Talking in "Circle" with comic Eddie Izzard
By Jim Sullivan/Boston Globe/03.05.00

Before the chin-wag, a fag.

That is, before we sit down fo an interview in the no-smoking dining section of a Back Bay restaurant, British comic Eddie Izzard avails himself of a quick smoke in the smoking-OK front bar. Izzard is a bit stressed. He has been buzzing about the five North American cities in which he is unveiling his latest one-man show called "Circle"- it's at the 57 Theatre Tuesday through Sunday - and apparently the flight from Chicago wasn't turbulence-free. Nor were the hotel accomodations.

But, having smoked, Izzard begins to relax, settle in, and unwind, freely associating about his life and times. The first, most obvious point to make, is that Izzard, 38, is the world's only known transvestite stand-up comic, a peculiarity that is a neat paradox: It is both inconsequential to the substance of his act and essential to his essence. He is very likely to don make-up and dress in woman's garb to perform (or even just hang out), but he does not do camp. His work is rooted in the banal currency of most contemporary comedy. Izzard's comedy can work as social and political commentary; his discourse is intelligent and surreal, coming from what he calls a center-left world-view. It's as timely as the case of the former Austrian Freedom party leader Joerg Haider and as historical as Adolf Hitler.

"Hitler never played Risk as a kid." Izzard has said in his act. "You could never hold Asia. Marrying Eva in a bunker, honeymooning in a ditch covered in petrol, on fire-how romantic Adolf. Yeah I know...vegetarian painter." Then, as Hitler attempting a landscape: "Can't get these trees! Damn, I'll kill everyone in the world. A twist on history Why are other villians like Josef Stalin and Pol Pot less loathed by the world at large? "They killed their own people," says Izzard, and it didn't bother the rest of us as much. Izzard has fun with genocide, mocking the despot's schedule:"Death, death, death, lunch, death, death..."

Of America, the pixiesque Izzard cheerfully opines, "You are the new Roman Empire...You have vomitoriums and orgies to look forward to. Let the president lead the way!" Of America's little guns and violence problems: "Guns don't kill people, people do, but I think the gun helps. Just standing there and going "bang" doesn't work."

Izzard loves the History Channel and has noted in his act "I'm from Europe - where the history comes from." He says, "I do like getting history and shoving it into stand-up bits." Izzard is the wittest Brit comic to cross the Atlantic in, well, eons. Not that, as he explains, many others have tried. There's Dudley Moore and Peter Cook, Monty Python, Billy Connelly, Rowan Atkinson...a short list. The Pythons, particularly Michael Palin, are one set of heroes ("even though I've met them and they're quite human"), and Steve Martin would be another. And, of course, Lenny Bruce, whom Izzard played onstage in London last summer.

Izzard, in Boston two weeks ago, is sporting a trace of color-enhancing foundation on his cheeks, but he is not wearing eyeliner or mascara. He is clothed in a fairly plain, but designer-label, blue shirt and trousers. His spiked, stylishly mussed hair has blond streaks. He's got a tidy goatee. On his feet are modest pumps, which makes his gait seem a trifle ladylike as he walks to a unisex restroom. "I'm very blokey," he says, "I look like a bloke wearing make-up."

Asked if, in fact, he is straight or gay, Izzard replies thus: "I'm a male lesbian, a transvestite being a male tomboy." He used to just say he was straight, Izzard says, but "then journalists would write 'He insists he's straight,' which is implying like it's not true. But if you are a transvestite, you do fancy women. It is an alternative sexuality. Perversion? That word is very easily bandied around and I kind of want to move it out and say "I'm an executive transvestite" - get it into this new area, reposition it."

Izzard came out as a transvestite in 1984, at 22. As he was about to come out to the news media, he figured he should tell his family, too. He braced for his dad's reaction. His father said, "oh, OK." Audiences echoed that reaction.

What exactly is "Circle" about and why is it a "one-man show?" How does if differ from a stand-up comedy routine?

"I think I am doing a stand-up comedy routine," says Izzard. "But when I got to America, people were saying, 'Well this isn't really stand-up comedy' But it is in my book. I mean, I get the impression that in America, stand-up comedy can be looked down on in a way. If you're a stand-up comic you're expected to go, 'You know how it is when you stick your finger in your ear and stick a hammer to your head - it really hurts.'So I'm not quite like that."

Izzard started by performing street comedy during the 1980's and then "came up through the comedy clubs of London," a circuit of 80 plus clubs. "So," he says, "it is some form of stand-up comedy, but it's more surreal. Also, in theaters they'll give you a lot more attention so you can (mess) around a lot more and widen things out or go on long, disparate angles and put things together and be more complicated. But I still think it's stand-up comedy."

Izzard's specialty, akin to that of American comic Jake Johannsen, is to find a theme, deviate from it, weave a tangled web of thoughts - mixing the absurd with the pointedly profound - and somehow, mostly, emerge with something both hilarious and coherent, gentle and barbed.

He doesn't telegraph his jokes, but he will indicate that a punch line is approaching with a slight hesitation in his voice and a sideways dart with his expressive eyes. He uses - but doesn't overuse - the English language's favorite profanity with well-timed emphasis, not for the rote "shock value".

HBO Breakthrough

He worked five months off Broadway in 1998. In June he broke through with an HBO special, "Dress to Kill", shot in San Francisco, which set the stage for this tour. Izzard, who has acted in movies such as "Mystery Men", "The Avengers" and "Velvet Goldmine" among others, says he doesn't write down his material - it's all spew. "I've tried to do a concept," he says, "but it doesn't work. I was trying to on this one which I haven't done yet at all." He says his act is like a conversation, albeit a one-sided one, with his audience. He likens it to a bloke in a pub who bends your ear. He says he is horrible at structure - "it's my weakest area, so if you do get a shape that sort of works, that's kind of accidental."

"Circle", he says, may be based on this notion: "The planet is circular, the sun is, everything goes around in an Native American religion believed in circles - everything goes back to the land." He sighs and tries again. "I am trying to talk about some sort of relational sphere, and look back to the classical Greek thinkers, and I'm still toying around with that - I was trying to see if there was some sort of link there. At the moment, it's still a work-in-progress. My shows are always work-in-progress."

He's not aiming for "middle America but just switched-on, alternative-thinking America. It's not the entire population, but who wants 265 million people coming to a gig? Don't need it." And Izzard defines entertainment not just by the number of customers in the seats or the laughs heard in the hall. "For me," he says, "I kind of entertain myself, actually, so I don't really care what (happens). It's me doing stuff and going, 'Oh that's funny.'"

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