Vale Barry Humphries

Cards on the table, I love Barry Humphries.  Always have.  He was a brilliant comic writer and social satirist, probably Australia’s best ever, and I applauded when he was posthumously awarded the highest accolade – the Companion of the Order of Australia (AC) – in the King’s Birthday honours list. 

I also think the Melbourne Comedy Festival – which he co-founded with Peter Cook in 1987 – should reinstate the Barry, the name they stripped from their highest award when he dared to express conservative views about transgenderism. 

For some reason, debate is not allowed on this subject.  Some of those who share Humphries’ views, like JK Rowling and Germaine Greer, are too rich or influential to be adversely affected, but the brilliant Irish comic writer Graham Linehan, who created Father Ted, Black Books and The IT Crowd, has had his professional career almost destroyed for expressing the same views.  It’s all a bit strange and scary. 

Humphries had his faults.  He was a bit of an intellectual snob; he could be peevish and sarcastic, especially as he grew older, but grumpy old comedians should be allowed to say what they think on important social issues just like everyone else.

Harrumph.  Down off the soapbox now. 

Humphries’ first comic character was Barry McKenzie.  Bazza first appeared in a series of comics published in Private Eye in the 60s and 70s and banned in Australia on the grounds of indecency.  Bazza was forever trying and failing to ‘feature’ with snooty pommy sheilas and forever vomiting up the vast quantities of Fosters Lager.   

He was a gross caricature of the ocker stereotype.  He made us cringe, but he also had a big following who didn’t mind being portrayed as vulgar alcoholic philistines and who joyfully and gleefully sang his songs.  I confess I did!

Bazza’s schtick might seem dated and juvenile now, but it wasn’t conventionally blue.  Humphries loved Australian slang and Bazza’s songs were more playfully inventive than foul-mouthed. 

The Old Pacific Sea contains seven different terms for vomiting, of which Humphries invented four:  chuckling, hurling, the liquid laugh, and parking a tiger.  He invented three others not in the song: throwing your voice, going the big spit, having a technicolour yawn, and calling on the big white telephone…brilliant metaphors every one!

He also invented the one-eyed trouser snake, and I’m sure I needn’t explain what that is.  Bazza wrote an ode to it, and it was later taken up by that other Aussie reprobate, Sir Colin Leslie Patterson, the cheerful slovenly drunk whose disgusting personal habits didn’t stand in the way of his becoming cultural attache to the Court of St James.  

Like Bazza, Les is always randy, but he does better with the sheilas.  Also like Bazza, Les loves to express himself in verse.  There’s a lot of scatological stuff about ‘ceiling inspectors’ and suchlike, but Humphries also uses Les to satirise bureaucratic speech and artistic pretension…

I love our Australian cities/I’m one of the few that cares

And I’m looking for way-out statues/To bung in our public squares.

I will not cease from mortal strife/nor will the taxpayer’s money sleep in my hand

Till I have built a viable sociologically unitised urban ecosphere

In Australia’s brown unpleasant land. 

Humphries was accused of picking on the powerless and marginalized, of punching down, not up.  This is not true of Barry McKenzie or Sir Les Patterson, and nor is it true of his most famous creation Dame Edna.

Edna was initially at least based on Humphries’ mother Louisa, who he says was ‘possessed of a kind of genteel bigotry’.  He invested Edna with his mother’s distaste for foreigners – non-Europeans are ‘tinted folk’ or ‘boat people’ – and with her dismissive contempt for tradesmen and shopkeepers, often described as ‘the little man’. 

He mined his mother’s prissy respectability to great comic effect in the titles of his shows:  Look At Me When I’m Talking To You, At Least You Can Say You’ve Seen It, If Only He Knew When to Stop, and Isn’t It Pathetic at His Age? 

Dame Edna was a monster of middle class pretension, prudishness and prejudice.  But she did punch up too:     

S is for subsidies/The Arts Council keeps giving/Thus sparing our authors/From writing books for a living. 

She also went in for fashionable hypocrisy, describing herself as ‘a teeny bit lefty’.  Perhaps if Humphries was still writing today he would have Dame Edna describe herself as ‘a passionate storyteller and activist’.  Or perhaps that’s just wishful thinking on my part.

This article was first published in The New Norfolk and Derwent Valley News on Friday July 7, 2023.