For f***’s sake!

Yesterday came the news that the Adelaide Cabaret Festival’s new Director Barry Humphries wants to ban performers from saying “fuck” next year:

The Australian comic, known worldwide for his character Dame Edna Everage, has banned performers from dropping the F-bomb at the next Adelaide Cabaret Festival.

“I have found, without wanting to sound prudish, that too many young comedians — many of great brilliance — still resort to the F-word to get a laugh,” Humphries, who is the incoming director of the event, told the Adelaide Advertiser.

“So there’s only one rule: I’m banning it. It will be a good discipline for them — and it might be a relief to members of the public. Festival is the only F-word we’re using next year.’’

This being a story from The Advertiser, local comedy identities were contacted and duly gave the paper their views. Here’s what Adelaide stand-up John Brooks had to say:

“I think it’s a bit rich because (Humphries) is the master of some of the filthiest innuendos ever to pass the lips of someone on the stage or screen,” he said.

Local comedy promoter and former stand-up Craig Egan chimed in too:

“My thought is the moment you try to put a restriction on an artist, you are kind of limiting them,” he said.

He said sometimes inexperienced and nervous comedians could use swearing as a crutch, but that was no reason to stamp out swearing altogether.

“I think for stand-up comedy, you have to speak in the people’s language and people swear,” said Egan, who is a former stand-up.

“I’ve seen great artists use swearing to brilliant effect. I’ve seen poetry with swear words. Why take away one of their greatest weapons?

There’s a lot you can say about all this. The first being: since when have cabaret and stand-up comedy been the same art form? The two are very similar on the surface, being small-scale performance in clubs and pubs, but they have quite different traditions.

Cabaret, at its height in Europe in the era immediately preceding the Nazis, combined music, dance, comedy, eroticism and other forms of performance, and was often very satirical. Indeed, it didn’t last long under the Nazi regime because its artists so cleverly criticised the government in their acts.

Stand-up, arguably, is just one element of cabaret – the comedy bit –and it’s evolved to become, at its most basic, one person standing at a microphone telling jokes and funny stories. Most stand-up comedians are satirical on some level, but not all. And whereas in cabaret there is a tradition of entertaining the audience through theatricality and clever lyricism, in stand-up it’s all about getting laughs.

If you’re a stand-up of course you’re going to defend your right to say “fuck” – Craig Egan’s right that it can and has been used to brilliant effect – but what Barry Humphries was probably getting at (and of all the people in this story he’s the least quoted, so we can’t really know for sure) is that cabaret is about teasing, about getting your point across cleverly, and he’s advocating that style of performance over shows which resort to cheap laugh-getting through swearing.

Put it this way, Humphries’ act may be utterly filthy but how often do you hear him actually swear? Even Les Patterson doesn’t come out with many four letter words. We had to dig out of our copy of Humphries’ A Nice Night’s Entertainment – Sketches and Monologues 1956-1981 to find an example of a Humphries character swearing, and we found a small number in monologues from union official Lance Boyle, who is the General Secretary of the New South Wales Branch of A.C.U.N.T.

So, don’t fear Adelaide Cabaret Festival performers, Barry Humphries doesn’t want to take your swearwords away, he just wants you to use them cleverly and sparingly. And that’s not such a bad thing is it?




John Brooks also had this to say in his interview with The Advertiser:

“We should be more worried about the fact that comedy in Australia is either utterly banal or, on the other hand, like Chris Lilley, which is borderline horribly racist,” Brooks said in reference to the comedian who created the controversial characters of Jonah and Ja’mie.

Whether this is a dig at Humphries’ oft reported praise for Chris Lilley (i.e. “Chris Lilley is a wonderful, original writer and an enormously gifted actor of astonishing bravery and perception” – Barry Humphries, Herald Scotland, 2013), or a dig at the racial stereotyping in some of Humphries’ monologues (and there’s plenty of that to be found), or a more general comment on where the real problems are in Australian comedy, we don’t know, but he makes quite a good point. It’s still got nothing to do with cabaret, though.

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