The Biography Treatment

It’s hard to think of an Australian comedian more written about than Barry Humphries. If you’re a Humphries fan your bookshelves are already groaning with numerous biographies and studies of the great man, as well as Humphries’ two volumes of autobiography, an array of books by or about Dame Edna, Sir Les and Sandy Stone, the various Barry McKenzie collections, and Humphries’ other books, which include a collection of original poetry and the novel Women In The Background. Now there’s a new Humphries book to add to the shelf – one that could just about replace all the Humphries books ever written – the biography One Man Show: The Stage of Barry Humphries by University of New England academic Anne Pender.

Dr Pender lectures in English and Theatre Studies and has previously written biographies of Christina Stead and Nick Enright. Her study of Humphries is detailed and carefully researched. The text runs to almost 400 pages, and there are many more pages of notes and credits as well as a select bibliography and an incredibly thorough index, yet despite this the book never feels overly academic. In fact, if there’s one major fault with the book it’s that you feel that Pender could have stretched it out across a number of volumes, relishing in the details she uncovered and quoting more extensively from the numerous interviews she conducted with Humphries’ friends, family, collaborators and ex-wives, as well as Humphries himself.

But the quality of the research aside, what really makes this book work so well is that Pender has an in-depth understanding of satire and its motivations. Indeed, she spoke eloquently on that topic in relation to Barry Humphries at the Sydney Institute in November (the talk is available as a podcast), pointing out (perhaps provocatively given that Sydney Institute boss, and MC of the talk, Gerard Henderson seems to take the opposite view) that satirists target all sides, despite their political views.

Pender’s viewpoint on the politics of satirists is appropriate for a discussion of the life and work of Barry Humphries, for in this country Humphries’ work has often been viewed in political terms. Over the years media commentators have taken great pleasure in arguing that by leaving Australia to pursue a career overseas Humphries is a traitor, and that by performing satirical Australian characters overseas Humphries has made a career out of laughing at Australia and Australians.

There has also been a fair bit of disgust at Humphries’ presumed politics, principally from left-wing commentators, who will gleefully point out that Humphries went to Melbourne Grammar, came from a conservative family, and spent a number of years as a board member of Quadrant, as if either of those have ever prevented him from satirising the right. Others see Humphries’ background and assume that because of it he has created lower middle class or working class characters in order to attack those classes as a whole. What Humphries is actually doing is attacking a set of attitudes and values, attitudes and values which are not really specific to any social class.

Less discussed, but just as relevant to an understanding of Humphries and his work, is that he hated the conservative establishment his parents wanted him to be a part of. This led him to rebel at school, university and throughout his life, sometimes on political matters (in 1960 he joined a number of ex-patriot Australians on one of the famous marches from Aldermaston to London organised by the Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament [CND]), but more often by creating provocative comedy about situations which appalled him.

Few Australian commentators seemed to realise that when Humphries made it big in TV in the UK with shows like An Audience with Dame Edna and the series The Dame Edna Experience, a large part of his act was mocking Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The insults Edna handed out to celebrities with the punchline “I mean that in a caring way, I do” were a reference to Thatcher’s claim that she cared about the unemployed whilst all the time her government was slashing the public services which could have helped them. This parody of Thatcher built on the character that Humphries had spent several decades establishing, a character who brilliantly mocked small-minded Australian wowsers, and then became bloated with her own self-importance upon achieving a certain level of success.

As a satire of everything from petty snobbery to showbiz egotism Dame Edna is a brilliant character, but she is not a character all audiences seem to understand. In 2003 Humphries wrote an advice column as Dame Edna for Vanity Fair magazine. When a reader wrote in to ask if she should learn Spanish as so many people speak it, Dame Edna dismissed the idea as follows:

Forget Spanish. There’s nothing in that language worth reading except Don Quixote, and a quick listen to the CD Man of La Mancha will take care of that. There was a poet named Garcia Lorca, but I’d leave him on the intellectual back burner, if I were you. As for everyone’s speaking it, what twaddle! Who speaks it that you are really desperate to talk to? The help? Your leaf blower? Study French or German, where there are at least a few books worth reading, or, if you’re American, try English.

Reaction to this piece of advice was not quite what Humphries or Vanity Fair expected. Hispanic organisations and a number of commentators condemned the remarks with words like “ignorant” and “callous”. Vanity Fair cancelled the column and issued an apology, albeit pointing out the advice was meant to be read ironically and that:

Humphries practices a long comedic tradition of making statements that are tasteless, wrongheaded, or taboo, with an eye toward exposing hypocrisies or prejudices.

According to One Man Band, Humphries was:

…staggered by the reaction to his mockery of American bigotry, and by the fact that many who complained seemed to think the satire was directed at Latinos, when in fact it was directed at those who denigrate the group.

Pender argues in her book that Humphries is an anarchist at heart, someone who targets his comedic rage at anyone who deserves it; Humphries, meanwhile, prefers to describe himself as “apolitical”. But for Anne Pender it is Patrick White’s description of Humphries as a “a genuine fantastic, wild with fanciful ideas” that is most resonant. Perhaps Humphries’ “fanciful ideas” include a belief that the majority of people will understand the complexity of his satirical targeting, rather than take it as a face value statement of what he thinks. Or that they will forget his privileged background and his move to the UK, and simply judge his work on its merits.

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