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.
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.
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.