likely to have been the target of his dry wit. And his aim was formidably accurate.

Fred Dagg (John Clarke), 1982 by Rennie Ellis

When eminent Australians die, we at the National Portrait Gallery normally pay tribute by hanging their portrait and posting these on social media. The response is usually generous, but nothing prepared us for the scale or warmth of the public response to our portrait photograph of John Clarke by Julian Kingma. In the week following his death, John reached 54,535 people ‘organically’ on our Facebook page. At the same time, the image prompted the second-highest number of reactions noted through the previous twelve months. On Instagram, meanwhile, John’s post was by far the most popular we have ever recorded, with engagement five times that of the previous commemorative post. In response to our social media posts, John’s page on the National Portrait Gallery website received a 75,200 per cent increase in traffic.

Michael Leunig, Barry Humphries and John Clarke at Mietta's, 1989 (printed 2013) by Helga Leunig

Naturally, such facts are by no means an adequate measure of such a rich and varied life, but they are powerfully suggestive. John Clarke obviously reached across many sections of our community, as indeed he spanned the Tasman Sea and his audiences spanned generations. He stimulated much laughter over many years. His career is to some degree an illustration of the very power of comedy itself, because laughter, that shared energy of disinhibition, forms a warming oasis in the (at times) darker wasteland of daily routine, and, laughing, we yearn for the warmth to continue. John Clarke left us far too soon, but how very fortunate we were to have been warmed again and again by his humour.

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