Gun-toting cops patrolling the street on push-bikes, incredulous beggars ("waddya mean ya got no Aussie dollars?"), and a passer-by who gives my companion the thumbs-up. "Give John Howard hell, mate ... "
This is John Clarke's world, the Melbourne inner-city suburb of Fitzroy. Clarke, our former Fred Dagg, has lived here for 20 years; he's used to people saying hi. From now on, though, they may address him more formally: "Give John Howard hell, Dr Clarke ... "
On Thursday night in the Zinc bar in Melbourne's Federation Square, Clarke received an honorary doctorate from Victoria University in Wellington, the university where he studied arts and law from 1967-70 but from which he never graduated because, as he says, "I was much less interested in the curricular activities than I was in the social and creative activities."
That's not a euphemism for student years spent partying hard, either. In Clarke's case, it meant "finding out who I was, meeting people, talking to people ... by partying. I don't think it would have mattered if we were drinking tea or wine, as long as you kept talking. Talking is the first draft of quite a lot of other things."
Clarke's history as a great talker in his early career in New Zealand as Fred Dagg has been too well-documented to need any repeating here, except to say we lost him to Australia. Over the Tasman he has developed a first-rate career as a trenchant TV satirist in shows like A Current Affair, Frontline and The Games; screenwriter (the terrific Death in Brunswick with his mate, actor Sam Neill; Lonely Hearts, made by Paul Cox); and a political and media commentator for the ABC, where he still has a weekly show, The 7.30 Report, made with long-time collaborator Bryan Dawe.
When Victoria University first approached Clarke, who turns 59 next month, about the doctorate, Clarke says he thought, "Hmmm. My first reaction was to ask for some synched music, ponder the matter, and gradually talk to them over time and realise what a great kindness it is."
Now, he concludes, "It means the university understands that not all of the fabulous things are necessarily to do with the courses at university. There is another aspect of being at university which is to do with creative ideas - I would say that is a good thing for people to realise because if you find you enjoy doing things creatively and you can't make a living out of it, you shouldn't undervalue it. You should keep interested anyway because they are where the roots go into the ground for you."
Thursday night's ceremony was attended by Clarke's friends and family, including Sam Neill and a host of friends from the transtasman media and acting fraternity.
The event was hosted by Victoria University vice-chancellor Pat Walsh and the main citation was read by Chancellor Professor Tim Beaglehole.
Clarke looked fetching in a flowing red satin gown which was later accessorised with a pale pink cape and black cap. He made an acceptance speech referring to the happy years he had spent at Vic, a time he called the Big Bang where "humour was the major we studied".
Clarke quipped that the contingent who had come over from New Zealand were only there because of "a rugby game being played here on Saturday" (the All Blacks v Australia, on tonight), which he hoped to attend himself.
"Last time, when the World Cup was on in town, I said, 'I'm just going out to shift the car', and came back the next day."
He and Neill may have sore pre-match heads today. After Thursday night's party, the two close friends - who have known each other since their student days - spent most of yesterday recording a commentary for a new DVD edition of black comedy Death In Brunswick, which Clarke directed and wrote the screenplay for.
Neill, Clarke and another partner have a loose business, Huntaway Productions, "an umbrella entity under which the three of us park a vehicle" for various solo and group projects. Clarke describes his professional life as a "patchwork quilt of activities".
"Some of them are regular - work which feeds off news and current affairs in the political satire area, on TV and radio. Now and again a project will come along that's a bit bigger, for which you require a serious amount of funding to develop and you need to form a separate entity to do that."
A couple of years ago, he and Neill made two tele-features from the Murray Whelan novels by Melbourne writer Shane Maloney, also a friend. Clarke's usual channel, the ABC, didn't want them, so the two movies were shown on Channel 7 and broke ratings records.
"The ABC has the best audience, a very smart, discerning, interested and loyal audience," says Clarke. "If you go elsewhere, they will follow you. So when 7 screened Murray Whelan, the people who watched it came from the ABC - that's why we won the ratings and got two audiences."
Clarke gets annoyed when he hears that audiences in New Zealand think he/Fred Dagg is the voice of the KiwiBank ads. "No, I am not. There are some people in New Zealand who have tried to replicate Mr Dagg's dulcet tones without consulting me and it's not something that pleases me. I don't tend to do advertisements and I would like the right to say no. My grandmother used to say, 'leave the table slightly hungry, don't overdo it'. And I tried to leave [the business of Fred Dagg] so everyone would have a fond memory of it, so for other people to strip-mine it really annoys me. We are looking at some of those things."
He thinks the public in Australia and New Zealand are increasingly poorly served by television in news and current affairs.
"I remember watching TV when I was a teenager and roaring with laughter at the news, at the idea that people like Holyoake, who I found intrinsically amusing, were involved with what was going on.
"But there has been quite a change. In the 60s, a foreign company wanting to open an aluminium smelter in Bluff really struggled to get the Government to take their phone call. Nowadays the Government has got its pants off pretty smartly and there are all sorts of aspects to the infrastructures that are not even owned by us any more, [they're] owned by people whose instinct is to profit, not the wellbeing or service of the public."
Although Clarke moved to Melbourne in the mid-80s, we still could have stayed in touch with him on-screen. "There was a New Zealander who was the chief executive on Channel 9 where I was working at the time, and they had a reciprocal news arrangement with TVNZ. He and I engineered my weekly column to be regarded as news content which they could have for nothing. FREE. Twenty years later, nothing. So I did try - I didn't want the money, I just wanted my stuff to be seen in New Zealand, that was my first audience.
"When I came here, basically all I did was change my name to John Clarke. I note that the Nobel Prize has never been won by a TV executive. Television, in my experience, is run by people who think they are clever operating a medium for a large audience of stupid people, when the reverse is true."
Clarke regards it as his job "not to flatter" politicians, but says it's more complex than making them "dislike, fear or be upset by me".
"The definition of my job is a bit harder. I would certainly offer them a critique of their argument - but not say flatly that the person is a dickhead. I talk about the language they use, the ways they are not telling the truth. It is the traditional work of any satirically minded person in the street. But then there are things you just have to read about politicians and they provide the satire without you having to do any work."
Clarke says he hardly watches any TV now and he thinks he knows why audiences are abandoning the medium in droves.
"People watching TV often get stuff before you [the makers] understand it themselves. One time when we were making The Games, we were in this location, and there was a guy painting the wall. We walked past him a few times and I said, 'Gidday'. He said, 'Me and my mates like your show'. But we still didn't quite know what we were doing. He said, 'I can tell you how it works. Your show is a secret between the people who are making it and the people who are watching it'. That's perfect. I don't expect anyone to say anything more intelligent about that show as long as I shall live. It's the dream scenario of what television is.
"So," the good Dr Clarke concludes, "if you are watching Dancing with the Stars, it's the opposite. It's retail, all to do with advertising. Nothing to do with creativity. If I was running broadcasting, I'd want the cleverest people coming in my door, not the dumbest."