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Has Barry Humphries morphed into one of his feral characters, or was he always feral?

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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67 responses to “Has Barry Humphries morphed into one of his feral characters, or was he always feral?

  1. These days the so called comedians use all out smut and swear a lot ,I don’t think I ever heard Humphries ever use “fuck’ in his routines ??

  2. You seem to relish in describing the grotesque viscera of Humphries’ ‘toilet bowl humour’, even as you put it down as ‘low-brow’, Luke. But why not relish in it? The toilet bowl, the gutter, the incoherent body; have they ever not been sites for horror and humour? Why else does Gadsby call Humphries a ‘dick biscuit’?

  3. Luke , your analysis of an extraordinarily rich and long comedy career , often characterized by subtle subtexts and a subversive whisper that lingered well after
    the performance, is tragically shallow . You are clearly young , inexperienced , and incapable of appreciating the extent to which Mr Humphries has chronicled the character of Australia , and the world , as the latter half of the twentieth century unfolded . I dread the day that his like are no longer here , to hold a mirror in front of us , and make us laugh ( often uncomfortably ) at our follies .
    I hope Mr Humphries , who I believe is a sensitive man , is not upset by your unkind comments , born of deep ignorance . And I hope that as you grow up you awaken to
    the joy of the myriad subtleties that life offers, once you cast off those grim shackles of political correctness that merely serve to drive our prejudices and fears into the darker recesses of our souls .

  4. Hurrah for the male (elf-centred) left, as always in the forefront on what is and what is not appropriate social commentary. After all calling transsexualism ‘the latest fashion’ (and note: not transsexuals, read Humphries) makes a mockery of the serious business of reducing women to non-men (UK Greens), to publish in the UK “cervical cancer screening for those with a cervix” while speaking of “prostrate screening” assuming all ‘men’ have a penis, and to appoint a trans ‘woman’ as the UK Labour Party women’s representative. At least Humphries jokes about transsexualism as a misjudged revolutionary movement. Women are beginning to realise that this absurd theatre is no longer a joke.

  5. Back in the day of TAA and Ansett said BH was banned from flying with both. His crime? Offending the “hosties” (generally JD-W types back then).
    Taking with him a can of creamed sweet corn (and a can opener) then mid-flight asking for a spoon while holding a (full) sick-bag.. …

  6. Wow the pinch nosed, wowserish, loony left are more censorious and killjoy than the fundamentalist evangelical right. I wonder how the 2 have sort of in some sort of parabolic reflex angle have dovetailed together. But I do know this, I don’t want comedy standards dictated by IS or by the new virtue signalling thought police. In any case, as has been pointed out, the latest crop of Australian ‘comedians’ are woefully unfunny. The try hard Adam Hills ticks all the PC boxes whilst remaining immensely tryhard, and Hannah Gadsby can only elicit an ambivalent ‘meh’ from nearly everyone who isn’t cheering her on (you go girl). The only one who is vaguely funny is Shaun Micallef (who is hardly young, isn’t as funny as he used to be, and is also not really bound to PC rubbish). But thanks for trying, I’m sure you’ll be forgotten about pretty quickly if you were ever known in any circles whatever

  7. Wow the pinch nosed, wowserish, loony left are more censorious and killjoy than the fundamentalist evangelical right. I wonder how the 2 have sort of in some sort of parabolic reflex angle have dovetailed together. But I do know this, I don’t want comedy standards dictated by IS or by the new virtue signalling thought police. In any case, as has been pointed out, the latest crop of Australian ‘comedians’ are woefully unfunny. The try hard Adam Hills ticks all the PC boxes whilst remaining immensely tryhard, and Hannah Gadsby can only elicit an ambivalent ‘meh’ from nearly everyone who isn’t cheering her on (you go girl). The only one who is vaguely funny is Shaun Micallef (who is hardly young, isn’t as funny as he used to be, and is also not really bound to PC rubbish). But thanks for trying, I’m sure you’ll be forgotten about pretty quickly if you were ever known in any circles whatever

  8. Get over it Luke! What a load of crap, Humphries has always been, (well, at least after he gave up being a pisspot in the 60’s) in his various guises, a vicious, conservative commentator ripping the shit out of anything considered trendy left, unions, vegetarians, etc.
    But you know what?… unlike Hannah bloody Gadsby (the new benchmark? What of, fucking boredom?) he was FUNNY!

  9. Gosh, a comedian whose schtick is to be outrageous and over the top with their barbs. And who use an alter ego to do it. Who would have thunk…

    Barry has made more people laugh, feel uncomfortable, cringe and then laugh til they choke than you have had hot breakfasts. Do I find everything he says funny, no. But he is pretty damned funny a lot of the time and a heck of a lot funnier than most of the current crop including Chris Lilley who IMHO is usually just pretty woeful.

    It must be wonderful to be so holier than thou Mr. Buckmaster. There is only one turkey and its you.

  10. You haven’t been on the planet long enough to be allowed to have a view on a great artist like Humphries – you old son are too under done

  11. Luke Buckmeister’s piece is a “clearly argued analysis of the demise of his comedic relevance” comments Valerie Bainbridge. I invite both Luke and Valerie to consider the possibility that what Humphries is doing is *art* -Land so
    something not judgeable merely by its “relevance” but that takes us in a much wider range of enlightening – and disturbing – directions. I love Hannah Gadsby and her simultaneously outraged and gently-mocking take on the cruelties of human existence – and surely her stuff is art too? I invite Luke and Valerie to consider the possibility that Humphries and Gadsby are simply ploughing different furrows within that expansive field: can’t we have both? One further possibility: that Humphries being interviewed in propria persona is just as much a dramatic persona as any of his other creations – which you may find more or less grotesque based on your political viewpoint. Art is political always, but art is not politics; comic art is (hopefully) funny, but it can also turn your world upside down. To judge a comic as you would judge a politician shows a sad lack of humour -and as Dorothy Parker once said, a sense of humour in the final analysis is not about your ability to chuckle, but is your sense of perspective, your imagination, your manners, and the crucial ability not to take your self or your convictions too seriously. Lighten up and let go indeed!

  12. Clearly Humphreys is well past his use by date. The commenters here who are attacking the article really don’t have much of a sense of humour if they think that Barry’s nasty comments are funny. They’re not. Humour on the reactionary right has always been nasty, obvious, thick and not funny. Witness Rohan Dean and Ross Campbell, is that where Barry wants to go?

  13. I disagree with a lot of what Barry Humphries says, but Christ I laugh a lot when he performs. I think I’ll take the latter.

  14. Barry

    As a comedian, a clown (in this culture: LOL: Clown – fuck off)

    There is a tipping point in satire where love loses its idealism and becomes cant.
    Becomes business. Because of the reception. Think Trump.
    No don’t.
    Think young Barry and older Barry.
    The results are endless vistas of a comedic self’s increasing conservatism and opinions that are ‘audience clapped and laughed’, initially, into , later, a ‘truth’, to the performer.
    Which becomes real.

    Hello Barry.

    His comedy is a mirror of anger and repression, of not, but what should be. Of, in the early days of Sandy, resignation, of impotence. Of an Australia few now remember.
    His response, through laughter, over the years, has been to affirm the increasingly projected feelings of sarcasm , bitterness, regret, fury and blame – of some. How many comedians have you seen that haven’t been party to this?

    His comedy is, and always has been, satire-based in a kind of sado-masochisitc relationship with his audience.
    It’s identification is our (sometimes uncomfortable) laughter of recognition. That, in his case, moved from tentative opinion to, in him, truth. And Done So Professionally. Maybe it was always there. I don’t know.

    Comedy is and always will be, a blood sport.
    Of all the performance mediums it is the least democratic.
    There’re no halfway measures.
    It’s laugh or no laugh.
    The job of the comedian is to create laughter and its allies or varieties.
    And it’s increasingly fashion sensitive too. What then was possible can no longer be said for laughter-return now.

    But for Barry, regarding ‘laughter-return’, now – he will never forget his night in the Comedy theatre in 1977 when Barry got Barry’d.
    And that audience will never forget ‘Max Martin’. Or forgive him. Ever.

    The character, Max, the rising comedic star of the Melbourne comedic scene who lost his beautiful young wife and 18 month old daughter in a horrific car crash near Benalla (Vic). Whose Aunt and cousin (Murray) had since nursed him.
    The Max who’s comedic idol was, Barry, whose show (maybe Max’s last?) – Max had to attend. By train.
    To pay tribute to a (his) legend.
    They all met: Max, his carer, Murray with Barry at the Windsor hotel pre-show.
    Glad that Max was attending, Barry suggested toasted sandwiches – we’d come a long way., he said , concerned, but, he was busy, preparing for his show, “you understand’, and “please”, he said, “put it on my tab”.
    He left. They ate.

    Returning as a different man. Later.
    And he didn’t respond to the before , mid & after show leaflets that Murray had distributed in the foyer.
    Nothing changed visibly.
    Apart from 2, 500 pissed off audience members.
    Well maybe 2, 498 were pissed off (they didn’t fill in the feed back forms), but 2 were happy. and so were Max’s celebratory balloons n the foyer And the one in the theatre.

    Comedy. Fashion. His or Her story.

    Barry a cautionary tale. LOL.

    howard stanley

  15. sadly In think that Humphries has become the kind of person that he used to pillory. He used to prick old fashioned sensibilities but apparently that has to stop at a point when he became the establishment with cries about “new puritanism”. It is such a shame when our once brilliant minds turn in to old fuddy duddies. Does Humphries feel that he can comment on Trans issues because his most successful character was as a man playing a female character without him wishing to change sex?

  16. I was only saying recently to an old cobber of mine, “What’s happened to the wild buggers, the lairs, the funny buggers?” and he said that the Aussies who hate Aussies are killing them. After reading this, I think he may be on to it. Goodbye Oz, it was fun before the censors came in.

  17. Barry is not a genius, but he is a very funny and clever social commentator. Sandy Stone is his very best creation and having been to his live show a couple of times; the aftermath leaves you curiously empty…..precisely what he intended no doubt.

  18. Sure Baz is getting on and dated but so what. And he’s always been a tedious conservative at heart but so what. He’ll be remembered and loved long after flashes in the pan like the occasionally funny Hannah and the self important Luke. Like Billy Connelly says about comedy – funny is good, not funny isn’t – and it’s the audience who decides.

    And can’t we talk about anything now without a trans reference ? Who was it said never in history have so many done so much in aid of so few ?

  19. Hannah who? I watched her Netflix special not long ago …well about 10 minutes of it …still waiting for a laugh. At least I get that from Barry – but then again that’s the mark of a comedian, isn’t it?

  20. Looks like, sounds like, smells like that fella Luke has sensed there’s a bandwagon in the making and he’s getting in on the ground floor.
    But of course I’m just a 79-year-old ignoramus and know nuthin’.

  21. Thanks Luke. I remember how appalled I was by his homophobia in the early seventies: perhaps the first time I ever wrote about film was to call out Barry Mackenzie

    1. And yet his ‘surfie’ monologue c.1965 was actually a critique of a nasty and doltish Aussie culture that was, among other things, violently homophobic, one that boasted about beating up and robbing ‘queers’.

  22. Are we being trolled by Bucky boy? seriously? I’m not a fan of Humphries gutter humour,however Cohen is far worse than Bazza in pushing comedic limits,such as his tricking that gormless U.S. politician into saying the ‘N’ word in Sacha’s new show ‘Who is America’.

  23. Clearly a generational issue. The extraordinary pace and range of social change since the 60’s is simply not understood by the so-called millennials. Consequently, Humphries is viewed and judged within a comprehensively incomplete and erroneous context. As for “no poofters allowed”, you need to view this in historical context and if you still have a problem then I suggest you take it up with Phillip Adams. While on the issue of identity politics, Phillips and PC revisionism; if you really want to get you’re knackers in a knot then I suggest you get yourself a copy of Adams’ compilation of Australian Jokes. All of you suckers need to lighten up; identity politics is well on track to tear whats left of the true left apart, and the likes of Trump, Bolt, Abbott et al will prevail.

    1. Trev, History has shown that movements against the freedom of the individual typically lack a sense of humor.well

  24. “Is everybody entitled to an opinion, no matter how obtuse or offensive?“

    Answer: YES
    It’s called freedom.

  25. Barry Humphries has always touched nerves … deliberately so. His earlier work was pure genius. Intelligent, biting and funny.While I do feel that Dame Edna should have suffered the same fate on stage as Sandy Stone many years back, I still believe that Humphries’ body of work is relevant and worthy of preservation … he is an Australian icon. One thing that hasn’t been mentioned by Buckmaster is Humphries’ relevance in the early days … he was very sharp and didn’t mind sticking his pen into all norms and sacred cows; he made us laugh at ourselves and our leaders when it wasn’t the thing to do… Luke wasn’t there and clearly is writing in a state of ignorance. Humphries may be running out of jokes but by god his innings has been remarkable … and not a hint of scandal by the way.
    Hannah Gadsby is not a patch on Humphries in his heyday and never will be… and I don’t in any way see her work as benchmark”.

  26. Ever since Barry pulled the first straw out of his mighty haystack, suburbs all the way from Melbourne to Woolamakanka have been doing cartwheels of joy that someone had the temerity to inject some endorphins into the dull everyday life that was suburbia before him. Baby boomers needed to kick the boozers out of the RSL and get on with peace, love and brown rice and get a word in edgewise among the heroes and not-so-heroes of WWII. Edna Everidge deserves a Military Cross for Service to her country during the Menzies era. Where do you think Kath, Kim, Kel and Fountain Gate came from? This is the spirit we should admire him for. Maybe his comments on transgender people were hatched as a response to the debate on genital mutilation. He was never politically correct and that is his point. You don’t have to be.

  27. Oh dear, Luke Buckmaster The Great Critic We Should All Agree With is at it again. I adore Barry Humphries and his characters. I’ve seen him perform live on stage only once a few years ago. It was the most hilarious one – man comedy show I’ve ever seen. What a humourless world this would be if all comedians were politically correct . Hannah Gadsby raises not a titter (Frankie Howard used this “sexist” word – nothing to do with female bosoms but subdued laughter , a giggle , you politically correct twat !OOps , should have said twit, shouldn’t I ?) from me . This angry rant will be forgotten while Humphries, Howard and other “old – fashioned” and “politically incorrect” comics (Morecambe and Wise, Max Miller, Kenneth Williams, Chaplin etc.) will continue to make us laugh – even if they’re no longer with us. Like good wine, their vintage material just improves with age . What will you be like when and if you get to 85 ? Give Bazza a break , life’s too hard as it is – especially with intellectual fascists like you and The Absolutely Not Great Gadsby telling us what is and isn’t funny.

    1. Exactly, I couldn’t agree more. This sort of revisionism is such a waste of everyone’s time – best left to sanctimonious, humourless, PC twits AND twats.

      1. Thanks Alan ! So relieved that the vast majority of comments disagree with the almost totally humourless Buckmaster’s disrespectful, politically correct piece of intellectual fascism . It’s a small world after all !

  28. Except for his only powerful dramatic creation, Sandy Stone, and his exploration of celebrity, Dame Edna, he has been a dull conservative since the early 70s.

  29. Humphries was once a clever and subtle observer, analyst and satirist of Australian society and culture .

    Somewhere c.1974 he lost his grip. Now he is just a vulgarian doing stand-up. His most famous characters are decades out of date – Patterson is from the Whitlam era and Sandy Stone is a ghost. His attempts to get across contemporary Australian culture and politics are pedestrian and lame.

  30. Well all I can say is that very none of our top comedians raise a laugh with me. If I have to see that bloke remove his leg again or refer to it I will scream. Please bring back Paul Hogan, Barry Humphries, and Norman Gunston, they gave me belly laughs. Do you have to be transgender to be a comedian these days. Maybe I have missed something but Hannah does not make me laugh. Yes Barry did stretch his humour but often he made me laugh. Please please I want to laugh not to be acceptable.

  31. I remember going to my first Barry Humphries show expecting refined wit and getting some of that, but also getting a man in a dirty suit manipulating a huge artificial penis inside his trousers and spraying saliva all over the stage while he told filthy jokes. (Which made me and the rest of the audience laugh a lot, very loudly.)

    As for his remarks about “Caitlyn” Jenner and transgender things generally, what he said is not dissimilar to what Germaine Greer has said (also incurring similar criticism). Personally, I don’t disagree with him. Sorry if that offends your sensitivities.

  32. A thorn amongst the Roses……if you pay a decent quid like I and the missus did on the Gold Coast recently (yep, the cultural event of 2018) to see Barry, what you see is what you get…a parody of what things were and perhaps what they are…forget about the pillowbiters and lezzos jokes and everything in between….once you walk out, its back to reality and life as we know it, warts and all.

    He aint doing too bad for someone over 75….and he is an Escape for many, from the reality of bland and working to pay our Taxes while the rich get richer and the Kardashians create an Empire…whats wrong with this picture???…ask Leunig.

  33. Couldn’t agree with you more Luke. A clearly argued analysis of the demise of his comedic relevance. Thanks.

  34. I’ve tried to laugh at Hannah Gadsby but just couldn’t. “New benchmark”? I think not. Angry yes but benchmark no. I’m with Flick; “Humphries is a genius”.

  35. Hannah Gadsby has made herself a paragon of right-on, woke, social justice comedy and people consider her brave, but……she’s not funny. Sadly for you Barry Humphries is. Still, let’s burn the witch, or at least send him to the gulag.

    Cheers!

  36. The mark of a superb comedian is his/her ability to comment on various issues without setting out to belittle members of the audience. And oafish characters like Sir Les Patterson take a large hunk of his audience and drag them into the nearest sewer. Kath and Kim were able to do something similar only to have the audiernce fall in love with them. And they were funny.
    Thank you for pointing out Chris Lilley’s errors as I frequently have wondered why I wasn’t laughing at his performance.

  37. I agree with Flick; and also, unlike your article which is all opinion and no argument, as H says, no one is entitled to an opinion, only to an argument for that opinion.

  38. The answer to your first question has to be yes. I find a few of Barry Humphries’ comments quite offensive though .
    But you know what ? The world would be kinda boring without people like him to pick on and you wouldn’t have a job
    if we were all in agreement about everything.

  39. Luke – lighten up.

    If your opinion is correct the public will desert him in droves – but I somehow imagine his amusing but often crass humour will still endear itself to folk who relish his politically incorrect approach.

    And with most of his characters delving into the psych of immediately recognisable, everyday people since the 1950s – his relevance will be with us for a while yet.

  40. As per the respondents above, Luke, when you have the wit and following that Barry Huphries has, you may be in a position to criticise him. Meantime you should consider who is more accurate in social commentary – Barry Humpries or yourself.

  41. Barry Humphries can make me laugh.

    Luke Buckmeister can also make me laugh, but this is unintentional on Mr Buckmeister’s part.

  42. Pol Pot eat your heart out. By the way, when is comedy year zero to you Luke? I was all ready to read this and move on, filing it away as the whining of an entitled millenial, but you had to go and call Who is America? “outrageously funny”. There are many, many people who would be far more offended by that filth than even transgender people, who tend to be quite understanding of people’s difficulties in coming to terms with changing sexuality, would be by Humphries’ comments. And while I’m at it, good on him for Caitlyn Jenner – I despise all things Kardashian, as the lowest point in our culture, and I’m suddenly supposed to embrace Bruce because of the change to Caitlyn. But ultimately, what you have proved is that it is a matter of opinion, you enjoy Cohen’s filth more than Humphries’ parodies, but you want the power to censor the one you don’t like.

  43. Well stated! Thanks. The funny man who occasionalky visits our shores and who used to inhabit a variety of faces – leaking out what lay beneath in various shards of amusing bile were one to switch off the filters of compassion – has indeed gone on just too long. Hannah Gadsby – as you so properly point out – is the new benchmark!

  44. The answer to your first sentence is yes-to assert otherwise is to prevent freedom of speech.
    And who is asserting that his opinion is obtuse and offensive?You are,and that is your opinion-that is all.

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