What does he have against Middle Iceland?

You may wonder how anyone could get you to laugh at the same line four or five times in one evening, but Eddie Izzard pulls it off—without a script or much sense of what's going to work. Best known for performing in an array of smashing outfits, this self-proclaimed "action transvestite" dares to tease his audience's brain cells as well as their funnybones, laughing about imperialism, American parochialism, even doing whole segments of his routine in French. He builds intricate webs of jokes, architectures of humor that tumble like dominoes when he hits on the punch line that sends them all sprawling. Yet despite being beckoned by Hollywood ("Mystery Men," "Velvet Goldmine") and the stage (he's played Lenny Bruce), Izzard remains loyal to his roots in live improv. Midway through a North American tour that has taken him, for the first time, well beyond hipster havens on both coasts, he spoke to CitySearch's Jesse Berrett about Middle Iceland, Jerry Springer and Oliver Cromwell's funnybone.

CS: What are you sick of being asked?

Eddie Izzard: It's got nothing to do with comedy at all: I do interviews where a third of the interview, or even half, is about sexuality. The transvestite thing I'm officially Sick of Being Asked, but unofficially Not Sick of Being Asked. To the people who know about it, back in the U.K., it feels like I'm banging on and on about it. But in America, people haven't heard enough, because there's not enough positive information out there about transgendered sexuality. So I do need to keep getting that out; it's going to take ages before a mainstream audience gets their heads around that.

CS: If you were could interview yourself, what questions would you ask?

Izzard: I couldn't do that. Madness is very, very close down that line. If you get anywhere in the entertainment industry, you are living somewhere mad, where it's all about ego: you've got to have one to stand up there and say, "Hey, I can do this thing." So you become full of bullshit. I'm not giving you a straight answer, but the truthful one is, I just can't imagine that. I often don't read my own interviews now because if people hate me, they probably won't want to read it, and if they like me, I think, "Wow, they probably hate me."

CS: Since you're branching out [beyond New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles], what have you learned? Do different things work in different places?

Izzard: If I wasn't going to do television—"The Me Show"—I thought I'd better get out and play where others weren't playing. I did the Outer Hebrides, and no one had ever played there before, not even Scottish comedians. But you can be quite switched-on and live anywhere. I used to be a street performer, and I played for international audiences in Covent Garden; I've been in Iceland and Chicago and Perth and Wellington and Paris and Amsterdam, and the audiences have similar reactions. What I've learned ... Chicago: they said it was the Midwest. The East Coast kept saying, "Ohhh, don't trust Chicago." There seemed to be slightly different people coming—they might have been bigger.

CS: You've talked about "switched-on" people. Do you have any interest in getting the Middle-England, Middle-American type to your show, and having them say, "That wasn't so bad"?

Izzard: Not really. If they're saying "that wasn't so bad," they're fairly switched-on. I don't really want to be big in the mainstream-you have to widen it out, dumb it down: "Don't be so abrasive! Don't say 'cat'-you'll offend everybody! Don't talk about bridges! People hate bridges over here! Rocks—that'll kill 'em!" I definitely play to an eclectic audience, and if they like surreal humor, they'll probably dig it. You can be switched-on and live in the middle of America. But I haven't been shooting for the Middle-America, Middle-Britain, Middle-France, Middle-Iceland ...

CS: "Middle Iceland"?

Izzard: Middle Iceland: they won't live in the middle of Iceland, because it's a big glacier, but they say, "We know Iceland, and everyone else is weird."

CS: Are there things you like or dislike about playing the U.S.?

Izzard: In America, the pioneer spirit has worked too well. It's why you can't have gun control: people want to pursue the happiness of killing or something. Eventually, all empires have to pass on. I think America's going to destroy America; I think it's got about 50 years left now. And then someone will find a special jam in Angola and everyone will say, "Hey, Angola is the place to be," and we'll all have to go to Angola and become Angolanese.

CS: Are there things you have to jettison or add for Americans?

Izzard: It's a scary thing when the "Jerry Springer Show" goes on, and knowing they're all set up—"You were shagging my wife's budgerigar!" "It was my budgie!"—a fight starts, the audience starts shouting "Jerry! Jerry!" What does that mean? These people are overjoyed with Jerry Springer for giving them a chance to watch other people, probably like themselves, beat the shit out of each other. It shouldn't be the thing they shout. Anyway, I'm doing the opposite thing from the major networks and, I don't know, smartening-up; I assume the intelligence of the audience.

CS: Do you think at all of your work as a force for good, or for better?

Izzard: [mock-heroically] It's a Force to Change the World—a bit like "Star Wars". I'm Obi-Wan Kenobi, if he were a transvestite comedian. I think [Monty] Python has already done what I did, and Richard Pryor. I think I do make the audience fight—if you decide not to keep up, you're sunk. I'm basically saying, "I'm going to go quite fast and rattle around in my head and bring together weird, disparate images and see if you can keep up, and I'll see if I can keep up." It's an interesting mind game, and I think that probably is positive. Most people do keep up, and those who don't walk out of the show. I always assume some people walk out; I hope they do.

CS: Do you have any "there but for the grace of God go I moments?

Izzard: I could've gone lots of places, but God was graceful. I couldn't get anything going for 10 years, and in the end I came up with a plan: instead of trying to get somewhere quick, I'll get somewhere slow. I'll run around the outside of the track, do gigs in French...if I do all these gigs all over the place, I've got to get better. I don't fear that I'm going to do a weird mainstream thingy now. The standup has worked; I don't need to do anything else. I'm trying to bash my way into serious dramatic roles in films, and I can pick and choose them. Doing standup allows me to explore my mind, and doing the gigs in French explores it in a second language. I want to do more of that—keep pushing the edge.

CS: Since you're someone who talks and thinks about history, have you ever thought about when and who you'd like to perform for? Would you have cracked them up at the court of Louis XVI?

Izzard: When I'm performing, I'm not performing to "people" ... but it would be interesting doing a gig to the average people at the French Revolution: just do a lot of political jokes. But it would be more interesting doing the gig and then having a look around. Any revolution—American, French, English ....

CS: I can't imagine Cromwell was a big stand-up comedy fan.

Izzard: Oh, he was loose and free and had that Puritan bonhomie and wise-cracking, thigh-slapping humor. He was much more into the New Model Army and marching up and down. But if he hadn't murdered so many Catholics—he did get rid of the King ... and then they came back. It's so bizarre what happened to England. America did get rid of the King in the end, probably because he wasn't living there—the British were putting their hands all over you, and you said, "no, we live here."

CS: Since you talk about things that are sometimes fairly burning political issues, are there things people won't laugh at?

EI: Sure. You don't say, "God, a lot of people died; wasn't that funny?" I wouldn't want to do that. You go in at a different angle. Any subject is possible—you can talk about HIV or cancer, but if you come up with a bizarre angle, you can point out other things, human behavioral things, usually.

CS: I had this image of your having a conversation with Oscar Wilde: what would you say to him? Or is there anyone else whom you've always wanted to meet, to find out how they saw the world?

Izzard: That's interesting. I'd like to talk to the Romans—they got quite a way up the ladder, and the world went hugely backward after that. It would have been interesting to be around Wilde, but I don't know what questions I'd have asked. The Greeks, the Egyptians, maybe even the Celts, back there before recorded history. The Celts got around Europe like they had a bus or something. They even turned up in China. Sacked Rome in about 300 B.C., even. I didn't know that ... till I found out.

CS: What do you think about, long-term? When will you know you've succeeded?

Izzard: It's already gone fine. I've had as much success as I could have wanted. I could blow up and disappear, and I'd be quite content. (May 2000)