It is a truth that ought to be universally acknowledged that the one thing missing from modern comedy festivals is comedy. There is vulgarity and coarseness, obscenity and filth, but nothing that anyone with what used to be considered a conventional sense of humour – someone who finds Laurel and Hardy or Carry On films or Evelyn Waugh in satirical vein funny – would laugh at. Stand-up male ‘comedians’ with a simian expression and tedious patter of expletives have been succeeded by combative stand-up females babbling about their genitals. The latest trend is for stand-up – not comedians – but polemicists of indeterminate sex demanding that their audiences join in empathy on the performer’s pilgrimage from one gender to the other. They shout, they apostrophise, they swear, they abuse, but rarely bother trying to make their audience laugh because (a) they don’t know how to and (b) the laughs come automatically in moronic uncomprehending gales whatever the performer says. I saw one ‘edgy’ female talking about a cervix and the audience was dutifully splitting its sides, on the now generally accepted principle that if it’s said at a comedy festival it must be funny.
One of the first stars of the Melbourne Comedy Festival, sorry, Melbourne International Comedy Festival because it usually includes someone from New Zealand or Fiji, was Barry Humphries. That was 30 years ago. He’s 85 now, and though first disapproved of as a ‘long-haired weirdo’, has been acknowledged as very funny indeed for over half a century. He too has talked a lot about sex, but in a way that made people laugh spontaneously rather than as automata. (Perhaps in time the performers of today will, like Barry, be acknowledged for their genius, though it is more likely that before that can happen most will fall victim to the ever-changing prohibitions imposed by the public acceptability Gestapo and be banished to the leagues clubs if they can get a gig there.) Anyway, Barry has morphed from razor-tongued Argus-eyed satirist into, yes, ‘national icon’, or is it ‘living national treasure’? Whichever, his name is synonymous with Australian comedy and it was in his honour that the Melbourne festival named its prize for the best comedian of each season (yes yes, I know, the competition isn’t exactly steep) the Barry Award.
And then Barry did a naughty thing. He turned his verbal blowtorch on the latest category of monomaniacs who think, to paraphrase P. G. Wodehouse, that the world is agog to hear about their sexual inclinations, and indeed, should change the way it functions to suit their particular requirements. He dared to speak disrespectfully of the transgender cult. It’s ‘a fashion’, he declared (and the statistics would seem to prove him right). ‘How many different kinds of lavatory can you have?’ he asked in this magazine, adding that transgenderism as propagated by ideologues such as Safe Schools is ‘pretty evil when it’s preached to children by crazy teachers.’ He had earlier described gender re-assignment surgery as ‘self-mutilation’ and Caitlyn Jenner as ‘a publicity-seeking ratbag’ (you might take issue with the noun but not with the compound adjective).
Humphries has long, in the persona of Sir Les Paterson, made fun of gays (‘pillow-biters’) and ‘lezzos’ (‘with faces like a half-sucked mango’) but the gay and lesbian establishment was still only a clutch of activists bickering over who should have the first initial in those days and had not acquired a strong enough hold on public opinion to punish him. Things have changed. The non-binaries have more clout now, and everything in the world of publicly-subsidised art and culture, in which they are over-represented, is subject to their censorship. The result is that a denim curtain has descended on the world of public utterance, and to borrow from Pope, universal darkness in the form of political correctitude has just about buried all.
Humphries would have known but obviously didn’t care that among the main performers at recent Melbourne Comedy Festivals are proud lesbians and other variants on the GLBTQWXYZ spectrum. One, now called Cassie Workman, is a ‘transitioner’. Six years ago, while still a man, Cassie was a nominee for a Barry Award, being known, according to IMDb, for ‘her incisive wit and brutal deconstructions of the status quo’. Well, the status quo at the festival has just undergone a very brutal deconstruction. They’ve dumped the Barry Award because Barry is now toxic.
Among the first off the mark to indicate this were another two award winners, Zoë Coombs Marr, the cervix specialist mentioned above, and the excruciating Hannah Gadsby (neither of whom have handed their prizes back). Hannah unsheathed her claws to tweet that Humphries ‘loves those who hold power, hates vulnerable minorities and has completely lost the ability to read the room’. Although she doesn’t realise it, that remark would be more accurately applied to herself and the sort of people who find her funny. They are in power in today’s culture and the kind of vulnerable minority they hate are believing Christians, people like Israel Folau or Margaret Court or those who think same-sex marriages aren’t real marriages. As to reading the room, tell that to the audiences who hang on his words every time Humphries does one of his sell-out ‘farewell’ shows.
Barry’s remarks on transgender folk weren’t made yesterday and it’s taken a while for the penny to drop at executive level. But the festival’s director, Susan Provan, has finally caught up and confirmed that Barry’s name will no longer grace the prize for the festival’s supposedly funniest. Barry is still a figure to be reckoned with so she didn’t exactly admit that his remarks were the direct cause of the expungement of his name. His comments ‘definitely played a part’, she told the ABC, but the festival had been considering a change for ‘some time’. Then she asserted, in that complacent way that taxpayer-subsidised arts administrators who don’t have to worry about actually selling their show to an audience have, ‘We are one of the biggest comedy festivals in the world, and we are just moving with the times. We want our big important award to be named for us, for our festival, for our city.’ Would she have wanted that if Barry held the approved view of the ‘trans’ constituency?
And how does Barry himself feel? He hasn’t said, but would he really wish his name associated any longer with the rigidly invigilated state-approved ‘humour’ of today? Except perhaps for exposing it (in a new act?) to the ridicule he does better than any of the pygmies who’ve turned on him.
Subscribe to The Spectator Australia today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Subscribe – Try a month free