His characters, especially Edna Everage, have brought him international renown, and he has appeared in numerous films, stage productions and television shows. His Barry McKenzie comic strips about Australians in London appeared in Private Eye magazine with drawings by Nicholas Garland. The stories about "Bazza" (also Humphries' nickname) gave wide circulation to Australian slang, particularly jokes about drinking and its consequences, much of it invented by Humphries.
He has been married four times; his fourth wife Lizzie Spender is the daughter of British poet Sir Stephen Spender. He has two daughters and two sons from his second and third marriages, to Rosalind Tong and Diane Millstead respectively. His eldest son Oscar Humphries is a contributing editor at the The Spectator and the launch editor of Specator Australia.
His parents nicknamed him "Sunny Sam", and his early childhood was happy and uneventful, but in his teens Barry 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 mascara'd eyes, he invented his first sustained character, "Dr Aaron Azimuth", dandy and Dadaist.
Educated at Camberwell Grammar School, he has been awarded his place in the Gallery of Achievement there. His father’s building business prospered and Barry 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.
He spent two years studying at Melbourne University (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 recordings of Dada-influenced recordings in Melbourne from 1952-53. "Wubbo Music" (Barry 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.
He was also 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 a tin of condensed soup onto an aircraft, 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 Fool's Day Humphries placed a roast dinner and glass of champagne in an inner-city 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 drink from it. Much to the amazement of watchers-by, he found a suitable seating area and began to eat it.
Such stunts were the early manifestations of a lifelong interest in the bizarre, discomforting and subversive.
He 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 featuring Mrs Norm Everage, called "Olympic Hostess", premiered at Melbourne University's Union Theatre on December 12, 1955. In his award-winning autobiography, More Please (1992), Humphries relates that he 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 twenty. The dowdy Moonee Ponds housewife, originally created as a caricature of Australian suburban complacency and insularity, has evolved over four decades to become a satire of stardom, the gaudily dressed, acid-tongued, egomaniacal, internationally feted Housewife Gigastar, Dame Edna Everage.
Humphries' other satirical characters include the legendary comic strip hero, nephew of Dame Edna (and progenitor of Crocodile Dundee) Barry McKenzie; 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 '60s 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 then moved to Sydney and joined Sydney's Philip Street Revue Theatre, Australia's leading venue for revue and satirical comedy. After a long season in revue he appeared as Estragon in Waiting for Godot, Australia's first ever production of a Samuel Beckett play.
In 1959 he settled in London where he lived and worked throughout the Sixties. He became friends with 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 also became friends with 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 stage and radio productions by his friend Spike Milligan, in particular The Bed Sitting Room.
In 1962 when Humphries was in Cornwall with his wife, he fell over a cliff near Zennor and landed on a ledge 150ft below, breaking bones. The rescue by helicopter was filmed by a news crew from ITN. The footage of the rescue were 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 Deram) and reprised the role when the production moved to Broadway in 1963, where it became the first London stage musical to be transplanted to Broadway and receive the same critical and audience reception it had received in Britain. 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 Barry 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.
In the late '60s Humphries contributed to BBC-TV's popular The Late Show (which also featured Oz magazine editor Richard Neville) 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 polarized 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 Philip Adams and writer-director Bruce Beresford to create a film version of the Barry McKenzie cartoons. The Adventures of Barry MacKenzie 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 like 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'.
Although his career was blossoming, throughout his sojourn in London Humphries had become increasingly dependent on alcohol and by the late Sixties his friends and family began to fear that his addiction might cost him his career and possibly even his life. It was undoubtedly one of the main reasons for the failure of his marriage, and his drinking was also a contributing factor to the collapse of his second.
His drinking reached crisis point during a visit home in the early Seventies — his parents finally had him admitted to a private hospital to 'dry out' when, after a particularly heavy binge, he was found unconscious in a gutter. Since then he has abstained from alcohol completely and was one of the many friends who tried vainly to help Peter Cook, who eventually died from alcohol-related illnesses. It has been speculated that the excesses of the perpetually drunk Sir Les Patterson are to some extent informed by Humphries' own battles with the bottle. This brush with mortality may account for his enduring fascination with Cryonics, the practice of human cryopreservation. Humphries only makes occasional self-reflexive references to this interest: "why would I want to go on living in the future after dressing up as a woman for fifty-two years?" However, members of the immortalist community have credited the momentum behind a planned Australian facility to his strong private support.
Since the late '60s Humphries has appeared in numerous films, mostly in supporting or cameo roles. His credits include the UK sex comedy Percy's Progress (1974), David Baker's The Great McCarthy and Bruce Beresford's Barry MacKenzie Holds his Own (1974) -- in which Edna was made a Dame by then Australian PM Gough Whitlam.
Other film credits include Side by Side (1975) and The Getting of Wisdom (1977). The same year, he had a cameo as Edna in the Robert Stigwood musical film Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (which became infamous as one of the biggest film flops of the decade), followed in 1981 by his part as the fake-blind TV-show host Bert Schnick in Shock Treatment, the sequel to The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
He was more successful with his featured role as Richard Deane in Dr Fischer of Geneva (1985); this was followed by The Howling III (1987), a cameo as Rupert Murdoch in the miniseries Selling Hitler (1991) with Alexei Sayle, a three-role cameo in Philippe Mora's horror satire Pterodactyl Woman From Beverly Hills (1994), the role of Count Metternich in Immortal Beloved (1994), as well as roles in The Leading Man (1996), the Spice Girls' film Spiceworld, the Australian feature Welcome to Woop Woop (1997), and Nicholas Nickleby (2002), in which he donned female garb to play Nathan Lane's wife.
Barry has also featured in various roles in comedy performance films including The Secret Policeman's Other Ball (1982) and A Night of Comic Relief 2 (1989). In 1987 he starred as Les Patterson in one of his own rare flops, the disastrous Les Patterson Saves the World, directed by George T. Miller of Man From Snowy River fame and co-written by Humphries with his third wife, Diane Millstead.
In 2003 Humphries had a small role in the animated film Finding Nemo. In it he plays Bruce, a shark who attempts to curb his addiction to fish eating. He eventually falls off the wagon. Playing this role, given his own struggles with alcoholism, is perhaps a good example of Humphries' penchant for self-deprecation.
Humphries' forte has always been his one-man satirical stage revues, in which he appears as Edna Everage and a host of other character creations, including Les Patterson and Sandy Stone. There can be few (if any) comedians who can boast the career longevity he has enjoyed with Dame Edna, whose popularity shows no signs of flagging after fifty years. Humphries' success is also a tribute to the tremendous skill, style and insight — and the sheer hard work — that he invests in performing two-and-a-half hour shows of entirely original material, laced with ad-libbing, improvisation and audience participation segments.
Humphries has had many successful stage productions in London, most of which he subsequently toured internationally. Despite his later popularity, he encountered stiff resistance in the early years of his career — his first London one-man show A Nice Night's Entertainment (1962) received scathing reviews and it was several years before he made a second attempt. He gained considerable notoriety with his next one-man revue Just A Show, staged at London's Fortune Theatre in 1969. It polarized the critics but was a hit with audiences and became the basis of a growing cult following in the UK. He continued to gain popularity with his early '70s shows including A Load Of Olde Stuffe (1971) and At Least You Can Say You've Seen It (1974-75).
He finally broke through to widespread critical and audience acclaim in Britain with his 1976 London production Housewife, Superstar! at the Apollo Theatre. Its success in Britain and Australia led Humphries to try his luck with the show in New York in 1977, but it proved to be a disastrous repeat of his experience with Just A Show. Humphries later summed up his negative reception by saying: "When the New York Times tells you to close, you close."
His next show was Isn't It Pathetic At His Age (1978). Like many of his shows, the title quotes one of the remarks his mother often made when she took Barry to the theatre to see superannuated overseas actors touring in Australia during his youth.
His subsequent one-man shows include:
He has made numerous theatrical tours in Germany, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and in the Far and Middle East. In 2003 he toured Australia with his latest show, Getting Back To My Roots (And Other Suckers).
Edna Everage is undoubtedly one of the most enduring Australian comic characters of all time, and one of the longest-lived comedic characterisations ever devised. Originally conceived in the late 1950s, Edna has long since transcended her modest origins as a satire of Australian suburbia to become one of the most successful, best-known and best loved comedy characters of all time. She has grown over the years to become, in the words of journalist Caroline Overington:
Like her ever-present bunches of gladioli, one of the most popular and distinctive features of Edna's stage and TV appearances has been her extravagant wardrobe, with gaudy, custom-made gowns that satirically outdo the most outrageous creations of Hollywood showbiz designers such as Bob Mackie. Her costumes, most of which were created for her by Australian designer Bill Goodwin, routinely incorporate Aussie kitsch icons such as the flag, Australian native animals and flowers, the Sydney Opera House and the boxing kangaroo.
As the character evolved, Edna's always unseen family became an integral part of the satire, particularly the travails of her invalid husband Norm, who suffered from an almost lifelong onslaught of an unspecified prostate ailment. Her daughter Valmai and her gay, hairdresser son Kenny also became intrinsic elements of the act, as did her long-suffering best friend and New Zealand bridesmaid, Madge Allsop.
Throughout Edna's career, Madge has been played by English actress Emily Perry (born in 1907), who has the distinction of being the only other actor ever to appear on stage with Humphries in his stage shows, as well as making regular appearances in Dame Edna's TV programs.
Dame Edna is also notable as one of the few satirical characters to make a successful transition from stage to TV without losing popularity in either genre, and her decades-long popularity shows no signs of waning. The talk show format provided a perfect outlet for Humphries' rapier wit and his legendary ability to ad-lib, and it enabled Edna to draw on a wide and appreciative pool of fans among fellow actors and comedians, with scores of top-rank stars lining up to be lampooned on her shows. As other Australian actors have begun to make a wider impression in international film and television, Edna has not hesitated to reveal that it was her mentorship which helped "kiddies" like "little Nicole Kidman" to achieve their early success.
These enormously popular programs have since been repeated worldwide and the special A Night On Mount Edna won Humphries the Golden Rose of Montreux in 1991. He wrote and starred in ABC-TV's The Life And Death Of Sandy Stone (1991), and presented the ABC social history series Barry Humphries' Flashbacks (1999).
His other television shows and one-off specials include Dame Edna's Neighbourhood Watch (1992), Dame Edna's Work Experience (1996), Dame Edna Kisses It Better (1997) and also Dame Edna's Hollywood (1991-92), a series of three chat-show specials filmed in the U.S. for the NBC and the Fox network. Like The Dame Edna Experience, these included an array of top celebrity guests such as Burt Reynolds, Cher, Bea Arthur, Kim Basinger and Barry Manilow. Edna's most recent television special was Dame Edna Live At The Palace in 2003. He also starred in the Kath and Kim telemovie Da Kath and Kim Code in late 2005.
In 2007, Humphries returned to the UK's ITV to host another comedy chat-show called The Dame Edna Treatment, a similar format to The Dame Edna Experience from 20 years earlier. The series once again boasted a collection of top celebrity guests such as Tim Allen, Mischa Barton, Sigourney Weaver, Debbie Harry, and Little Britain stars David Walliams and Matt Lucas.
Barry Humphries finally realised his long-delayed dream of success in the United States when he took Dame Edna: The Royal Tour to Broadway in 2000, scoring a smash hit and winning rave reviews. As a result Humphries won the inaugural Special Tony Award for a Live Theatrical Event in 2000 and two National Broadway Theatre Awards for "Best Play" and for "Best Actor" in 2001. Asked what it was like to win a Tony award by an Australian journalist he said "it was like winning 1000 Gold Logies at the same time".
Edna's new-found success in America led to many media opportunities, including a semi-regular role in the hit TV series Ally McBeal. Vanity Fair magazine then invited Dame Edna to write a satirical advice column but she unwittingly created a storm of controversy with a piece published in the February 2003 issue. Replying to a reader who asked if she should learn Spanish, she replied:
Edna's satirical intent -- poking fun at the haughty attitudes of wealthy Americans who hire low-waged Hispanic domestic workers -- evidently went over the heads of some readers. Many who subsequently complained appeared not to realise that Dame Edna was merely a character and that 'she' was not really a woman. Members of the Hispanic community took the joke out of context, reading it as a deliberately racist remark, and complaints flooded in to the magazine. Hollywood actress Salma Hayek responded angrily, penning a furious letter in which she denounced Dame Edna. Death threats were even received and Vanity Fair was eventually forced to publish a full-page apology to the Hispanic community.
Humphries commented later. "If you have to explain satire to someone, you might as well give up." When questioned about the controversy (as Dame Edna) on the eve of her 2003 Australian tour, she retorted that Hayek's denunciation was due to "professional jealousy", and that Hayek was envious because the role of painter Frida Kahlo (for which Hayek received an Oscar nomination) had originally been offered to Edna:
Humphries is the author of many books including two autobiographies, two novels and a treatise on Chinese drama in the goldfields. He has also written several plays and has made dozens of recordings. His first autobiography More Please won the J.R. Ackerley prize for biography in 1993.
He has been the subject of three critical and biographical studies: