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).
This week the legendary 84-year-old Australian proved – not for the first time in his long, storied and spew-splattered career – that age is not necessarily a reflection of wisdom or sensibility. That last word, sensibility, is of course hardly ideal to describe a veteran purveyor of toilet bowl humour, 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.
This might be a surprise for overseas 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 he shtick translates well across the world.
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.
Humphries has joyfully wallowed in lowbrow humour for a long time, however, though the body fluid gags literally smeared across his oeuvre are the least of his offences, and the least of his worries – if he still worries about anything other than the dreaded ‘political correctness’ and the ‘new puritanism.’ Humphries caused outrage this week, the media (social and otherwise) responding to an interview with UK’s The Spectator during which the comedy veteran made a series of offensive remarks about transgender people.
Humphries called the trans movement a “fashion” and responded to calls to have transphobia treated in law as 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.” Humphries had previously, in 2016, described gender reassignment surgery as “self-mutilation” and, in the same interview, trans woman Caitlyn Jenner a “publicity-seeking ratbag.”
Commentators were understandably quick to wave their fingers and put forward the 13th millionth request for Bazza to shut up and retire. On Twitter, comedian Hannah Gadsby pulled no punches, tweeting: “Barry Humphries loves those who hold power, hates vulnerable minorities and has completely lost the ability to read the room. That’s not a comedian, that’s an irrelevant, inhumane dick biscuit of the highest order.”
At the Melbourne International Comedy Festival’s annual ‘Great Debate’ in 2016, Humphries MCed 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?
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 rambunctious classic movie The Adventures of Barry McKenzie that reads ‘NO POOFTERS ALLOWED? Do we still say these clearly wrong and patently stupid jokes are obviously not really his 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 performers can’t behave in character, doing 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, Barry Humphries is a mesmerising, volcanic comedian who somehow finds a way to tinker on the edge of charm and grotesquery. It is not a question of whether, as the comedian moves into his mid 80s, 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 them in the first place.
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