For more than a quarter of a century now, the Australian actor-writer-comedian Barry Humphries has presented himself as Dame Edna Everage, an imperious dowager who favors rhinestone- studded har-lequin glasses and earrings that look like small chandeliers hanging from his/her fleshy lobes. A superstar in Britain, Hum-phries’ base of operations, Dame Edna is virtually unknown here, and this hour is designed as a showcase for the character. Guest stars like Cher, Bea Arthur, and Larry Hagman troop into what’s supposed to be Dame Edna’s ”Bel Air mansion.” Edna, done up in a tangerine evening gown for the occasion, calls everyone ”possum,” and makes some mild jokes amidst the chatter.
Humphries’ Edna is much more than a drag act — Edna is a complete creation, a fully formed alternate identity, complete with a past (Edna speaks often of her late husband, Norm, ”one of the world’s most prominent prostate sufferers”). After a few minutes, you’ll have very little difficulty believing you’re watching an amusingly snippy middle-aged woman; you’ll have more difficulty finding any real laughs.
In an enthralling New Yorker profile of Humphries published last summer, John Lahr wrote that in Britain, ”Dame Edna’s name is synonymous with surprise, and even with shock Edna is a celebration of con-tradictions: hilarious and malign, polite and lewd, generous and envious, high and low comic.” But on Dame Edna’s Hollywood, Humphries never gets to show the dark, or even naughty, sides of his character — we see only the nice aspects of those contradic-tions. In other words, Dame Edna has been constrained by American commercial television’s insistence upon trying to make all TV personalities ”nice” and ”positive.” Maybe Humphries should take Edna to cable, where she could say anything she likes. C+