Culture

The view from Billinudgel

Much ado about Barry

By Mungo MacCallum
On Humphries’s brand of confronting comedy and the renaming of the Barry Award

Dame Edna Everage. Source

Like the party leaders, I have had a few days off from the election. Don’t worry, normal service will resume next week. But this week, a personal rant.

First, a declaration. Barry Humphries and I used to be pretty good friends, and although we have drifted apart over the years, I remain an unabashed fan. I regard him as the most brilliant and original Australian satirist of his generation; the only other I would put in the same league is Garry McDonald, with his invention of Norman Gunston.

Plenty of other Australian practitioners of comedy are memorable: Max Gillies and his writers, Roy Slaven and H.G. Nelson, the Chaser mob, and the team who gave us Frontline. Currently, my favourite comedian is Kitty Flanagan.

But Humphries was and is something unique. Perhaps he wasn’t the first – we can go back to Roy (Mo) Rene and beyond – but he’s become the definitive eviscerater of what has come to be called political correctness.

From the early days of Dame Edna Everage, with her trademark “Excuse I”, and the waving of the flesh-pink gladdies, Humphries made us laugh and he made us squirm, which was exactly what he intended. Humphries crashed the barriers, and was constantly outrageous from the beginning. One of his earliest creations, a pair of wellies full of custard with the title “Pus in Boots” made it clear where he was going.

And as with his art so it has become with his politics. Humphries has always been something of a Tory, but for many years his conservatism was largely irrelevant. Now he has made it public and, as one might expect, he has not held back.

I suspect there is a touch of self-conscious perversity to it; whatever the present paradigm is, it is there to be challenged. So his transphobic pronouncements, while obviously offensive, can be regarded as part of his deliberately provocative persona. And the idea that his name is to be expunged from Melbourne International Comedy Festival’s most prestigious award – the Barry Award – is precisely the kind of reaction he was, perhaps, looking for.

Of course, the organisers say that Humphries’s comments about transgender people were not the primary reason for their decision to change the name of the award. It was, they say, to make the festival more inclusive, and to reflect the high proportion of women who have received the award. This is arguable; almost all awards are named after people: two of most famous, the Oscar and the Emmy, ostensibly refer to a man and a woman, respectively, and there are countless other awards that are not being summarily renamed in the name of inclusivity.

The hit on Humphries is unworthy – even self-contradictory – for what is designated Australia’s pre-eminent gathering of comedians. Humphries is not the only confronting comedian, but none has his style and panache. And certainly not his longevity – Humphries has been packing in audiences for more than 60 years: more than two full generations.

Barry Humphries has always been one of Melbourne’s favourite sons, an undeniable living national treasure. Bring back the Barry.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

Dame Edna Everage. Source

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