In Limbo is the ABC’s latest dramedy, and in classic dramedy fashion it’s about a topic so hilarious you don’t even need to write jokes to get laughs: a husband and father kills himself and nobody knows why. Comedy gold!
To be fair (why? – ed), that isn’t really the comedy part. Oh no, the comedy part is that the dead guy is still hanging around as a ghost and only his best mate can see (and hear) him. This is a chestnut so old it’s grown into a tree and the roots are getting into the plumbing so the whole thing’ll have to be taken out. But hey, cliches are cliches for a reason.
In Limbo begins with Charlie (Ryan Coor) being a bit of a sad sack, despite the wise-cracking presence of his best mate Nate (Bob Morely). What could possibly have put him in such a sombre mood? Oh wait, he’s going to a funeral – and it’s Nate’s funeral! Whuuuuuuuuuut.
Seriously, it’s always a bit odd watching a series where the opening scene or scenes build to a big reveal that all the promotional material gave away the first chance it could. Obviously some people are going to tune in knowing absolutely nothing (and In Limbo doesn’t drag it out either), but it does set up a weird dissonance between what we know and what the series assumes we know.
Anyway, Charlie is a bit of a gloomy gus even before that, as we flashback to ten days ago when Nate still had a body and Charlie didn’t have anybody thanks to a now-distant bad divorce he’s not even remotely over. Nate and his wife Freya (Emma Harvie) have set him up on a date, it all goes well, he returns to Nate’s place to spread the good news and something seems to be jammed up against the front door. Uh oh.
Way, way too often in this country we get dramedies where it feels like the film makers wanted to tackle a “tough” subject (suicide, grief, depression, and so on) but realised that unless they figured out a way to make it entertaining nobody would actually watch their creation. In Limbo isn’t quite that bad, largely because Nate is an authentically funny and likable presence. But you’re not going to be splitting your sides either.
There’s a tendency amongst local critics to praise series simply because they’re trying to be both dramatic and funny:
Yet, as with the opening sequence, this is deceptive, because while In Limbo has the pace and tone of a sitcom, it can also pack a potent emotional punch. It’s a serious study wrapped in bright and shiny packaging.
We’d like to think what’s more important is whether a): they’re doing a good job of it, and b): is this a topic that really needs the whole “you’ll laugh, you’ll cry” approach – after all, what’s so bad about treating a serious subject seriously once in a while?
The idea with In Limbo is that beneath the wacky banter between the two male leads there lurks a world of pain. Charlie won’t face up to whatever it is that caused the end of his marriage: Nate killed himself for reasons unknown (the fact his ghost won’t explain points to the “ghost” merely being a projection of Charlie’s, but honestly who cares?). Not an automatically shit idea.
It’s in getting the balance right that the difficulty lurks. Often it’s like “this is the funny scene” followed by “this is the dramatic scene”, and when there’s a transition mid scene it’s signposted pretty heavily. Charlie is usually the sad one; Ryan is the upbeat one (except when he isn’t). It makes sense for the characters but in the context of the show tends to force their scenes into a dynamic that’d work better in a more straightforward comedy. Especially with a whole bunch of subplots about family and the funeral and Nate’s nutty “break on through to the other side (the afterlife)” schemes and Charlie’s burgeoning love life also on the go.
On the plus side of the ledger, Coor and Morely make for a strong double act. Each does well navigating the many demands of a script that requires them to go from zanky pranksters to devastated mourners and back again. There’s enough chemistry there to smooth over a lot of the potholes; if there’s a reason to keep watching, it’s them.
And yet, would this have been a better series if it had allowed them to focus on one side of things with only occasional glimpses of the other? Yeah, probably.
In Limbo‘s big problem is that it falls between two stools (so it’s… in limbo? – ed). A stronger focus on either side of the story would have made for a better series. A serious drama about grief and the constraints of modern masculinity with the occasional funny moment would have been more powerful; a comedy about a guy and his ghost mate with the occasional moment of insight into the pain they’re both feeling would have been funnier and more memorable.
The result is a series that’s… oh wait, we already did the “in limbo” gag.
Okay, this is going to be a tough one. How do we review an Australian sitcom that’s actually funny?
Yeah, sure, Fisk was pretty good too, but c’mon. Fisk didn’t have an episode where a crippling addiction to playing a drumming arcade game really badly was resolved by having someone who’d shrunk themselves down to child size secretly hiding inside the game. Maybe it should have, but it didn’t.
Meanwhile, Aunty Donna’s Coffee Cafe had a whole lot of weird stuff, and then some more weird stuff on top of that. Which is good! Aunty Donna are extremely good at just the right kind of weird stuff, in that even when things gets weird there’s still clearly a joke in there somewhere that isn’t just “this shit is weird, right?” Good weird shit: tick.
For example, while it wasn’t the best part of episode two – the fake trial one, which had an over-abundance of “best parts” and then threw a few more “best parts” in just for the hell of it – the subplot where Mark had to explain to various authority figures exactly what he was doing in a primary school playground was pretty funny, because it wasn’t played as being funny at all.
Tonal shifts are hardly a rare way to get laughs – for one, they’re a standard part of Aunty Donna’s other work – but it’s always nice to see a comedy standard done really, really well.
It’s been interesting how Aunty Donna have… let’s say “balanced” their traditional weird shit honed over a decade of online sketches and live performances with the demands of creating something the ABC would put to air on their main channel. They’ve thrown in everything and the kitchen sink, while still keeping it all in a very large box that casual viewers could get a grip on.
Sure, there’s been some elements that – if they get a second series – we might expect to see fine-tuned a little. Looked at one way, the supporting cast have been a little under-used; looked at another way, did The Goodies even have a supporting cast?
It did also feel a little like they made six episodes, took a good hard look at them, and then shuffled them into a screening order where the best episodes were at the start of the run. This is not a bad thing – it’s not like there were any episodes that came close to being bad, and you always want to grab people early – but it did mean the energy levels and inventiveness felt a little down towards the end.
So yeah, by the end it was only 95% better than every other scripted comedy on the ABC that isn’t Fisk. Bad news everybody, guess that Mother & Son reboot is going to be the sitcom that redefines Australian comedy for the post-Covid era.
Fingers crossed that also features a lengthy conspiracy theory on why Australian currency features a whale sucking on a fat one.
Hannah Gadsby’s Something Special, now on Netflix, is the feel-good follow-up to Nanette and Douglas. Where Nanette covered heavy topics like sexual assault, and Douglas was about Gadsby coming to terms with their autism, Something Special is lighter and more optimistic. Except this is Hannah Gadsby, so even with the joyful opening line “I got married!”, there’s going to be a twist.
In Something Special, Gadsby gradually reveals how they proposed to now-wife Jenney Shamash. And let’s just say it wasn’t the sort of proposal seemingly common in the cis-hetero world, or in romantic comedies.
Gadsby, we discover, doesn’t like romantic comedies. Something which proves a little awkward when they meet Richard Curtis, writer of such classics of the genre as Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill. Why, he asks, don’t they like romantic comedies? It’s the sound of the kissing, Gadsby replies. Which is funny, and true, yet not necessarily the sort of thought that a non-autistic person would have.
Gadsby’s autism, and how it makes it difficult for them to navigate the world, is a major theme of Something Special. When Jodie Foster gives Gadsby a birthday present, Gadsby responds in a way that they later realise is a bit rude. Similarly, playing Guess Who with Jenney turns out to be a nightmare, as Gadsby comprehends faces differently to neuro-normative people, and can’t understand what a smile is.
Making self-deprecating jokes about their bumblings through the world seems to contract Gadsby’s famous statement in Nanette about doing these kinds of jokes:
I have built a career out of self-deprecating humour and I don’t want to do that anymore. Do you understand what self-deprecation means when it come from somebody who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility, it’s humiliation. I put myself down in order to speak, in order to seek permission to speak, and I simply will not do that anymore, not to myself or anybody who identifies with me. If that means that my comedy career is over, then, so be it.
Except, the act of doing another show after Nanette contradicted that too. And does it even matter?
The important thing is that Gadsby’s firmly in charge of the jokes they’re doing about themselves. Gadsby isn’t a fool or an idiot, they’re a person with autism doing their best in a world they find a bit strange – and they’re triumphing. Sometimes.
The denouement of Something Special, in which Gadsby acts in a loving but seemingly brutal way, results in the best possible outcome: marriage to Jenney. Equally special is Gadsby’s acknowledgement of how important, loving and needed Jenney is.
After Nanette, in which Gadsby painted a bleak picture of the world – especially bleak if you bought that they were quitting comedy – Something Special is a lovely breath of fresh air. And a reminder that autism isn’t a problem, or a curse, but something very special indeed.
The Cheap Seats is back! Still good? Still good! We’re done then?
Yeah, pretty much. The show came back earlier this week without skipping a beat. There was plenty of mileage in the Royal Coronation and even more in Melanie Bracewell corpsing while Tim looked on in mock confusion. She’s from New Zealand, he’s short and can’t get a date: teamwork makes the dream work.
Sure, occasionally they cut to one of the hosts looking the wrong way. But on the whole, this is a finely tuned comedy machine. Clips and running gags rarely outstay their welcome, the improvised one-liners are just as good as the scripted ones, the guest hosts are-
-okay, these guys are a little interesting, in that they both work in different ways. Mel Tracina is totally in tune with the show’s vibe: you could see her working as a replacement cohost with no trouble. Titus O’Reily, not so much; for one, he’s an older-ish dude who’s little stiff (he’s the only one you can see reading from the autocue).
But that works for sport, which is a segment that needs to be there but doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the show. That’s by design: come the fourth segment of an hour-long show, you need something a little different. He’s in on the joke even when the joke is on him.
(He’s also not quite as slick with the one-liners, but when one does land it’s usually a good one)
This week’s interview went long – no complaints here, it was a good one, can’t go wrong with footage of Israeli pop star “Clear Search History” gyrating around like a human blender. But it did mean there was a bit less of our favourite part of the show, the final segment where they dump all the weird stuff that might not work.
They make a lot of jokes about how, well, cheap the show is, but there’s a lot of moving parts in The Cheap Seats. Which is ironic, as it takes place entirely behind a desk. Basically, don’t neglect the importance of What’s On What’s On in the Warehouse.
If it ain’t broke don’t expect us to review it every single week is the main takeaway here. The Cheap Seats is one of the funniest shows on Australian television. It’s a classic of the form, a show that does everything right even when it’s not doing much at all.
Also, they have a new sponsor in the form of Subway. Well done guys! The countdown to the jokes about how quickly they were dumped by yet another sponsor starts now.
Press release time!
Prime Video Releases the Official Trailer for Australian Amazon Original Series Deadloch
When a local man turns up dead on the beach, two vastly different detectives are thrown together to solve the case
From the wickedly funny minds of Kate McCartney and Kate McLennan comes the killer new series Deadloch, starring Kate Box, Madeleine Sami, Nina Oyama, Tom Ballard, Alicia Gardiner, Susie Youssef, and more
Deadloch will launch exclusively on Prime Video on June 2 in Australia and more than 240 countries and territories around the world
But wait, there’s more!
SYDNEY—May 4, 2023—Today, Prime Video released the official trailer and first-look images for the Australian Amazon Original series Deadloch. Created, written, and executive produced by Kate McCartney and Kate McLennan (Get Krack!n, The Katering Show), the first three episodes of Deadloch will premiere exclusively on Prime Video globally on Friday, June 2, with new episodes available each Friday, leading up to the season finale on Friday, July 7. Deadloch becomes the latest addition to the Prime membership. Prime members across the globe enjoy savings, convenience, and entertainment, all in a single membership.
The Tasmanian town of Deadloch, a once sleepy seaside hamlet, is left reeling when a local man turns up dead on the beach. Two female detectives are thrown together to solve the case: Fastidious local senior sergeant Dulcie Collins (Kate Box) and a rough-as-guts blow-in from Darwin, senior investigator Eddie Redcliffe (Madeleine Sami) along with their overeager junior constable Abby (Nina Oyama). As the town prepares to launch the annual arts, food, and culture event—Winter Feastival—the trio have to put their differences aside and work together to find the killer.
Cinematic, thrilling, mysterious, and moody, Deadloch puts a high-comedy spin on the crime genre and questions Australia’s relationship with truth, gender, and race, while keeping you guessing (and laughing) at every turn.
Deadloch features a large ensemble cast led by Kate Box (Fires, Wentworth), Madeleine Sami (The Breaker Upperers), Nina Oyama (Utopia), Tom Ballard (Tonightly with Tom Ballard), and Alicia Gardiner (Wakefield, Offspring), as well as Susie Youssef (Rosehaven), Pamela Rabe (Wentworth), Kris McQuade (Rosehaven), Duncan Fellows (The Letdown), Harvey Zielinski (Don’t Look Deeper), Shaun Martindale (The Tailings), Katie Robertson (Five Bedrooms), Nick Simpson-Deeks (Winners & Losers), Mia Morrissey (Home and Away), Leonie Whyman (Dark Place), Mick Davies (Rosehaven), Holly Austin, Kartanya Maynard, and Naarah. The eight-part series was shot in and around Hobart, Tasmania in 2022 with episodes directed by acclaimed Australian filmmakers Ben Chessell (The Great, Giri/Haji), Gracie Otto (The Moth Effect, Seriously Red), and Beck Cole (Black Comedy, Wentworth), with Andy Walker (Rosehaven, The Kettering Incident) producing.
“In Deadloch, The Kates have created a gripping mystery with their signature hilarious—and often biting—comedic tone masterfully weaved throughout,” said Sarah Christie, senior development executive Prime Video Australia. “This is the second of three Australian Amazon Original scripted series Prime Video are releasing this year, and we are thrilled to be working with Guesswork Television and OK Great Productions, along with a powerhouse creative team led by Kate McCartney and Kate McLennan, to bring this uniquely Australian story to screens around the world. Deadloch flips the crime genre on its head in such a fresh and engaging way, and we know Prime Video customers globally are going to be hooked from the first episode.”
Deadloch co-creators Kate McCartney and Kate McLennan said: “We are both so thrilled to share the dark, strange little town of Deadloch with the world. We’re particularly excited for everyone to meet Dulcie and Eddie, performed by the powerhouses Kate Box and Madeleine Sami, who are far better actors than we’ll ever be. The supporting cast is sublime, the crew are a delight, and the experience of making this story with Prime Video globally on the incredible land of lutruwita (Tasmania) is one we’ll never forget.”
This is a bit of a tricky one. We’ve been a big fan of the Kates here for ages, but that doesn’t mean we’ve unconditionally loved everything they’ve done – and there’s been a bit of a clear line between them going all-out comedy wise (The Katering Show, Get Krack!ng, Slushy) and the projects where they’ve been weaving a bit of drama into the mix (mostly just Bleak).
There’s been an endless line-up of local crime dramas where a body turns up in a small town and some out-of-towner gets roped into solving the mystery, so a comedy spin on the cliches is very much welcome. Obviously it’s a bit hard to tell how much comedy there’s going to be based on a two minutes trailer – oh right, the trailer:
(no prizes for guessing which detective would be played by which Kate in a parallel, much lower budget universe)
Network executives are going to say pretty much anything to get you to tune in, so the line “The Kates have created a gripping mystery with their signature hilarious—and often biting—comedic tone masterfully weaved throughout” is more a guide to what they think people want than the show itself.
But from what we can tell, this really does look a lot more like “straight mystery with comedy characters” rather than a full-on comedy taking the piss out of the genre itself. That’s probably as it should be: trying to fill eight episodes with jokes about one played out genre would be pretty tough.
Unfortunately, that means it might just be eight episodes of a played-out genre. Still, Tasmania always looks nice. Fingers crossed Anthony Morgan shows up at some point.
Press release time!
ABC and Screen Australia on the hunt for more Fresh Blood
The ABC and Screen Australia team are once again teaming up to uncover the next generation of great Australian comedy talent through the hugely successful Fresh Blood initiative.
Submissions are now open for new and emerging comedy acts to apply. Creators from all backgrounds, abilities, and identities who meet the selection criteria are encouraged to apply.
As part of the joint initiative to unearth a new generation of comedic talent, 10 teams will receive $50,000 to produce 3 x 5min comedy shorts and will participate in a workshop to be held in Sydney, in August 2023. These shorts will premiere simultaneously on ABC and creators’ social media platforms.
From there, up to 3 teams will be selected to create a longer pilot between 20-27 minutes in length, with potential to be commissioned by the ABC as a series.
We’re looking for applicants with original comedy ideas. They can be narrative, sketch, vertical, as long as the ideas are fresh, the comedy is strong and has the potential to be developed into a full series. Ultimately, want to be surprised.
Since Fresh Blood began in 2013 the initiative has launched the careers of countless acts including the rock stars of comedy, Aunty Donna, and the animated series Koala Man, featuring the voices of Hugh Jackman and Sarah Snook.
Screen Australia’s Head of Online Lee Naimo said, “We are so thrilled to be joining the ABC once again in supporting a new wave of comedic talent through the Fresh Blood initiative. We’ve seen first-hand the launchpad that this initiative provides, through the ongoing success of alumni like Skit Box, Nina Oyama and Angus Thompson and the team from Why Are You Like This. I can’t wait to see the doors it opens for the new crop of talent that comes through this time around.”
Nick Hayden, ABC Head of Entertainment said, “Fresh Blood continues the tradition of the ABC supporting new comedic voices. Sometimes those voices tell us, ‘she doesn’t even go here’ other times ‘ok, boomer’. Whatever they say this time, we’re excited to see what this new crop can dream up!”
Todd Abbott, ABC Head of Comedy said, “One of the ABC’s most important roles is to find and nurture new comedy talent, and Fresh Blood provides a great opportunity to open the gates and amp up that search.”
For further information about the Fresh Blood initiative or to apply please visit the Fresh Blood website or read the guidelines.
Applications close 4pm, Monday 29 May 2023.
On the one hand, it’s good to see the ABC finally realising they can’t keep a comedy department running just on reboots of Mother & Son and re-commissioning Utopia. On the other, has Fresh Blood ever served up any real winners?
This press release mentioned Aunty Donna, who had gone so far as to have a series on Netflix before the ABC got around to giving them a go. It also mentioned Koala Man, which is definitely a success but not an ABC series. Anyone had any recent updates from the Why Are You Like This team?
In fact, Fresh Blood hasn’t really helped anyone long term as far as the ABC is concerned. Sure, they’ve been unearthing a new generation of comedy talent – and then they’ve been dumping that earth right back on top of them.
Which isn’t a surprise at all, as previous series have seemed much more about getting a bunch of cheap comedy shorts to show on digital channels as a way of promoting the ABC (see “These shorts will premiere simultaneously on ABC and creators’ social media platforms.”) than actually giving comedians real opportunities to have an on going career with the ABC.
It’ll be interesting to see if this round is any different.
Well, we’re assuming We Interrupt This Broadcast is done – it’s not in the schedules for next week. And yeah, ten episodes seems as good a point as any to pull the pin. A bit of confusion over its departure seems fitting, considering it began with a blaze (well, flicker) of glory before fizzling out well before its run was over.
So what went wrong? Did anything, in fact, go wrong? As the latest installment in Seven’s attempt to make Australian comedy firmly a thing of the past – or at least, solely the focus of nostalgia-based specials – it was always a bit of an odd duck.
At a guess, someone high up kept asking why they couldn’t do a Fast Forward special a la the ones for Hey Hey it’s Saturday and Kath & Kim, only to be told by someone who’d actually watched Fast Forward this century that the material didn’t hold up – not that that’s stopped any of the Hey Hey specials. Eventually someone came up with the genius idea of making an all-new Fast Forward, and hey presto, Full Frontal… uh, We Interrupt This Broadcast was born.
As commercial television ideas go, reviving a successful old format is far from the worst. We’ll be honest: we didn’t mind the first episode of We Interrupt This Broadcast, and the second didn’t fall off a cliff like we expected. Making fun of television is (still) a decent idea for a television show, and the initial focus on quantity as far as jokes go was a nice change from the usual sketch show focus on turning it into the director’s audition reel or a showcase for just how many semi-famous mates they can lure on set for half an hour.
But as expected, eventually the rot set in. Coming up with material for a sketch show is hard work, and We Interrupt This Broadcast was burning through a lot right from the start. Which is as it should be: the alternative is to just repeat the same jokes and situations over and over in a doomed attempt to create the kind of “catchphrase comedy” that doesn’t require work – just throwing the catchphrase out there for the audience to devour like lions given a hunk of raw meat.
To be extremely generous, at least some of the fault lies in the lack of variety on Australian television today. Back in the days of Fast Forward, you could parody ads – an area strangely left untouched here – and local dramas and news programs and arts programs and kids shows and religious shows and whatever you call those shows Russell Coight is parodying and so on. These days, it’s pretty much just reality shows, which in no way excuses them still making Lip Island sketches after ten weeks.
It wasn’t like the bottom fell out of the show. The sketches in episode 10 weren’t always noticeably worse than the sketches in week one, and the show was still powering through the parodies. Hell, we almost nearly laughed at Hot Mess – Australia’s Most Baffling Game Show, even if the joke was basically “Numberwang” done over.
(with two out of three of Aunty Donna making regular appearances, We Interrupt This Broadcast deserves some minor credit for keeping the lights on there long enough for Aunty Donna’s Coffee Cafe to get made)
But the show never developed any material strong enough to carry it over the weak patches, and after a while it became clear that the weak patches were getting bigger as the jokes became more familiar. Again, being stuck with a limited amount of shows to parody didn’t help. Half a hour’s worth of Gardening Australia parodies will struggle to get laughs, even spread over ten weeks.
Still, if they’d actually gone and watched any of the sketch shows from the good old days – or just, you know, Shaun Micallef’s Mad as Hell – they would have noticed that successful sketch shows usually mix it up a little. If they had performers who were good at one kind of thing, they let them do that. Some people did character comedy, some did parodies, some did (shudder) restaurant sketches, some did mockumentaries.
The whole point of making fun of television was that you could copy every single format that was on television to make each sketch the funniest it could be. A full hour composed of ninety second sketches where the first ten seconds was the logo and the “performance” was just reading the lines and maybe pulling a face? Not the best option.
It’s not a matter of simply saying “it should have been better”. Hang on, yes it is: it should have been better. It was just the same thing, over and over again for an hour a week for ten weeks. Even if it had been brilliant, the novelty was going to wear off sooner rather than later.
And “brilliant” isn’t how we’d describe a lot of the material. Seriously, is this a joke anyone actually laughs at, or the kind of joke you think “yeah, I reckon someone else watching this will probably find this kind of funny”.
Because when you’re writing the second kind of joke, nobody’s laughing.
Press release time!
Internet Sensations The Inspired Unemployed To Host Hilarious Australian Original Series.
Coming Soon To Paramount Australia And New Zealand.
Aussie larrikins, The Inspired Unemployed, have taken over the internet with their awkwardly hilarious videos and in 2023, we will see them take over our screens for the very first time.
Jack Steele and Matt Ford, the duo behind The Inspired Unemployed are renowned content creators, having amassed 3.8 million followers on social media. Now, Jack and Matt will host a hilarious eight-part Australian original series, produced by Warner Bros. International Television Production Australia.
Bursting with excitement, Jack and Matt jointly said: “We are so stoked to be working with Paramount ANZ on this TV show, from the first video we ever made our goal was to always have a TV show and for it to actually be happening is a dream come true. We’ve always believed that laughter is the best medicine, and we’re thrilled to have the opportunity to spread joy and positivity to even more people through this platform.”
Daniel Monaghan, SVP Content and Programming, Paramount Australia and New Zealand said: “The Inspired Unemployed have a huge following with a unique knack for making people sit up, take notice and laugh. Paramount ANZ is delighted to be their very first ‘TV home’ when Jack and Matt, alongside their mates will have audiences in stitches with this surprising series. We can’t wait for audiences to watch the show later this year.”
Michael Brooks, Managing Director of Warner Bros. International Television Production Australia and Head of Studios Australia and New Zealand said: “Jack and Matt from The Inspired Unemployed are internet sensations with a natural chemistry that can only come from years of working together. We have the perfect format for their first foray into television and look forward to sharing more hilarious moments with fans across the country later this year.”
“Renowned content creators”
Yeah, we’re done here.
Yesterday we lost the greatest Australian comedian of the 20th Century and a pioneer of comedy on Australian television. Some argue that Barry Humphries invented Australian comedy. It’s not true – there’s been comedy in Australia for as long as there have been Australians – but it’s true enough.
When Humphries was starting out in the 1950s, urban-dwelling Australians didn’t have much to laugh about that they could really relate to. Comedy in Australia until this point often focused on rural Australia or was imported from the UK or the USA. Then along came Humphries’ character Edna Everage, who turned her nose up at the neighbours’ burgundy Axminster carpets, and, suddenly, modern Australian comedy was born.
Humphries both revealed and revelled in the dullness, the materialism, and the small-mindedness of the Australian suburbs. Edna was a housewife who thought she was better than others, while another Humphries character, First World War veteran Sandy Stone was a bore and a bigot, forever doomed to haunt his former home. Many comedians who came along later, from the Australia You’re Standing In It team to The D-Generation to Gina Riley and Jane Turner, covered similar ground, but it was Barry Humphries who did it first. Literally. He appeared as Edna on Channel Seven Melbourne’s opening night show in 1957!
But Melbourne wasn’t big enough for Barry Humphries and in the late 1950s he moved to London, gradually building a reputation as an actor, and for his comedy characters. Initially, the British didn’t understand Edna, but several decades later, her live shows were hot tickets on the West End and she redefined the celebrity chat show with The Dame Edna Experience.
In this top-rating show made for London Weekend Television, celebrity guests deemed too pretentious or dull found themselves flung down a staircase, or removed from the show via other, comically violent, means. It was a gimmick later copied in Graham Norton’s chat show, but it was Barry Humphries who did it first.
Barry Humphries was also a pioneer of what was later called “gross-out comedy”, with his characters Barry McKenzie, an Australian in London who spent his time drinking, chasing women and sticking it up the Poms, and Sir Les Patterson, an older type of lecherous boozer who, slightly unbelievably, held the position of Cultural Attaché to the Court of St James.
Both characters enabled Humphries to critique sexist, loutish behaviour and to push the audience’s tolerance by engaging in it. At the end of The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, Bazza and his mates (one of whom was played by the late John Clarke) put out a fire with cans of Fosters and their own urine. While at Humphries’ live shows, Sir Les spat on the audience and revealed his “trouser snake,” a plastic phallus which emitted white liquid, to gales of laughter.
In 2023, this isn’t the kind of comedy that many younger comedians are doing, and Humphries has been criticised in recent years for it. Comedians now don’t do ambiguity, where sexism (or racism, or homophobia) is both satirised and indulged in. This is the right thing to do, of course, but it’s worth remembering that Barry McKenzie and Sir Les were controversial back in their day too. Controversial with the sort of bigots and prudes who would be just as horrified by today’s comedians with their ethos of equality and justice for all.
Humphries, who was both a ground-breaking pioneer in an often left-leaning profession, and a conservative (he was on the board of Quadrant and wrote for The Spectator), was ultimately a contrarian, who, as cultural history Tony Moore put it “retained a bohemian delight in transgression that makes him a radical”.
It was this spirit of radicalism, perhaps, which has attracted such a wide and diverse audience to Humphries’ shows over the last 65+ years. He had the ability to make everyone laugh, whether they were young or old, a conservative or a die-hard leftist.
Barry Humphries was a pioneer, an original and endlessly inventive. Australian comedy would be nothing without him.