Comedian Barry Humphries (Photo by James D. Morgan/WireImage)

The myth of the Larrikin

Barry Humphries was of a more relaxed time

Artillery Row

There will never be another Australian like Barry Humphries. His laconic humour defined and transcended the world of comedy. 

Humphries emerged with a comic strip published in Private Eye — centred around Barry MacKenzie, a rambunctious Australian who causes mischief and mayhem in London. This character’s antics eventually earned a feature film The Adventures of Barry McKenzie in 1972, sparking a renewed interest in Australian cinema that was daring and suggestive. Humphries became not just one of Australia’s biggest cultural exports, but presented to the world its beloved character: the larrikin.

His characters resonated with people all around the world

The larrikin is a young person who is rowdy but good-hearted. His roots derive from the country’s convict era, where people often complained about hoodlum youths disrupting the established order. Sometimes, they were born on the grounds of strict Catholic schools. Humphries was raised in the middle-class suburbs of Melbourne and was educated at the all-boys Camberwell Grammar School. He took a penchant for dressing up and making people laugh, however. His characters — Barry McKenzie, Dame Edna and Sir Les Patterson — resonated with people all around the world. Humphries did not expect crowds to laugh at them because they were different, but because they represented familiar and comic segments of society.

Humphries made them laugh for many decades before his retirement in 2012. The first time I heard about Barry Humphries was through Dame Edna — a snobby suburban housewife from Melbourne who often sees the worst side in people. Then there was Sir Les Patterson, a drink-soaked send-up of Australia’s political elite and its lopsided meritocracy. 

Almost every day, I am surrounded by such personalities when travelling to Sydney’s central business district. The Dame Ednas and Pattersons congregate at political and social functions, with the former also frequenting art galleries and smaller movie theatres. The Barry McKenzies are quite rare in the inner cities — but are largely represented in suburban and regional Australia. These folks may be loud and crass but are ultimately down-to-earth and patriotic. McKenzie was supposed to mock the ignorance of the average Australian, but his charms stood in stark contrast to the sheltered elitism embodied by Dame Edna and Les Patterson. 

His post-retirement years weren’t kind to Humphries, as he faced backlash in his hometown over an interview he gave in 2018 with The Spectator (he coined the term “the Speccie” as a shorthand for the magazine) when he called transgenderism a “fashion”. He said this after being asked if his performance as Dame Edna was connected with the lives of trans people. 

A year later, the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, which he first founded in 1987 with Peter Cook, disowned him. It changed the name of its top honours from “the Barries” to the less inspiring title of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival Awards. His friends, Miriam Margoyles and Bruce Beresford, said that he could never move past this betrayal.

The cultural status quo enables a fatally joyless mindset

The change was led in part by Hannah Gasdby. She won the award over her infamous special Nanette, which aimed to move away from the conventions of comedy by not being funny at all. Highlighting her trauma as a queer, autistic person through a bleak prism of unironic detachment, she received adoring praise from comedy critics. Following Humphries’ death, a Gasdby tweet has resurfaced which described him as an “irrelevant, inhumane dick biscuit of the highest order”. Humphries apparently responded that Gadsby was as funny as an “orphanage on fire”. Still, Gadsby had become — deservedly or otherwise — the modish face of comedy, representing the belief that group identities were sacred and punching “up” or “down” determined the value of a joke.

Much of this confirms that the Australian identity is far distant from the larrikin myth we cherish. Progressive newspapers slam it for excusing “poor behaviour and indulging second-rate talent”, but also as “an entrenchment to the status quo whilst mocking it”. The cultural status quo, as represented by one of the world’s biggest comedy festivals and its breakouts, enables a fatally joyless mindset that many are more than happy to indulge in order to get ahead. 

Humour does not need to be overly analysed or deconstructed for anyone to understand why something can be funny. Nor does it need to make the audience comfortable to achieve this. This was what made Humphries so appealing to different generations — and will hopefully make him appealing to newer ones who are able to laugh at his jokes. 

He, along with Bruce Beresford, challenged his country’s strict censorship codes with The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, which is awash with female nudity and gross-out gags targeted towards every single character — becoming an instant crowd-pleaser. Because of that, it also did not need to please film critics, and 50 years after its release some have yet to change their minds. Still, it entertained millions of people in Australia and across the world — making Humphries one of the most influential figures in Australian life. Whilst his critics huffed about inclusivity, his mass appeal was inclusive in the best sense. 

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