The 25th Conference of the Australasian Humour Studies Network will take place from 6-8 February 2019 at RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia.

Theme: “Humour in all its forms: on screen, on the page, on stage, on air, online …”

Given that this is the silver anniversary of the AHSN conference, the theme has a scope that enables a broad disciplinary engagement and recognises that humour manifests in myriad of ways, a number of which are still unfolding. We are keen to hear about humour in all its forms.

Information on transport and accommodation options will be posted here closer to the time. Meanwhile, conference enquiries can be forwarded to:

Submitting a Proposal
To submit a proposal for a paper, please send an abstract to:

Abstracts will be reviewed by at least two reviewers. Proposals for panels of three presentations on a specific topic are welcome. Proposals from research students are particularly encouraged, with postgraduate scholarships available to the first five to successfully complete the review process.

The Call for Papers opens on 9 April 2018 and closes on 31 July 2018. Successful applicants will be advised of review outcomes in order of submission and in all case by no later than 15 October 2018. Please refer to the AHSN Guidelines for Presenters (below) and the Review Procedures of the AHSN which are posted on the AHSN website.

Presenters should also make sure they subscribe to the free AHSN e-Newsletter The Humour Studies Digest to ensure they receive all communications regarding the conference.

Topics and Subject Matter
Papers at AHSN conferences typically come from a very wide range of disciplines and should have a firm basis in humour and/or comedy studies to ensure that they are not disadvantaged in the review process.

Abstracts are limited to 500 words only including references (if required). Please do not use foot- or end-notes, and retain a dated copy for your own records. Please present your Abstract in a word.doc or docx using Times New Roman 12 pt, double spaced.

Length of Presentation
Papers are allocated 20 minutes for presentation and 10 minutes for discussion; pre-organised panels of 3 presentations are allocated 90 minutes; and practical workshops of 60 minutes are welcome. Please time your presentation and allow time for questions. Questions from AHSN delegates will come from a variety of disciplines and may give you valuable new perspectives on your project.

We look forward to seeing you in Melbourne next February!

The Conference Organising Committee
Dr Kerry Mullan, School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University

Assoc. Prof. Craig Batty, School of Media and Communication, RMIT University

Dr Sharon Andrews, School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University

Ms Justine Sless, La Trobe University


Owing to travel difficulties, the Colloquium will not take place in John Clarke’s home town, but more conventionally during a day-long session at the University of Sydney, to be held in Seminar Room S226, John Woolley Building A20, University of Sydney.

John Clarke (1948-2017) was one of Australia's and New Zealand’s most accomplished and most celebrated humourists. From his early performances as the iconic character, Fred Dagg, to his creation of one of Australia’s most acclaimed screen comedies, The Games (1998-2000), and through his three decades of incisive comic interviews alongside Bryan Dawe, Clarke emerged as the pre-eminent antipodean political satirist, working across multiple media and formats. His influence was such that he did not simply embody the comic traditions of two nations but transformed and extended them. Clarke’s comedy occupies a central place in the cultural landscape of both countries that he called home. One year after his untimely death in 2017, this colloquium will critically examine his life and work.

The accepted papers examine a range of aspects of Clarke’s life and work, his relationship to comic and national traditions, his work across different media, and his role as a satirist, commentator and public figure. They will form a special 2019 issue of the Journal of Comedy Studies dedicated to Clarke’s comedy to be edited by Jessica Milner Davis and Robert Phiddian. The program will be posted here closer to the date.

The Colloquium is free and open to all members and friends of the AHSN to attend but please email to indicate your intention to attend, either to:
Nicholas Holm
Dr Jessica Milner Davis

9.30 - 11.10 Welcome
Anne Pender, University of New England
John Clarke: The man, the mask and the problem of acting


John Clarke hated acting. In a series of interviews, I conducted with him over several years, he told me more than once that he particularly loathed acting (in the realist and other senses of the term), and had never envisaged for himself a career as an actor. In particular the quaint traditions of the theatre repelled him, in spite of his admiration for the plays and playwrights themselves, in evidence in his propensity to quote Ibsen (and others) every now and then in conversations. Clarke’s complex relationship to acting forms the subject of this paper.

As a young man, Clarke helped out as a stage manager at Victoria University because of the free beer, and at the last minute devised a sketch that would allow him to perform without anyone interfering with the piece. It was 1969 and it was clear to those in the audience that he seemed to have an instinct for emulating the distinctive rhythm, cadence and lexicon of New Zealand English, for parody, and a firm grip of comic timing. By 1971 he had launched the sheep farmer character on stage, Fred Dagg, who would soon make Clarke a household name in the medium that suited him best: television.

This paper examines the development of Clarke’s unique approach to acting and his solution to the problem of establishing a direct connection with an audience through an analysis of key influences on his career, and his distinctive contribution to significant Australian television satire in The Gillies Report (1984), The Games (1998) and Clarke and Dawe (1989-2017). Drawing on numerous interviews I conducted with Clarke, this paper also investigates the ways in which Clarke prepared for comic performance, at various points in his career, specifically during his collaboration with Max Gillies for Gillies’ stage show A Night of National Reconciliation (1983), in collaboration with Paul Cox on the feature film Lonely Hearts in 1982, and later as a mature and celebrated performer in his last role in the feature film A Month of Sundays (2015).

Nicholas Holm, Massey University
"Fred, it's a mess" or the cultural politics of the laconic


Writing on "The New Zealand Sense of Humour" in the posthumously published Tinkerings, John Clarke describes the comic temperament of his country of birth as "laconic, under-stated and self-deprecating" (31). In his evocation of the laconic as a marker of national comic character, Clarke is far from alone: the term is frequently evoked as an easy, at-hand account of the comic characteristics of both Clarke’s native New Zealand and Australia, where he found his later comic success. Indeed, Clarke himself could certainly be described as a master practitioner of the laconic tone, and it was central to his personal comic style that finds its echoes throughout contemporary New Zealand humour.

Yet the ease with which the term, laconic, is conjured belies the complexity of the comic forms to which it refers. While 'laconic' refers literally to the use of few words, it is not always clear how this definition informs laconic humour. This essay will explore how the laconic might be understood through an examination of the comedy of John Clarke, with particular reference to his Fred Dagg persona. I will argue that the laconic can be productively understood as opposed to Sianne Ngai’s account of the “zany”. Whereas the zany is frantic and intense-always seemingly on the edge of injury and mania, as in the comedy of Lucille Ball or Jim Carrey-the laconic is lackadaisical and indolent-not just in terms of the characters portrayed but also the formal composition of the text itself. Laconic characters ignore social conventions and explicit entreaties to care: laconic texts court aesthetic failure through a phlegmatic at best enactment of formal expectations. In many ways then, the laconic is a form of humour that does not care. However, while the comparison to Ngai’s zaniness may suggest that the laconic can be understood as culturally resistant (Ngai argues that the zany is an aesthetic manifestation of the pressures of late capitalism), Clarke’s use of laconic tone draws attention to its regressive elements: its association with a surly, conservative masculinity. In his performance of Fred Dagg, Clarke does not just enact the laconic, he also parodies it through Dagg’s failure to adjust to or understand the stakes or rules of the world he inhabits. The laconic empowers Dagg-enabling him to mock powerful representatives of media and the state-but it also prevents him from fully understanding or engaging with his political and social environment.

11.10- 11.40 Morning Tea

Marty Murphy, Australian Film, Television and Radio School and University of Western Sydney
They can’t all be winners: John Clarke and the “shabby suit crime comedy”


John Clarke adapted two crime novels by Shane Maloney for television, Stiff (2004) and The Brush-off (2004). For Stiff, Clarke directed as well as wrote the screenplay. Production was by Huntaway films, a company owned by him, together with The Brush-off director, Sam Neill and co-producer Jay Cassells. While these films do not match the famed Clarke and Dawe sketches (ABC TV) for satirical bite and artistry, arguably they are part of a “cluster” (Leger Grindon, 2011) of what might be called “the shabby suit crime comedy” genre. This article identifies a group of Australian comedies that share similar syntactic and semantic generic qualities (Altman, 1999) and includes Gettin’ Square (2003); Bad Eggs (2003); Stiff and The Brush-off as well as A Man’s Gotta Do (2004). It discusses the place in that group of Clarke’s pieces and their techniques and artistic success.

12.30 - 1.30 Lunch
1.30 - 3.10

Jessica Milner Davis, University of Sydney
The bureaucracy of sport: John Clarke and The Games (1998; 2000)


Taboo topics in humour reflect local cultural conventions about things that are held to be so serious that it is not seemly to laugh at them. During the post-war decades in Australia, one topic held to be too sacred for mockery was sport. This barrier began to fall in the 1980s. The attack was arguably pioneered by John Clarke with reports expertly dissecting the ancient sport of farnarkling formed a regular part of the popular Gillies Report (ABC TV, 1984-5). Other contributions came from the cross-over from serious sports commentary to satirical send-up created by the Sydney-based duo, Rampaging Roy Slaven (John Doyle) and H. G. Nelson (Greig Pickhaver). Their expert but irreverent radio commentaries on live matches began with This Sporting Life on Triple J (ABC youth radio) from 1986-2008 and on ABC TV from 1993, continued in their own ABC TV show Club Buggery (1995-7).
The approach of the Sydney millennial Olympics brought increasingly feverish preparations their staging which arguably increased the possibility of satirical critique aimed at the bureaucratic hype and posturing of self-appointed sports czars who draped themselves in the Olympic flag. The popularity of Roy and HG brought a commission (from Channel 7) to do a daily wrap-up commentary for each day of the actual events called, The Dream with Roy and HG (ABC TV, 2000), starring Fatso the Wombat as the Australian mascot. This played to bemused audiences around the world.
In the run-up to the Games, the ABC responded to the new-found sports scepticism by offering a series called simply The Games (ABC TV 1998; 2000), starring John Clarke, Bryan Dawe and Gina Riley. This full-fledged satirical critique of sport as just another bureaucratic construct effectively exposed the shady politics and inept institutional management of sport, both in Australia and more broadly. The present paper compares these artists’ different perspectives and methods, examining structures and techniques. It aims to probe the connections between humorous creation, professional sport realities, audience awareness and cultural impact.

Lucien Leon, Australian National University
Plus ça change: Three decades of Clarke and Dawe’s political satire (1987-2017)


Even the best broadcast satire tends to have a relatively short lifespan in Australia: after a couple of years or so the creators run out of ideas or the zeitgeist shifts and audiences and sponsors look elsewhere. Remarkably, John Clarke and Bryan Dawe’s eponymous weekly political satire segment of Australian news media endured for thirty years before ending abruptly, a consequence of Clarke’s sudden death in 2017. Originally framed in newsprint, Clarke’s deadpan mock interview underwent its first evolutionary leap in media format in 1987 when he collaborated with Dawe to perform them as episodic radio scripts. A transition to television two years later established the show’s definitive audio-visual format - one which later facilitated Clarke & Dawe’s online success with the advent of Web 2.0 media.
Despite these radical changes in media form, Clarke & Dawe’s satirical mechanics remained largely unchanged. In around two and a half minutes, an interview would deliver a revelatory and forensic dismantling of a complex topical - often political – concept or catch-phrase by mischievously but gently eviscerating its advocate. This paper outlines the durable structural format of Clarke’s satiric creations and his deliberate cultivation of a recognisable and idiosyncratic approach, including tone, rhythm and delivery of speech. It then examines the impact of the different media potentialities (newsprint, radio, television and the Internet) on these and other formal aspects in order to investigate Clarke’s lengthy popular success.

3.10-3.40 Afternoon tea
3.40 - 5.20

Mark Rolfe, University of New South Wales
Is this a Dagg which I see before me? The politics of John Clarke’s political humour


When John Clarke died, the media rushed to seek the opinions of politicians on his passing. Among the usual clichés about satire, politics and politicians came the intonation from Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull that he “spoke truth to power”, lampooned “the absurdity of political life” and “with lethal accuracy…made politicians and prime ministers his prey”. A former prime minister, Paul Keating, said Clarke understood what politicians were “actually thinking” and stripped them of “humbug and cant”. A Greens senator mourned his loss: Clarke had kept him sane. Ironically, politicians were endorsing vehement anti-politics views, even though they are themselves the targets of such views
However, in understanding politics, Clarke was no dagg and did not simply wield a common and vicious dagger at politicians. In the view of that group, many humourists believe that the ideal of democracy is let down by knavish politicians. This outlook reflects the populist anti-politics strain of satire, particularly in America. Although Clarke was keenly aware of this watchdog role of the satirist in democracy, his work shows that he was alert to democracy’s complexities and common human frailties that can have us all acting foolishly in certain circumstances. In that regard, Clarke’s satire more resembles that of Armando Iannucci than, say, Jon Stewart’s. This paper will draw distinctions between the ‘fool’ and ‘knave’ versions of anti-politics satire.

Robert Phiddian, Flinders University
John Clarke, poet


Clarke’s poetic output was never the main game, but he was persistent in developing the (entirely self-authored) Complete Book of Australian Verse (39 poems in 1989) through two intermediate versions to culminate with the 2012 edition of the Even More Complete Book of Australian Verse (68 poems). Some of the poems are wonderful parodies that deserve (and will receive) detailed critical attention in their own right. However, the core argument of this paper will address the central characteristics of Clarke’s art through the parodic poems: voice, timing, rhythm.
The poems illustrate the sort of parody discussed in my ‘Are parody and deconstruction secretly the same thing?’(New Literary History, 1996) and subsequent work. They seldom directly ridicule their literary or real world objects but, rather deconstruct by intimate imitation with distortion. They display a guarded, sometimes hostile affection and a jagged nostalgia both for the poetic vehicles and for the Australian subject matter.
As ever in his Australian work, Clarke inhabits the words of others, and speaks directly enough but only via parodic deflection. This contrasts with the Daggy directness of his New Zealand work, and raises a couple of questions: Was he only ever a visitor in Oz? Was the parodic reserve a necessary carapace against the sort of fame he fled in the 1970s? There’s a big difference between the voice of Dagg (rather Twain-like in its way) and the never-himself of Clarke’s Australian personae.
These questions can be posed but not definitively answered. This paper aims to read the poems as a window on the distinctive rhythms of his writing and his complexly ironic relationships with both his homeland and his adopted nation. His resistance of the voice direct gave him great purchase on Australian life as a wry and knowledgeable visitor. Perhaps the fantasised John Howard as eloquent father of national reconciliation in the ‘Sorry’ speech from The Games is a destination of these rhythms and their play of detachment. His voice offers a great and abiding challenge to Australianness, calling us to our better selves via parody.
5.20-6.10 Discussion (led by Moderator TBA)
6.10– Close