When Australian comedian Barry Humphries dons a lavender wig and addresses people as "possum," it's classic comedy. But when Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees does it, her coworkers just plead with her to increase her dosage.
At last! For decades now, Australian actor Barry Humphries has been delighting the world with his alter ego Dame Edna Everage, the lavender-haired self-styled megastar who takes it upon herself to brighten the drab lives of unfortunates (which is to say, everyone who isn't Dame Edna). Ladylike, serenely narcissistic, and offhandedly scathing, Dame Edna is one of the great comic creations. Having recently completed a successful tour of the United States, the icon of niceness finally makes her debut on DVD, with the entire first season of her talk show The Dame Edna Experience.
Facts of the Case
As befits a talk show—or, as Dame Edna describes her series, "monologues interrupted by total strangers"—the guest list is varied and often distinguished. It's best to watch the first episode before any of the others so that you'll be aware of the inside jokes that will crop up during the rest of the season, but each episode follows the same format: Dame Edna starts the show with a monologue, closes it with a musical duet with a guest, and does her best in between to "probe, swab, and if necessary smear" her guests. In each episode Edna is also accompanied by her silent, drab little "bridesmaid," Madge Allsop (Emily Perry), who acts as straight man, butt of jokes, and prop mistress. Filmed on a set that Edna compares to "the inside of Elton John's dishwasher," this season consists of six episodes of approximately 45 minutes each.
Program 1: Guest stars are Sean Connery, pop singer Cliff Richard, and Mary Whitehouse, ardent activist for decency in programming (would that be a tad ironic?). Dame Edna introduces her ejector seat, and Sean Connery learns to fear it. Cliff Richard, looking very Miami Vice, performs a song and later closes the show by singing a duet with Edna. Madge seizes the opportunity of a lifetime and claims Connery for a dance during the end credits.
Program 2: Guest stars are author and politician Jeffrey Archer, Greek singer Demis Roussos, and Joan Rivers. Roussos performs a solo and later sings a duet with Dame Edna (accompanied by the ritual smashing of plates by Madge). Joan Rivers and Edna bat around feminine topics like bathrooms and plastic surgery, and Jeffrey Archer learns to his regret what happens to speakers who bore Dame Edna.
Program 3: Guest stars are actress Jane Seymour (promoting her book Jane Seymour's Guide to Romantic Living, which has now fallen into obscurity), Dallas star Larry Hagman, and British humorist Arthur Marshall. Dame Edna manages to cajole Hagman into harmonizing with her on a performance of "I'm Just Wild About Harry," whose lyrics have been rewritten to celebrate the charms of Hagman himself, or "Larry." Edna also asks Seymour for the secret of her "three successful marriages." For some reason, this seems to fluster the actress.
Program 4: Guest stars are Zsa Zsa Gabor, feminist author Germaine Greer, and singer Nana Mouskouri. (Let no one accuse Dame Edna of a lack of diversity.) This episode becomes a girls' night of gossip about men, sex, marriage, and (especially) divorce, during which Zsa Zsa offers valuable dating tips and tries to fix up divorcee Nana Mouskouri with one of her ex-husbands. Charlton Heston makes an appearance that ends in disaster, so the ladies are left to carry on their hen party undisturbed. The show closes with a duet in which Nana Mouskouri (who also performs "It's a Wonderful Night for a Moondance") and Dame Edna pay musical tribute to each other's distinctive eyewear to the tune of "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling."
Program 5: Guest stars are Charlton Heston—successfully recovered from his accident last episode—celebrity photographer Patrick Lichfield, and Jerry Hall, former model, consort to Mick Jagger, and "a person in her own right, or so I'm told," according to Dame Edna. The two ladies perform "Stand by Your Man," and Dame Edna encourages Heston to talk about his early days as an artists' model, when nothing but a swatch of grey velour preserved his modesty. He is a gracious guest, offering to part Edna's swimming pool as he did the Red Sea. We are also treated to footage of Dame Edna's photo session at Lichfield's studio.
Program 6: Guest stars are dancing legend Rudolph Nureyev, acting legend Sir John Mills (father of Hayley), and purported madam Cynthia Payne. Dame Edna flirts shamelessly with the dashing Nureyev, who nevertheless declines rather rudely to dance with her. They make up, however, and perform a duet of "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," complete with some soft-shoe moves. Professional "hostess" Cynthia Payne has to explain transvestitism to Dame Edna, who slips in some of her most risqué double entendres. Barry Humphries himself, introduced as Edna's manager, makes a brief appearance before being disposed of by his hostess (when will guests learn to watch out for that trap door?).
How does one describe Dame Edna to the uninitiated? For starters, it's important to make the distinction between Humphries's performance as Dame Edna and a drag act. Humphries is embodying a role rather than "performing" a woman. There is no self-awareness in Dame Edna, no implicit winking at the audience or dropping of the mask. Although some of Edna's comments on the female experience (pregnancy and menopause, for example) gain in humor due to our awareness that "she" never had these experiences and never could, Edna is simply funny in herself, and would remain so even if played by a female.
As proof, I offer a confession. I first encountered Dame Edna when I was not quite sixteen years old and visiting England for the first time. One night I turned on the TV set in my London hotel room and came across a program called "Another Audience with Dame Edna Everage." Mariel Hemingway, I recall, was among the celebrities in the audience, all of whom were lobbing questions at Dame Edna and being answered with cutting criticism, delivered with the sunniest of smiles. I was hooked. "What a marvelous, wacky old lady!" I thought. It wasn't until I returned to the States that I discovered that this marvelous old lady was a middle-aged man. I had been entertained thoroughly even though I was unaware of the fundamental joke. I think my experience reveals more than my teenaged naïveté (although, in my own defense, when Dame Edna is alone on stage one doesn't realize that "she" is six feet tall): It shows that the real humor of Dame Edna lies not in the gender discrepancy but in the character herself.
And what a character she is. Vain, sunny of disposition, sweetly ruthless in
cutting down rivals for our attention, and the master—err,
mistress—of the throwaway put-down, Dame Edna is unlike anyone else. Who
but Edna would don a dress inspired by Munch's painting "The
Scream"—and then inform us that the artist was depicting the plight
of a woman whose hat had blown off in a strong wind? Humphries has also created
an entire cast of unseen supporting characters for Edna, including her invalid
husband, her gay son Kenny, and her troubled daughter Velma, and whenever Edna
wants to remind us of the Australian housewife lurking beneath the sequins she
will bring up family anecdotes. Dame Edna is a fully realized creation with a
wacky universe of her own.
There are also two interviews with Humphries, both taped in 1992. The nine-minute interview with Alan Titchmarsh is serious in tone and illuminating, offering some insight into the man behind the megastar and Edna's development as a character. The 12-minute interview between Humphries and Dame Edna herself, courtesy of trick photography, is a brilliant piece of black comedy in which Edna grills Humphries mercilessly—in her inimitably sweet, maternal way, of course—for taking credit for her career and even for having invented her. ("My son Kenny came up to me in tears, crying, 'Mommy, my friends are saying you're a man!'") Edna is so vicious and Humphries so beleaguered that the comedy is almost painful. This is not to be missed. Finally, in a clip from 1976, Dame Edna performs her signature tune, "Niceness," accompanied by polyester-clad dancers. It's particularly interesting to see this earlier, simpler version of Edna, before her hair was rinsed purple and her signature glasses became really outrageous.
Considering that this series (as well as the "Audience" special) was originally videotaped at live performances, it looks and sounds remarkably good. The digital restoration has provided us with very clean video and audio, and the shortcomings are clearly those of the original medium: harsh lighting that tends to flatten color, and unevenness in volume levels between thunderous applause and barely audible asides from Dame Edna to her guests. Because of the unevenness you may end up watching with one finger on the volume button; there are, alas, no subtitles to help us along in quieter moments. The clarity is excellent, however, and even when I had to rev up the volume to catch some of the sotto voce parts I heard no hiss. This DVD is a beautifully, I may even say lovingly, presented collection of lots of great material for Ednaphiles.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As much as I rejoice in Dame Edna, I would suggest that those who have not been exposed to her rent this collection before deciding whether to purchase it. Humor is of course very dependent on individual preference, and the fact that thousands of us (Dame Edna would certainly correct me and say billions) adore her doesn't mean that she will be to everyone's taste. Additionally, the talk show format may be a disincentive to some; if you prefer your comedy in sitcom form, the difference will probably take some getting used to. There are also a few places where the material shows its age, and the show's then-current references to 1980s people and events may not hit their mark for younger viewers. For some of us, however, it's a wonderful time capsule. There was actually a time when I would have killed for the dress Jane Seymour wears on the show, even though it looks like an enormous wedding cake to me now.
If you enjoy British humor and you haven't yet had the Dame Edna experience, by all means do give this terrific collection a try. If you find that you are becoming a fan of this gladiolus-wielding icon, or if you are already among the Edna followers of the world, rejoice: Two more Dame Edna DVD sets are in the works, possums!
Surely megastars are beyond the jurisdiction of this court. Not guilty!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
• Introduction by Dame Edna
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