Wayland Flowers, comedian and right-hand man to his bawdy puppet Madame, has an unusual attitude for a veteran performer: He prefers to be heard and not seen.
"About five minutes into my act, I 'disappear,' " Flowers said during an interview last week in his Hollywood home. "After the shows, people often come up to me and say 'I don't want to hurt your feelings, but I really didn't even notice you on stage. And I say 'Well, if you did (notice me), I wasn't doing my job.' "
Flowers, 45, believes that when he and Madame appear on stage--they'll be at the Laff Stop in Newport Beach tonight and Thursday-- she is unquestionably the focal point, the star. Indeed, after watching the duo for any length of time, on stage or off, it becomes clear that Flowers considers Madame a separate and complete character, a crusty dame who's been around the block a few times and is happy to share her salty wisdom.
Moreover, in discussing his career, Flowers told numerous anecdotes about Madame, quoting some of her more memorable (and unprintable) lines--and punctuating the tales with staccato bursts of laughter. But those moments never carried the self-congratulatory air of someone chuckling at his own jokes. Because to him, the jokes were Madame's.
At one point, as if to underscore his puppet's strong identity, the comic admitted: "There are times when Madame says things that even surprise me."
Madame originally was created as a composite of family members and other female figures important to Flowers when he was a youngster growing up in Georgia. "Oh yeah, Madame was my mama, my grandmother, my aunt and a lot of people I had watched in the movies," recalled Flowers. "She's Mammy Yokum to Marlene Dietrich to Marjorie Main; sometimes she'll say a line and it'll sound just like Marjorie Main."
Not long after Flowers had developed Madame's persona and gussied-up her appearance (she was a witch puppet in a former life), the pair built a sizable nightclub following across the country. Despite the duo's popularity, many who saw the shows predicted that the profanity-laced act would never be acceptable on television. Wayland and Madame effectively silenced the skeptics by making their television debut in the mid-'70s on a Marlo Thomas children's special, winning an Emmy award in the process.
The dynamic duo went on to rack up substantial tube time on "The Andy Williams Show," "Hollywood Squares," "Solid Gold" and their own short-lived program called "Madame's Place." In recent years, their television activity has tapered off. Flowers said: "I think television's had enough of us for a while, which is fine with me."
The blond comic remains enthused, however, about playing before audiences in clubs and theaters, while continuing to seek new performing challenges. "I want to take Madame to Europe--to France," Flowers said, adding that he's been brushing up on his French.
"I'd like to be able to do my act in French," he continued. "Otherwise, I've thought about having an interpreter sit next to me on stage, which might work. I tried that in Mexico once and it worked."
In the meantime, he continues to juggle a full schedule of performances in this country, including assorted special appearances. He said, for example, that Madame recently emceed the Miss Nude America contest in San Francisco.
And when time permits, Flowers plugs away at his pet project: Writing and developing an original musical-comedy. He had hoped that the work would be ready to stage this fall but now hopes to complete it sometime next year.
And who will be the star of Flowers' production?
You guessed it: Madame.