John Barry Humphries, AO, CBE (born 17 February 1934) is an Australian comedian, actor, satirist, artist, and author. He is best known for writing and playing his on-stage and television alter egos Dame Edna Everage and Sir Les Patterson. He is also a film producer and script writer, a star of London's West End musical theatre, an award-winning writer, and an accomplished landscape painter. For his delivery of dadaist and absurdist humour to millions, biographer Anne Pender described Humphries in 2010 as not only "the most significant theatrical figure of our time … [but] the most significant comedian to emerge since Charlie Chaplin".
Humphries' characters have brought him international renown, and he has appeared in numerous films, stage productions, and television shows. Originally conceived as a dowdy Moonee Ponds housewife who caricatured Australian suburban complacency and insularity, Dame Edna Everage has evolved over four decades to become a satire of stardom – a gaudily dressed, acid-tongued, egomaniacal, internationally fêted Housewife "Gigastar"; Humphries' other major satirical character creation is the archetypal Australian bloke Barry McKenzie, who originated as the hero of a comic strip about Australians in London (with drawings by Nicholas Garland) which was first published in Private Eye magazine. The stories about "Bazza" (Humphries' nickname, an Australian term of endearment for the name Barry) gave wide circulation to Australian slang, particularly jokes about drinking and its consequences (much of which was invented by Humphries), and the character went on to feature in two Australian films, in which he was portrayed by Barry Crocker.
Humphries' other satirical characters include the "priapic and inebriated cultural attaché" Sir Les Patterson, who has "continued to bring worldwide discredit upon Australian arts and culture, while contributing as much to the Australian vernacular as he has borrowed from it"; gentle, grandfatherly "returned gentleman" Sandy Stone; iconoclastic 1960s underground film-maker Martin Agrippa, Paddington socialist academic Neil Singleton; sleazy trade union official Lance Boyle; high-pressure art salesman Morrie O'Connor; and failed tycoon Owen Steele.
Humphries was born in the suburb of Kew in Melbourne, Australia, the son of Eric Humphries (John Albert Eric Humphries), a construction manager, and his wife Louisa Agnes (Brown). His grandfather was an emigrant to Australia from Manchester, England. His father was well-to-do and Barry grew up in a "clean, tasteful, and modern home" on Christowel Street, Camberwell, then one of Melbourne's new "garden suburbs". His early home life set the pattern for his eventual stage career; his parents bought him everything he wanted, but his father in particular spent little time with him, and Humphries spent hours playing at dressing-up in the back garden.
His parents nicknamed him "Sunny Sam", and his early childhood was happy and uneventful. However, in his teens Humphries began to rebel against the strictures of conventional suburban life by becoming "artistic", much to the dismay of his parents who, despite their affluence, distrusted "art". A key event took place when he was nine – his mother gave all his books to The Salvation Army, cheerfully explaining: "But you've read them, Barry".
Humphries responded by becoming a voracious reader, a collector of rare books, a painter, a theatre fan and a surrealist. Dressing up in a black cloak, black homburg and mascaraed eyes, he invented his first sustained character, "Dr Aaron Azimuth", agent provocateur, dandy and Dadaist.
Educated at Camberwell Grammar School, Humphries has been awarded his place in the Gallery of Achievement there. As his father's building business prospered, Humphries was sent to Melbourne Grammar School where he spurned sport, detested mathematics, shirked cadets "on the basis of conscientious objection" and matriculated with brilliant results in English and Art. Humphries himself described this schooling, in a Who's Who entry, as "self-educated, attended Melbourne Grammar School".
Humphries spent two years studying at the University of Melbourne (Queen's College), where he studied Law, Philosophy and Fine Arts. During this time he became Australia's leading exponent of the deconstructive and absurdist art movement, Dada. The Dadaist pranks and performances he mounted in Melbourne were experiments in anarchy and visual satire which have become part of Australian folklore. An exhibit entitled "Pus in Boots" consisted of a pair of Wellington boots filled with custard; a mock pesticide product called "Platytox" claimed on its box to be effective against the platypus, a beloved and protected species in Australia. He was part of a group that made a series of Dada-influenced recordings in Melbourne from 1952–53. "Wubbo Music" (Humphries has said that "wubbo" is a pseudo-Aboriginal word meaning "nothing") is thought to be one of the earliest recordings of experimental music in Australia. Other exhibits include "Creche Bang", a pram covered in meat and "Eye and Spoon Race", a spoon with a sheep's eye.
Humphries was legendary for his provocative public pranks. One infamous example involved Humphries dressing as a Frenchman, with an accomplice dressed as a blind person; the accomplice would board a tram, followed soon after by Humphries. At the appropriate juncture Humphries would force his way past the "blind" man, yelling "Get out of my way, you disgusting blind person", kicking him viciously in the shins and then jumping off the tram and making his escape in a waiting car.
An even more extreme example was his notorious "sick bag" prank. This involved carrying on to an aircraft a tin of Heinz Russian Salad, which he would then surreptitiously empty into an air-sickness bag. At the appropriate point in the flight, he would pretend to vomit loudly and violently into the bag. Then, to the horror of passengers and crew, he would proceed to eat the contents. One April Fools' Day Humphries placed a roast dinner and glass of champagne in an inner-city rubbish bin. Later in the morning, when there were many businesspeople queuing at a nearby building, Humphries approached the group as a dirty, dishevelled man. He walked to the bin, opened the lid and proceeded to lift the roast and glass of champagne and drink from the glass. Much to the amazement of watchers-by, he found a suitable seating area and began to eat the meal. Such stunts were the early manifestations of a lifelong interest in the bizarre, discomforting, and subversive.
Early career in Australia
Humphries had written and performed songs and sketches in university revues, so after leaving university he joined the newly formed Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC). It was at this point that he created the first incarnation of what became his best-known character, Edna Everage. The first stage sketch to feature Mrs Norm Everage, called "Olympic Hostess", premiered at Melbourne University's Union Theatre on 12 December 1955. In his award-winning autobiography, More Please (1992), Humphries relates that he had created a character similar to Edna in the back of a bus while touring country Victoria in Twelfth Night with the MTC at the age of 20. He credited his then mentor, Peter O'Shaughnessy, that without his "nurturing and promotion, the character of Edna Everage would have been nipped in the bud after 1956 and never come to flower, while the character of Sandy Stone would never have taken shape as a presence on the stage".
In 1957 Humphries moved to Sydney and joined Sydney's Philip Street Revue Theatre, which became Australia's leading venue for revue and satirical comedy over the next decade. His first appearance at Phillip St was in the satirical revue Two to One, starring veteran Australian musical star Max Oldaker, with a cast including Humphries and future Number 96 star Wendy Blacklock. Although he had originally assumed Edna's debut Melbourne appearance would be a one-off, Humphries decided to revive "Olympic Hostess" for Phillip Street and its success helped to launch what became a fifty-year career for the self-proclaimed "Housewife Superstar" (later Megastar, then Gigastar).
The next Phillip St revue was Around the Loop, which again teamed Oldaker, Gordon Chater, Blacklock and Humphries, plus newcomer June Salter. Humphries revived the Edna character (for what he said would be the last time) and the revue proved to be a major hit, playing eight shows a week for 14 months. During this period Humphries was living near Bondi and while out walking one day he had a chance meeting with an elderly man who had a high, scratchy voice and a pedantic manner of speech; this encounter inspired the creation of another of Humphries' most enduring characters, Sandy Stone.
In September 1957, Humphries appeared as Estragon in Waiting for Godot, in Australia's first production of the Samuel Beckett play at the Arrow Theatre in Melbourne directed by Peter O'Shaughnessy who played Vladimir.
In 1958, Humphries and O'Shaughnessy collaborated on and appeared in the Rock'n'Reel Revue at the New Theatre in Melbourne where Humphries brought the characters of Mrs Everage and Sandy Stone into the psyche of Melbourne audiences. In the same year, Humphries made his first commercial recording, the EP Wild Life in Suburbia, which featured liner notes by his friend, the Modernist architect and writer Robin Boyd.
London and the 1960s
In 1959 Humphries moved to London, where he lived and worked throughout the 1960s. He became a friend of leading members of the British comedy scene including Dudley Moore, Peter Cook, Alan Bennett, Jonathan Miller, Spike Milligan, Willie Rushton and fellow Australian expatriate comedian-actors John Bluthal and Dick Bentley. Humphries performed at Cook's comedy venue The Establishment, where he became a friend of and was photographed by leading photographer Lewis Morley, whose studio was located above the club. He contributed to the satirical magazine Private Eye, of which Cook was publisher, his best-known work being the cartoon strip The Wonderful World of Barry McKenzie. The bawdy cartoon satire of the worst aspects of Australians abroad was written by Humphries and drawn by New Zealand born cartoonist Nicholas Garland. The book version of the comic strip, published in the late '60s, was for some time banned in Australia.
Humphries appeared in numerous West End stage productions including the musicals Oliver! and Maggie May, by Lionel Bart, and in stage and radio productions by his friend Spike Milligan. At one time he was invited to play the leading role of Captain Martin Bules in The Bed-Sitting Room, which had already opened successfully at The Mermaid Theatre, and was transferring to the West End. Humphries performed with Milligan in the 1968 production of Treasure Island, in the role of Long John Silver. He described working with Milligan as "one of the strangest and most exhilarating experiences of my career".
In 1961 when Humphries was in Cornwall with his wife, he fell over a cliff near Zennor and landed on a ledge 50 m (150 ft) below, breaking bones. The rescue by helicopter was filmed by a news crew from ITN. The footage of the rescue was shown to Humphries for the first time on a 2006 BBC show, Turn Back Time.
Humphries' first major break on the British stage came when he was cast in the role of the undertaker Mr. Sowerberry for the original 1960 London stage production of Oliver! He recorded Sowerberry's feature number "That's Your Funeral" for the original London cast album (released on Decca Records) and reprised the role when the production moved to Broadway in 1963. However, the song "That's Your Funeral" was omitted from the RCA Victor original Broadway cast album so Humphries is not heard at all on it. In 1967 he starred as Fagin in the Piccadilly Theatre's revival of Oliver! which featured a young Phil Collins as the Artful Dodger. In 1997 Humphries reprised the role of Fagin in Cameron Mackintosh's award-winning revival at the London Palladium.
In 1967 his friendship with Cook and Moore led to his first film role, a cameo as "Envy" in the hit film Bedazzled starring Cook and Moore with Eleanor Bron and directed by Stanley Donen. The following year he appeared in The Bliss of Mrs. Blossom with Shirley MacLaine.
Humphries contributed to BBC Television's The Late Show (1966–67), but Humphries found his true calling with his one-man satirical stage revues, in which he performed as Edna Everage and other character creations, including Les Patterson and Sandy Stone. A Nice Night's Entertainment (1962) was the first such revue. It and Excuse I: Another Nice Night's Entertainment (1965) were only performed in Australia. In 1968 Humphries returned to Australia to tour his one-man revue Just a Show; this production transferred to London's Fortune Theatre in 1969. Humphries gained considerable notoriety with Just a Show. It polarised British critics but was successful enough to lead to a short-lived BBC television series, The Barry Humphries Scandals, one of the precursors to the Monty Python series.
In 1970 Humphries returned to Australia, where Edna Everage made her movie debut in John B. Murray's The Naked Bunyip. In 1971–72 he teamed up with producer Phillip Adams and writer-director Bruce Beresford to create a film version of the Barry McKenzie cartoons. The Adventures of Barry McKenzie starred singer Barry Crocker in the title role and featured Humphries—who co-wrote the script with Beresford—playing three different parts. It was filmed in England and Australia with an all-star cast including Spike Milligan, Peter Cook, Dennis Price, Dick Bentley, Willie Rushton, Julie Covington, Clive James and broadcaster Joan Bakewell. Like several other films of the time which have since been categorised as belonging to the Ocker genre of Australian film, it was almost unanimously panned by Australian film critics, but became a huge hit with audiences. In fact, the film became the most successful locally made feature ever released in Australia up to that time, paving the way for the success of subsequent locally made feature films such as Alvin Purple and Picnic at Hanging Rock.
Another artistic production undertaken at this time was a 1972 collaboration between Humphries and the Australian composer Nigel Butterley. Together they produced First Day Covers, a collection of poems about suburbia – read in performance by Edna Everage – with accompanying music by Butterley. It included poems with titles such as "Histoire du Lamington" and "Morceau en forme de 'meat pie'".