Is the Humor of Barry Humphries Out of Time?

The days of performing witless, morally objectionable material under the guise of being "in character" are over.

Photo by Andreas Smetana.

Is everybody entitled to an opinion, no matter how obtuse or offensive? To investigate, let us consider a man who has had many opinions for many years, spewing from multiple parts of his body. His name is Barry Humphries. Or Dame Edna, or Les Patterson, or Sandy Stone depending on what kind of makeup he is wearing — and whether you buy into the idea that creating an outrageous character shields a comedian’s real self. More on that in a moment.

Last week, the legendary 84-year-old Australian proved not for the first time in his long, storied, spew-splattered career, that age is not necessarily a reflection of wisdom or sensibility. That last word — sensibility — of course is hardly ideal to describe a veteran purveyor of toilet bowl humour, a man who has farted and chundered and belched and pooped in the name of a good old-fashioned belly laugh too many times to count for our ongoing, but somewhat fading, amusement.

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This might be a surprise for US readers who know of Humphries only through his most famous character, Dame Edna, the lilac-haired and fame-hungry skewerer of suburban, petit bourgeois pretentions, which is why his shtick translates well across the world.

But Humphries has joyfully wallowed in lowbrow humour for a long time, though the body fluid gags literally smeared across his oeuvre are the least of his offences and the least of his worries — if he worries about anything other than “political correctness” and the “new puritanism.” For example, Humphries caused an outrage in the media — social and otherwise — when, in an interview with UK’s The Spectator, he made a series of offensive remarks about transgender people.

Calling the trans movement a “fashion,” Humphries responded to calls for transphobia to be considered a form of assault as “terrible ratbaggery.” He wondered aloud:

“How many different kinds of lavatory can you have? And it’s pretty evil when it’s preached to children by crazy teachers.”

In 2016, Humphries described gender reassignment surgery as “self-mutilation”; in that same interview, he called Caitlyn Jenner a “publicity-seeking ratbag.”

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Commentators were understandably quick to wave their fingers and put forward the 13,000,000th request for Bazza — one of the characters Humphries played in the rambunctious classic 1972 film The Adventures of Barry McKenzie — to shut up and retire. On Twitter, comedian Hannah Gadsby pulled no punches, tweeting:

In 2016, at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival’s annual “Great Debate,” Humphries emceed a debate about, of all things, the question of whether everybody is entitled to an opinion. He asked: “Should people be entitled to opinions that are clearly wrong and patently stupid? If not, what will happen to the talk back radio? What will happen to Andrew Bolt?” He neglected to add: “What will happen to myself?”

At one point in the 2008 TV documentary The Man Inside Dame Edna, which does little more than establish that Humphries is a man of affluence and culture (despite the crude jokes), the narrator articulates a sentiment that has surrounded and perhaps comforted the performer since the early days of his career. The narrator says: “Sir Les and Dame Edna let Humphries get away with comedy murder. The rampant sexism, casual racism and mocking cruelty are not his flaws, obviously, but theirs.”

Huh? Say that again? Where does this turkey think Humphries gets his characters from? Does he think Humphries opens up a magical portal into the human condition and pulls from it a repertoire of racist and sexist cheap shots, plus an infinite supply of gags about bathroom blowouts?

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If these nuggets of comedy gold are from the magical land of characterisation, what do we make, then, of the many gags attributed to the man himself – such as, to use one of countless examples, the sign at the beginning of The Adventures of Barry McKenzie that reads “NO POOFTERS ALLOWED”? Do we still say these clearly wrong, patently stupid jokes are obviously not really Humphries’ flaws, because he was, er, just joking?

The days when it is acceptable for a comedian to perform witless and morally objectionable material under the guise of being “in character” are over. That is not the same as saying that performers can’t behave in character and do morally objectionable things, as Sacha Baron Cohen reminds us in his outrageously entertaining new show Who Is America? But it cannot be witless and it cannot come from a place purely about making fun of marginalised people. This is why Chris Lilley’s career is so problematic: his schtick is part of a world that has moved on.

At his best, Humphries is a mesmerising, volcanic comedian who somehow finds a way to tinker on the edge of charm and grotesquery. As the comedian moves into his mid 80s, it is not a question of whether he is becoming (or has become) one of the extravagantly feral creations to which his legacy is tied. It is the question of whether there was any difference between him and those creations in the first place.

This article was first published on Daily Review, the CFR’s Australian partner.