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The Melbourne International Comedy Festival will consider paying tribute to Barry Humphries but is unlikely to revert to naming its top accolade in his honour, festival director Susan Provan says.
The coveted Melbourne International Comedy Festival award, formerly known as the Barry Award, was renamed in 2019 following protests against Humphries’ anti-trans commentary.
“I don’t think so, I think we have moved on,” Provan said when asked directly if the festival would consider reinstating the name in honour of the late comedian, who died on Saturday, aged 89.
Barry Humphries was synonymous with Melbourne, and for a time with the city’s comedy festival too.Credit: Simon Schluter
“I’m not going to speak on behalf of the whole community now – it’s the day after [the festival ended], it’s not the time. But we will look at options and we will come up with an appropriate tribute.”
The Victorian government has offered the Humphries family a public memorial service, which the family was yet to accept.
The festival has come in for criticism over its response to the news of Humphries’ death. Though it issued a statement late on Saturday night acknowledging his passing, it also noted there would be no official tribute on Sunday, its final day.
The news broke just hours after the festival had announced its award winners, including Gillian Cosgriff’s Actually, Good as the recipient of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival Award, as it was renamed in 2019. “He had impeccable timing right to the end,” notes Provan.
Melbourne International Comedy Festival director Susan Provan. Credit: Rodger Cummins
Though individual performers were free to acknowledge Humphries however they chose, some commentators have claimed the festival should have done more. It has been suggested that theatres ought to have dimmed their lights (as is common practice at such moments), or to have festooned their foyers with gladioli (Dame Edna Everage’s signature bloom).
The lack of official ceremony has been dubbed a “snub” by some, and linked to the decision in 2019 to rename the award following protests against Humphries’ anti-trans commentary.
Actor and TV presenter Miriam Margolyes, who says she “sharply disagreed” with Humphries’ political views but loved and admired him, accused the festival of having “cancelled him rather late in life”.
“He’d had more talent in his little finger than they did in their whole bodies, all of them,” Margolyes said.
But that criticism is patently unfair, says Provan. “We did put out statements, we celebrate utterly Barry as an incredible artist, a comic genius, and we are disappointed by the way our response has been misrepresented. We have not cancelled Barry Humphries, we did not snub him.”
Provan insists that, contrary to popular opinion, the Barry – which was known as the Stella Award for its first two years (after the Belgian beer company that sponsored it) – was never in fact named specifically for Humphries.
“It was more about ‘Barry’ being a funny and iconic Australian comedy name – Barry Humphries, Barry McKenzie, Barries everywhere. But then it became synonymous with Barry Humphries, which is absolutely fine.”
She also corrected the misconception that Humphries had been a founder of the festival. “He wasn’t. He was an early guest artist. It was founded, in fact, by a group of Melbourne producers led by John Pinder.”
Though past Barry Award winners Hannah Gadsby and Zoe Coombs Marr were at the forefront of the 2018 campaign to change the name, Provan says the mood was widely shared by members of the local and international comedy community.
“Pretty much universally people felt those comments did not reflect the values of the community or the festival, and they were really inappropriate,” she says. “And no one has changed their mind on that. They were really tough comments about vulnerable people.”
She added that there was a certain irony in the idea that people would feel Humphries was being unfairly diminished by being held to account for those views.
“Barry was a first-class provocateur, and there is a new generation of comedians out there now who are also provocateurs. They have different views on things, they are of a different generation, and we need to reflect and embrace that.
“We can absolutely celebrate Barry’s artistic genius while not liking some of his views,” she adds. “You can do both.”
The Age is a comedy festival partner.
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