Humour, if you’ll forgive the expression, is a very funny thing indeed. I’m reminded of this reading the comments on yesterday’s post, which reveal such interesting differences in response to the same material. I had another friend email me: ‘your post about the weekend away was fuckin’ hilarious,’ and just as I paused reading David’s comment here on the blog itself – and it’s always hugely gratifying when people I think are tremendously funny are amused by anything I do, and both these people crack me up – again I thought to myself, Was it? Funny (peculiar, rather than ha ha), I hadn’t thought so. And then neither Woo nor LL mentioned their funny bones being tickled by the post at all – their focus was on the topic of house guests, and reassuring me it probably wasn’t so dire as all that, and our friends probably haven’t added us to a black list of the world’s most crashingly boring people, because rowdy house guests can be an exhausting handful. Sincere and welcome responses to my genuine concern that Llew and I spent 48 hours being total pills.
There’s nothing unfunnier than discussing humour, it just kills the joke every time, but I am so interested in its changing fortunes and many permutations that I’m going to have, rather than make, a crack. This topic has been brewing for a little over a month, ever since Llew and I went along to the Sydney Opera House to see Barry Humphries perform with the divine Richard Tognetti’s Australian Chamber Orchestra. It’s the sort of thing I am usually guaranteed to post about the very next day, hot off the press and plastic seating, and yet I filed it away, not yet ready to unpack my shifting feelings about Barry Humphries’ brand of humour.
Whatever you know or think about Dame Edna and Sir Les, the two characters Humphries invented and made famous, make no mistake: Barry Humphries himself is an extremely erudite, gracious, witty man. A large part of me wishes he’d never left the stage to be replaced by his provocative alter-egos. And yet I was curious to get a gander; this was my first time, I’d never seen “them” live before, nor had I ever seen more than brief snippets of past performances, some of them Royal Command, so Humphries is no slouch. No slouch, but nor is he just out of the gates, so I wanted to make sure he was not someone I missed seeing live. He’s such a fascinating product of this country, one of few wildly successful exports who can return home and be enveloped in his country-folk’s undying, curiously uncritical love. A neat trick in itself, because usually we like stabbing our expatriate talent just as they’re stepping off the plane. Humphries has succeeded in dodging the ritual scalping even though he is a self-professed snob, which would normally automatically qualify him for the rack. All this piqued my curiosity.
Then there was the inspired pairing of Humphries with the ACO, which certainly drove our own ticket purchase. I’m intrigued by Richard Tognetti – the way that man simultaneously handles a violin (thanks to an astonishing anonymous donation to the ACO, Tognetti plays a $10 million Carrodus, an 18th century Italian violin made by Giuseppe Guarneri) while conducting his chamber orchestra really does leave the average audience member more than slightly aquiver. So it was an exciting, unusual prospect; the program was eclectic and, oftentimes, the atmosphere electric. Humphries and Tognetti, it transpired, are old friends, so there was a cosy intimacy to proceedings that made it feel like one was all but eavesdropping on a private jam session, and on what is clearly an on-going conversation between the two about their great shared love: music.
But something about the evening nagged, and six weeks later, I know it was the battering ram of Dame Edna and Sir Les’s humour. Dame Edna is sly, poison-tipped; a little mean, really, which I don’t find all that funny. There was a poor woman in the front row who landed in Dame Edna’s sights early, and although the first few off-the-cuff jibes got a lot of laughs, after a while I began to feel like I was morphing into one of the sniggering sidekicks egging on the school bully. It was uncomfortable, and I stopped laughing. In the end, Dame Edna was close to being outright cruel.
Sir Les preceded Dame Edna to the stage, so perhaps it’s not surprising Dame Edna’s section of the program left the deeper impression on me, as the evening closed with her. Oh, how I wanted Barry back – bring out the brains of the operation, for god’s sake! Anyway, Sir Les… what can I say? He is a one-man grotesquerie, shocking and bawdy and slovenly and lewd. Yes, like Dame Edna, he can be laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s also a bit of a one trick pony, isn’t it, the drunk, lecherous old pervert who sprays the audience with one long sticky stream of profanity and spittle? So he’s wildly crass – big deal. You’ve heard one Sir Les routine, you have safely heard them all. I felt I was laughing at a single punch-line, and more: I spent the entire night feeling vaguely like the real butt of Humphries’ joke was me.
I’ll never forget it: years ago, Llew told me that my humour changed whenever I was around a certain friend, someone who incidentally turned out to be a real prick. At the time I didn’t really understand what Llew meant, but I absolutely do now. It was the same ‘moving target’ humour that Dame Edna employed in roasting the woman in the front row. Dame Edna didn’t turn her sharp tongue on herself, she aimed it elsewhere. Someone else was the especial object of her undisguised scorn, and this was always my ex-friend’s style. I’m sorry to say I was sometimes drawn into this same practice for the duration of that friendship, which is what Llew so astutely identified at the time. Today, my friends and I – including Llew – still poke fun at each other’s foibles and follies; I expect we always will. But this kind of banter is always built around affection, the exchange mutual, the arrows dipped in the same pot and traded in the same currency. Humour is a bloody battleground, in my opinion, so although I know I still fail sometimes, I do try now to always be on the look-out for those innocent civilians who accidentally wander into the line of fire. They don’t mean to be there, they didn’t volunteer for duty, and they’re not armed, so for me being funny has become much more about trying to let those people pass by, and trying to ensure that they’re not the ones getting shot. I find I talk to myself out there in the field, and there’s one phrase I know I have no choice but to keep repeating in my own ear for as long as I go on preparing rounds of ammo: take me. Take me.