Dame Edna Everage may have died this past weekend, possibly not. Several news outlets posted that THREE people died at once, the sophisticate Dame Edna, the crass Sir Les Patterson, and the humorist Barry Humphries who created and impersonated the other two hilariously since 1955.
Barry Humphries of Melbourne (in one persona or another) was Australia’s most famous entertainer. He was a clown, a satirist, a comedian. He was brilliant, gifted, and funny. He was especially famous as Dame Edna Everage, who was far above “average.” She was an Australian housewife turned gigastar, by her own reckoning. Between the three of them, Melbourne became the comedy capital of the world. So, as these things happen, the Melbourne Comedy Festival was begun 4 decades ago with Barry as the prime mover.
Barry died on April 22 in a Sydney hospital, of complications following hip-replacement surgery. News of his hospitalization brought a consoling phone call from HM King Charles III, and his death elicited comments from world leaders, many of whom had survived being on the sharp end of Dame Edna’s wit. His death sent news commentators scrambling to find clips of Barry, Edna, and Les.
Humor has evolved since Barry first took to the stage to make people laugh at stereotypes of themselves and their celebrities. Throughout his career political correctness has been expanded, and it was always precisely “correctness” that Barry lampooned. He pushed the boundaries. He exploded prudishness, especially as the lecherous Sir Les. Some of the clips of his attitudes toward women cannot be aired these days. Barry got away with it – as long as it was Sir Les or Dame Edna who were being outrageous.
That tolerance, however, did not extend to Barry as himself. About 5 years ago, Barry apparently got fed up with the way cultural divisions were being fortified. Speaking for himself, he voiced his opinions that gender-affirmation surgery is “self-mutilation” and that labelling being transgender is “a fashion.” Yes, he is a conservative, he admitted. SO WHAT?
The Melbourne Comedy Festival people promptly “cancelled” their most famous person, removed his name from their main “Barry Award,” and denounced his opinions. To top it off the festival was going on at the very time of his death, and they did nothing to mark the occasion. Aussie news stations made this slight a top story. The rebuke hit where it hurts, and today (April 25) the Melbourne International Comedy Festival organizers denied “cancelling” Barry and now say they will plan a “fitting tribute.”
The question of how to respond, arises at times like this, when a person’s lifelong-legacy to arts, culture or science is questioned because of a political position they have taken. Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Charlie Chaplin, and JK Rowling are just a few of the humorists who preceded Barry Humphries into threats of cancellation or worse.
At times like this, when accomplishments are so massive, it is cultural power that gets challenged. The mountain they have constructed is not seriously eroded by the storm that breaks out when their unpopular idea flashes and a deafening thunderclap drowns out all balanced thought for a moment.
We are waiting to see “what next”. How will British royalty respond (they loved Barry, but it’s coronation time). What will the Oz government do (a state funeral, one news station asked)?
Will Dame Edna continue to entertain us and our children? I think she lives on in cyberspace.
I wholeheartedly disagree with Barry that being “out” as transgender is just “a fashion” that will fade. But I’m less sure cancel-culture is as enduring. Voltaire [ Candide ], Swift [ Gulliver ], and Wilde have convinced me that Barry is right:
Political bitterness and social arrogance can be laughed away.
But the initial cost to the humorist is often serious.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.