Izzard's standup guy act is femme

by Jonathan Takiff
Daily News Staff Writer | added 03.24.00

 Robin Williams co-promoted the West Coast dates of Eddie Izzard's last tour, "just so I could get good tickets."

Another fan, Monty Python's Eric Idle, bought out the entire theater for one of Izzard's shows in L.A., to celebrate another Brit who could make the Yanks laugh with a loony intelligence and rapid-fire, stream-of-consciousness delivery.

No, not everyone loves standup comedian Izzard. There's something strange about him: His dazzling sense of the surreal? His dark fascination with history's biggest creeps? Or maybe it's the frosted hair and bold makeup, chic Gaultier-designed kimono, slacks and heels that some blokes just can't get past.

Hey, if the femme thing worked for Uncle Miltie and Dame Edna, why not Izzard?

"The Leno TV studio audience didn't exactly warm to my executive TV [transvestite] look," concedes Izzard, with a smirk. "All you get on that show is eight minutes. By the time you get over explaining where you're coming from, there isn't enough time to be funny."

But hey, that's OK, the comedian quickly comforted, in a recent chat prompted by Izzard's five-night Painted Bride Art Center engagement starting Tuesday - his overdue Philadelphia debut.

"There's this idea that America doesn't really swing with alternative sexuality, but it does as well," insisted Izzard, a jut-jawed, studly kinda guy dressed down for our chat in a tight T-shirt, slacks and high-heeled boots. "It's just Middle America that doesn't swing with it. But you don't need 260 million people to turn up at a gig. The toilets would be backed up. Parking would be an issue. And how do you cram in the people. Do you stack them horizontally or vertically?"

The Bride only seats 240, and to hear the facility's p.r. guy Phil Sumpter tell it, has almost sold out all the seats to Izzard's engagement, "basically on word of mouth. People have been calling from as far away as Florida for this one. The demand is unbelievable."

Best known on this side of the pond for his HBO special, Eddie Izzard has been knocking them dead as a comedian in Britain and on the Continent since 1988 - making genial (but sharp-edged) jokes about everything from taxidermy to archaeology, Hitler to Clinton. He dares an entire routine in French (and it works, even if you don't parlez vous!). And he happily goes to extremes, one minute waxing historic about his ancestors, the Protestant Huguenots, being tossed out of France for working all the Catholic holidays, then the next making hay over the great thinkers that turned singer Arnold George Dorsey into a more recognizable commodity with the change of name. "What about Binglebert Humpledon?" "Geidebert Hingledunk?" "Engelbert Humperdinck?" "Hingleberg Enkledonk?" "Wait a minute, go back one!"

Eddie Izzard has also been building a nice secondary career as an actor, recently winning raves with his West End stage impression of another envelope-pushing comedian, Lenny Bruce, and scoring on screen in films like the recent "Mystery Men" and that sensual homage to glam rock "Velvet Goldmine," in which Izzard played an amusing music manager. "My character's the only guy in the entire film who isn't wearing makeup," Izzard notes with an ironic laugh. British entertainment has a long and sometimes healthy tradition of cross-dressing - "from Shakespeare to those loathsome Victorian pantomimes that they still do every Christmas, where Cinderella's sisters are guys dressed up in this clumsy way, and Cinderella's played by a girl, but Prince Charming is played by another girl, with that whole undercurrent of lesbianism going on," Izzard ruminates.

As a kid, he memorized and could replicate entire Monty Python routines, also featuring lots of guys dolled up as frumpy women.

Yet Izzard claims his take on wearing glitzy stuff on stage is something else - an honest, biological craving to bring out his feminine side. While this poster boy for transvestism knows his eye-opening appearance brings extra attention, and provides good fodder for jokes, his ultimate goal is to get him and us over it, he says, to normalize TV.

"The show's not really sexually driven," he declares. "It's just talking crap." And the truth is, after the initial shock wears off, that's what you're laughing at - a very funny guy joshing 'bout a zillion different things with a surprisingly macho, machine-gun delivery.

Eddie Izzard started wearing "makeup and whatever" on stage at the end of 1992 - originally in an outfit that made him look "like a small elephant in heels," he jokes. "It did take me out of the white male standup stereotype quite quickly. But at the time, my thought wasn't career advancement. It was 'Will I lose my career because I'm being honest about being a transvestite, part of this strange weird fringe of society?' "

Izzard first fancied dressing up in his mother's clothes when he was 4 (tragically, he'd lose her two years later) and the family was living in Yemen, where dad worked for BP Oil as an accountant. "It's not a drag queen thing," he explains patiently. "Gay men do drag queens and don't say they're transvestites."

Being TV, he adds, is akin to "girls who're tomboys, who climb trees and then go home and put on makeup and a dress. Most people who're TV stay in the closet all their lives and accentuate the male thing, 'cause they do like it. I fancy women, not guys. Not that I'm averse to being gay, but it hasn't worked for me. I like playing football. I was even thinking about joining the army, 'cause I like to run about, jump, climb trees, shoot a gun at a target. But I chose not to do it, cause you have to kill people, too."

Izzard decided "to be open about this to change the image of TV from the weirdo area of town into executive transvestism, more up-market and business-class, and make it more a wannabe area," he says, riffing (tongue-in-cheek) like an advertising exec.

More seriously, he's "trying to give anyone who's coming up, someone probably in their teenage years, the guts to say "f--- it. I'm gonna tell them what I am. There are definitely teenagers who're confused. But if they can go, 'Oh well, it's like his thing,' then maybe they might come out and you might get more of a groundswell, as happened with gay and lesbian people. It's moved from being fringe of society to a person who works in society, who has a job. You're a banker, you're working in a bookstore.

"You know, even in this day and age, some Hollywood stars are still hiding behind arranged marriages, afraid to reveal their true natures. What should be important is how good you are in your job, as a citizen, and then your sexuality is in a separate place."