Barry Humphries and the Transience of Comedy

This post is a little overdue, or long overdue, depending on how you look at it. Barry Humphries died in April, and a couple weeks ago there was a State Memorial for Humphries at the Sydney Opera House. I watched a little of the Memorial, but it was wrong and depressing, and I gave up. Humphries was as Melburnian as it gets and a Memorial in Sydney, whatever its other merits, simply made no sense. The Memorial prompted me to begin an overdue post, however, and finally, overoverdue, here it is.

Barry Humphries was funny

When Humphries died, and witnessing the MICF crowd double down on their sleazy sidelining of Humphries, I wrote a post on the unfunniness of the award-winning Hannah Gadsby and why it mattered. Most commenters appeared to agree, which, unfortunately, is to be expected. There were a couple objectors, however. I don’t believe either objector had much reasonable to offer, but one of them demanded that I substantiate the claim that Barry Humphries was funny. As it happens, I’m not a performing monkey and so I ignored the demand. But the demand brought up an interesting point about humour, both as performance and in literary form, which is the topic of this post.

In preparing for the Gadsby post and again for this post, I browsed around, read a bit of the kerfuffle and watched plenty of old videos of Humphries in his various guises. I found plenty of these old routines to be obvious and unfunny, and a few were cringey and uncomfortable to watch. But here is the point: it simply doesn’t matter if Barry Humphries is funny now. What matters is that Humphries was funny when it mattered.

In the 60s and 70s, Melbourne underwent a cultural revolution, in the good sense. I’m anything but an expert on this revolution but I experienced it, and benefited no end from it. Even as a very young kid, perhaps because of the minor misfitting of my family, I sensed strongly the conformity of the early 60s. Then things loosened up, in all sorts of ways. A good part of this was in response to the bloody idiocy of the Vietnam War, and a decent part revolved around issues of women’s rights and more generally around sexual liberation. But a large part of the revolution was less immediately political, was a more playful and general questioning of Melbourne culture. Humour was central to it all, with Melburnians learning to laugh at themselves, and Barry Humphries was a trailblazer. He helped create that wave of humour and he rode that wave for decades. Sir Les Patterson and Dame Edna Everage were immensely funny to Australians, and then to everyone, because the characters captured so well Australians’ fears then of inferiority, particularly to the English, and the absurdity of those fears. Edna and Les were so funny because they were true.

Cultures change, of course, and then what becomes important to question and to mock also changes. Patterson and Everage are no longer important in the way they were, and consequently they are no longer as funny. They simply cannot be. But that does not alter the fact that they were funny. It does not negate Humphries’ monumental contribution to Australian culture generally, and to Melbourne comedy specifically. MICF’s trashing of Humphries was phenomenal in its ignorance, its arrogance and in its grotesque lack of gratitude. It is no wonder that Humphries was so hurt as to be honoured in Sydney rather than Melbourne.

Barry Humphries is funny

Although it does not matter if Barry Humphries is still funny, often enough he is. Perhaps surprisingly so. Humphries’ characters and their reasons for existing may have dated, but many of his routines hold up very well. Humphries was incredibly talented, with impeccable comic timing, and he worked incredibly hard at his routines. The careful, clever wordplay in some of Edna’s and Les’s songs and poems is remarkable for its craftsmanship. Readers can easily enough find old clips, with both very good and quite painful content. The best documentary-compilation I’ve found is the 1999 Heroes of Comedy:

There is no purpose in trying to demonstrate that Humphries’ humour substantially holds up. First of all, as I have argued, it is beside the point. Even if Humphries were entirely unwatchable now, he would still be a comedic giant, a national treasure. But, secondly, the majority of those who do not find Humphries funny are determined to not find him funny, and nothing will likely alter that.

This is deeply ironic. Australians once found Humphries so funny because he brought their cultural insecurities to life. Larger than life. Now, many Australians are determined to denigrate Humphries, to deny his comedic talents contrary to compelling evidence, because of a very similarly insecurity: it is simply improper, supposedly, to find certain things funny. New pieties must be observed. The prudery of the 1950s was the source of Humphries’ raw material; the not too dissimilar prudery of the 2020s is the source of Humphries’ trashing.

The transience of humour

One of my all-time favourite books is A Subtreasury of American Humor, first published in 1941. The work of the stellar husband-wife team of E. B. White and K. S. White, Subtreasury is a very large and amazingly good anthology of short pieces and excerpts. Of course there are contributions from Twain and Lardner and Parker, and the other usual suspects, but there are also many excellent pieces by writers who were much less familiar even then. Two of my favourites are storytelling, Lee Strout White’s Farewell, my Lovely!, about the Model T Ford, and Sanderson Vanderbilt’s Owl Man, about the last barn owl in New York City. I doubt that more than a few readers of this post have read either piece. Many of the pieces in Subtreasury are now uninteresting and unhumorous, but it is notable how many pieces, including the two I mentioned, hold up; White and White chose very well, and well enough to undermine E. B. White’s own message, that humour tends to date very quickly and very badly.

The Preface of Subtreasury is a long and interesting, and very funny, essay by E. B. White, on how the pieces for Subtreasury were chosen, and generally on the nature of literary humour. He remarks on older humour,

A lot of the humor of fifty to one hundred years ago was dialect humor. Then was the heyday of the crackerbarrel philosopher, sometimes Wise, always wise-seeming, and nowadays rather dreary. We plunged into this period with willing hearts and open minds, and came out of it exhausted and not greatly enriched.

White’s essay ends with an extended quote from Mark Twain, which is worth reading in full. Twain is writing in 1906 about a new edition of the 1888 Mark Twain’s Library of Humour. Twain had nothing to do with the new edition, and Twain expresses his disgust as only he can:

… a great fat, coarse, offensive volume, not with my name on it as perpetrator but with its back inflamed with a big picture of me in lurid colors, placed there, of course, to indicate that I am the author of the crime. … It reveals the surprising fact that within the compass of these forty years wherein I have been playing professional humorist before the public, I have had for company seventy-eight other American humorists. Each and every one of the seventy-eight rose in my time, became conspicuous and popular, and by and by vanished. …

This book is a cemetery; and as I glance through it I am reminded of my visit to the cemetery in Hannibal, Missouri, four years ago, where almost every tombstone recorded a forgotten name that had been familiar and pleasant to my ear when I was a boy there fifty years before.

Twain then goes on to argue the cause:

Why have they perished? Because they were merely humorists. Humorists of the “mere” sort cannot survive. … Humor must not professedly teach, and it must not professedly preach, but it must do both if it would live forever. By forever, I mean thirty years. With all its preaching it is not likely to outlive so long a term as that. The very things it preaches about, and which are novelties when it preaches about them, can cease to be novelties and become commonplaces in thirty years. Then that sermon can thenceforth interest no one.

So, only a humorist with something to teach us will live forever, meaning thirty years. Mark Twain, of course, was the furthest thing from a mere humorist and is very much alive.

Barry Humphries is much less alive. His sermons are of much less interest than they once were. But he is not dead, and the memory of his having been so great is still very much alive. Nonetheless, Twain is undoubtedly correct. Humphries was very much a comedian of and for his time, and another twenty years is probably the most he has left, tops. Humphries will become just another Chips Rafferty, considered fondly by the few who bother to consider him, but much less often raising a genuine laugh.

But Humphries was immensely funny and, at least for now, he is plenty funny enough. I can still watch him and laugh out loud, and I am far from alone.

5 Replies to “Barry Humphries and the Transience of Comedy”

  1. Indeed, you are far from alone.

    Thanks for article. I enjoyed reading it.

    It made me think a few things on the back of conversation I had yesterday with two 20-somethings.

    a) Most (all?) thing dies, eventually. Some things are “murdered”. (Lives are not just for humans.)

    b) Even though our belief system may change, we do not (necessarily) lose the ability to think according to earlier versions of our belief system. Thus we can laugh at humour that was a product of its time (perhaps even if we claim we don’t).

    c) It is very hard for people to laugh at humour that was a product of a time previous, if they were not of that time. They simply do not have the ability to think in the manner they need to to find it funny. However, they can find it null, offensive or …
    Such people would then need to research/think (hard)/listen (to older folks)/… to see value in the authour, and it could be that researching/thinking (hard)/listening (to older folks)/… occurs less than ever before.

    Keep thinking, opining and writing; please. 🙂

  2. Still mostly funny, but then I am old.
    Dame Edna asking K.D. Lang in a very serious and hushed voice ‘When did you first realise you were ……. Canadian?” Will never not be funny.

    1. I’m not sure he/she is still mostly funny. But there are plenty of bits that are still plenty funny. Yes, the Canadian line is hilarious.

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