Vale: Barry Humphries 1934-2023
Born in Kew in 1934 and raised in Hawthorn’s neighbouring suburb, Camberwell, Barry Humphries' Boroondara roots had a tremendous impact on the fledgling star. His father Eric was responsible for constructing numerous, still-standing properties on Christowel Street in Camberwell which the family would occupy until a newer, larger home was completed. In the spacious backyards of these houses, little Barry would spend endless hours playing dress-up and staging performances for visiting relatives and neighbouring children, developing his passion for make-believe.
As he grew, Barry began to view his comfortable suburban life as fertile grounds for comedy. He became acutely aware that ‘not standing out’ was central to maintaining the status quo of ‘niceness' that permeated and ultimately stifled creative thought. Throughout his life, Barry was continually asked what the inspiration for his most famous pantomime creation, Dame Edna Everage, was. Always the contrarian, he would answer that the local housewives of his youth, figures who abhorred ‘standing out’ informed his most 'attention-seeking’ act.
Although known for confronting the conformity of mid-20th Century Australia, and reacting to the unsophisticated nature of suburban Melbourne, Barry never forsook his hometown. In every country he performed in, he stubbornly relayed our colloquialisms across the globe, waiting patiently for the world to catch up. In the guise of Dame Edna, Barry put Melbourne on the map without compromising his act, but rather exploiting our peculiarities for both comic and endearing effect. However, in less self-assured times, Barry Humphries first took his radical satire to the world stage to our great embarrassment. When his creation, Sir Les Patterson - a grotesque parody of the over-privileged diplomat - first slobbered all over London’s West End theatres, our parliament reeled in horror at how we - or perhaps more accurately, they - were being portrayed on the world stage.
For a time, Barry was seen as our ambassador of cultural cringe, and the term ‘Ausploitation’ appeared for the first time in our vocabulary. Yet it was his genuine love of his home country that saw Barry win over his detractors by making us laugh, not just at him, but at ourselves. Through observing, parodying and wanting to ‘stand-out’, Barry Humphries was pleasing himself to spite the oppressive nature of post-war Melbourne suburbia. He started out as a rogue element; a fly in the Vegemite of comfortable Australia, who became our most adored comic talent. Humphries will be remembered as the singular force in advancing Australia's renowned sense of humour and the man who turned our cultural cringe into our badge of honour.