The Fame of the the Dame

The curtain was still falling on Barry Humphries after a matinee preview performance, and already there was a producer walking down the aisle.

“Ummm, Barry?” the producer said backstage. “Where’s Barry?” It was Leonard Soloway, a man of nail-biting rectitude and solid judgment, who gave us The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Shadow Box and has now brought Barry Humphries – in the form of his character Dame Edna Everage – to Broadway for Dame Edna: The Royal Tour, which opened to overwhelmingly positive reviews last month at the Booth Theatre.

Humphries emerged in the wings, still more or less as Edna, in the famous purple wig and butterfly glasses and a red sequined Pavlova of a dress with a slit all the way up the back. He stepped out of ruby pumps into a pair of Timberland moccasins while two dancers unzipped his dress and put him in a bathrobe.

“Yes?” Humphries said.

“Great show, Barry,” Soloway said. “But do you know what?”

Do you know what? To a member of the talent class, there is perhaps nothing more discouraging to hear from a producer than those four little words. “Do you know what?” is usually followed by some kind of suggestion to … change a few things, or a less than mild rejection, or maybe “I fought for you, but …”

Humphries knows this as well as anyone. Famous though he is in his native Australia, and in England, where Dame Edna has been a beloved chat-show host, appeared in three movies, and had a number of TV specials and a game show, he has yet to hit anything near those heights on American shores. When Edna performed Housewife! Superstar! Off Broadway in 1977, it lasted only four weeks (though Andy Warhol, writing in The Village Voice, gave it a rave). A Dame Edna talk show aired on Fox in 1992 and ‘93 before a network executive called Humphries up and asked him if he knew what, but the show didn’t have much of a future.

” ‘Do you know what?’ from a producer is sort of like saying, you know, ‘Why were you ever born?’ ” Humphries says later. “It means ‘We’ve been wondering here why you were ever born. Having been born, why did you ever come to the United States and think this crap was ever going to be funny?’ One day on the set there were different people from the network than the day before, some kid with a baseball cap on backward, someone who had probably taken a weekend course in television,” Humphries says. “The day of transmission, I was told it would be ‘stronger’ if we cut the show to half an hour and the pauses were removed. And the jokes too. Also, the phrase I came to dread was ‘We’re very excited about the show.’ As soon as I knew I was generating excitement, I knew there was trouble.”

What Soloway and his co-producer, Chase Mishkin, objected to was an arrhythmic, situationist bit during the show in which Dame Edna had called upon two unsuspecting members of the audience and invited them to eat a meal onstage while she went about her stand-up routine. It was awkward, sure, but that was the point – nobody in the house knew what to make of it, an Andy Kaufman stunt. “I don’t think it works,” Soloway said. “It’s distracting,” Mishkin said. “I want to watch you, Barry. I don’t want to watch people eating.”

In his dressing room, Humphries disrobed. He is 65, broad-shouldered, and tan like a Miami retiree, and there was about him a journeyman, son-of-the-circus poignancy in front of his mirror, still in panty hose and wig, wiping off layers of TV stick and pancake that would be reapplied for the evening performance. “Isn’t it funny?” he said to Cleon Byerly, a wardrobe assistant. “I’ve just met my producer Chase Mishkin, and she looks an awful lot like this.” He pointed to his reflection. “I mean, her hair is just like Edna’s.”

“If they didn’t like the eating bit, that’s their problem. It’s important to make the audience uncomfortable.”

“Oh, yeah,” Byerly said. “All the way. It’s a very 1950s do.”

“If they didn’t like the eating bit, that’s their problem,” Humphries said wearily. It was time for a lie-down on his daybed. “They expressed their misgivings. But I’ll keep trying it. It’s important to make the audience uncomfortable.”

Dame Edna: the Royal Tour is a hybrid stand-up comedy-musical revue, but its funniest moments occur during Edna’s extended back-and-forths with the theatergoers. This is partly because Edna appears to have no idea that what she’s saying is insulting. “I love that fabric,” Dame Edna told an overweight woman a few weeks ago at a promotional event outside the Booth Theater. “You were lucky to find so much of it.” When a woman in the front row said she had come in from Connecticut, Edna clasped her hands and said, “Oh, do you live in the beautiful country? On a dirt road? And you put your makeup on in the car, didn’t you?” The audience laughed. “I mean that in a caring and observant way,” Edna said.

Humphries is invariably gracious when not in character, but he must possess a distinct streak of sadism, which comes to the fore when he dons his wig; Edna likes nothing better than to prey on the weak. One morning recently, while posing for publicity photos at a studio in Chelsea, Edna sat for an interview with AP radio and set about disorienting the reporter by taking control of the process. “I love your fiery hair, fiery hair with flecks of gold in it,” she told her interrogator, who was prim and thirtyish, perhaps a little inexperienced, indeed had red hair, and wore a grown-up, flared-trouser pantsuit. “I, of course, have mauve hair.”

Edna pronounces mauve to rhyme with trove, and sometimes tells a story of her adolescence: “When my secondary sexual characteristics began to appear, a little mauve mist began … how can I put it? Near my front bottie,” she’ll say (bottie is an Australian term for bottom; Edna refers to the vagina as a “front bottom”). “I was heartbroken. And I went and bought some dye, and I dyed my secondary sexual characteristics a mousy brown.”

When the reporter giggled a nervous giggle, Edna added that while many actresses are close to their psychics, she talks to her gynecologist daily. “Something a lot of people don’t know about me is that I have an exploratory every night before I go onstage,” Edna said. “Yes, one minute I’m getting an exploratory and the next minute I’m onstage singing. And dancing. And my gyno is still washing his hands.”

The studio fell silent. The reporter looked at her shoes. Humphries’s press agent, Kevin McAnarney, suggested the photo shoot resume, and Edna was on her feet and throwing shapes in time with the motor drive. She raised her hands in front of her, palms out, in a showgirl’s pose.

“Great,” said the photographer, Joan Marcus, as the shutter clicked.

Edna raised an eyebrow. “And … great,” Marcus said.

Edna put her hands at her waist. “And … great.” When they finished, Dame Edna asked Marcus to pose with her for one shot. She wrapped Marcus in a tight embrace. Marcus beamed and hugged back. Just as an assistant was snapping the picture, Edna made a face like she was smelling a really nasty smell.

Humphries achieved campus fame in his undergraduate days at Melbourne University in the early fifties for his Dada sculptures of perishables – meat and cakes and custard. “The Meatscape,” he calls it. “It struck me as an amusing comment on the concept that a work of art is to be something permanent, a monumental challenge to the artist.” John Lahr’s 1992 biography of Humphries tells of a recurring stunt involving a group of female friends whom he dressed in schoolgirl uniforms and groped and kissed on street corners until police showed up. The object of the game was to observe the range of reactions from the public, which was never – not even at the end – let in on the joke. “It was an experiment I performed for myself,” he explains.

Humphries grew up in Camberwell, a “garden suburb” of Melbourne, on a subdivided golf course his father, an architect, had helped to build. As occupations in postwar Melbourne went, his father’s was about as bourgeois and pregnant with national ambition as could be. Hence Humphries’s obsession with residential architecture, and Edna’s constant references, he explains in his autobiography, More Please, to “burgundy wall-to-wall carpets, lamington cakes and reindeers frosted on glass dining-room doors.” Before Edna came along, he writes, so much of Australia’s culture had not been subjected to satire, and “Edna’s simpering genteelisms and her postwar, house-proud rhapsodies had a kind of thrilling novelty.”

Mostly, Humphries was bored by Australia – an ahistorical and culturally dead place, “the land where nothing happens,” in the lyrics to Edna’s version of “All Things Bright and Beautiful.” And so in 1959, Humphries set off for London. Within months of his arrival, he was joined by a handful of Australian expatriates. “We had sort of a Melbourne group and a Sydney group,” he says. “Most of the people from Melbourne were painters – Arthur Boyd, Charles Blackman, Brett Whiteley, and me – and the Sydney University group were generally writers and filmmakers: Bob Hughes, Germaine Greer, Clive James, Bruce Beresford. And what all of us had in common was a desire to not be in Australia.”

Though Humphries hasn’t lived in Australia in decades, Dame Edna is perhaps the most famous “person” in the country, and Humphries’s influence on the vernacular is still in evidence. A couple of weeks ago, for example, shuffling through the photography section at the Strand bookstore in a three-piece tweed suit and sharkskin boots, he opened a Jock Sturges book full of nude photographs and said, “There are a lot of maps of Tasmania in this.” He was using a common Australianism that likens a woman’s pubes to the triangular island. “Did you know,” Humphries said, “I invented that expression?”

A number of his coinages, he claims, have ended up in the Australian vernacular. Most of them are crass, laddish euphemisms for bodily parts and functions introduced by Barry McKenzie, a very Australian cartoon character he invented for the English satirical magazine Private Eye. Pointing Percy at the porcelain, for urinating, that’s another one. The word chunder, for vomiting. Pillow biter, for pooftah, you know, homosexual.

“Barry McKenzie also popularized an obscure drink that was only served in Melbourne called Foster’s lager,” he went on. “At the time I introduced Barry and really all these characters” – Edna; Sandy Stone, the world’s most boring suburbanite; Sir Les Patterson, an Australian diplomat interested in bedding anything that walks, utilizing his “frequently felt tip” – “Australia was in the midst of this terrible paranoia. The country was interested in promoting this image as a land of refined people on yachts having wine and cheese. They didn’t want the place to be known as some old place where people were yabbos and actually used colloquial speech.”

Humphries’s American audiences tend to bring their own set of cultural references to the show. Some of the most common misconceptions: That Edna is played by a woman. That she is English. That Barry Humphries is English. That Edna is a drag or cross-dressing act. “The terms cross-dressing and drag imply to me the idea that the performer is doing something furtive and projecting his true self by dressing up as a woman,” Humphries says, adding with some irritation that the audience is built upon “a lot of old people and tour groups of gay men.”

While Humphries has made Edna’s routine more topical and geared to New York (and to the constituents he calls his “unmarrieds”) – there are references to Balthazar, Big Cup, and James Levine, and he’s considering a line about how Larry King, Henry Kissinger, and Liz Smith have all proposed to Edna – the fact remains that Edna is an essentially Commonwealth character. “There’s a lot of educating about Edna that’s had to be done,” he says. So why bother starting over in the U.S. practically at square one? Because he’s still smarting over his “rather dissatisfying shot at New York in October 1977,” he says. “It’s the theater center of the world. I didn’t want to live any longer without knowing whether I could be a success on Broadway.” Not long ago, Humphries was curious about Richard Eder, the Times critic who’d panned his Off Broadway debut in ‘77, and had a friend look up Eder’s name in the Library of Congress catalogue. “I did gain a certain satisfaction to see that Mr. Eder has no words to his name,” he says. “And Edna, Humphries, and Les Patterson have thirteen.”

At the penthouse apartment Humphries is renting near Sutton Place, he waited for his agent, Bob Duva, to take him to a lunch with some TV executives who are keen to develop another network show. Humphries’s fourth wife, Lizzie Spender, whose father is the British poet Stephen Spender, brought coffee onto the terrace. Humphries and Lizzie met in 1988, at a Groucho Club party (“and I called her a few years later, when I was in a less married state,” Humphries says).

Duva showed up, an industry-looking guy with candent silver hair, purple-lensed sunglasses, and a black T-shirt, sport jacket, and pants with give. Humphries disappeared to use the phone. “I’ve been getting tons of calls from TV people,” Duva said. “And the idea I have is maybe to incorporate Dame Edna in a TV series, just partner Dame Edna with – I’m going to pull a name out of the hat just because it’s there – Joan Rivers. Duva represents Joan Rivers. Like maybe Dame Edna and Joan Rivers are playing sisters-in-law on a TV series. It could be Tracy Ullman and Dame Edna. Or you take on – who’s the guy who took over NewsRadio?” He paused. “Help me.” Jon Lovitz. “Jon Lovitz and Dame Edna. You know what I mean? Something kooky like that could work.”

Lizzie reappeared. Duva’s ideas were presented to her. “Hmmm,” she said, surprised. “I’m not sure if Edna’s right for a sitcom.”

“I definitely think there’s a way to do it. Maybe we’d do Dame Edna running a charm school,” Duva said. “You know, alternative television didn’t exist when Dame Edna had her show the last time. It’s actually a millennium market. It’s a new thing, if you know what I mean.”

Back inside, Humphries was ready to meet the TV industry, a different pocket square under each lapel. He looked at Duva optimistically and said, “So, lunch, then?”

Duva’s dual-star-sitcom proposal was again discussed, and for once, Humphries’s face went blank. “I don’t know about that yet,” he said. “I’m surprised. I guess it’s okay to have a show with someone else as long as I’m the funniest.”

The Fame of the the Dame