Barry Humphries, Old-Timers And The New Puritanism


Inspired by Friday’s celebration of the life of Australian comic genius Barry Humphries at the Sydney Opera House, Alex Vickery-Howe unpacks the complications and the contradictions surrounding one of our most popular and disruptive artists.

In a 1991 interview with my friend, the humbly brilliant Murray Bramwell, the late and perhaps not so humbly – but certainly generously – brilliant Barry Humphries put the spotlight on almost any comedian other than himself.

“What about the old-timers—like Frank Rich, Norman Erskine? Some of these people still do the clubs and they play to big audiences. Willie Fennell? You mustn’t forget the old-timers.”

Reading this interview now, mere days after Barry’s passing, as so many comic geniuses line up to share anecdotes, there is something full-circle about the whole narrative. Barry, who was influenced by many, sucking up literary, theatrical, artistic and pop cultural references like a thirsty sponge, went on to influence many more.

He became one of the “old-timers” he so revered, and challenged emerging generations to take up the torch and be big, be daring, and be “vulgar”. He embodied the last through Sir Les Patterson, a character I struggle to watch for more than a few minutes without wincing, dry heaving and compulsively wiping my own mouth – and, yes, I do know that’s the point – but it doesn’t get any bigger or bolder than the divine Dame Edna Everage, beaming through peacock lenses and hiding her biting disdain behind an almost-convincing smile.

When I saw Edna sing ‘The Happy Wanderer’ on a tiny analogue television in the Adelaide Hills, I was immediately in love. She was like my nanna on crack.

But there’s nothing safe about Edna. She may never have drooled and leered like Les, but she was unashamedly, glamorously vicious, and that – again – was the point. Edna made Miss Piggy look demure. Barry’s characters were threatening, his style of comedy was on the edge of unsafe, and that is, at least in part, what made him an icon to some and a pariah to others.

In conversation with Murray, the comedian was wary of the notion that there must always be two adversarial schools of thought:

“Well there may well be a hundred schools of thought about the work of a comedian. But it is as though, how can I describe it, as though the public is being invited to consider what side to come down on.”

It has been a shame to see this division play out since Barry passed. While I can defend Edna as a conscious grotesque designed to satirise classism and celebrity conceit, I can’t defend Barry’s politics, and wouldn’t want to try. Yet, at the same time, can I rationally condemn someone or deny their talent and their impact because I happen to disagree with comments they made several years ago? Absurdly, it’s all or nothing at Barry’s wake. He saw this coming too:

“But these days it is important for people to feel that they have to approve of your political point of view—not so much your religion any more.”

The distinction between politics and religion is a thin one in 2023. It used to be said – by those ‘old-timers’, I suppose – that you should never bring politics or religion up at dinner parties. Now, we’ve become so polarised, so proudly vitriolic, that we’re unlikely to contemplate sharing a dinner with someone we haven’t carefully vetted. That’s a death knell for democratic norms. Anyone remember the bells of January 6? You probably couldn’t hear them over the mob chanting.

In a much more recent interview with Leigh Sales, Barry coined the phrase “Obitchery”, knowing that his controversies would follow him long after he had left the mortal plane and made his way skyward, or down to where the interesting things happen. To what extent he was political at all or merely playing with theatrical masks is still debatable. This is the man who openly teased ‘being oneself is a form of disguise’. In some ways, Barry was Australia’s Bowie, or our portly response, less interested in the substance so much as the provocations and the scandals. Both were Dadaists at their core.

And yet…

I would be remiss if I didn’t highlight the uncomfortable fact that some of Barry’s public comments went further than what Bruce Beresford has charitably called “a point of view” on gender identity. Some of the people he chose to spend time with – such as Rupert Murdoch, who is very low on my Christmas card list, or disgraced artist Donald Friend – are questionable associations at best. Not that many of us can be fairly judged by who we’ve associated with throughout our lives (I once shared a morning cuppa with Alexander Downer. Regrets, I’ve had a few…).

Most unpardonably, Barry’s use of “benevolent form of paedophilia” to describe Friend’s proclivities as quoted in Ian Britain’s book on the subject lands as tin-earned and callous (or, more accurately, creepy AF), and cannot be excused. Reading this and other quotes has compelled me to try and understand the man, and what motivated his madness.

Barry and Edna’s habit of pressing buttons and highlighting what society ignores or glosses over – evident in this deliciously brutal and ironic undermining of a young Trump – does suggest that part of the game has always been baiting the public to see if they, if we, will actually own up to our hypocrisies. This is the role of court jester. Barry nailed it.

Locating Barry in this way is crucial. This is a man who used to vomit in public for kicks…not as a paid comedian, but just as a guy who wanted to cause a little casual anarchy. Dadaism is proudly nonsensical, an explicit rejection of logic and an embrace of chaos and offence. If you position him as anything other than compulsively subversive, you miss the devilry of Barry’s diabolical craft. In this strangely earnest period – as prim and censorious as the 1950s from which Edna emerged – Barry’s iconoclastic impulses seem especially odd and out of touch. Is that on him, or us? Why do we expect a court jester to be politically correct? Don’t we want our comedians to be wicked?

And, conversely, if his words are too divisive for us to forgive in 2023, if we feel that everyone – casual anarchists included – should be strictly held to the social contract, is it a sin to still enjoy his work?

People from both extremes of politics are happy to ‘educate’ us, but these are layered questions that lack a clear yes or no. Context matters in public debate. I want politicians to be kind; I want satirists to be sharp. This leads to a thornier question…

Can you separate the art from the artist? (See Michael Jackson, Kevin Spacey, Geoffrey Rush). Where does one draw a personal line? I feel guilty when I play the Thriller album on Spotify, but the title track is amazing, as was the cameo from Vincent Price. Is the whole album now invalid? Dirty, even?

It gets trickier when the artist has merely expressed an opinion. For me, credible accusations of assault and violence are enough to dissuade engagement with that artist and call for criminals to be exposed, but it’s factually and ethically unsound to place those accusations in the same basket as differing political views, no matter how strident.

I rail against right-wing politics, in particular the rise of the far-right; however, if we demonise someone for words alone – if we choose pitchforks or erasers over discourse – we become the fascists they insist we are.

Case in point: the storm unwittingly created by the Melbourne Comedy Festival and the widespread, bi-partisan backlash has played far too conveniently into the scaly hands and serpent tongues of Sky News pundits. Admittedly, the concept of championing inclusivity through exclusion and vilification is, in itself, kinda Dada-esque, but I ultimately agree with Jane Caro:

“So why on earth would we pit two amazing but very different Australian comedians against one another? There is easily enough room for Barry Humphries & Hannah Gadsby in the pantheon of brilliantly funny Aussies.”

Much has been said about who, in this “bin fire”, has failed to “read the room”; Barry was never interested in being in the room at all. He was always lighting matches from the outside.

People are hard to pin down as entirely good or bad, and should be. Most of us tend to be more complicated than soundbites suggest. We’re all awesome and we all suck. Miriam Margolyes captured that well in her public comments in defence of her friend.

There’s much to be written that skates through the middle of the debate. We need more pieces like that and less blanket polarisation from the usual suspects, which is all too lazy and too easy (also, judging by that link, “Bernardi” is a brand now… suddenly Bolt is looking charismatic.)

When you sit back on the fence, those who hated Barry and are now actively attacking his memory, and those who loved him – or are willing to pretend in order to turn this into a political hacky sack – have one very telling trait in common: they desperately want to shut the other team up.

I don’t believe in pretending the dead are saints. Neither will I spit on a fresh grave.

In the broad culture war between identity politics and grievance politics, there are layers and gradients we gloss over. Will we fight for free speech even while knowing it can be harmful? Do we have the right to draw comfort from the silencing and redacting of others? Should we build protective bubbles around fragile things like our perceptions and our principles? And, with particular reference to Barry, what’s our value judgment on “privilege” when it’s legitimately earned?

Barry was a provocateur and a proud “degenerate”. Beyond the bitchy dame and the horny attaché, he was Bruce the terrifying shark in Finding Nemo, the Great Goblin (Bowie’s was hotter) in The Hobbit and flamboyant/hair-raising game show host Bert Schnick in Shock Treatment. I know at least five other people who loved that film.

His most compelling performance, at least for me, was the gentle-to-the-point-of-soporific Sandy Stone, who is the kindest of his creations, the deepest, and, of course, the sleepiest. There’s something of Sandy in my dad, and probably me before too long. I’m eyeing off that dressing gown now that Barry doesn’t need it anymore. It’s hard to view that performance, and the poetry of the language, and see Humphries as cruel or unfeeling. Anything but.

One of Barry’s enduring quips was to critique “a society that is so prudish when it thinks it’s being liberal.” He used the phrase “new puritans” to describe those who would police comedy, and free thought in general, making disagreement redundant in favour of restricted speech and public shaming for those who fail to comply. The furore around his death has exposed that kind of puritanism and compelled many to feel they have to pick a side.

We don’t.

I’m an animal rights activist in a country where people seriously – and furiously – debate how to correctly eat a sausage. I will likely be out of step with social norms for my entire life. In a pluralistic society, where democracy still matters, that is the price one gladly pays. None of us gets to force everyone else to adopt our views. Offence is not a licence to make others disappear. While it may be imperfect, and frustrating, and slow, robust debate is the only way to win others over. Muzzles don’t work.

Returning to Barry’s chat with my friend Murray, it’s apparent that the man behind Edna – and Les, and Bert, and Sandy, and Bruce the shark – may not have been clear on who he was behind all those masks, but he knew what his act was about and how he might be remembered.

“I wonder what would happen if I tried not to give offence — I’d probably give twice as much.”

Barry has left wells of sadness – along with hurt and anger – behind. He has also left us to ponder his legacy and what it means to be a satirist in a cultural moment where emotion runs high and division runs deep. There should be a space between total, uncritical valorisation and bitter, blinkered condemnation, not only for Barry, but for all of us. That is what true diversity is.

Why must we all be allocated into clear camps when real life is richer and messier than that? What about our human capacity for intellectual and emotional growth? Miriam had the right idea when she challenged her friend’s views, repeatedly, and, knowing Miriam a little, I’ve no doubt that she would have been merciless and insistent, and strong, and cutting, and hilarious, and loving, and patient, and always treating him foremost as a friend whom she adored.

The open space between empathetic people is where things get done. Even at his most acerbic, Barry Humphries demonstrated this through his characters and his fond reflections on Australian life.

He was always generous in acknowledging those that came before. The least Australia can do is return that favour.

Goodbye Possum.

Dr Alex Vickery-Howe is an award-winning screenwriter, playwright, social commentator, rambling podcaster and emerging novelist. His work spans political satire, environmental polemic, dark comedy and fantasy fiction. He holds a PhD from Flinders University, where he is a senior lecturer in creative writing.