Steve Braunias interviewed John Clarke - a man he describes as the gentle giant of New Zealand humour - in 1997. Here, he reminisces about that meeting.

He was a big guy, but he had this trick of barely taking up any room.

We met at his home in Melbourne, and he sort of crept around the place, as soft-footed as a cat, a gentle presence who seemed to have absolutely no need for that item of luggage which weighs down so many entertainers: an ego.

It wasn't so much that he was humble as that he just didn't give himself a second thought. His mind was on other things - the bits and pieces of daily life that were sad and funny at the same time, the way language changed when you held it up to the light. He loved poetry and all its magic tricks; some of his best and most closely observed satires were of poets whose work he loved.

He was a brilliant writer - like poetry, there was never a word too many - and the world's lousiest mimic. He wrote for his own voice.


Before he left New Zealand for Australia he toured in a kind of cabaret revue alongside talents including Paul Holmes, and he told me how great Holmes was at imitating a racetrack commentator, and had audiences in stitches night after night; he simply couldn't do that, he said, he didn't know how to.

He described Holmes as incandescent.

That's very nice of John, said Holmes, who always accepted a compliment. But the broadcaster said he was in Clarke's shadow. He said everyone on that tour felt the same. They were all aware they were in the presence of genius.

The interview with Clarke in Melbourne was in 1997. He thought of New Zealand as a sort of distant aunt. He had no desire to ever return. There simply wasn't the work and there was also the obstacle of New Zealand television programmers and executives, many of whom he affectionately regarded as vermin.

The thing I most remember him saying was that he never especially wanted to create something that made audiences burst out laughing. That didn't hold much interest for him, he said. What he wanted was to fine-tune something, work on the small details, that raised a smile.

He padded into the kitchen, made a cup of tea, fumbled around for some biscuits. He thought fast - you could almost hear the vast brain whirring - and talked slow.

He was a lovely guy. Every second in his company was a pleasure.