On Humour, or Turning the Weapon on Myself

January 28, 2010 at 2:49 am (Uncategorized)

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.


  1. socksinmypocket said,

    I saw Six Characters earlier this week and loved it! After reading your blog I was not expecting much and made sure I had a decent dinner before I went! I think some microphones may have been added in the interim as I heard it well. Thanks.

    I also saw the ACO/Barry Humphries concert and felt somewhat similar to you. I really enjoyed the first half with Humphries and enjoyed his stories and music choice. I was appalled by the second half and and sat there cringing and horrified. I wondered why the ACO condescended to play with such vile, outdated characters and hideous singing. I think Humphries is a patron of the ACO and it occurred to me that the ACO may have felt that couldn’t refuse to perform with the characters. I hope I’m wrong and I hope never see them together again (or a Barry Humphries’ characters ever again).

    I enjoyed your thought provoking comments on humour. There’s nothing funnier than a joke or funny story about someone you know – but the humour quickly dissolves when there is a cost to the subject involved.

  2. doctordi said,

    Welcome, socksinmypocket – thanks for stopping by! I am SO PLEASED you could hear the play; while I highly doubt my obscure little post influenced the improvement one decibel, I am wholly delighted to learn they’ve fixed the problem. Terrific. We did love much of the play too, which I probably didn’t convey, but the sound was a real detraction. It’s hard to judge performances you can’t hear. Anyway, thanks for sharing the excellent news that others won’t have this issue.

    Yes, I think Humphries’ performance gradually unsettled many people in the audience… we were up the back in bleeders, and saw a number of people walk out. I just feel it might have been a really wonderful event had he just been, well, himself.

    Thank you – I do think humour is so complex and thought-provoking too – and also worthy of conversations we oddly don’t often have.

  3. Pete said,

    It’s the lack of empathy that gets me. As you say, it’s the playground bully picking on an innocent target and getting us all to laugh along. I’m all for teasing and laughing at ourselves but it has to be a fair exchange. And Sir Les sounds like someone I wouldn’t be able to stand at all.

    It would be interesting to compare Barry H with the South African equivalent, which is Pieter-Dirk Uys. Also been around for ever and he is a brilliant satirist. Everything from PW Botha with the wagging finger to Thabo Mbeki and his trademark Tannie Evita Bezuidenhout. But he’s also going a bit stale and the current generation are funnier and sharper and more entertaining.

    • doctordi said,

      Pete, I don’t known P-D U but it sounds like the two have much in common. Yes, the lack of empathy is the turning point of the performance, I think.

  4. Tamsin Lawrence said,

    For the record: as one of the hosts – I didn’t think the weekend was that bad – I just figured Llew didn’t like mowing or painting, which in my books is fair enough – we don’t either!!!!

    What really shocks me, however, is that the live caterpillar in my steak sandwich didn’t even rate a mention….

    ….and don’t get me started on the % of baby boomers who regularly have sex outdoors….now that was funny.

  5. doctordi said,

    Tamsin, my darling, the weekend WASN’T bad, the weekend was GREAT, it was only that WE (as in Llew and Di) just felt we were both regrettably (and hopefully uncharacteristically) flat!!!!!

    I think I’d blocked the trauma of the live caterpillar from my memory.

    Who knew those baby boomers were such nature lovers…?

  6. David said,

    Very interesting observations about humor. What amused me so much about the previous post was not the situation, but the way in which you described it … the situation itself sounded awful, and I know exactly how it feels to be physically miserable due to weather or whatever, and feel like the death-knell of the party. There was a wonderfully overstated sense of doom about your descriptions and phraseology that happened to align with what I find to be funny … as I often find what I would call “overstating to understate” to be very funny indeed … you know, the kind of thing where you make a very dramatic pose to describe something that isn’t all that bad … because underneath it all, it really *was* that bad, but you can’t say so without looking like a drama queen. So you say it even more, to pull the teeth out of saying it at all, but the truth remains neatly hidden in there somewhere.

    But cheap shots at other people? Last resort of the intellectual and emotional coward, I think. That’s one reason why I like Eddie Izzard so much … there is an odd vulnerability about his standup routines; a step to the left, and it would be a one-man therapy session, rather than standup.

    Which reminds me of how much I have recently enjoyed some episodes of an old “Comedy Central” animated program called “Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist.” The premise of the show is that standup comedians come into a therapist’s office, and do their material as if it is their therapy session. It is surprisingly effective in an eerie way, and really points up the fact that genuinely good comedy always walks the line of painful self-disclosure. There are some really fine comedians in their early days before crazy fame, including Ray Romano, Conan O’Brien, Jeanene Garofalo, Rita Rudner, etc. But anyway. I recommend it as an object lesson in the fact that name-calling, however witty it may be, is far less inherently funny than serving up one’s own guts on a plate, with a ribbon.

    • doctordi said,

      David, yes, I did understand that, and of course I did want the post to be entertaining in *precisely* the manner in which I’d failed to be on the weekend itself, and that’s what you picked up on.

      Yes, I agree, I think those comedians who pull themselves apart are usually the most hilarious and heartbreaking.

  7. woo said,

    Yep, I did find the post funny though not the situation – I’m with David on this (as in so much else) its the way you tell ’em, Di.

    But I have never found either of Barry H’s characters remotely funny. Dame E is mean and Sir Les is stupid. Neither of which amuses me. I can only mildly sympathise with Barry H, being forced to keep bringing them both to life – I wonder if he wishes he could kill them off, as Conan Doyle did of Sherlock Holmes?

    But yes, poking fun at oneself – or at least at the set to which one belongs – is always funnier than poking fun at someone else, I think.

    • doctordi said,

      Why thank you, Woo.

      Yeah, in a nutshell, that’s how I found them too. I wonder – is Barry forced to keep bringing them to life? I would have thought in these his twilight years he might be able to retire them both (or bludgeon them to death) and begin appearing as himself – a much more edifying proposition, in my opinion.


  8. litlove said,

    I completely agree about humour – self-denigrating is just great, picking on other people soon becomes uncomfortable. I do find Dame Edna funny, but then I’ve only seen her on shows where she hasn’t really had her knife into other people. Sir Les was never funny. And you, dear Di are always funny, but David had already said that, and so it seemed right to address the other parts of the post. Plus, I really, really appreciate quiet and undemanding house guests myself, 🙂

    • doctordi said,

      LL, it was an interesting experience live, because you could feel the ebbing enthusiasm of some members of the audience, ourselves included, as the act wore on, and I wonder if that’s something that isn’t conveyed on TV. After all, on television there’s always canned laughter if all else fails.

  9. Lilian Nattel said,

    What an interesting post and an interesting subject. I was on the phone with an old friend the other day, and my older daughter asked me why I laughed so much. I always do when talking to this friend. And afterward I feel good in an energized world tackling way. So I look at humour in terms of its impact. Does it make someone larger at the expense of making someone else ridiculous? Or does it reveal truth and make us wiser in the way that humour can sometimes accomplish when seriousness can’t? Does it bring worries down to size and lift up hope and zest? Or does it reinforce barriers?

  10. doctordi said,

    Oh, Lilian, I *love* friends like that, they’re worth their weight in gold and then some! How brilliant – there’s nothing better than laughing until you’re light-headed and sore. In answer to your questions, for myself I would say humour is capable of being all of those things. It’s a contradictory, multi-disciplinary force of human nature, and it can go both ways, accomplishing great good as well as occasional ill. I don’t find all humour humorous, but I do see things that don’t make me laugh as part of the broad spectrum of humour.

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