At the curtain call of his farewell show, Barry Humphries steps through the wall of gladioli and bows to his adoring audience. He is in full persona: smoking jacket (double-breasted black velvet with frog buttons), a dark hat (fedora? He is among the last of the hatted gentlemen), his trademark hank of hair flopping to the right (dyed?), eyes mascaraed. He tells a little story about Maggie Smith that segues into thanking us for sharing so many evenings with him over the more than five decades of his performing life. And, stately as ever he slips away (if you can slip away while being stately), all mystery intact.

The smart set

Barry Humphries: Tory, Taoist

Humphries is a celebrity who sends up celebrity, and he can only do that by maintaining his distance (in that regard very like Michael Leunig, or say, Bob Dylan). Famously conservative in his politics, we have to remember that he is an old school Tory, rather like high Anglican. He doesn’t really want things to change — in that view, progress rarely brings improvement. So he can equally shaft the idiocies of the progressive pious left, as well as skewer the greedy callous right.

Humphries, the born aristocrat, the subversive intellectual, the showman populist, may dislike the flattening of the individual under the socialist impulse (not that he has expressed much regard for humanity as a whole), but neither does he have any truck with “development,” or the neo-liberal ideologies of the free market.

And because he can pivot from this very Taoist island of unfashionable conservatism, he mostly has his cake and eats it too. He can inveigh on the noveau riche (Gina Rhinehart is a target of choice) as well as further fund a respectable retirement out of it. (Our tickets were $199 a pop.) But of course in the end he is an artist, and these divisions cannot hold him in.

His Excellency, the Governor of Victoria, arrives

Comic principles; broad, coarse and obvious (wink wink)

Humphries’ comedic principle is an unhidden secret: he makes things as broad and coarse and obvious as possible. Deadpan and cool would be unsuitable — to be niche or cult is exactly the opposite of Humphries’ desire: he wants mainstream, to hit major chords.

As channelled by Sir Dr Les Patterson, the jokes are far more potentially offensive than anything the Footy Show could imagine at their most egregious — oddly enough, that’s because they sort of take themselves seriously as people of the people. Humphries never makes that categorical mistake; he knows his people (“I’m a peopleholic, yes I am”), but he is not one of them, my dear.

Last night’s People were averaging around fifty, solidly middle class, and crossed the board from Heathmont near Ringwood to East Melbourne, as various victims volunteered. It also included Victoria’s Governor, His Excellency Alex Chernov, residence the Botanic Gardens. If only Humphries had been advised of his presence! How coarse? Sir Les mentions Julia Gillard in passing and calls her a “Fanta pants,” urging us to “think about it.” (I had to resort to Urban Dictionary to confirm my worst suspicions.)

Humphries’ knowingness is therefore also broadcast in as coarsely obvious a manner as possible — the exaggerated wink and nod and grind of the hip. It is our licence to laugh with him, and to acknowledge our own complicity with our lesser angels. The more outrageous and vulgar he becomes — sacred cows ala mode: aboriginal rights, gay rights, cuisine pretensions, health and spiritual concerns — the more tension is generated, and released. The outrage comes from Humphries’ own outrage at the state of things — a freight of disdain which might seesaw from contempt to mischief with the curl of a lip. Cannily, he never lets the contempt manifest in any quotable way.

Current affairs: Eat, Pray, Laugh

I thought the title was a little passe, a little bit six years ago, but Humphries knows better than any observer what he’s doing — the title precisely pins the current cult of cuisine, the normalisation of alternatives (yoga etc), with “Laugh” neatly being his promised payoff.

Part of the spiritual puncturing is in Edna’s dropping of names: Leonard Cohen/Dalai Lama, Mandela/Morgan Freeman, Oprah. Part of it is simply a full frontal assault with Sir Les’ previously unknown brother. In a riff about homophobia and “vagina decliners and fur traders (!)”, Sir Les notes that his brother, Gerard, is a “fully paid up vagina decliner.” Indeed he shows up as a real Brother, a Catholic priest, where pray is spelt with an “e”. Brother Gerard remarks that George Pell has told him that “he has touched everyone he’s known.”

When Edna explains that she is going to stop enabling her sponging kids, she took advice from a well-known woman in the West, or was it two women, it was hard to tell, you can pack so much into a muumuu.

Possums, the end…

The poignant bit is that Hunphries is agile and limber of mind at 78, but physcial performance takes a toll. Last night he had already performed in a matinee. You can catch his synapses missing the odd spark — Edna: “I am/have … gluten-intolerant, restless leg, irritable bowel and …” and she slightly scrambled “attention deficit disorder,” though she covered up expertly.

In an act of conservation he kept his moves to a minimum, barely raising a leg in a line-up of high kicks or doing much more than stand — though that’s a lot of standing anyway. (There was one dramatically choreographed moment when he took a tumble, which was worth the risk.) If Humphries wasn’t doing all this to himself he could be charged for senior abuse.

And yes I did find the Edna schtick of calling up the audience as a foil for his rant du jour against contemporary mores rather protracted — practically the entire second half … but, but, who will take her place? She can be imitated, but not replaced; ie, she’s fully an original. She turns the mirror to us, she’s a monster, but she’s Our Monster.