Dame Edna and Me

I’m sad to hear that Barry Humphries has passed away. One of the absolute highlights of my career was writing a DAME EDNA movie for him. It was initially developed for the A&E network and was meant to be the first in a series. What the network wanted was a mystery solved by Dame Edna. I got the gig because Barry had read my book Watch Me Die (then called The Man with the Iron-On Badge) and had really liked it. The opportunity was too good to pass up …and, incidentally, would also be the biggest payday I’d ever had as a screenwriter (and my first solo script without my then-writing partner Bill Rabkin).

But could I actually do it?

I watched just about everything Barry had ever done as Dame Edna, or at least everything I could get my hands on, and read all of his books, as well as John Lahr’s book about him. I was confident in my ability to write a mystery, and to be funny, but not anywhere near as funny as Dame Edna. The project scared me. How could I even try to be as funny as him? To capture his unique voice? It was insane. Moreover, so much of Dame Edna was also rooted in Australian culture, which I knew nothing about. 

So when I met with Barry, in his suite at a Beverly Hills hotel, the first thing I told him was that I will never be as funny as you. If I’m lucky, I’ll get you a script that 40% of the way there joke-wise, and you’ll have to do a major pass to make it your own…to make it Dame Edna. But he shrugged that off. He had great faith in me — a lot more than I had in myself. 

I worked on the outline with him and his good friend, producer Gary Hoffman, for the next several weeks. It was so much fun. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much developing a story. Then it came time to pitch the project to the head of A&E in person. The three of us went in.  I was counting on Barry to do the pitch with me. We’d never actually talked about that — I’d assumed it was a given. Why else would Barry be coming? We needed his star power and his wit.

I started things off. When we got to the first scene where Dame Edna appears, I turned to him to take over… and he just looked at me with a smile. I didn’t know it then, but he wouldn’t do Dame Edna unless he was in the make-up and outfit. He could only talk about her in third-person…and he wouldn’t even do that.

I was on my own.

I ended up having to imitate Dame Edna in front of the man who’d created the legendary character. I was terrified and furious at the same time. It was like trying to imitate Robin Williams or Jonathan Winters in front of them. But I had no choice. I wanted to sell the project. So I pretended he wasn’t there and gave it my all. Everybody was laughing. I wasn’t sure if it was at me or with me.

It didn’t matter. The president of A&E loved the pitch and I got the greenlight to write the script. I left that meeting soaked in sweat, embarrssed and angry despite our success. But Barry couldn’t have been happier or more supportive. He told me I did great. 

Barry was  very easy to work with, which I honestly didn’t expect. Whenever I approached him with questions or ideas, he was always gregarious, friendly, open-minded. There were a couple of times that I called him when he happened to be preparing to go on stage as Dame Edna, or had just come off-stage. Whenever that happened,  he talked to me in character, even if he was alone in his dressing room. That’s because once the wig, glasses, and outfit were on, he refused to break character (that was also why, he once told me, doing his guest role on ALLY McBEAL was incredibly exhausting for him — he was Dame Edna playing a role. So even when he was “off-camera” he was still “on-camera.” He never was able to relax. He couldn’t be himself until he got back to his hotel room and out of the make-up). Those calls with Dame Edna were hilarious, and a bit unsettling, but also very helpful. I could ask the character herself the questions I had about her. It also felt like I was getting a private Dame Edna performance… and, in essence, I was. My only regret is that I never recorded one of those calls.

Barry loved my script — and, to my shock and delight, he didn’t change a single word. So Gary turned it in to the network and we waited. The network president loved it, too. I was so excited. We all were. But then the president was unexpectedly pushed out and the new regime rethought their programming strategy…and a series of DAME EDNA movies didn’t fit in. They dropped the movie.

But Gary refused to let the project die. He was able to get the project going as a feature in the UK thanks to, if memory serves, a big tax rebate. But then, shortly before pre-production was about to begin, the rebate was pulled, the funding gap couldn’t be filled, and the project was over. I was heart-broken. There were times over the next few years when it seemed like it might come back, but it didn’t happen. The problem was that Dame Edna was big in Australia and the UK, but not big enough elsewhere to get the necessary money or presales internationally.

That was it. We all moved on.

Some years later, after my career as a novelist really took off, Gary self-published my script as an ebook on Amazon, perhaps to generate new interest in the movie. I honestly wasn’t too happy that he did that, especially because the cover was amateurish and the interior formatting was wonky, but I didn’t own the script or the character, so it was out of my hands. I never included the ebook in my bibliography nor shared its existence with anyone. The truth is, I haven’t looked at the script in at least 12 years…probably longer. But you can. The ebook version of the script is still available. I don’t know if the script holds up after all this time. You’ll have to tell me. 

I lost touch with Barry after the project fizzled, but I’ve always cherished the memory of working with him, and not just for the laughter or the paycheck. The experience undoubtedly made me a better writer. Certainly a funnier one, and I’m sure whatever lessons I learned from him, a true master of comedy and character, are still shaping my work today.