Nothin’ like this Dame: Humphries returns, Edna in tow

Nov 21

Creative schizophrenia is a common occurrence in show biz. You’ve got actors, writers and sometimes even directors donning different personalities in the name of storytelling and entertainment.

Nowhere was this fascinating split personality more evident than when interviewing comic genius Barry Humphries and his most famous creation, Dame Edna Everage.

The goal was to talk to creator and creation for a Theatre Bay Area magazine story (coming soon to http://www.theatrebayarea.org/mag/mag.jsp) in conjunction with the Dame’s new show coming to San Francisco’s Post Street Theatre (where it’s in previews now and officially opens Sunday, Nov. 23).

I was delighted by the assignment, having been a fan of both Edna and Humphries for years. I had interviewed both before and was excited to experience some of Humphries’ improv brilliance.

But let me tell you, interviewing a character is a strange experience (as it must be for Humphries to be interviewed in character – talk about concentration and chops!).

When I spoke to Humphries, he was doing a quick stopover in San Francisco and the previous night had appeared as Dame Edna at Macy’s Passport fashion fundraiser. In addition to kissing Mayor Gavin Newsom, Edna had auctioned herself off to the highest bidder (all in the name of charity, of course).

“I don’t know what will come of that,” Humphries mused.

We talked about Edna’s golden jubilee – 50 years since her creation – last year, and how this year’s return to San Francisco marks 10 years since Edna’s appearance at the Theatre on the Square (now the Post Street) sparked a late-career renaissance that led to a special Tony Award on Broadway.

Humphries is an erudite man, and conversation with him always takes surprising turns.

From Edna’s outrageous onstage high jinks, we skittered around to Humphries’ early days in comedy when he would play outrageous pranks on the public such as planting food in a garbage can near a busy restaurant, dressing as a street person and then wandering by, digging through the trash and eating what he “finds.” And then there was the trick with the canned soup and the air sick bag, but that’s a little gross.

“I’ve always thought of myself as Dadaist in the old European sense,” Humphries says. “I’ve always been very entertained and stimulated by that particular art movement. Through that I drifted into the theater. I really didn’t consciously choose acting. I did shows at university intended to outrage people.”

Humphries, it seemed, loved to shame the audience by enticing them to boo and heckle someone on stage, then reveal the person was blind and not really part of the show.

“I would trick them into derision and then trick them into feeling terrible shame and regret,” he says. “I enjoyed doing things of that kind.”

In later years, even as Edna, Humphries would still pull tricks such as having stunt people seated in a box in the theater, then when Edna begins hurling gladioli at the end of the show, they’d overreach to grab a flower and fall out of the box (they were outfitted with a safety harness, but the terrified audience didn’t know that).

“The whole audience was standing up, trying to assist and practically climbing up the stucco walls,” Humphries recalls. “Then Edna would say something like, `Isn’t that awful! Wouldn’t it be terrible if that happened every night!’ The audience was tricked into feeling terrible alarm and panic, but the stunt itself was very expensive – more than it cost to have four dancers in the show. But it was worth it.”

Humphries realizes the interview has hit the 30-minute mark, and politely signs off. The plan was to switch personae and spend the next 30 minutes as Dame Edna, but apparently he’s pooped and begs off the Edna interview.

A few weeks later, I call Humphries’ native Australia to talk with the Dame, and this is what I was greeted with: “Hello, darling Chad. You’ve caught me doing my toenails. I like to do them myself. I don’t like a strange woman fiddling with my extremities.”

Discussing how happy she is to be returning to San Francisco, Dame Edna says when in town, she often stays with society doyenne Denise Hale. “I don’t understand a word she says, but I adore that little Serbian minx. Hence the term `acerbic.’ Every aspect of San Fran I love.”

The grand Dame likes to work personal details of her interviewer into the conversation. She offers congratulations on a recent marriage and sends greetings to the new spouse. Then she offers an astrological observation: “You are such a typical Leo. It’s that growling thing you do. And you’re carnivorous.”

Last time she was in San Francisco, Edna revealed that she had been to local gay author Armistead Maupin’s wedding. “There was no sign of the bride. But something very excited happened. I caught his bouquet.”

Trying to get the conversation back on track proved impossible, but the ride was an awful lot of fun.

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

Dame Edna: Live and Intimate in Her First Last Tour continues through Jan. 4 at the Post Street Theatre, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $58-$78. Call 415-771-6900 or visit www.ticketmaster.com for information.

Here’s footage of Humphries and Dame Edna meeting:

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