Iconic Australian comedian Barry Humphries died this week, an event which caused sadness and reignited a significant controversy from 2019.
When I was growing up, I was never a huge fan of Barry Humphries, but I didn’t mind his comedy either. I was vaguely aware of Dame Edna Everage but wasn’t really acquainted with Humphries’ full repertoire of characters until I watched Barry Humphries’ Flashbacks on ABC television in 1999. I was a teenager back then and found Sir Les Patterson both revolting and hilarious whilst Sandy Stone reminded me of my grandfather who had an almost-identical dressing gown and similar manner of speech at times.
I never went to any of Barry Humphries shows, but saw him occasionally on television at times. I recognise the significance of Humphries to the performing arts in Australia, especially his work to promote the fledgling Melbourne International Comedy Festival (MICF) after its launch in the 1980’s. His international success also aided in the positive promotion of Australia internationally.
The controversy that occurred following his death this week was quite sad. Much has been written about the matter, offering compelling arguments that the MICF acted properly to strip Humphries’ name from its most prestigious award after he made certain comments about transgender people. Yet there are compelling arguments, too, that he had been “cancelled” (an obnoxious term) by MICF and thus a brilliant trailblazer had been treated with contempt by an institution that he helped establish. This specific matter is both complex and sensitive and I have not formed a firm view either way, although I am persuaded by arguments on both sides.
On one level, it does strike me as somewhat peculiar that a man who made a long and successful career by dressing up as a woman for comedic effect should object so strongly to those who do not fit conventional gender norms. I wasn’t there, but I am sure that many in 1950’s Melbourne would have found his cross-dressing performance quite objectionable. He must have copped a lot of heat about it – which from all accounts wouldn’t have bothered him at all – but you’d think that it may engender some empathetic tendencies for others who are exploring their identities and not for the mere amusement of others.
All of this made me think back to what I have seen of Humphries’ humour through his various characters.
One of Humphries’ more significant works is The Adventures of Barry Mackenzie, a 1972 movie about a young Australian man who is required to go to England (‘the old country’) with his Aunt Edna in order to collect a $2000 inheritance. I’d never seen The Adventures of Barry Mackenzie before, so I decided to give it a go and watched it this week for the first time.
I had fairly low expectations for this film, but The Adventures of Barry Mackenzie failed even to meet these. It’s ironic that the lead actor was Barry Crocker, whose character was keen on a bit of rhyming slang, because this movie could really only be described as a “Barry Crocker” (shocker).
If we are to believe that the author of The Adventures of Barry Mackenzie – Barry Humphries – was such an intelligent and insightful man – then this appalling piece of drivel baffles me even more because there’s nothing clever or witty about. It’s dated terribly – which might be expected – but not so much because production standards or even acting skills have improved in Australian cinema since the early Seventies, but because of the overt vulgarity.
The movie stumbles from one badly-acted scene to another in a disjointed fashion. Barry Mackenzie seems to encounter all sorts of opportunities whilst in London, such as appearing in a cigarette commercial with a blonde beauty, joining a religious cult-cum-band and eventually appearing on BBC television simply because he bumped into someone who said “I have been watching you” (or something similarly lazy and convenient in a scripting sense), backed-up with “you’d be perfect”. The movie doesn’t bother providing any continuity or context, we are just expected to go along for the lewd ride. It’s no fun.
If Barry Mackenzie’s almost instantaneous aggression towards any British male (“pommy bastard”) didn’t become tiring, he’s angry refrain “Don’t come the raw prawn with me, mate!” at nearly every exchange certainly did. He was fast to offer a “knuckle sandwich” to any “queer” that he encountered if they so much as spoke to him, which must have been viewed as excessive even by Seventies standards. Conversely, he made no secret of his desire to get “in like Flynn” with any “pommy sheila” he could find. The frequent sexual innuendo became very tiring.
The underlying story seemed to be that Mackenzie’s homophobia, cultural intolerance, sexism, rampant alcohol abuse and outright vulgarity were nothing more than the confusion of an innocent Aussie bloke stuck in the UK and pining for home.
At least Sir Les Patterson was supposed to be an awful creep, that was the point of his character. Humphries was using Patterson to critique sexism in places of power in Australia. But Mackenzie offers none of this insight. He just comes across as an unattractive bogan – or ocker, to use the lexicon of the times.
I sat through the entirety of this hideous movie, searching for some insight into Barry Humphries’ supposed brilliance. None of it was showing. None.
So in the end, I don’t really know what to think. Were Barry Humphries’ wicked comedy routines a mirror unto ourselves or did he really just enjoy a bit of gutter humour? Had the world moved on, leaving him behind, or was it always thus? I don’t know.
The only thing to commend The Adventures of Barry Mackenzie is the theme song, sung by Smacka Fitzgibbon, that played whilst the credits rolled.
When the dust has settled, it will be interesting to see where Barry Humphries’ legacy sits. Australian society is thankfully becoming far more accepting and inclusive of diversity. Comedian Chris Lilley has discovered this the hard way as his similar comedy shtick has suddenly found itself to be “unacceptable”. Will Humphries’ legacy be viewed similarly in decades to come? Time will tell.
At the end, it’s worth remembering that a significant Australian died this week. He has a family who would now be grieving along with the millions of Australians who enjoyed his comedy over many decades. A state funeral is in the planning which will give many a final chance to say goodbye.