26 April 2023

Vale Barry Humphries: Australia's lost a comic genius and a man who held the mirror up to a nation

| Ross Solly
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Barry Humphries

Barry Humphries – centre stage – at Australia House in London in November 2018 with then-Prince Charles. Photo: DFAT.

The global outpouring of respect for Barry Humphries following his death on Saturday (22 April) is a reminder of how Australia got its reputation as a larrikin state – and how far away we have moved from the country many once thought we were.

Tributes for Humphries, and his alter-ego Dame Edna, poured in from royalty, global leaders, fellow comedians and actors, and millions of others from around the world who had at one time or another chortled with the housewife from Moonee Ponds.

Any Australian comedian will tell you, it’s hard to break through overseas. The ocker brand of humour often does not translate well in other cultures. A handful have done it – Paul Hogan is one – but it really is only a handful.

Which makes the success of Humphries even more remarkable. The Brits loved him even more than we did. He showed the world we could laugh at ourselves. He built on Australia’s reputation as a country that never took itself too seriously and found nothing funnier than laughing at our culture.

But then, of course, we stopped laughing. People stopped laughing and instead began taking offence. Some turned on Humphries, labelling him a racist, carefully going over every joke, one-liner or performance he staged to find examples of things to get upset about.

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I saw Dame Edna, and Sir Les Patterson, a couple of times live. I can tell you, if people in those audiences were offended by the humour, I couldn’t see them. But maybe that’s because of the tears in my eyes and the ache in my sides on a night when I think I laughed more than I have ever laughed before.

If we have changed, and you only need to venture online to see that we have, how and when did it happen? For sure, many things have happened in our past that we might have previously put down as “just good-old Aussie humour”, which we should no longer laugh about.

But let me tell you, there are still lots of things about our country, and especially our people, which is bloody hilarious! The way we speak, for example. The way we tear down our most successful people. The way we honestly think we are a laid-back country that will always give everyone a fair go.

We are not. We have become very uptight, quite angry and, sadly, lack compassion. Not everyone, of course. But enough of us to change the moral fabric of a country Barry Humphries used to slice and dice, but always with a twinkle in his eye, on stages around the world.

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Humphries poked fun at us because he knew we could take it. Actually, we were quite proud of the image he set for us. At the time, we all wanted to be the unsophisticated social climber Edna and Les portrayed us to be.

It’s a different world now, and Australia is a different place. We can’t laugh at ourselves because we are all too busy trying to take each other down.

Dame Edna once said, “You mustn’t judge Australia by the Australians”.

More poignantly, she also said, “Never be afraid to laugh at yourself. After all, you could be missing out on the joke of the century”.

I think there’s something in that for all of us.

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HiddenDragon7:14 pm 26 Apr 23

One of the video clips which aired in the tributes to Humphries was of him in character as Sandy Stone, seated on a lounge suite armchair of a type which would have been warmly familiar to many Australians of a certain age. Sandy speaks adoringly of his late, beloved Beryl serving up a fruit salad in a cut glass bowl, “which she kept for special” and it “still had the original Prouds sticker on it.”

That brilliantly laconic little vignette of love and loss is about as close as you could get to a mid-20th century Australian equivalent of a Shakespearean sonnet.

As to the Dame, how could we go past the knowing advice to one of her Melbournian children whose wedded bliss with a Sydney-sider had become somewhat less blissful – “I warned them about mixed marriages, but they won’t listen…..”

Miriam Margolyes’ defence of Humphries was heartening, and perhaps a little confusing to some of the snipers, given the identity boxes which she ticks, but he said it best himself when he observed that some of his critics in the more recent crops of comedians are about as funny as an orphanage on fire.

Aside from being tellingly true, that put down gets to the heart of the issue – we live in an age where a public persona wrapped in posturing, sanctimony and unquestioning conformity with all that is currently “correct” (matched by relentless contempt for all that is not) is too often a prop and a substitute for talent which is, at best, thin and unoriginal.

Bob the impala3:24 pm 26 Apr 23

I thought him a bit of a drongo whose understanding of Australia was already gone by the 1970s, as was he thereabouts. Given that he (like Rolf Harris) spent his last 40 years in Britain being patronised by the establishment, I think we can identify the “unsophisticated social climber”.

ChrisinTurner1:44 pm 26 Apr 23

Interesting to learn that one of Barry’s last phone calls was from King Charles.

Balance needed1:35 pm 26 Apr 23

We don’t “tear down our most successful people.” We don’t tear down Ash Barty, Pat Rafter, Cathy Freeman, Hugh Jackman, all amongst our most successful people. We don’t tear down anyone who consistently comes across as a genuinely decent person with integrity.

Capital Retro5:04 pm 26 Apr 23

Yes we do tear down our most successful people thanks to the myopic left. None of the people you mentioned sacrificed their success for the greater good yet eye surgeon Fred Hollows did and he was cancelled by the left for comments he made in a professional context. His potential place on the Australian five dollar note was also cancelled.

In recognition of his work with some of the world’s poorest communities, Hollows was named Australian of the Year in 1990. He died on February 10, 1993, in Sydney. Shortly before his death, he was awarded the Rotary Award for World Understanding. He was the first Australian to receive the award.

@Capital Retro
Fred Hollows was made Australian of the year by long term left PM, Bob Hawke – who also backed the call in 2016 for his (Hollows) inclusion on the $5 note … ummm 2016, when those calls were ignored – wasn’t there a Coaltion government then?

Capital Retro8:54 pm 26 Apr 23

Hawke a “long term leftie”? You are dreaming JS.

@Capital Retro
Oh you think he’s right wing, CR? Who’s dreaming now?

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