Why is John Clarke so funny? And why now?

Last night my kids were watching the swimming championships on the tele and the National Bank ad came on. “You said you wanted us to listen. So we listened. You said you wanted better service: We’ve given you better service”. Or whatever it says.

Then we switched to John Clarke and Brian Dawe ending the 7.30 Report.

Why is John Clarke so funny? And why now?

A little while ago I discovered the little monograph “On Bullshit“. I think I ran into it on Kieren Healey’s recent post at Crooked Timber. But it’s received no play that I can see in the Oz blogosphere. It is of course very funny to have a retired academic philosopher of some standing dressed in his daggy clothes intoning with all the usual seriousness, with every second sentence containing the word “bullshit, bullshitter, bullshittee etc.

Is there more of it about these days?

I usually reach instinctively to press the button that says “you can’t be so sure its worse (or better) now” on such subtle cultural things. But I’m afraid I’m sure there’s lots more of it now. We’re swimming in the stuff. You can do degrees in it – PR that is.

For those who don’t want to go read the book, it’s very short as a book but still long winded and ponderous given its provenance, the essence of bullshit according to the author Harry G. Frankfurt is that the bullshitter is not a liar. The liar cares enough about truth to tell a lie. The truth matters to him. The bullshitter however doesn’t care one way or the other. He might be speaking truth or not, its of no consequence.

Here are a few random observations, and I’d be interested in the reactions of others:

1. Although Frankfurt made a big splash with the essay when he first wrote it –I think around 1986 – there’s not been (from my pretty casual inspection) a burgeoning literature on it. Though it’s a major phenomenon, there’s not a lot to say about it other than that Frankfurt is right. No doubt others have jumped into the fray, but I only saw reference to one other important paper Cohen’s “Deeper into Bullshit”.

2. Though of course puncturing the pretentiousness of bullshit is an old sport going back at least to Socrates, Orwell might have been the first to make a serious political project of identifying and opposing bullshit as the handmaiden of the corruption of political sentiment.

3. As already observed, John Clarke is the comedian of bullshit par excellence. His whole style exploits the hilarity of people saying ‘X’ when the truth could be ‘Y’, ‘X’ or ‘not-X’. His stylistic trajectory (or what I know of it) was this. He began with Fred Dagg reducing serious things to silly ones. I’ll always remember his history of Western Philosophy and Literature. “The French were a jumpy bunch of garcons at the best of times and none more than Rene Descartes who reckoned that he didn’t exist” . . . “The Russians experimented with the thickness of the novel and discovered that it could become very thick indeed”. But his metamorphosis came when he did the Farnarkling reports on the Gillies Report: a sports report of high hilarity in which the reporter’s overbearing and desperate assertion of the utter seriousness of his absurd words was the essence of the gag. This morphed very easily into his current format. Farnarkling was pure bullshit.

4. Kevin Drum had this to say about “a key characteristic of bullshit: not just that the bullshitter knows he’s bullshitting, but that the bullshittee also knows it. He may know it for sure, or he may just suspect it deep in his heart, but part of the essence of bullshit is that both sides implicitly recognize that the statement in question is, in fact, bullshit. In this way it acts like a compact between spewer and receiver, a shared secret that brings them closer together. Thus the piquancy of bullshit, as well as its popularity”.

5. The program Frontline was about bullshit. I remember the writers being interviewed saying that they had not got their insights from working in current affairs. Just as someone once commented that George Orwell didn’t understand the Soviet Union from experiencing it direct, but by having boarded at Eton, so none of the Frontline crew had seen current affairs from the inside. You don’t need to. You can see right through a program like A Current Affair by just watching at the front end with eyes to see (or perhaps I should say with a brain to see). Its bullshit piled up.

6. At the time of the ‘cash for comment’ scandal, I knew various people older than me who said “now Alan Jones and John Laws are finished”. I never thought it would hurt their ratings. It didn’t. When I was a kid in grade 5 I used to listen to Garner Ted Armstrong, an evangelist on the radio. I had been brought up by devout atheists and I didn’t really take in what I was being told as being true or false. I liked the cadence of speech, the simplicity and predicability of the positions taken, the compelling tone. People listen to talk-back radio or at least shock jocks like that. They don’t care if its true or not. They are being entertained. But I expect that paradoxically, if things get said as obvious truisms on those shows, it produces subtle shifts in people’s views, in what is thinkable and sayable and what’s not. It becomes possible. I guess Goebbels knew this.

All these thoughts lead me to the conclusion that the right response to bullshit (other than the passive one of letting it pass which will often be the appropriate thing to do) is comedy. Bullshit is funny. Listen to the plug for Fran Kelly on ABC Radio National at the moment. Talk about a hoot. A lot of the most hubristic acts of bullshit intimidate us to take them seriously, when they are in fact quite absurd. Having bullshitted a fair bit in my time, I reckon a belly laugh from the bullshitee is what the bullshitter fears most. When faced with the most hubristic bullshit (“Fran Kelly is there She’s there for you, asking the tough questions blah blah blah”) it’s the best we can do to respond to what’s being inflicted on us.

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18 Responses to Why is John Clarke so funny? And why now?

  1. John Morhall says:

    Frankfurter’s bullshit essay surfaced last week in the Australian, I think at the weekend. Bullshitting is clearly an art, although I have never regarded piquancy as being an indicative characteristic. Clarke’s timing is perfect, coupled with that supercilious grin – last night’s performance on Malcolm Turnbull, bullshit imitating bullshit, was superb. FLoreat taurum excrementum

  2. cs says:

    ‘bullshitting’, as in doing it to novices, and ‘bullshit’, as in not taking any, also have an important place in Australian masculinity, where they can morph into bullying on one side, and anti-intellectualism on another.

    I always recall the time when I had won my phd scholarship, and had to front up and ask my boss for extended leave. This was a very big organisation, wherein I was so junior I had never before got to talk to the boss. Having nervously explained my position and made my pitch, the big boss looked down at me from his full six-and-half-foot and replied:

    “Bachelor’s degree, bullshit; master’s degree, more of it; phd, piled higher and deeper”,

    And with that, off he went to do other tasks. When I recounted this, despairingly, to my day-to-day boss, he laughed his head off and told me I had got it, and that the boss had just been bullshitting me, and he had been, in an early po-mo style. What strange codes we have, us blokes.

  3. I suggest that there isn’t enough of the right kind of bullshitting. Bullshitting is generally polite, enjoyable and allows for “face saving”, flexibility and dignity in the myriad of complex negotiations and shifts in thinking and doing required to cooperate in everyday life and the workplace. In other words a social lubricant.

    The high value placed on “honesty”, “blunt talking” and “getting to the point” is missing the point.

    After all the whole point of flattery is not that you believe the flatterer but that you can appreciate that the flatterer thinks you are important enough to flatter – and vice versa.

    I say lets have more bullshit of the right type.

  4. Stephen Hill says:

    You can always go for the bullshit with certain organs removed and you have bullocks.

  5. jen says:

    ‘I reckon a belly laugh from the bullshitee is what the bullshitter fears most.’
    Nuh, a belly laugh from the bullshittee denotes intimate and immediate kinship. The fulsome recognition of absolute crap is almost as satisfying as sex.

    HG and Roy do a good line in bullshit. ‘Yes well Roy, as a former member of the Olympic swimming team, what would you say to the kiddies now, who love their coach and learn to APPRECIATE the value of play?
    Er well HG as you know. We never played. No. It was in the pool. Up and down and up and down, week in week out, then a quick run around Sydney and back in the pool again before dinner. I think play is a very overrated concept HG. You’re not meant to ENJOY your sport, you’re not there for yourself! You’re there for the people of Australia and I think that the young swimmers of today would do well to GO BACK, GO BACK, to the up and down, to the constant running etc etc etc

    And can someone remember – what was the name of that legendary football team coached by Rampaging Roy Slaven. They made the 90’s SOUND good didn’t they?

  6. Rafe says:

    One of the many high spots of HG and Roy was a segment where they were talking about the recovery of the Manly fullback from concussion. The brainy one did a quick summary of the “three brains” theory (reptile, mammal, human) that Koestler popularised in The Ghost in the Machine, the point being that under the influence of concussion the higher brains were disabled and the player had to operate with the more primitive reptilian brain. It sounded like bullshit but there was more to it.

  7. Jason Soon says:

    ” suggest that there isn’t enough of the right kind of bullshitting. Bullshitting is generally polite, enjoyable and allows for “face saving”, flexibility and dignity in the myriad of complex negotiations and shifts in thinking and doing required to cooperate in everyday life and the workplace. In other words a social lubricant.”

    FXH – there are some people who think along your lines, but I still say that Asian societies are full of too much bullshit

  8. Yes I should have included Roy and HG – particularly enjoyable bullshit artists who also show us the link between bullshit (of a generally enjoyable and benign kind) and our own culture. Clarke’s stuff seems to me to be more incisive – a distinctive respose to a cultural phenomenon which, at least in its degree and quantity seems to me to be new.

    One other point worth raising, so it seems to me is that back in the old days a politician might spend the best part of a generation in the wilderness before returning to favour, one’s stance having been vindicated. The obvious and archetypical example was Winston Churchill. These days the media report breathlessly and without the slightest shame on politicians ‘repositioning’ themselves over the course of an afternoon.

    The two hour trip to the wilderness.

  9. James Farrell says:

    The cartoon had me giggling all evening, Nicholas. More of those would be welcome.

    I agree on the genius of Clarke and Dawe, but I’m not sure what you mean by ‘now’. They’ve been at it for more than a decade.

    On the other hand, it’s a mystery to me what people see in Roy and HG. Satirising Rex Mossop and his ilk would have made for a few hilarious sketches, but with severly diminishing returns. How you can make a whole career out of that concept is beyond me. Maybe you need to be a rugby fan.

  10. scot says:

    Jen: Lithgow Shamrocks.

  11. jen says:

    thankyou it’s been troubling me all weekend and causing tension and havok in our otherwise peaceful household.

    Parish, PARISH! Parish, the LITHGOW SHAMROCKS! I
    Roy and HG
    sarcasm always does become you jen,
    but Parish you’re NEVER interested in what I’VE got to say. You just listen to EVERYBODY else and when I join in you IGNORE me. hoo hooo hooo

  12. jen says:

    FXH and jason

    ” suggest that there isn’t enough of the right kind of bullshitting. Bullshitting is generally polite, enjoyable and allows for “face saving”, flexibility and dignity in the myriad of complex negotiations and shifts in thinking and doing required to cooperate in everyday life and the workplace. In other words a social lubricant.”

    or manners.

  13. Ender says:

    I thought the highlight of John Clarke was the incredibly funny “The Games”. I watched it on DVD the other week and it still had me in stiches. I often wonder if someone actually did wander into the AOC office and say “Hello – I am Mr Sydney Olympic Games”

  14. MrLefty says:

    “The Front Fell Off”. Genius.

  15. Jim Bass says:

    You guys don’t get it. On Bullshit–is Bullshit! It not only describes bullshit, but is itself a superbly crafted example. Frankfurt is not sincere– he’s poking fun at his own profession. The true genius of the piece is that philosophers are the least likely to figure it out. A true bullshit artist spots it at a glance, and admires it for what it is. Hats off to Frankfurt for puncturing the over-inflated balloon of philosophical pretension.

  16. Nicholas Gruen says:

    This article makes it clear that I wasn’t alone listening to evangelists in the middle of the night.

    • John Walker says:

      I have a small book by a Greek orthodox theologian : ” The American folk religion , heresy ” (covering what to do about it and how to deal its adherents ).

      Speaking as a mainstream Anglican , much , perhaps most, of American ‘evangelical fringe’ is so strange , unrecognisable.

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