New Zealand's Janus Face: John Clarke we will long remember for encouraging us to laugh at pomp and power; Sir Douglas Myers for making us fear them.
TWO PROMINENT NEW ZEALANDERS died this week. One, a highly successful businessman; the other, a comic genius. Ironically, Sir Douglas Myers will be mourned by the sort of New Zealander who hated the fiercely egalitarian, social-democratic nation that John Clarke’s humour both celebrated and ennobled. That these haters were responsible for destroying “Fred Dagg’s” New Zealand only sharpens the poignancy of his creator’s departure. While John Clarke lived, the society which he chided and cherished maintained a peculiar posthumous existence. With his death, it passes over permanently into the realm of history.
The New Zealand which Sir Douglas Myers helped to create is, however, very much still with us. The wrenching economic and social deformations of the 1980s and 90s, which he did so much to promote, have hardened now into a rigid hierarchy of winners and losers. In 1970s New Zealand; the New Zealand of Fred Dagg; Jack wasn’t just as good as his master, he was, in all probability, and after taking all the relevant factors into consideration, better. To suggest such egalitarian heresies in twenty-first century New Zealand, however, would do very little to enhance Jack’s – or Jill’s – career prospects.
It was one of Sir Douglas Myers most bitter complaints that, in pre-Rogernomics New Zealand, businessmen were regarded with a mixture of derision and pity. The smartest people became doctors and lawyers, he recalled, or, if the doors to the medical and law schools were slammed in their faces, accountants. But only the real no-hopers, the certified dummies, went into business. The inheritor of the Myers family fortune set out to change all that. Like Ayn Rand, he made it his mission to turn capitalists into heroes.
It was an attitude which supplied an endless quantity of grist to John Clarke’s humour-mill. It wasn’t that he found greed funny, far from it. Where the humour lay was in the conviction of men like Myers that greed could somehow be imbued with high moral purpose. That, in the most memorable line from Oliver Stone’s movie, Wall Street: “Greed is good”. Nothing is more deserving of the satirist’s wit than the spectacle of sinners pretending to be saints.
But, if Clarke’s celebration of the seditious mixture of fundamental decency and rat-like cunning that makes up the ordinary Kiwi and Aussie won him huge audiences on both sides of the Tasman, it was received with cold fury by New Zealand’s political and bureaucratic elites.
There was something deeply subversive about Clarke’s humour. Like Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, his comic success flowed from the revolutionary notion that servants are smarter than their masters. Australia’s cultural gatekeepers took this as a given and happily sponsored Clarke’s genius. Not so, their Kiwi counterparts. As Clarke recalls of his days working for the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation: “I dealt with directors who thought they were comic geniuses and regarded me as a hired hand. I never had those problems in Australia.”
Perhaps it was Clarke’s gift for making the pompous and powerful feel that not only were they regarded as ridiculous by the people they bossed around, but also that, at any time, these servants might decide to cast their masters’ ridiculousness aside, that made him persona non grata. It is surely no accident that following Clarke’s self-imposed exile to Australia, New Zealand satire, or, at least, what passed for satire on New Zealand television, ceased to speak truth to power. Becoming, instead, a comedy of cruelty, in which the strong were lionised and the weak were mocked.
Which brings us back, neatly, to Sir Douglas Myers and his mission to elevate the businessperson to the highest rungs of the social ladder. Such a transformation could not, obviously, occur while those obsessed with making money were ridiculed. If New Zealand’s cradle to grave welfare state made its citizens comfortable enough to laugh at those who devoted their lives to accumulating wealth, then it would have to go.
As Clarke, from the other side of the Tasman, summarised its deliberate deconstruction:
“A social democracy with only one previous owner was asset-stripped and replaced by a series of franchises.”
We really did not know how lucky we were – until our luck ran out.
John Clarke we will long remember for encouraging us to laugh at pomp and power; Sir Douglas Myers for making us fear them.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 13 April 2017.