Should Barry Humphries shut up and retire?

Barry Humphries

Barry Humphries has been in the news a lot recently, because of outrage at some comments he made about trans people in an interview with Lloyd Evans for right-wing UK-based magazine The Spectator:

I ask if his biggest crowd-pleaser, Dame Edna Everage, has attracted the attention of trans activists, who are swift to take offence at anything they perceive as transphobic. I take him through their case in detail. They say that more than 40 per cent of trans men and women have attempted or considered suicide and from this they argue that because transphobia is capable of catalysing an act of self-harm it ought to be treated in law as a form of assault. ‘Terrible rat-baggery,’ he says. He calls transgenderism ‘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’. He recalls provoking a torrent of outrage when he used the word ‘mutilation’ to describe gender-reassignment surgery. ‘They had their genitalia chopped off and tucked in and whatever they had to do. And that aroused a lot of indignation — probably among the people who’d spent a lot of money having it done. But I don’t think I’m right to pontificate. I’m really an actor.’ He proceeds to analyse the psychological frailties of his profession. ‘We’re an uncomfortable mixture of vanity and insecurity. Those two don’t fit comfortably together. But then,’ he says, switching tack, ‘we’re a pretty nice and generous lot too.’

Humphries also had some things to say about Donald Trump in the same interview, which stirred things up further:

I ask about his favourite character, the sybaritic diplomat Sir Les Patterson, whose boorish and sexist conduct carries a powerful echo of Donald Trump. Has the President stolen your act? ‘No, I don’t think so,’ he says. ‘I’m grateful to Trump for stirring up politics. And I won’t be joining any marches against him.’ His hope is to create a new show consisting entirely of Sir Les. ‘He has very fresh visions for England and he’s wonderful to perform because you can say whatever you like.’ Does he see an opportunity in the new climate of puritanism? ‘Yes! An opportunity to cause maximum offence.’

Barry Humphries expressing right-wing views of this type – and left-leaning people being surprised and annoyed about them – isn’t exactly a new thing, and goes back to at least the early 1980’s according to this article on The Australian website:

Writing in The National Times on October 3, 1982, Craig McGregor, for instance, accused Humphries of “racism and sexism and crypto-fascism”. “Humphries’s own personal politics, I assume, is somewhere to the right of Ronald Reagan,” McGregor wrote, citing Humphries’s place on the board of Quadrant magazine as evidence. “Humphries’s is a profoundly reactionary art,” he continued. “It reminds one of nothing so much as the grotesque and despairing cabaret which flourished in Berlin as the Nazis began their terrible climb to power.”

(Somewhat ironic given that the Spectator interview was given to promote the show Barry Humphries’ Weimer Cabaret, which finished up last night at the Barbican in London.)

Where Humphries’ actual politics lies, though, isn’t easy to establish. We summarised it in our review of Anne Pender’s 2011 biography of Humphries, One Man Band:

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.


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 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.

Which brings us back to the Spectator interview and the reactions it provoked, such as this tweet from podcaster Thomas John Jaspers:

And this from Hannah Gadsby:

Plus this article on the Daily Review from Luke Buckmaster:

At his best, Barry Humphries is a mesmerising, volcanic comedian who somehow finds a way to tinker on the edge of charm and grotesquery. It is not a question of whether, as the comedian moves into his mid 80’s, he is becoming (or has become) one of the extravagantly feral creations to which his legacy is tied. It is the question of whether there was any difference between him and them in the first place.

And this sketch on The Feed from Jenna Owen and Victoria Zerbst (you remember them from Aaron Chen Tonight):

The common themes? Barry’s wrong, out-of-touch, should shut up, and retire.

And fair enough too, there’s no humour to be found in dismissing the fact that according to a survey transphobia causes large numbers of trans people to self-harm. Or in claiming that transgenderism is “a fashion” when it’s been recorded since ancient times. Or by angsting about unisex toilets when they have a lot of advantages and have been very common in public settings for ages (see Wikipedia for a history of that). Or in blowing-off about “crazy teachers” preaching trans to kids. Perhaps Humphries hasn’t read the studies, such as this, which have suggested that there are lots of positive ways teachers can better support kids who identify as trans or gender diverse. Or perhaps, as Owen and Zerbst suggest, he’s from a generation that didn’t do empathy.

And if trans people want to have surgery, isn’t that their choice? And how does them having surgery harm Humphries or anyone else? Isn’t what harms people – of all identities – the way in which, say, Donald Trump is “stirring up politics”? Something Humphries seems to be in favour of as it will provide him with a bunch of material for a new Les Patterson show. And as funny as Sir Les can be, wouldn’t it be better for the world if Trump was just, you know, a President who wasn’t stirring shit up? It’d be worth sacrificing Humphries’ entire career to get rid of Trump, for sure.

The difficulty with this, though, is that despite Humphries’ recently-expressed views, it’s still possible to watch and enjoy his comedy. No one’s satirised the mindset of the Australian suburbs quite as well as Barry Humphries as Dame Edna or Sandy Stone. And few Australian comedians have demolished the self-serving awfulness of our politicians and leaders quite as well as Barry Humphries as Sir Les Patterson or union leader Lance Boyle.

Go back and watch footage of Humphries’ monologues from the 70s and 80s, or his classic TV shows like An Audience with Dame Edna and The Dame Edna Experience and tell us he’s a crap comedian.

On the other hand, those suggesting he “retire” and has “lost the room” also have a point. Remember Dame Edna’s confusing, bizarre and target-missing appearance on The Project a couple of years ago? The one where Edna was (we think) trying to make a joke about Waleed Aly being a rare example of a non-white person on Australian TV and came across like she was having a go:

At the start of the interview, Edna calls Aly “Little Wally”. Not especially hilarious, although it may come across as bit patronising to Aly if you aren’t aware that Edna’s been getting laughs out of shortening famous peoples’ names since the 1980s.

This was followed by her addressing the studio audience (another Edna trope is to ignore the interviewers and speak directly to the audience), saying “And I have to tell the viewers, that he really does look like this. He does! It’s not a trick of the lights!”. Clearly wondering whether this was an attack on his ethnicity, Aly responded: “I’m just trying to figure out what response you are looking for here.” It was a bit of a weird moment, but largely because Aly didn’t get that it was a reference (a rather oblique one, admittedly) to Aly’s recent Logies nomination, and the media’s reaction to that.

It’s the kind of misfire that Humphries rarely made when he was at the height of his Edna fame several decades ago but is becoming an increasingly common occurrence, especially when he’s improvising (which in TV interviews like that he always is).

The reason for all this is partly age, he’s 84 and has been looking stiff and breathless in public appearance over the past decade. In fact here’s a review of Barry Humphries Weimar Cabaret at the Barbican which suggests that he can’t even remember his lines anymore:

The saddest thing about this production is not the stories of these men who left their homes because of a tyrannical dictator (as Humphries points out with a wink that there are no psychopathic leaders anymore) but Humphries relying on autocue in his 85th year. He’s lost none of the charm and timing that has seen him at the forefront of comedy for the last 50+ years but it is upsetting to see a man who could improvise with the best of them relying on a script.

But it’s also down to a failure of Humphries to engage with current thinking on a variety of issues, such as trans rights and gender fluidity. Instead, Humphries seems happy to stick with the idea that anything that’s mainstream – as pro-trans views have in recent years – is wrong and should be attacked. Which was fair enough when the mainstream was the stifling attitudes prevalent in the Menzies era but is indefensible now when you’re saying that people who aren’t cisgendered are “ratbags” and worse.

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.

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  • sven says:

    I suspect Barry wants to bow out disgracefully, and doesn’t much care about trans people being offended or whatever the current issue is. He feels he’s learnt his license to say anything. As for pricking the sensitivities of the youth – especially when you grew up in the old and blunt, crude Oz of the 60’s – is probably fun for him. It’s all hurt feelings now, not the isolation and violence of before.
    It’s dated comedy but when is that a reason to stop…