Dear Edna: Why Can’t We Laugh Anymore?

Richard Rodriguez is the author of "Brown: The Last Discovery of America."

A tiny rhinestone sparkled on the horizon of a dangerous world, and then was quickly extinguished.

But perhaps you were too preoccupied to notice? After all, we Americans were encouraged last week by government officials responsible for our safety to seal our windows with duct tape against a possible biochemical attack.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Feb. 23, 2003 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 23, 2003 Home Edition Opinion Part M Page 2 Editorial Pages Desk 0 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Dame Edna -- An article in last Sunday’s Opinion section misidentified humorist Barry Humphries as British. He is Australian.

And we learned that North Korea’s Kim Jong Il, who spikes his hair, was assembling nuclear bombs capable of being lobbed at the U.S. West Coast.

And the voice of someone purporting to be Osama bin Laden was heard urging Muslims to bring death to the world in the name of a loving Allah. And our secretary of State assured us -- hadn’t he said so all along? -- that the Bin Laden tape proved beyond a doubt the link between Iraq and Al Qaeda.


In the midst of all this seriousness, in the editorial offices of Conde Nast in New York, the editor of Vanity Fair magazine, a Canadian named Graydon Carter (whose hair, each month, is photographed in the magazine in a wind-swept, 19th century style), said he was sorry.

He promised an apology in the April issue for a recent column by the British actor-comic Barry Humphries, a.k.a. Dame Edna Everage.

In the February (Salma Hayek) issue of Vanity Fair, there appeared -- a regular feature -- a short satirical advice column by the fictional Dame E.

Dame Edna descends from a long line of British clowns in drag. For reasons best known to the British, a middle-aged man in a dress who recites scatological jokes or says funny words like “bra” or “cod” can elicit screams of laughter from a Liverpool audience.


The target of Barry Humphries’ humor is the English upper class and its middle-class pretenders. Dame Edna’s version of refinement is transparently vulgar (appropriate for Vanity Fair, which trafficks in a vulgarity otherwise difficult to isolate).

A query from “Torn Romantic” in Palm Beach to Dame Edna:

“I would very much like to learn a foreign language, preferably French or Italian, but every time I mention this, people tell me to learn Spanish.... They say, ‘Everyone is going to be speaking Spanish in 10 years. George Bush speaks Spanish.’ Could this be true? Are we all going to have to speak Spanish?”

If you’ve seen Dame Edna on “Hollywood Squares” or thereabouts, you know that she wears earrings by Liberace. She has purple hair and rhinestone glasses with fins like Cadillacs. Her physical humor otherwise is dependent on double takes and mischievous eyes.


“Dear Torn,” Dame Edna replies, “Forget Spanish.... Who speaks it that you are really desperate to talk to? The help? Your leaf blower?

This was minor stuff, but amusing enough. That the line was not greeted with screaming laughter, however, was perhaps due to the fact that Dame Edna had unwittingly captured the tone of the magazine and attitude of many of its readers so closely.

Though soon e-mails flitted back and forth among Spanish-speaking readers of Vanity Fair -- an interesting sociological group in itself.

Soon, there were hot petitions of protest against blue-rinsed Dame Edna. Letters of complaint to Carter (the editor whose hair, etc.): “I am a 30-year-old Latina marketing executive with three graduate degrees....”


During a week of heightened Code Orange alerts in New York City and elsewhere, there were Code Magenta bomb threats received at the offices of Conde Nast.

An apology was not long in coming.

Now that we are a nation of sufferers and victims, the Puritans have won the day. There are, at our universities and colleges, committees of orthodoxy that decide what can and cannot be said.

Indeed, so dulling has political correctness become, what’s “in” at the moment across America is right-wing talk radio.


White guys with bloated voices wield inadmissible humor with complete impunity. Objection is welcomed.

Vanity Fair is a very different media success story. It is an utterly schizo concoction of ... uh ... you know, England, Ralph Lauren and in-depth interviews with 20-year-old movie stars who cannot seem to button up their Levi’s.

To provide Old World elan there is the slurred, Brit Twit commentary of Christopher Hitchens, who made his mark, early on, with an attack on Mother Teresa.

And there is Dominick Dunne’s monthly report on spicy old dukes who are discovered in ... uh, fragrant deco ... uh ... frontal directo....


For a magazine so confused in its purpose, it is perhaps not so very surprising that Vanity Fair didn’t see the Hispanic furor coming.

Each month, the magazine’s predictions about what’s going to be “hot” next month -- Faberge, Frida Kahlo, A.S. Byatt, Georgia O’Keeffe -- are invariably not.

Indeed, the February issue of V.F. with the Lebanese Mexican actress Hayek on the cover was meant to flatter Lebanese Mexicans -- the coming thing.

But there are other prophesies from Vanity Fair’s editor. Carter (whose hair, etc.) was widely quoted by media types in New York, after Sept. 11, saying that irony is dead.


It’s truer to say that humor is having a hard time of it in America these days when we can’t tell the difference between a joke and the deadly serious.

Dear Dame Edna: My government recommends I buy plastic sheeting and homeland security tape, like the three little piggies did in ancient times, so my comfortable home won’t blow down when the wolf comes calling. My question is, Do you think Scotch tape would withstand a wolf as well (I am half-Scottish) or should I do as my government tells me? Quaking in San Francisco.

Dear Quaking: I am afraid you Americans don’t recognize a satirical skit when you see one. I am sure your government merely intended to contribute some home-spun humor to the general gaiety of nations, as Queen Marie Antoinette did in her day. Obviously, your government means only to suggest that you keep out of the way of the authorities. Dame Edna knows lots of naughty indoor games that employ homeland security tape and plastic. Lighten up, possum, it’s later than you think.