How does a comedian know he’s doing his job, and that he hasn’t slowed down mentally as his body decays?
Well, for Barry Humphries it would be opening the Financial Review just a couple of weeks back, to read the headline: ‘Barry Humphries Interview Offends Just About Everybody.’
At the age of 80, he’s never spared the puritans, the wowzers or the rednecks. It doesn’t matter what end of the political spectrum – they’re all in his crosshairs. Anyone who takes themself too seriously will be mercilessly mocked.
And he’s rampaged his whole way through life, a strict disciple of the great larrikin tradition of ‘bashing the beehive’.
No singular force has had as greater effect on ‘strine’ language. You can forget Banjo Patterson, it was Humphries who popularised words like ‘ratbag’, ‘chunder’, ‘drongo’, ‘dry as a dead dingo’s donger’, ‘shake hands with the unemployed’, or pretty much every other pub simile used daily from Lightning Ridge to Laverton.
How there are two forces constantly in action in Australia, those desperately trying to fit in, and those desperate to swim against the stream.
It’s no surprise what camp Humphries ended up in, but all that energy required to swim against the stream required extra sustenance in the form of alcohol. This is the thread that runs through his autobiography, his thirst to remain a fearless comic and his thirst to remain a crippled addict at the same time.
His book not only charts his rise but also his horrific descent into booze, and it’s funnier the more grave his situation gets. Through broken marriages, soiled britches and international embarrassments, Humphries is on his knees yet raising his glass to the heavens.
This is no, ‘my drug hell’ account, this is a comic black look into a man falling apart with drinking and womanising, documenting the car crash as it’s happening.
Even when he gets dry (he has been since the 70s), he doesn’t turn it into a born again celebration of himself.
I guess you could say I’m an addict – an adrenalin addict – I get great excitement and stimulation from doing stuff in public, even though I’m nervous and I have very bad stage fright.
And what did he learn by creating characters like Barry McKenzie, Sir Les Patterson, and Dame Edna, these masks that he could wear to insult as many people as possible? Never be afraid to laugh at yourself, after all, you could be missing out on the joke of the century.
When Humphries first left the shores of Australia, he was an effete, bow tie wearing intellectual who crossed his legs like a girl. However this real life ran parallel to the invention of his raucous and blokey alter ego, Barry McKenzie.
The McKenzie character became a cartoon that took Europe by storm during the swinging 60s. He was a livewire, embodying all the good and bad traits of the essential suburban Australian – an uncultured drongo who was endearingly down to earth with a distinctive vernacular.
McKenzie was a creation of Australia, a place aptly described by Humphries in a single quote: An outdoor country. People only go inside to use the toilet. And that’s only a recent development.