"I'm addicted to adrenaline. That voice in the dressing room, that says 'You're on in five minutes...' That's adrenaline" *
Comedy comes in many forms. There are those that get laughs by being completely ridiculous, contorting themselves into forms that demand laughs. Those that view the world with cynical eyes, leaving their audience laughing at the truth in their words, while in the back of their minds realising that 'yes...I've done that'. Some expand everyday situations, taking them beyond the bounds of normality, and into the realms of 'what if', some exploit cultural cringe, leaving their audience somewhat uncomfortable, while wiping tears from their eyes.
Barry Humphries is not really any of these.
Conversely, Barry Humphries is all of these.
Barry Humphries was born in Melbourne, in 1934. Bought up in a privileged family, he attended Melbourne Grammar School. During this point in his life, he showed an affinity for the arts, spurning sports, and many of the more academic pursuits.
"At this time, there was enormous pressure to do something that would make your parents proud. I was never going to become an accountant - not that there's anything wrong with being an accountant! When I became interested in the arts, it was always supposed to be a temporary thing, before I went on to do something more serious..." *
Barry Humphries is what happens when you take an extremely intelligent man, a man who is gifted in the arts, and allow him the freedom to make people laugh. A man who has the extraordinary ability to produce a base level of humour - the staple of so many comedians - while at the same time displaying a level of insight and wit through that character that most comedians can only dream of reproducing. Take for instance one of Barry Humphries' creations - Sir Les Patterson.
As cultural attaché for Australia, Sir Les is the blending of all of the stereotypical views of Australia as a mob of beer swilling yobbos. To put it delicately, Sir Les is a less than attractive man, any way you look at him. He speaks in a drawl that will leave most Australians cringing, taking the accent to extremes. You will generally find him clad in a tacky, stained suit - occasionally lined with Fosters Lager tins - invariably hoisting an alcoholic beverage of some form in a salute to whoever will return his gesture. Reactions to Sir Les are somewhat similar to those expressed when passing a drunk, unconscious on a bus stop bench at some early hour of the morning.
Sir Les Patterson predicted the downfall of the Prime Minister of Australia, Bob Hawke, at the hands of then treasurer Paul Keating during a speech at - of all places - the National Press Club in Canberra. Understand, that this is the meeting place of serious journalists, commonly those who cover the serious business of political journalism, in the seat of Parliament in Australia.
"I said to Bob, I dunno, he wears a black suit for something, perhaps he's waiting for a funeral?"
"He collects antiques, maybe he's got you on his list."
Many comedians have lampooned drunks before, it's not like the character Barry Humphries has created was the first of its kind. However, the character gains extra depth when you consider the fact that Barry Humphries himself survived alcoholism. Rather than avoiding the subject, he created a character who would have to be a reminder of the dark days he went through.
"I haven't had a drink for over 30 years. It's somewhat a relief...not have to wake in the morning, and look in the newspaper to see what I did last night."
Barry Humphries could certainly never be accused of being one dimensional. The same man who plays characters such as Sir Les, possesses a wealth of artistic talent. He is the Chairman of the Board of Patrons to the Australian Friends of Shakespeare's Globe. Yes, Barry Humphries is a man full of surprises - watching his performances, as one of many characters he has created, and all larger than life - it is understandably difficult to imagine him as a serious performer. However, early on in his career, he did tread the boards in performances of Shakespeare. Of course, even then, his true calling in life was barely sustained, as this exchange indicates - again, paraphrased:
Andrew Denton: You really do have magnificent legs! How do you manage it?
Barry Humphries: Many pairs of pantyhose! They're really not that great, and I used to be terribly embarrassed about them. When I was performing works of Shakespeare, I used to try to hide them, because I'd come onto the stage, and people would start laughing at them! So I'd come onto the stage, and as quickly as I could move behind some cover, so they'd be hidden. And the director, he asked me 'why are you always flitting around the stage like that?' I said to him, 'well, it's my legs - people laugh at them when I come onto stage, and it's not really appropriate, it is a tragedy after all.'
And he looked at me and said...'Barry, I don't know if you realise, but people find everything about you absurd.'
Reading this exchange, you may well be wondering why the hell is a talk show host commenting on his legs?! Well, while Sir Les Patterson is one of the more well known of Barry Humphries' characters, Sir Les will never rise to the meteoric heights of the suburban housewife hailing from Moonee Ponds in the Melbourne suburbs.
Barry Humphries is Dame Edna Everidge.
Suburban megastar, famous for the term "Hello Possums!", Dame Edna is undoubtedly Barry Humphries most famous creation. Listening to Barry speak about Dame Edna is a fascinating experience - even he refers to her as 'The Dame'. Dame Edna has taken on a life of her own, more recognised than that man who created and plays her. Created in 1955 during a sketch titled 'Olympic Hostess', about a housewife offering her home to athletes visiting Melbourne for the 1956 Olympic Games. From that point on, The Dame's fame has grown and grown, taking her across the globe, including theatre performance in London and New York. Of course, nothing ever goes perfectly smoothly...
"My first theatre run in New York didn't go well. Following my first performance, the one that all of the critics attend, I thought it had gone pretty well...until I came across my manager, his head in his hands, over a copy of the New York Times. Their critic had savaged the show...and that was that. So I decided I couldn't go back to New York until that critic was dead! 25 years later, I returned...the critic hadn't actually died, but had been removed from the paper, so I felt I could return again, but I had to make it work this time - I couldn't wait another 25 years for another chance! So everything's going well, but there was a person in the audience, who The Dame took a dislike to...she was sitting a few rows back, but she was wearing sunglasses inside. So The Dame was calling her four eyes, you know, generally giving her a hard time. Now one part of the show, was when The Dame pulled people from the audience onto the stage, to play members of The Royal Family. So The Dame called out this particular woman...then with horror, saw her walking towards her, a cane tapping in front of her...she was blind."
"And The Dame was saying to her 'oh, you don't have to come up possum', and the silence in the audience...it was that terrible type of silence that any entertainer dreads. And I thought, 'how am I going to get out of this one?' I knew everyone was thinking this...so The Dame said 'I bet you're wondering how I'm going to get out of this one, aren't you?' And the crowd laughed, and this woman came onto the stage, and played a blind Fergie." *
The most incredible thing about Barry Humphries, is the absolute depth of his intelligence, and the apparent ease with which he ever so slightly twists a comment, taking ownership of it, producing the most amazing comedy. He is an incredibly well spoken, and eloquent speaker - if you had never seen, or heard of Barry Humphries, you would likely not realise that comedy was what made him tick. If you heard him speak on a serious topic, you would probably sit, completely absorbed by this man's insight.
Then, in the blink of an eye - before you realise that he's shifted gear - he will make an observation such as this:
"I am a member of the South Australian Gladioli Association. What many people don't realise, is that they are bisexual hermaphrodites. Those little old ladies, arranging their flowers...maybe they should leave the lights on at night!" *
Apart from causing countless people incredible laughter, Barry Humphries has never lost his love for other forms of art. An accomplished landscape artist, he has featured in numerous exhibitions. He has written 2 autobiographies - the last dedicated to his four children, "...in the hope that somewhere in these pages they might recognise their father". One can only imagine what it must be like to be the child of a man like Barry Humphries. His son, Oscar, in recent times has survived an overdose of anti-depressants. I imagine that with Barry Humphries as a father, it could be difficult to know when the performance stops, and the parent begins.
No aspect of Dame Edna, or Sir Les is even remotely visible on this man's face, as he talks about taking time out, and spending weeks with his son...simply talking.
Yet again, the audience is completely silent. I imagine that for many people tonight, they are seeing the human behind The Dame's face for the first time. An interview with Barry Humphries, playing himself, is not all that common in my experience. I've seen far more interviews with Dame Edna than Barry Humphries in my time. Last night, I saw an interview with a man whose disparate parts can never overshadow the man at the heart of them all.
Andrew Denton's talk show lasts about an hour. At least 45 minutes of his show was spent talking with Barry Humphries last night, and I didn't want it to stop. This man could have done anything to do with the arts - he chose to make people laugh. His will be a very difficult act to follow.
"I'm still learning, still making horrendous errors. But I'm enjoying it." *
Please note, that some of the quotes in this writeup were paraphrased. The reason for this is that some were taken from an interview with Barry Humphries on Andrew Denton's television show Enough Rope last night, while madly scribbling notes (why I didn't tape the interview, I'll never know). Paraphrased quotes are indicated with a * - while the words may not be exactly correct, the general thrust of the statements remains true to Barry Humphries' original words. Thankyou.