Comedian Barry Humphries (Photo by Ian Jacobs/WireImage)

Humphries and the humourless

Cancel culture is often midges biting giants

Artillery Row

The death of Barry Humphries has torn one of the greatest chapters out of the book of comedy. Nothing we can do about that — it comes to us all, like a sense of shame after a good night out. But the International Melbourne Comedy Festival [IMCF] has grabbed those pages, wiped its arse on them and chucked them in the shitter of its own credibility and honour. And not in a good way. 

I’ve written about Barry’s life and career from the perspective of a British comic elsewhere. I’ve noted that amongst his many rare gifts — from a cheerful vulgarity not seen since Swift or Rabelais, to a twinkle that could make your grannie snort tea through her nose over a muff-shaving joke — was his extraordinarily wide reach: how few failed to react to his charms. 

His online wake at least should have been a good old sentimental, misty-eyed booze-up, one that Sir Les himself would have made the most of, to his consulate’s eternal disgrace.

But of course, there’s always one, isn’t there? There’s always one who drops a dog’s egg in the punch. This time, it was the IMCF. 

Ironically, the timing could not have been better to offer these corporate wind-sniffers a way out. Having removed his name in 2019 from the festival’s key award — to placate a handful of whining activists of the usual stripe — many felt they had disgraced themselves beyond redemption. This offered them a way back. 

By dying on the very last day of this year’s festival, Humphries had surely lowered a rope ladder into the dunny pit, up which they might shin. A chance to acknowledge, now that all the actual trembling artistes had done their turns unthreatened by the spectre of Humphries’ disapproving scowl, both his unexampled prestige as an International Melbourne born comedian and his part in the history of the festival itself. 

They might have wiped the slate, if not exactly clean, then at least able to pass the sniff test. 

But no. They buried their heads in the sand like an emu bracing for impact and failed to dim so much as a single bulb. When the mealy-mouthed tweet finally arrived, they were rightly piled-on like a Sheila with a [redacted]. It was one of those “I agree with Piers Morgan” moments. Never a good sign.

You haven’t got an arts festival at all. You’ve got a rally, with jokes

It was left to Sammy J. to say the quiet part out loud. Sammy, a perfectly adequate musical comedian who had been honoured with the Barry in 2016, admitted that, having loved Barry’s work, and having received that award from Barry himself, some might find it surprising that he had then sat on a committee barely three years later and had voted to scratch Barry’s name out, for his heresy. I’ll say. The reason, he explained, is because however much some of us might agree with Barry’s views, or at least his freedom of speech, an arts festival cannot exist without artists — ideally, new young eager artists representing vulnerable and marginalised communities. Many of such artists were deeply upset by Barry’s views, and they might not feel welcome if they saw his name etched several inches high on a piece of silverware they would be lucky to glimpse on TV.

What it all comes down to is that usual weasel, “inclusivity”. Inclusivity, like equalité, liberté and fraternité, is a collective good, in theory. When you start directly excluding people — let alone people of genius — to achieve it, it might be worth wondering where you’re heading. 

It is true that with no artists there is no arts festival. Fine. With no breadth of vision, robust opinion, heartfelt sentiment or tolerance of disposition, however, there is no art worth sharing at all. We cannot all sing in the same key, or even in the same clef. If you have created an arts festival that is welcoming (in this case) to trans artists, by erasing from your history true giants who have recently expressed common place heresies — in this case, strong scepticism about the idea that cosmetic surgery, however deep the cuts, can ever move into the genetic, quasi-metaphysical realm of changing sex — then you haven’t got an arts festival at all. You’ve got a rally, with jokes. 

Whether Barry knew quite what a sacred cow he’d attacked, I don’t know. It was four years ago, and a lot has moved on since then. Trans is now one of the most untouchable taboos of modern discourse. What he uttered was the absurdly unsayable truth, a truth that until five minutes ago was too banal to even be worth articulating. 

I do think he might have been correcting what he thought was an idiotic interviewer, rather than the plummeting course of western civilisation, of Logos itself. 

After all, it is quite a subtle distinction between sex and gender. “Playing with gender”, I am sure Humphries agreed, is fine. Playing with gender, in art, dress, theatre and comedy above all, is to be encouraged. Changing sex is the stuff of Greek myth.

What is so depressing about this is that, God knows, his was the generation that did so much to upheave genuinely troublesome old weeds and stumps in this discourse, all those years ago, and make it such a fruitful theme for the arts — the Australian Rat Pack (less a pack than four aces) in particular. 

Barry “Dame Edna” Humphries, Germaine “Female Eunuch” Greer, Clive “My first name was actually Vivian, but Vivien Leigh made that a girl’s name however you spell it” James, and Robert “The Shock of the New” Hughes all had a great deal more to say about gender as a social construct than Jordan Gray has so far managed to express between full frontals. 

Camille Paglia — an American who devoured them all, especially Greer — wrote an absolute torrent of a treatise on the subject in Sexual Personae thirty years ago, a stream of lava that has yet to cool to this day. Great, white-hot ropes of linguistic ecstasy were flung across the room from her quivering nib, spattering on page after page of a throbbingly well referenced tome that will bring your brain off in minutes if you let it. And she demonstrated convincingly that playing with gender has been a preoccupation with poets dramatists and artists since at least the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Odyssey of Homer. 

Even she — trans though she is in the proper sense of sensing that she is sexually misaligned — always understood that as soon as you start demanding legal and moral protection for this shit, instead of illuminating it with your brush, your lyre, your pen, it is lost, sterile. It is quivering not with ecstasy but with indignation. 

Almost all Australian comedy archetypes are traced back to Barry

I am not demanding that no retrospective measures ever be taken to mollify public opinion. As with all virtues, loyalty walks a lofty ridge path between two chasms, namely hastiness and inflexibility. If I were to walk in to Broadcasting House, say, not merely beneath a striking sculpture in bas relief of a remarkably gendered child, carved by a (now) known abuser, only to be confronted with nostalgic framed photographs of some of the Corporations’ less-deserving beneficiaries of loyalty and “benefit of the doubt” over the past fifty years, I would probably regard them as having slid into the valley of rheumy eyed regimental fealty. So would the vast majority of those who are expected to pay for it. 

If the young doctor who took over a certain GP surgery in Hyde, Cheshire, had decided to honour the previous occupant, perhaps with a photo montage of his media highlights; or if whichever hardware store had supplied a certain truck driver with his hammers had decided to keep his “customer of the month” certificate over the till — well, you could understand the outrage. 

This is not the situation with Barry. Not only were his crimes not crimes at all but the perfectly correct and legitimate exercise of the most fundamental right of any free citizen — let alone one with his intellect and experience — he was also, simply, too big for these midges to touch. 

It would be a lurching counterfactual to claim there would be no IMCF at all without Barry. It would not be unreasonable to claim there’d be no Melbourne, though — not, at least, the one in my head. Melbourne built Barry, and then he returned the favour in spades. His creations were a wild, sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet cocktail of, yes, his own intellect, his fascination with fringe art movements, and his perfectly excusable desire to be the focus of attention; but also with his memories of the sort of stultifying suburban upbringing that he was well aware was all too safe and comfortable and tempting, even as he tore it to shreds. It almost suffocated him, but what doesn’t kill you makes you funnier. 

Much of the proposition that Australia can laugh at itself — the sine qua non of civilisation, for me — came from those four horseman of the Oz-Pocalypse, Barry most of all. Almost all Australian comedy archetypes are traced back to him. When I think of Eric Idle and the Australian table wine appreciation sketch, it doesn’t seem improbable to me that it is really Humphries’ voice not Idle’s that we are hearing in the tasting notes. Indeed, he was a one man Python himself, as any close observer of Sir Les will know. 

He was on another scale altogether from the acts that come and go and scoop up Barries, so named or not. He was not some David Frost who “rose without trace then managed to get his branding on all the satire boom artefacts that might just as easily have flourished without him. Nor was he some flash in the pan festival sensation like Lano and Woodley, who won the Edinburgh Perrier award in 1994 and have not troubled International comedy consciousness since. He was the Voltaire of Australian comedy, a one man Enlightenment — even down to preferring England. The IMCF was lucky to have him in the way most of us are lucky to have a father. 

Tonight, as I open yet another bottle of Hobart Muddy and savour its famous bouquet one more time, I am quite clear, in my own mind at least, who has been sitting on the branch as they earnestly saw it off near the trunk — and who stands as tall as the tree. 

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