Unfunny business: Cancelling an icon

Jun 21, 2023
Barry Humphries’ humour was not to everyone’s taste, but for decades, he played to packed houses and put “bums on seats." Source: Getty

The cult of celebrity has diminished some of our most powerful words. The word “legend” for example, once belonged to such men as Robin Hood and King Arthur, historical figures whose very existence remains uncertain, but whose names have endured through the ages.  

In season 2, episode 4 of the 1995 television documentary, Heroes of Comedy, the late Barry Humphries is lauded as a “living legend” and a hero (of comedy). “Hero” is another word that has been reduced to the commonplace. However, I’ll leave that one for the moment. Suffice it to say, Barry Humphries was not a legend, nor was he a hero.

He was a multi-talented entertainer, whose wit and intelligence brought him worldwide fame. Surely that is enough praise for one man. I suspect that we can blame writers and commentators seeking to find the ultimate superlative for the debasement of words, such as legend and hero.  

The word “icon”, too, has shirked its traditional religious connotations. Icons now give us access to programs and features on our computer screens and may also describe individuals having major influence or significance in a particular sphere.

I note that Barry Humphries has often been referred to as an icon and, this time, I agree. Whether you enjoyed Barry Humphries’ style of humour or not, he was an Australian icon. 

Rather like beauty, humour is in the eye (or ear) or its beholder. What makes me laugh, doesn’t necessarily make you laugh.  Wordplay and satire crack me up, while slapstick bores me silly.

While there was an obvious visual element to Barry Humphries’s humour, in the main, he used sarcasm and parody.  Nobody was safe from his critical gaze and everyone was fair game, including members of his audience, who often found themselves on the cutting edge of his razor-sharp wit.

Barry Humphries’ humour was not to everyone’s taste, but for decades, he played to packed houses and put “bums on seats”, as they say. 

In 2019, the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, which Barry Humphries had helped to launch in 1987, cancelled him. Admittedly, much has changed since Barry Humphries hit the international stage in the late 1960s. His characters, Dame Edna Everage, Les Patterson and Sandy Stone may struggle to find an appreciative audience in the “woke” 2020s. However, the problem with Barry Humphries had nothing to do with Melbourne International Comedy Festival patrons no longer enjoying his style of comedy. 

Instead, Barry Humphries’ crime was to express an opinion that offended festival organisers. Funny that – or unfunny, which is more to the point. Barry Humphries made a career out of offending and lampooning anyone or anything with impunity. He had, after all, declared that he was born with a priceless gift: the ability to laugh at the misfortunes of others. Indeed, for decades, fans loved Barry Humphries precisely for the pointed barbs that punctuated his shows and interviews. 

In 2018, feminist pioneer Germaine Greer and former NSW Premier and Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs, Bob Carr were also cancelled by the Brisbane Writers’ Festival. Organisers deemed their books too controversial. In other words, once again, the offence was holding views that did not align with the “woke” sensibilities of the organisers. Can you imagine that? It is absurd – and truly troubling – that a comedy and a writers’ festival, traditional venues for dangerous ideas, would silence Barry Humphries, Germaine Greer and Bob Carr, all senior Australians, and giants in their field.  

However, that’s cancel culture for you – groupthink writ large. The grand irony is that true champions of diversity and inclusion welcome diverse points of view. They are quite happy to include those who hold them, to debate them and to exchange ideas with them. Perhaps, the “woke” generation has not lived long enough to realise that trying to impose its mindset on others is more akin to totalitarianism (and thought police) than it is to democracy. 

Nowadays, certain topics are taboo and may not be articulated, even in passing, or by eminent Australians upon whom we rely for academic integrity.

Instead, cancellation, ad hominem attacks, insults and threats have brought the standard of public discourse to a new low. Who would have thought that five hundred years after the Enlightenment, we would still risk censure for simply expressing our thoughts.  

Only time will tell whether Barry Humphries will become a legend, in the traditional sense of the word.  In the meantime, comedians performing at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival can now win The Melbourne International Comedy Award. Doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as the cancelled Barry Award, named after Barry Humphries, had. Does it? 

Vale Barry Humphries.

Disclaimer: The following text is an opinion piece and should not be taken as factual information or professional advice. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of the platform hosting the article. The purpose of this piece is to stimulate discussion and encourage critical thinking. Readers are encouraged to conduct their own research before making any decisions based on the content of this article.

Stories that matter
Emails delivered daily
Sign up