Fred Dagg and New Zealand Idioms

Coming home in the car yesterday, we happened upon a comedy segment on National Radio where comedians share things that were important to their comedic development. Yesterday’s guest chose a piece by John Clarke’s alter ego, Fred Dagg, called Phone Call.

I’m familiar with Fred Dagg’s TV friendly, child-friendly material. The great Gumboot Song, a paean to the humble gumboot, and We Don’t Know How Lucky We Are, a more political song about the New Zealand way of life. Phone Call is something else entirely. It’s most definitely not kid-friendly. Once it finished playing on the radio, there was a small silence, then one of the presenters said, “I don’t think you’d get away with that now.” And he was right, you wouldn’t. It refers to ‘queers’ and contains some toe-curling comments about ‘birds’. You’d have to use very different language these days.

I listened to it again last night – it was hard to hear it properly in the car – and decided that John Clarke is sending up the attitudes his character holds, satirising and exaggerating, rather than condoning them. But even so, enter at your peril…

It’s worth listening to though because it’s a fascinating piece of New Zealand history. And because it’s funny. It’s a pitch perfect rendition of a particular style of rural, working class, blokey speech. Terse, staccato, understated, with the words swallowed as they’re spoken so that voice catches in the back of the throat. Dagg’s words and phrases have become part of the culture he’s sending up. My brother, who was a very small child in the 70’s, still uses them liberally in his speech, and they’re so low key and so in keeping with his usual speaking style that unless you know about Fred Dagg, you wouldn’t notice anything. Things like ‘yeah, gidday,’ and ‘that’ll be the door,’ and ‘she’ll be right Trev,’ said deadpan, are part of the shared cultural lexicon of New Zealanders born before about 1975. So ubiquitous that you don’t remember where they originally came from.

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