In attack of the defence of Barry Humphries

Last week came the news that the annual best-in-festival award dished out by the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, the Barry, named after Barry Humphries, would be renamed in light of Humphries’ comments on transgender people last year.

Barry Humphries

As ABC News reported:

Humphries is a household name for his iconic characters Dame Edna Everage and Sir Les Patterson, but last year came under fire for saying that being transgender is “a fashion”.

“How many different kinds of lavatory can you have? And it’s pretty evil when it’s preached to children by crazy teachers,” Humphries said in an interview with The Spectator magazine.

Previous winners of the Barry, including Hannah Gadsby and Zoe Coombs Marr, called for the award to be renamed after he made the comments.

Last year we wrote about Humphries comments, which had led to a number of people in the comedy industry suggesting Humphries was past it and should retire. And after much consideration – and we’ve been huge fans of Humphries over the years – we agreed with them:

It’s not like Humphries is incapable of understanding the issues trans people face, he’s an intelligent person who reads widely and thinks about current issues, so how can he hold such hateful and ridiculous views on trans people?

So, as much as we’ve enjoyed his work over the years, we think it’s time for Humphries’ to take his final bow. And shutting up about issues he can’t be bothered to understand would be a good idea too.

But given that plenty of people seemed to condemn Humphries’ comments last year and to agree with MICF’s recent decision to rename their awards, we were interested to see this defence of Humphries’ “right to offend” and create “edgy comedy”.

The Melbourne International Comedy Festival’s decision to rename the Barry Award, its top performer award, named in honour of Australian and world comedy great Barry Humphries, tells you everything you need to know about the state of comedy today.

Humphries has been caught out for remarks he made about trans people. In an interview with the Telegraph in 2016, he said gender-reassignment surgery was ‘self-mutilation’ and called Caitlyn Jenner a ‘publicity-seeking ratbag’.

Like so much of his comedy, what he said was sharp, unkind and challenging to the consensus. Key KPIs for edgy comedy, you would have thought. But it seems being edgy in 2019 is a risky business.

“Sharp, unkind and challenging to the consensus”? Or just simplistic, mean and utterly wrong?

The article also includes this:

In the past, Humphries’ creations took aim at the conservative elite, with creations like the alcohol-swilling and lecherous Sir Les Patterson, and at celebrity culture and snobbery with his most famous character, Dame Edna Everage. Now that his target has shifted to PC, some people want to revoke his right to offend, and to make out that he basically is Sir Les.

After all, who is creatively braver? Left-leaning comedians preaching to the converted or a young Barry Humphries, producing genuinely challenging satire that offended conservative Australia? Those appalled at Humphries’ comments sound a lot like the blue-rinse conformists who used to complain that Dame Edna and Sir Les were damaging Australia’s reputation overseas.

The “right to offend” and the description of said offensive comedy as “edgy” is often cited by writers from the right in defence of certain types of jokes and it’s notable that the writer of this piece is a contributor to conservative magazine The Spectator, where Humphries’ original comments were made (Humphries himself has also written for The Spectator on numerous occasions).

Over the years, we’ve seen the “right to offend” invoked in defence of jokes about rape, violence, women, sexual minorities, ethnic minorities and non-cis-gendered people. But what commentators from the right are arguing for isn’t for comedy that’s “edgy”, they’re arguing that comedy should be allowed to punch down.

They also don’t want to challenge the status quo – they are the status quo and they want to stay there. And when they talk about “left-leaning comedians preaching” what they’re really saying is that they want people from the “left” to shut up so that they can have the stage.

Comedy has historically been one of the few entertainment outlets for people who want to challenge the status quo with genuinely fresh ideas and, yes, those people have tended to come from the left. Why? Because punching up, the act of parodying and satirising the powerful – a staple of comedy – is always funnier than punching down, the act of making jokes about those less able to defend themselves.

SIDEBAR: To ask a topical question: why is no one laughing at Chris Lilley’s Lunatics? It’s because attitudes to mental health issues, race, gender, sexual violence and sexual and gender minorities – staples of Lilley’s humour – have shifted so significantly in recent years that his punching down-style is now falling flat. It’s extraordinary to see people who previously defended shows like Jonah from Tonga come out against Lunatics (see our recent article on this for some examples) but they are.

What is ironic here is that once upon a time, what Barry Humphries did genuinely was edgy. He regularly punched up at our staid and righteous political leaders, and at the ridiculous, conservative attitudes of this country’s largely suburban population. He was a ground-breaker, an acute social satirist and character comedian who rightfully became the most famous comedian this country has ever produced. There is no Australian comedian who’s been as successful as him for so long, and it’s hard to think of a better choice to name an Australian comedy award after.

But if his idea of funny now is to blow off at unisex toilets and concoct a load of nonsense about left-wing teachers forcing kids to be trans, or whatever the hell his argument is, then removing his name from a major comedy award is the right thing to do. His comments weren’t funny, his recent appearances on TV have been downright weird, and like a lot of people said last year: maybe it’s time he shut up and retired.

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