Gossip, flying foxes and quip-lash: the joy of being Barry Humphries’ friendApril 24, 2023
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When I popped into Barry’s for a cuppa last year, he flopped onto the lounge, sighing, “Bad news. I’m just back from the doctors. I’m pre-diabetic. And even worse …” he paused for dramatic effect, “I’m also pre-death.”
I laughed because he not only looked incredibly well and twinkly eyed but was also about to embark on a British tour of his one-man show The Man Behind the Mask, a show that proved to be a tour de farce of comic genius. The only people needing an ambulance were the audience, who had to be hospitalised from hilarity.
Kathy Lette and Barry Humphries at a party after the premiere of his Eat, Pray, Laugh! show in 2013 in London.Credit: David M Benett/Getty Images
Despite his octogenarian status, my beloved friend was so energetic, mischievous, curious and impishly Puckish that I never really thought of him as old. Yes, Barry has been taking our cultural temperature with a satirical thermometer for nearly 70 years but the man was also such a consummate showman that I just couldn’t believe the curtain would ever come down.
I first met Barry in my late teens when I confessed that I felt he might have invented me; Dame Edna has a daughter named Valmai and she married Mervyn and they moved into a blonde brick veneer in the suburbs. Well, my mum’s name is Valmai and she married Mervyn and they built a blonde brick house in suburbia. “So, am I a figment of your imagination?” Barry laughed then launched straight into Edna mode: “How spooky, possum!” And our friendship was forged.
It was my mum who first alerted me to Barry’s brilliance. I vividly recall my parents coming home from the St George Leagues Club in 1974 weak from hysteria. Dame Edna had satirised Sydney suburban life with its Glomesh handbag-wielding wives and wine-cork sniffing husbands (those blokes who put the bore into Bordeaux) – with devastating accuracy. “She even described my duck egg blue bathroom with the multi-coloured cotton balls,” Mum enthused, lapsing into Ednicity. “Tiles only halfway up the wall, darling? What went wrong dear? Did you run out of money?”
When I moved to London it was to Barry’s neighbourhood, which we nicknamed “Vegemite Valley”. Barry’s house backs on to mine, so whenever he’d get back from a trip he’d email me to say, “Kathy dear, I’m poised at your rear entrance” – or something equally mischievous. He wanted to install a flying fox so we could just zip back and forth from each other’s gardens.
“Of course Kathy, 60 is the new …60.” Barry Humphries speaks at Lette’s birthday party.
We took it in turns to be the unofficial Aussie embassy, playing host to antipodean poets, pop stars, pianists and prime ministers. Barry may be an international superstar but it’s his quintessential Australian mix of irony, scepticism, optimism, irreverence, egalitarianism and rascality that equipped him to comically knee-cap audiences; especially the upper echelons of British society. With the dexterity of a gymnast on a beam, Barry always struck the perfect balance between cruelty and kindness, puncturing pomposity with a lethal one-liner, while sharing a knowing wink with the audience.
While Edna’s wit was sharp enough to shave your legs and Sir Les’ broad vulgarity allowed him to not just talk about the elephant in the room, but to point out whole herds of woolly mammoths, manager Barry Humphries was their antithesis. Deliciously self-deprecating, warm, witty and wise, Barry found Edna a bit intimidating. “When she’s on stage, I feel like I’m watching from the wings. And when she is doing her bit, I occasionally think, ‘Hmmm. That was a clever thing to say … I wish I’d said that.’”
Well, the joy of being Barry’s friend is that he did always have something scintillating to say. Whether we were taking a stroll through Regents Park, trading gossip or giggling our way through pretentious Soho art exhibitions where “good art” is in the wallet of the beholder or lobbing banter back and forth at raucous dinner parties. “Twiggy?” he once pointed out over entrees, “I don’t think we can call her Twiggy any more. At her age, she’s more of a branch.” Barry regularly left me reeling from quip-lash.
One day, he dropped by to present me with his autobiography, quipping, “Kathy, my life is in your hands.” And what a life it’s been. Barry’s journey from buried treasure to national treasure began in the beige, cotton wool-wadded Melbourne suburbs and took him all the way to high tea at Buck House and two Tony Awards on Broadway.
But the theatre was his natural habitat. He told me that his favourite part of a hectic day was to walk out onto stage before thousands of people where he’d sigh with relief, “Ah, alone at last.”
I can’t believe that my beloved friend of 45 years has exited, stage right, with no encore. Marooned here in Vegemite Valley, without my comedic comrade, I feel very alone indeed.
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