By the time Barry Humphries shuffled off his mortal coil on April 22, 2023, he may have been satisfied that he had already completed his life’s work: getting us Aussies to look into the mirror and have a chuckle at our idiosyncrasies and make the world take more notice of us as they laughed along with us.
I have been privileged, along with the rest of my generation, to have witnessed live Humphries’ hilarious progression from the humble Edna Everage of Moonee Ponds, who took the mickey out of the quintessentially boring and parochial Aussie suburbia, to the Megastar Dame Edna, near the end of his career in his series of international interviews.
He triumphed through his American TV series by cutting down to size some of Hollywood’s most iconic actors with his sarcastic humour; giving them a master class in humiliation.
He was at once a tall poppy and one who could not, in his presence, tolerate any other tall poppies to be greater than himself.
I met Barry briefly in person when he came in to give a tongue-in-cheek interview to Peter Luck in This Day Tonight’s Sydney Gore Hill studio in 1972.
In my capacity as a Production Assistant and a Reporter Trainee, I watched with awe the wonderfully instant rapport these two masters of storytelling developed with each other.
They bounced ideas off each other about how to make a funny interview sketch in our studio in just a few minutes about Barry’s coming film debut The Adventures of Barry McKenzie.
The film went on to become the first Aussie film to surpass one million dollars in Australian box office receipts.
What struck me was Barry’s extraordinary spontaneity; his ability to come up with one funny idea after another in rapid succession and bring Peter Luck along with the ideas.
I was able to witness personally for the first time, what continued to be Barry Humphries’ trademark throughout his comic career – to wittily extemporise with the greatest of ease.
In fact, looking at Humphries’s career as a whole, I cannot think of another comedian, with perhaps the exception of Robin Williams, who could make any situation as spontaneously funny as he did.
He was not just witty but he was instantly and consistently so.
But beyond being a brilliant comedian, Humphries was also a superb writer, raconteur painter and a serious documenter of changes in Australian suburbia as exemplified by his Sandy Stone monologues.
Humphries astute satires about suburbia were no less hard-hitting than the Nobel Prize winner Patrick White’s was in his acclaimed play The Season at Sarsaparilla.
Humphries was a true larrikin, an incorrigible stirrer, never afraid of being politically incorrect.
Of the several comic characters Barry created apart from Edna, Les Patterson was perhaps the funniest and most deliberately disgusting.
Barry was able to get people rolling with laughter at his most vulgarly sexist send-up portrayal of ‘cultural ambassador’ Patterson, consistently parading an enormous fake erect penis protruding from his thigh under his trousers.
Of course, in our present zero-tolerance anti-misogynistic culture, much of Les Patterson’s jokes would be regarded as passé and cheap, but Barry with his old-fashioned charm tended to get away with it, in spite of the fact that an increasing number of young comedians started to object to his keeping sexism as a means of making his audiences laugh.
Humphries was never a subject of the numerous interviews they conducted with him. He was always the object, taking over the interview from the interviewer who mostly kept laughing so hard, that he did not mind what Humphries was talking about as long as he kept him amused.
Similarly, when Humphries conducted interviews with famous stars, he always injected himself into the interviews with his sarcastic humour to the point that the main star of every interview he conducted with anyone, no matter how famous his interviewee, was always Humphries himself.
As he could not help himself but command the centre stage, Humphries would not have been an easy person to live with, as implied by his three divorces before his lasting fourth marriage.
He made no secret of the fact that he used to be an alcoholic and he praised the work of Alcoholics Anonymous, as it was through their program that he managed to overcome his addiction.
Though Australia has largely moved on from the epoch of history that Humphries so brilliantly sent up for us, his enduring fame is assured not only as one of Australia’s most brilliant comedians but also as a very astute cultural commentator.
And not everything in the Aussie culture that he had sent up so wittily has become history by now.
There are still men who prefer women to be seen not heard, the kind of ‘housewives’, whom Humphrey eternalised in his early Edna Everage portrayals and several tabloids targeting women who still specialise in kitsch and trivial gossip.
If Paul Hogan helped to acquaint the world with the Aussie bloke and with Crocodile Dundee, then Humphries succeeded in giving the world an irreverent Aussie housewife extraordinaire.
Which was your favourite Humphries-created character? Why?