Melbourne Comedy Festival responds to Barry backlash

Barry Humphries as Dame Edna Everage
Image: 20th Century Fox

The Melbourne International Comedy Festival has responded to criticism in the wake of supposedly “cancelled” comedian Barry Humphries’ death.

Barry Humphries died on Saturday in Sydney at age 89, sparking an outpouring of tributes.

The entertainer was mourned with front page tributes around the world, and is set to receive a state funeral in his hometown of Melbourne.

But in the past few days, the Melbourne International Comedy Festival has copped fresh criticism online over its decision four years ago to rename its top award, the Barry Award.

The festival made the move in 2019 after Barry’s ugly transphobic comments in 2016 and 2018.

The entertainer had described gender transitions as “a fashion,” gender-affirming surgery as “self-mutilation,” trans women as “mutilated men” and inclusive education as “pretty evil”.

Barry Humphries died during the comedy festival’s final weekend. On Saturday, the festival acknowledged Barry’s “extraordinary contribution to Australian comedy” for which he’ll “always be celebrated”.

Miriam Margolyes blasts comedy festival

However some critics accused the festival of snubbing the entertainer without a more formal tribute on Sunday, the festival’s final day.

On Monday, British actress Miriam Margolyes, a longtime friend of Barry’s, slammed the festival, including the decision to rename the award.

“I don’t think he was properly appreciated by Australia. I don’t think he was properly treated, particularly by the Melbourne festival, who cancelled him, rather late in life,” she said.

“How dare they. He had more talent in his little finger than they did in their whole bodies – all of them.

“I’m outraged by it and I want to speak up now to support him. It’s not about transgender [issues].”

Miriam said the pair “sharply disagreed politically” but described him as “the greatest comic who ever lived”.

“I didn’t like his politics. I really didn’t. But I revere the talent of the man,” she said.

“It was coruscating. It was all-enveloping. And if people can’t see that, they need something shoved up their bum.

“I’m not saying he was right in his politics. I told him to his face that he was wrong. But he was the greatest comic who ever lived.”

Festival denies ‘cancelling’ Barry Humphries

On Monday night, the festival said, “The news of Barry Humphries’ passing in the last 24 hours of the 23 Fest was momentous.

“From today we regroup and start to plan a fitting tribute to his comic genius and leading role in creating a global platform for Australian comedy.”

Speaking to ABC Radio, Melbourne International Comedy Festival director Susan Provan said the festival had not snubbed the entertainer and was disappointed the festival’s response had been “unfairly” misrepresented.

“There seems to be some misconceptions going on around there,” she said.

“We changed the name of an award, which … was the right decision to make when we did that.”

She said the name change was “pretty much universally” driven by festival artists, over Barry’s comments that “just did not reflect the values of our community”.

But she went on, “We have celebrated and continue to celebrate Barry, an incredible comedian [and] comic artist [who] took Australian comedy global.

“We will always celebrate that he was amazing. And we really value his contribution to the comedy festival, too.”

Susan Provan said the festival would now consult on what an appropriate tribute for Barry Humphries would be.

“He passed 24 hours before the last show. We had over 300 shows that needed to be put on yesterday. So it’s been pretty frantic,” she said.

Meanwhile, Barry Humphries’ family has been offered a state funeral by the Victorian government.

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