Thursday, May 4, 2023

Read the Room: A Mantra for Moral Hacks

Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, May 6, 2023

When Barry Humphries died in April, the ABC kicked off the 7pm news with his obituary. It was a generally fitting tribute. Nevertheless, I braced myself for the part where it would be made clear that as illustrious as the decedent’s achievements had been, a couple of things he said late in his life did not meet the exacting moral standards of the national broadcaster. 

The reprimand was duly delivered at the obituary’s end, courtesy of a young comedian who gravely told the camera that it was a pity that Humphries, in his declining years, had “lost his ability to read the room.”

What exactly does it mean to “read the room”? People seem to think it’s an awfully clever thing to say. And they’re beginning to aim this directive not just at public figures like Humphries, but at the rest of us too. We’re all expected to read the room now. So how do we go about doing it? 

First, notice that we’re talking about the room. The definite article seems important. Nobody has accused Humphries of forgetting how to read a room. Comedians prize the ability to read the rooms they perform in. To lose that knack would indeed be a calamity.

But unless they’re abject hacks, comedians don’t read a room so they can overhaul their entire act on the spot, and tell the room exactly what it wants to hear. All good performers give audiences part of what they want, but push back against them too. Only by challenging an audience can you make it think, and maybe even change a few minds.

The injunction to read the room is more sweeping, and less negotiable. It implies that the whole world is one big room now. There are no walls any more, no discrete theatres or intimate audiences. Apparently we’re now meant to gauge the mood of the entire planet before venturing a joke or opinion about anything.

This sounds tricky. But the people who instruct us to read the room don’t see it as a problem. According to them, there’s only ever one opinion in this giant global room that’s acceptable – which happens to be the opinion they hold themselves.

So to read the room correctly, all we need to do is find out what these helpful wowsers think, then repeat their views. On the off chance we disagree with them, we’re always perfectly free to say nothing.

In other words, read the room, then heed it. Soothe it, flatter it, obey it. Toe the line. Lick your finger, hold it up, establish which way the wind is blowing, and adjust your verbal output accordingly.

This is a pretty presumptuous demand to make of anyone. It’s an astounding demand to make of an artist, and doubly astounding when the people making it purport to be artists themselves. 

And it’s triply outrageous to pretend that Humphries, when he committed his recent sins against orthodoxy, did so because he’d lost touch with the room-reading instincts that had previously been the cornerstone of his comedy. 

In truth, Humphries did not at any point “lose his ability” to echo orthodox opinion. He never wasted a minute of his adult life trying to do that. His whole career was based on being a minority of one. 

One of his earliest conceptual works was the chundering trick. He would board a bus holding a paper bag that he’d pre-emptively filled with custard and pineapple chunks. He would then noisily pretend to regurgitate into the bag. Then he would produce a spoon from his pocket and proceed to eat the custard and pineapple. 

Born into an age of stifling conformity (sound familiar?), Humphries spent his career bridling against Australian groupthink and complacency. Sometimes he retaliated gently, with characters like Edna and Sandy Stone. With characters like Sir Les Patterson he lashed out more savagely. 

In the 1970s he created a dodgy union official named Lance Boyle. “While performing him,” Humphries recalled, “it was amusing to scan the stalls” for scandalised left-wingers. “Their poor little pinched faces always fell most entertainingly when they realised that the odious operator on the boards was one of their own.”

That’s how Barry Humphries read a room. He actively devoted himself to making people’s faces fall. And this was an audience that had paid good money to come and see him! 

But it’s crucial to note that his audience didn’t respond by walking out, or ceasing to attend his shows. Audiences were less brittle in those days. They wanted to feel the frisson that comes when an artist irritates and amuses you simultaneously. 

Frisson is French for shiver, from the Latin frictio, meaning friction. Certain modern comedians seem to be afraid of friction. But friction between a comedian and a room generates surprise, enlightenment, and real laughter, as opposed to the kind of dutiful titters you hear in, say, a lecture hall.

There’s a performance by Bill Burr that’s legendary among stand-up comedians. Burr was headlining a comedy showcase in front of a drunken Philadelphia crowd, which had booed all the preceding acts off the stage. 

So Burr came on and improvised a blistering eleven-minute rant about what a pointless hellhole Philadelphia was. “I hate you people, and I hate this f—ing city,” he said, among other things. Having read the room, he told it to go fuck itself. 

By the end of his tirade, some people were laughing, and some were still booing. Burr didn’t care either way, because he’d said what he wanted to say. 

Read the room? Read a book. The whole history of worthwhile art was made by cussed individuals who followed the promptings of their own talents, and scorned the values of their time.

Did Vincent van Gogh read the room? If he had, he probably would’ve sold more than a single painting in his lifetime. But his paintings would have looked more like everybody else’s, and less like van Goghs.

Did Lenny Bruce read the room? Even when the room was full of undercover cops who were itching for an excuse to arrest him, Bruce followed his conscience, and let the profanities fly. Today’s comedians can say anything they like on stage precisely because courageous individuals like Bruce refused to obey the stultifying verbal restrictions of their era. 

Did Miles Davis read the room? Hardly. He was well known for turning his back to it while he played. 

Did the Beatles read the room? If they had, they’d never have moved beyond playing “She Loves You” to theatres full of screaming teens. Instead they quit touring, and made studio masterpieces like Sergeant Pepper’s and Abbey Road

A few days after Barry Humphries died, Jerry Springer fell off the twig too. Now there’s a man you could never accuse of failing to read the room. Springer gave the American public what it wanted; and America became a much worse place as a result.

Barry Humphries was a kamikaze contrarian. He rigged things so that no fan, however devoted, could possibly endorse everything he ever said or did. But to honour his dissident spirit, I think Australia should be the first English-speaking nation to stop saying “read the room.” 

It’s a dictum for moral hacks – a philistine import from the same country that gave the world Jerry Springer. It’s a recipe for dud art, a mantra for people who are afraid to think for themselves, and want the rest of us to stop thinking too.

In memory of the dangerously original Barry Humphries, let’s laugh this sinister, contemptible cliché out of existence.