Comedian Eddie Izzard takes off on a tour and makes a pit stop at the Painted Bride.
by Mary Cole
An orange-haired, chain-smoking tomboy, male lesbian transvestite born in Yemen.
No, no, wait.
A nice, middle-class, Eagle Scout British boy who attended university for accounting and has a fondness for history and old television shows.
Or no, wait.
OK, if he were easy to pigeonhole, he wouldnt be nearly so interesting. In England, Eddie Izzard plays in cavernous theaters more suitable for big musicals than for a diminutive actor/comedian with blue fingernails and 3-inch heels. (Hes even in the Guinness Book of World Records as the comedian who played to the largest house ever.) But next week hell be at the intimate Painted Bride for a show a few zillion British fans would happily sell their grandmothers to see.
ME: (breathless, a little too loud) Do you still have Eddie Izzard tickets?!
NICE LADY AT THE PAINTED BRIDE: Who?
ME: (lurching closer) Eddie Izzard!
NLPB: (suspiciously) Yeeesssss.
ME: (hopping from foot to foot) Really? Do you have four together?
NLPB: (cautiously) Well, its open seating at the Painted Bride.
ME: (flapping my arms about): AACCKK!! Everyone just rushes in there, every man for himself?!
NLPB: (reaching for her security buzzer): We only seat 250.
ME: (flinging myself off a bridge in ecstasy): REALLY?
Eddies on a short tour of North America a few days each in Toronto, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York. He sold out five nights in New York before the dates were even announced.
He inspires impassioned testimonials from Americans who have discovered him teenagers, octogenarians, third-grade teachers, robotic engineers, Anglican priests. Robin Williams says he and his wife produced Eddies last American tour "so we could get good seats." A realtor from Pennsylvania says he "has crashed through our organized little worlds that label us and expect certain things from us and has let us come out to play, to see things as if for the first time again." He inspires unswerving loyalty because he makes it OK to be smart and different and honest.
Born in 1962 in Yemen to British parents, Eddie knew at age 4 he was interested in womens clothes and at 7 that he wanted to be on the stage. He had a nice, middle-class life in England and Ireland and a nice, middle-class education, and he risked it all when he left university after a year to work on his comedy troupe career. When the troupe idea didnt click, he took to the streets for the next decade or so, honing his comedy. Just as he started to take hold in the comedy clubs in the early 90s, he risked it all again and came out as a transvestite.
He sits at the dim bar of the Society Hill Sheraton late one afternoon in February, sipping Pinot Grigio and energetically waving the smoke from his cigarette away. Hes in black, but a spot of silver glints from his "Space Babies" T-shirt so I aim toward that.
"Coming out in sexuality scared the shit out of me," he says, "but I do find it very positive to do these things. Even if its really tough, positive things come out of it." Sure enough, his audience didnt abandon him once he came on stage in makeup and heels, and he went on to sold-out tours and four videos. Hes done his shows in France in French, and he wants to do them in German, Italian and Spanish eventually. Hes also launched a film- and stage-acting career, appearing most recently as Lenny Bruce in Lenny in the West End and as baddies in The Avengers and Mystery Men.
In his comedy shows, he stands alone on stage, often depending on what he feels like in makeup, a frock and heels. He might talk about being a transvestite for a minute to get it out of the way, and then the audience and he both forget it. Hes not there to talk about being a transvestite; hes there to entertain, to share his unique views on subjects both weighty and featherweight: "Im actually there to entertain myself. If the audience finds it funny, thats great. Ill say what I think from my point of view and if people havent thought of that and pick it up, thats great. And if people disagree with me, thats OK too."
Hes smart, interested in everything, respectful of his audience as people and funny as hell he seems like the ideal model for the future citizen of the world. But hes not for everybody. "I dont think the middle sensibility of any country is going to get my stuff," he says. "I dont think Middle America will get my stuff, and Middle Britain doesnt get it or Middle France. Middle Argentina wont. And its not geographical its just that sort of people who dont look to taking on knowledge, to being open-minded. Youve got to be more aware of an alternative, more thinking. Youve got to know enough about stuff because Im referencing a whole bunch of somewhere between garbage and history and interesting things and politics and something thats been on telly. I keep going on religion and sexuality and also talk about completely stupid things, which I like."
Possible subjects for his future guileless meanderings: the "pissed Olympics" (where only those who fail drug tests can compete), Darth Vader ordering pasta in the Death Stars lunchroom, health care, moonrocks, gun control, Druids, terrorism, puberty, Hitler, giraffes, imperialism, Scooby Doo, institutionalized religion, sheep-shearing, provincialism, and whatever else happens to come into his mind.
What you wont hear are put-downs, mother-in-law jokes, anything really vulgar, anger, sexism, racism in short, what you hear from a lot of American comedians: "I dont really want to go down that angle because Im not hugely angry about anything. Some angry comics have got a character thats saying X but then theyve got a life thats Y. I wanted my real life and my onstage thing to sort of match up. I dont want to be in a nice guy place, but Im not vitriolic and I dont hate."
What he does do is illuminate. Mark Twain once said, "Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand." Laughter lets us put aside for a moment our personal dogmas and look at controversial subjects freshly, with a sense of community. So Eddie pulls out subjects hes thinking about and holds them up for consideration: "Im fascinated by humans and the world and, being in Britain, youre almost forced to think more globally because its become a small country. I thought hate was an interesting subject because its a harder place to go and, if you can get some humor out of it or perhaps illuminate a point or something, then its more interesting.
"Im now looking for subjects to talk about, places to go, that will be different because it keeps you more cutting edge. But Im not trying to say you must think like I think. If theres a positive idea, Id be pleased if people grabbed hold of it and said, Oh, Im going to think of it that way now because that seems to be a concise articulation of an idea that I havent put into words before. But its not a preaching thing."
Hes energized by new ideas and by understanding where people are coming from. When I mention George W. Bushs signing the concealed handgun law in Texas, Eddie who clearly thinks our handgun laws are nuts doesnt throw up his hands in disgust. Instead, he perks up and leans forward: "Really? I didnt realize people were coming in and making gun laws more [liberal]. What was his thinking?"
Talking about new ideas makes him lean forward again, talk faster, momentarily forget his cigarette: "I like a majority of the character traits of the American sensibility. The whole idea of lets make things, lets go do, lets push against the odds, create things where they havent been before. I identify with that energy. If someone had said, Theres a boat going for America, I think Id be on it. Id be fucking on it. I would have."
Hes one of the sanest people in the universe, totally himself, centered and courageous. Courageous in the sense of putting everything on the line for the right to be who he is, to exist honestly. And courageous in the sense of failing and starting again to pursue the same goal from another direction. "I did sketch comedy for three or four years and it didnt work," he says. "I was really sure that sketch comedy was the thing, and that did not happen. I just did not know what to do I was just lost because that was my only plan. So I thought up a new plan, and that plan didnt work either. So I thought up a third plan and these were big old life plans and the third plan worked."
Your plan should be to be in one of those 250 seats at the Painted Bride. Tell the nice lady at the box office I sent you.
Eddie Izzard performs March 28-April 1 at the Painted Bride Art Center, 230 Vine St., 8 p.m., 215-925-9914. All shows are sold out.