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Some Things Are Just Not Funny, Barry

ByRobert Silverman
Barry Humphries as Les Patterson.

The Author

Robert Silverman is the pen name of a journalist and academic with extensive Australian and international experience in teaching, researching and writing on politics and history.

When Barry Humphries died, he took Edna, Sir Les, Sandy Stone, Madge and Moonee Ponds as a name on the world map with him. Even in Australia, few would have known where Moonee Ponds was but Barry thrust it from obscurity into global recognition, not that he ever lived there and not that Moonee Ponds had much to offer the budding comedian in and of itself. The inner city is the true breeding ground of comedy in Melbourne, the middle and outer suburbs only targets serving as the convenient lightning rods for mockery of the Australian way of life.

Those who make their money trying to make people laugh are showcased every year in the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, which Barry helped to get off the ground nearly four decades ago and which has just acknowledged his death on its website:

“We are saddened to hear of the passing of comic legend Barry Humphries. Having started his career in Melbourne, Barry’s early support, along with Peter Cook, helped kick off and raise the profile of the Festival nationally and internationally. With Festival founder John Pinder, Barry was part of a creative generation who developed a global platform for Australian comedy. He will be remembered by legions of fans around the world for his wit, inimitable characters and biting satire. Our thoughts are with his family and friends. Vale Barry.”

The festival had said nothing for days, resulting in what its chief administrator called a “bin fire” of bad publicity. This is what drove it into finally acknowledging in this brief message that the Dadaist aesthete described by many as the greatest comedian since Chaplin had died.

In fact, the festival had some years before taken issue with Humphries, over his references to transgenderism as a “fashion” and physical reshaping of the body as “self-mutilation.” With Hannah Gadsby leading the charge, the comedians struck back, removing Humphries as one of the festival’s sponsors and dropping his name from its annual Barry Award for the funniest comedian. 

Gadsby described him as a “dick biscuit,” whatever that is supposed to mean, and thus incited, her howling pack of inchoate social media fans went for Barry too. As a self-described high-functioning autistic convict lesbian from Smithton (in northwestern Tasmania for those who might not know), Gadsby is, of course, someone Humphries could have invented.   

Outraged comedians ganging up on another comedian is surely a joke in itself but Barry took it hard. His great strength was breaking boundaries others dared not transgress. Just when he seemed to have gone far enough, he would go a bit further and his audiences loved it; going too far is surely the lifeblood of comedy. Barry was saying what his audiences might think but dared not say, and he was not going to stop when transgenderism reared its non-binary heads.  

Transgenderism was the Melbourne comedians’ line in the sand but these days, it is hardly the only one.  Vaccines, indigeneity, the Russia-Ukraine conflict and mandatory use of the right pronouns are all lines in the sand now, not just for comedians but for the media and people in general. 

Of its nature, debate has to be open but now it has to be curated ahead of time, in case someone asks the wrong question, the ABC’s ‘Q and A’ being the prime example of this approach. As for dissent, it is totally expunged from public view the word might soon disappear from the language altogether.  Even disagreement is under threat. There is a right view and a wrong view on a growing list of topics and increasingly, people seem too frightened to say what they really think, however demented the opinions they are expected to agree with.

The media is the great conveyor belt of how they should think and how they should adjust the values and beliefs they hold true to fit in with the current line. ‘Explainers’ and ‘what you need to know’ are only what the media wants you to know, not what you might really need to know or have explained. 

The ‘free press’ is not free for you but only for the proprietor to choose the editor, and free for the editor to decide who will be given space to pass on their opinions, which fortunately tend to coincide with the editor’s, the proprietor’s, the board’s, the shareholders and the advertisers. What the freedom of the press really adds up to is that there is no freedom of the press at all, only the freedom of a carefully selected band of scribblers to tell you how to think and what to believe.   

Michael Leunig is a victim of this commissar approach to what you should see, read and even laugh at. Gay Alcorn, until recently the editor of the ‘Age,’ refused to publish about a dozen of his cartoons during the ‘pandemic’ on the grounds that they were ‘misinformation.’

One of them mocked masking (shown recently in a prestigious scientific study to have had little or no effect in preventing infection by the COVID virus). Another turned the barrel of a tank in Tiananmen Square into a syringe pointed at one of Leunig’s hapless characters. Yet another, in its first panel, showed a man sticking a rubber arm out from under his sweater to be injected. In the second panel he is found out and told off with a finger wagged at him.    

Even ‘Age’ readers who supported vaccination 100 per cent might have laughed at this but for the ‘Age’ editor it was just not funny. The paper’s readers could not be allowed to see it as it was ‘misinformation’ that might encourage ‘vaccine hesitancy.’ Leunig’s subsequent punishment was to be removed from the news pages and allowed to draw only for the Saturday supplement, alongside book and theatre reviews and Yotam Ottolenghi’s latest recipe. 

There are no physical gulags in Australia but when its rebels and dissidents can be suppressed, marginalized or ignored so no one hears them, there is no need. This has always been true of Australia, although in this age of mass miscommunication and mass media misinformation presented as ‘what you need to know’, it is much truer now. Had the Soviet government asked Australia for its advice in this respect, it could have saved a lot of money.

This is what is really not funny about what is happening in Australia. A virus called wokeism, an especially ugly mutation of 1970s political correctness has spread across the land more insidiously than COVID-19. The infection works on the brain cells relentlessly and effectively, and unlike COVID there is no jab to cure it, not that even four or five jabs prevented people from being infected with the COVID virus. Synchronised swimming now seems to jumped out of the pool into synchronised thinking, with identical thoughts being waved in the air rather than legs.

COVID was used to terrorise the population into compliance with whatever the authorities wanted them to do, whether sitting in a white circle on the grass or reporting their neighbours for sitting outside the white circle on the grass. Now people have self-vaccinated themselves with compliance to prevent unwise thoughts spilling from their mouths. They can still talk freely to themselves and perhaps whisper their innermost thoughts to their closest friends but speaking openly, at a Saturday night dinner party or over the table at a restaurant, can result in what no one would want disenfranchisement as a caring member of the community.

The media – mainstream and social – carries compliance into every corner of the country like dandelion spores blown by the wind. Perhaps in the remote outback, it can be ignored but in the cities someone is always listening. As the human vectors of compliance look like you, physically, for the most part anyway, you might not realise that they are what in different circumstances the WHO would call a sublineage.  

He, she or they, as some single individuals insist on being called, don’t want to fit in and neither do they want you to fit in. They are demanding that you fit in, to their values, their beliefs and even the way you speak. If you resist they will pull out all social media stops to take you down: metaphorically, think of the Seals storming up the stairs to get Bin Laden and you will know your fate. 

You will be blown apart by ridicule and abuse, shunned by decent members of the community, and basically turned into an outcast in your own country. To stay on the safe side, you’d best just shut up or say what everyone else is thinking, not what you really are. In this echo chamber, they are only thinking and saying what they think you are thinking and saying anyway, but neither you nor they – using the word in its old meaning – need to admit that. 

Besides Barry Humphries and Michael Leunig, another recent high-profile target for the synchronised thinkers is Katherine Deves, who does not draw offensive cartoons but has argued– just as offensively in the minds of some– that biological males should not be allowed to compete in women’s sports. This would make sense to a lot of Australians, for whom a male is obviously biological and is not chosen by an expert or a committee after birth, whether or not they supported Katherine Deves as an election candidate for the Liberal Party. 

World Athletics, the global governing body for track and field events, has decided that post-puberty males should not be allowed to compete in women’s events and other sporting organisations are following its lead but this makes no difference to those on the transgender bender. Deves was abused on social media, accused of being transphobic in the mainstream media and was so alarmed by phoned death threats that she sent her children out of Sydney for their own safety. Her crime was not just to think the wrong thoughts but to express them.

Humphries was a comic meteor who flashed across the night sky and has now disappeared but thankfully it was at least a long night. Like all comedians, he was not always funny. Sandy Stone was not even intended to be funny. Some of his monologues would have fallen flat in the eyes of his most ardent fans but unlike many other comedians, at least he was ‘funny’ most of time rather than just some of the time or none of the time.

To some of his critics, especially ‘non-binary’ men and women, Barry was not funny at all, but an outdated elderly white male dressed alternatively as a lampooned suburban housewife or a slobbering retired Australian ambassador sitting down for an interview with a whiskey in his hand and a cucumber stuffed into his pants. Too crude to be funny, in their view, even if the rest of the tribe, including women as they used to be, was pissing itself laughing.

It is true that many of the pranks played by Humphries even two or three decades ago could not be played now. Society has ‘moved on’ and in the eyes of his most malevolent critics Humphries did not.  They could put up with that but not his completely uncalled-for remarks about transgenderism.

As comedians, these critics ‘read the room’ and work within what they divine as their audience’s boundaries. This goes against the grain of art in all its forms because the best artists, from Picasso and Stravinsky, just in modern history, down to Barry Humphries and Michael Leunig or Lenny Bruce, are the best because they won’t have boundaries imposed on them.

When everything else is open to mockery there is no reason transgenderism should be an exception. Notably, Humphries did not even mock it, as he might have, given that there is so much to mock: he just expressed an opinion offstage but for the guardians of comedy in Melbourne even that was too much. So who would anyone think is the true enemy of comedy?  

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