The outrage of Barry Humphries
At the curtain call of his farewell show, Barry Humphries steps through the wall of gladioli and bows to his adoring audience. He is in full persona: smoking jacket (double-breasted black velvet with frog buttons), a dark hat (fedora? He is among the last of the hatted gentlemen), his trademark hank of hair flopping to the right (dyed?), eyes mascaraed. He tells a little story about Maggie Smith that segues into thanking us for sharing so many evenings with him over the more than five decades of his performing life. And, stately as ever he slips away (if you can slip away while being stately), all mystery intact.
The smart set
Barry Humphries: Tory, Taoist
Humphries is a celebrity who sends up celebrity, and he can only do that by maintaining his distance (in that regard very like Michael Leunig, or say, Bob Dylan). Famously conservative in his politics, we have to remember that he is an old school Tory, rather like high Anglican. He doesn’t really want things to change — in that view, progress rarely brings improvement. So he can equally shaft the idiocies of the progressive pious left, as well as skewer the greedy callous right.
Humphries, the born aristocrat, the subversive intellectual, the showman populist, may dislike the flattening of the individual under the socialist impulse (not that he has expressed much regard for humanity as a whole), but neither does he have any truck with “development,” or the neo-liberal ideologies of the free market.
And because he can pivot from this very Taoist island of unfashionable conservatism, he mostly has his cake and eats it too. He can inveigh on the noveau riche (Gina Rhinehart is a target of choice) as well as further fund a respectable retirement out of it. (Our tickets were $199 a pop.) But of course in the end he is an artist, and these divisions cannot hold him in.
His Excellency, the Governor of Victoria, arrives
Comic principles; broad, coarse and obvious (wink wink)
Humphries’ comedic principle is an unhidden secret: he makes things as broad and coarse and obvious as possible. Deadpan and cool would be unsuitable — to be niche or cult is exactly the opposite of Humphries’ desire: he wants mainstream, to hit major chords.
As channelled by Sir Dr Les Patterson, the jokes are far more potentially offensive than anything the Footy Show could imagine at their most egregious — oddly enough, that’s because they sort of take themselves seriously as people of the people. Humphries never makes that categorical mistake; he knows his people (“I’m a peopleholic, yes I am”), but he is not one of them, my dear.
Last night’s People were averaging around fifty, solidly middle class, and crossed the board from Heathmont near Ringwood to East Melbourne, as various victims volunteered. It also included Victoria’s Governor, His Excellency Alex Chernov, residence the Botanic Gardens. If only Humphries had been advised of his presence! How coarse? Sir Les mentions Julia Gillard in passing and calls her a “Fanta pants,” urging us to “think about it.” (I had to resort to Urban Dictionary to confirm my worst suspicions.)
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