LAUGHING TILL THE COWS COME
( Independent ) James Rampton; 12-14-1996
A vicar is reading the vows at a marriage between a woman in a wedding- dress and a cow in a smart suit. The cleric enjoins the bovine groom never to forsake his beloved: "even as her jokes do grate, even as she shags your mate."
This is a scene from Cows, the long-awaited sitcom that could only have come from the fevered imagination of stand-up comedian Eddie Izzard. Whether penning a sitcom about a dysfunctional family of cows moving into a terraced house, or embarking on astand-up routine about pears deliberately waiting till you're out of the room before ripening, Izzard's imaginings run riot.
He can make the most apparently innocent, everyday objects the subject of fantastical yarns. What to everyone else is, say, a common or garden pair of blue underpants becomes in his eyes the protagonist in a Great Escape-style breakout. It is thisfantasy facility that makes him the most inspired surrealist this side of Rene Magritte. Too rambling to be packaged for TV, he remains our most engaging live act. He is one of those rare performers who can get laughs just by coming on stage and going "er, er, er".
David Tyler, producer of Cows, and himself a former stand-up, feels that what distinguishes Izzard is that he "has a real otherness. He also has an indefinable charm. There are many good comedians who are technically competent, but they have to keep talking to be funny. Eddie has a presence and a freshness. It's the old funny bones thing."
Izzard's world is a weird and wonderful place. "He draws you in, rather than saying `look at me'," Tyler says. "I'm decreasingly patient with comedians who say `a funny thing happened to me on the way to the gig'. When Eddie does his routine about playing in the school band, you're taken somewhere different, as opposed to listening to someone talk about their tedious life as a stand-up. He also writes lots of material, he's very creative. I know how easy it is to tout the same 20 minutes around for a year. With Eddie, there's a shed-load. And the tight PVC trousers don't do any harm either."
Off-stage, Izzard is just as captivating. Flashing you a devastating sparkly-eyed smile, he speaks in the same free-form style, a stream of consciousness that bubbles over you like a warm jacuzzi. The act, he reckons, is not about telling jokes: "It's highly crafted rubbish. It's like a motorway journey. I know where I'm going, but I try to come off at side-roads and look around because I get bored on the motorway. It's also like changing channels. The act is influenced by TV. I'm a TV junkie,which is ironic because I'm known for never appearing on it. I get all my history from it; I'm fascinated by history. The future has already been written in our past. My stuff is an enjoyable fusion of the Carthaginians fighting the Romans and Tweakyfrom Buck Rogers in the 21st Century."
It often has the air of a one-man sketch-show. An expert mime, Izzard can conjure up a queue of murderers at a petrol station with just a flick of the hips. "I now do this weird thing that Richard Pryor did of having all the characters talk to each other. I'm narrating it, and it's like a perfect synthesis. Street performing taught me how to jabber. I can talk without fear of boring people."
His audiences are anything but bored. Izzard addicts follow him on tour. What he aims for is the sense of "conversing with the audience. It's that Billy Connolly thing of having a one-sided chat in a huge pub where no one else gets a word in edgeways.It feels like a dialogue, but it's really a monologue."
As his world tour winds down, Izzard is planning another outing for the One-Word Improv show, has been working on a feature film about Dick Turpin - "we want to do it like Pulp Fiction crossed with Sense and Sensibility" - and appeared as a baddie inChristopher Hampton' s screen adaptation of The Secret Agent. "I can play shitheads," he observes. "The LA Times said I was `deliciously nasty' in The Secret Agent. There is a direct correlation between comic characters and shitheads. It's something tod o with extremes. If you're twisted, it affects people as comedy does. Look at Woody Harrelson; he's gone from Mr No Brain on Cheers to playing a lot of psychotic characters."
With co-writer Nick Whitby, he is also working on five further episodes of Cows for Channel 4. Izzard explains the thinking behind the series. "Larson has shown with his cartoons that you start to see what humans are like when you see animals doing thesame things. With this I wanted a Planet of the Apes look and a Simpsons feel. But everything is rooted in character. The Cows are just another crap family, just like the rest of us."
This buzz of activity is one of the secrets of Izzard's success; he' s always one step ahead of a backlash. "You've got to keep moving and twisting to remain interesting. If you hit it big in comedy, you do get stuck. Audiences are reluctant to acceptyou in anything else because they want their hits of laughter."
He is even considering dropping his trademark makeup and dresses in favour of "more blokeish clothes. If you're going to be open about being a transvestite - and as far as I know, no other famous people have come out - it is going to get you pigeonholed," Izzard maintains. "But it keeps you on edge. Professional transvestite is not a job. You want notoriety for what you're doing rather than for wearing women' s clothes. So I'll just keep changing. If you ever think that you' ve got it, thenyou're dead."
1962: Born in Yemen, where his father was an accountant with BP
1980s: Read maths and financial accounting at Sheffield University, where he wrote a play with 26 main characters. Left after a year to become a street performer for five years, before graduating to the London stand- up circuit
1990s: Straight roles on stage in David Mamet's The Cryptogram, 900 Oneonta, and Edward II and on film in Aristophanes, The Secret Agent and Damien Hirst's Hanging Around.
1994: His Unrepeatable show nominated for an Olivier Award
1995: His Definite Article show sold out a 10-week run at the Shaftesbury Theatre - his third London West End season in as many years - unheard of for a stand-up comedian
1996: Undertook another first for a stand-up - a world tour encompassing New York, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Reykjavik, Paris (where he performed in French) and, er, Bexhill-on-Sea. "I'm on a mission to play all the places they said I couldn't,"he says. "I'm a Euro- positive to outweigh all the Euro-sceptics and Little Englanders in the world. I look for the common ground." Co-wrote and produced his first sitcom, Cows, for Channel 4