by Charles Taylor, Salon Magazine

Bionic queen mothers and walking fish fill the strange, delightful world of British comedian Eddie Izzard.

----------Every brilliant performer finds his or her own style. For British stand-up comic Eddie Izzard, it's in lipstick and nail polish. Paint-free, playing the sharky, snarky manager of a glam rock star in Todd Haynes' "Velvet Goldmine," he looks squat, surly, almost thuggish. Wearing full make-up in "Glorious," the filmed record of his 1997 one-man show, his hair cut into a soft shag with blond highlights, Eddie (calling him Izzard just sounds too formal) is a thing of beauty.

Eyeliner brings out Eddie's expressive round peepers, and lipstick his sly sideways grin. He's dressed in a three-button, red satin suit -- topped off by a velvet choker -- that sleekens his stocky build, emphasizing the comically sinuous grace of his limbs. In "Glorious," Eddie's legs are a show in themselves. Imitating his grandmother going out to buy a pack of cigs, or how a fish might walk if he were English, Eddie strides across the stage in precise, deliberate steps, mimicking the movement of people (or fish) who live their lives in careful increments. Turning himself into a speedboat shooting across the water (driven by Sean Connery playing Noah -- but that's another story), or an office worker flirting with a new employee, he appears to have springs attached to the soles of his chunky black high-heeled pumps.

Eddie Izzard is a descendant of two not-so-long-ago cultural trends -- the '60s stars who bucked traditional notions of how stars were supposed to look and the gender-fuck of the glam-rock era, when boys as well as girls reached for the eyeliner in order to live out their most glittering daydreams. That ability to be completely yourself and also to transcend yourself is part of the enormous freedom Eddie imparts on stage. He seems like a regular guy who early on discovered that he just looked better in make-up. Flirty but not fey, he has none of the bitchiness that full-blown drag comics usually rely on. His presentation suits the subject of his comedy -- the strangeness of ordinary things. Grandmothers and carpet sweepers and toasters and bees and chocolate biscuits don't seem quite so familiar when they're being discussed by a bloke in eye shadow.

Eddie Izzard is everything we don't expect in stand-up comics -- not because of the drag, but because his comedy is almost entirely devoid of hip attitude, distanced irony and rage. Anger rears its head in Eddie's act only to be made ridiculous, as when he parodies the impatience that comes over him when he can't get his computer to work, or when he goes into a snit on a tiny commercial airline flight because the pilot has hoarded the chocolate biscuits and handed out bland digestive ones to the passengers. (He's even amused by the absurdity of what happened when a group of guys kicked the shit out of him following a performance.) Eddie doesn't scream at his audience. He's not out to shock or deliberately offend. His material isn't blue. He swears, but no more than most of us do every day.

In the place where most stand-ups usually store and stoke their rage, Eddie has built up a large supply of bewildered amusement. Many of his funniest bits don't translate because they're dependent on nuance, inflection, body language. You may laugh less at "Glorious" if you watch it more than once, but your pleasure in Eddie's physical and vocal performance grows. You may even find yourself looking forward to an inflection more than a specific bit, loving the argot as much as the jokes. Eddie's style of improv, rooted in the non-sequiturs English comedy thrives on, has the wonderful oddity of stray private thoughts presented publicly by a man who sees no reason to believe that others won't share his logic. He's a bit like a kid in the school cafeteria trying to relate the plot of a movie he watched the night before while being distracted by a hundred things around him.

It might suffice to list some of the ideas that zip through "Glorious": Old ladies are imbued with the life force and can, with some help from medical science, live forever. Thus, the queen mother, kitted out with artificial hips and the like, is Britain's equivalent of the Six Million Dollar Man. Archaeology would be more exciting if participants were given power diggers and a 15-minute time limit. Even then, all they'd eventually unearth would be "a series of small walls." Achilles could have made himself invulnerable if he'd encased his foot in a block of cement and added a hovercraft to the bottom for mobility. The man who invented potpourri (pronounced pot-porey) is a genius: "I will take stuff that fell from trees, put underarm deodorant on it and sell it to posh people." Diana's sudden death was like an episode of "The X-Files" run at 2 a.m. on a Monday morning where Mulder and Scully were killed off and the public's reaction was "Whaaat? I was watching that!" If humans have flying dreams, birds must have car-driving dreams. Carrying your bags across a tarmac to a plane makes you feel like one of the Beatles.

The ordinary can seem very strange in Eddie's world. Boys watch girls play hopscotch from a distance as if observing some mystical rite; the settings on toasters never tell the truth. The flip side of these common mysteries is that the most extraordinary events take on a workaday familiarity. As impersonated by Eddie, the Greeks sailing away from the Siege of Troy sound less like mythical heroes about to unleash their masterstroke than kids being called home to supper: "We're going now, bye! You've won, well done, bye! We're in our ships, bye! We've left you a big horse. As per usual." God (who, of course, speaks in the voice of James Mason) is as indiscriminate about creating the world as a bargain hunter filling up his basket at a 99-cent store. The accomplishments of his first day are a jumble: "light and air and fish and jam and soup and potatoes and haircuts and arguments and small things and rabbits and people with noses and jam -- more jam, perhaps -- and soot and flies and tobogganing and showers and toasters and grandmothers. And Belgium." Inevitably, by the seventh day, He's cutting corners like anyone on a deadline: Rwanda, the Tower of Pisa, English football hooligans, Mrs. Thatcher's heart.

Something about that fills Eddie more with relief than existential angst. A God as harried and perplexed as the rest of us, a well-meaning fuckup, confirms his view of the world. Given the state of divine craftsmanship, who down below could be blamed for trying to make some improvements to his handiwork? In the world according to Edward J. Izzard, reaching for the nail polish seems like one of the more sane things you can do.

 

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