There's a lot more to Eddie Izzard than drag

Text by Kerry Reid

The comedian whom Monty Python veteran John Cleese has called "the funniest man in England" is gamely treating his jet lag with the assistance of a large coffee and many cigarettes. Despite his oft-publicized penchant for cosmetics and women's clothing, Eddie Izzard's appearance this early afternoon on the first day of August is no more remarkable than that of most San Francisco hipsters: an apparently makeup-free visage, highlighted hair, black jeans and a close-fitting knit jersey in duo-tone shades of blue, matching his laser-intense eyes. Even the black high-heeled women's boots he's wearing raise no eyebrows among the Union Square tourist set.

Although critics draw frequent comparisons between Izzard, 36, and Robin Williams, his demeanor is anything but frenetic. Instead, Izzard (it rhymes with "lizard," although he professes not to really care how people pronounce it) comes across as polite, thoughtful and at ease--simultaneously modest and utterly assured of the direction he is taking with his multifaceted career.

That career includes sellout runs of his stand-up shows in Britain, Europe and New York; stage work in London's West End, including the world premiere of David Mamet's play The Cryptogram and Christopher Marlowe's Edward II; film appearances in The Avengers (he plays Sean Connery's silent and menacing henchman); and a role as a band manager in Todd Haynes' upcoming portrait of the glam-rock era, Velvet Goldmine. Izzard is in San Francisco for the first time, appearing at the Cable Car Theater in Dress to Kill (presented by Williams), which had a gloriously successful run at New York's Westbeth Theater Center last spring--the third of his solo comic turns to enjoy a long run in Manhattan.

Izzard's comic bent, which he describes as "universal surreal," owes a debt not just to Williams but also to Monty Python (the members of which he now numbers among his friends), Steve Martin and Richard Pryor. Izzard eschews overtly political or topical humor for fast-moving, far-ranging and verbally adroit riffs on everything from the genesis of Easter eggs to how Engelbert Humperdinck got his name. The fact that he often wears women's makeup and accouterments is simply one facet of his persona.

"I'm very positive about 'I have the freedom to wear anything,' " he maintains. "Just like women have the freedom to wear anything now. So I'm just saying, let's go for equality of rights. It's nothing really about the comedy. It's just a sexuality thing that's there, it's male tomboy, it's not drag queen." And though he "fancies girls," that distinction seems hard for some in the entertainment industry to understand; during Izzard's recent appearance on Politically Incorrect, host Bill Maher made a crack about Izzard having a housemate named Raoul.

One area where Izzard has firmly refused to seek employment is television--specifically, situation comedies. Given that the stand-up comedy clubs have turned into farm teams for network sitcoms in America (and, says Izzard, in Britain as well), his determination not to be molded into a TV commodity is refreshing.

"It's all gotten built into 'I won't do telly'--some sort of moral standpoint," he says. "But in fact, I love television comedy. I love television. I'm an addict to television. I thought if I did a sitcom in Britain or in America, I'd get very established. Like Jerry Seinfeld is Jerry Seinfeld. If he's playing a character from King Lear [ed. note: Perish the thought!], he's still Jerry Seinfeld. It's the public-perception baggage that goes with it. I just wanted to do straight roles in film and the comedy in stand-up. But I will do chat shows. Politically Incorrect--I love those kinds of talk bollocks." (He's good at it, too; on his recent appearance, Izzard scored some serious points against a Stepford Wifely Christian Right spokeswoman, without ever resorting to sarcasm or cheap shots--such as, for instance, calling her a Stepford Wife.)

According to Izzard, there has never been a problem with his humor translating for American audiences--which, considering the fact that British TV comedies have been the cash cows for PBS for decades, shouldn't be a surprise. Still, Izzard notes, "If you're British to start off, there's a general assumption that the comedy won't work in America. Then Python happens, and they go 'Well, OK, Python works, but nothing else works.' And then 'OK, Absolutely Fabulous will work ... and Benny Hill, but that's in a different area.' My whole theory of world comedy is that there is no national sense of humor. It's only about 20 percent of the references that I have to drop [for American audiences]. As long as I don't get caught up in infinitesimal detail about British transport systems ... there's a lot you can talk about."

What did his comedy idols lend to his performance style? "Specifically, with Richard Pryor, he'd talk about different characters, and they'd all start talking to each other," Izzard says. "So I really drew on that. There's a Scottish comic called Billy Connolly [perhaps best known to American audiences for his role as Queen Victoria's groomsman in Mrs. Brown] who had a big style like that, which I also was very infiuenced by. He had a sort of two-hour chat thing, like a big chat in a pub where no one gets a word in edgewise. Steve Martin for the brash bullshit, that voice that he adopted that was sort of that television spiel--'If you wish to get connected with "fish entrails," press 1.' Just talking about complete crap while seemingly saying sensible things."

Izzard never scripts any of his material, preferring to work things out in front of audiences. "I know where it's going. It's like a big motorway journey, and I can just go off on side roads and go 'Oh, what about this?' and talk about that. It leaves it conversational, so that you just have ideas and go off on them. It's this sort of dyslexic sideways thinking--taking serious subjects and breaking them down and talking about them in a very stupid way and taking stupid subjects and talking about them in a very important way, which is what I think first came out of Python."

He undoubtedly honed his lightning-quick comic refiexes during his years as a street performer in London in the 1980s. (As proof of his unfiappable panache, Izzard dealt with losing a button off his Gaultier jacket at the London opening of his earlier show, Definite Article, by sewing it back on midperformance, without losing the thread--pun intended--of his conversation.) Izzard knew he wanted to be a performer by age 16, although he says, "I wanted to do film way before I wanted to do stand-up. I didn't decide I wanted to do stand-up until I was about 25 or 26"--three years after he came out as a transvestite.

Born in Yemen on the 150th anniversary of Charles Dickens' birth, Izzard endured a childhood that had some points in common with the tragic elements of the novelist's work. Izzard's mother died of cancer when he was 6, and he spent some miserable years in boarding schools. He was kicked out of his first-year accounting courses at Sheffield University, and accountancy's loss has become comedy's gain.

Izzard's career path has been, in some ways, similar to that of other British comedians, including appearances at the prestigious Edinburgh Fringe Festival and stints in One Word Improv, which became one of the longest-running improv shows in West End history. In addition to the aforementioned appearances in The Avengers and Velvet Goldmine, Izzard appeared in The Secret Agent, a film adaptation of Joseph Conrad's novel starring Bob Hoskins, Gerard Depardieu and Robin Williams, which led indirectly to his current Bay Area gig. Not all of his projects have been hits. A British sitcom he co-wrote, Cows, which featured a Gary Larsonesque family of talking cows, was, according to his official bio, "critically received like a long-lost relative who turns up at the wrong house with an overdue Christmas card."

When asked if his transvestite image has hindered his ability to get work, particularly in the U.S., Izzard says, "I think it's more an underwritten thing. They don't say that upfront. They just say, 'Well, we won't book you,' and you don't know quite why--what's their problem on it? Could they all not get it? It's like they're thinking, 'British transvestite, oh, that's not really going to work.' And then if it starts working they go 'Well, British transvestite, of course that's going to work! Why didn't we think of that? Of course! Let's get lots of British transvestites!' That's the comedy thing. You can just see them going 'Yeah, yeah' but still being confused by it. Some people just want 'straight leading man.' "

As for future film plans, Izzard notes, "I'd like to work with Anthony Hopkins. I'd like to do films with [directors] Ridley Scott, [Stanley] Kubrick, Alan Parker. ... I try not to make up lists of dream projects, as you could start wishing for things that won't happen."

He's also penned a screenplay about legendary 18th-century English thief Dick Turpin. "He was quite middle-class, really," Izzard explains. "He just wanted to be downwardly mobile and hang around the money, the danger, the women ... sit in seedy inns and drink gin. He was a very good self-publicist, I think. He did the gentleman highwayman-type stuff of treating people kind of courteously because of his upbringing. And he found the press started writing about it. So he started devising his robberies and stealing things from people in a way so they'd go away and talk about it. The press would say, 'Wow!' But he was also kind of scummy. He'd shoot people, and was quite a coward." Izzard plans on playing the lead, in addition to writing the script and co-producing the film.

Izzard seems unconcerned about achieving the kind of superstar status that, say, Jim Carrey enjoys. "You can get a bit lost in the pursuit of millions," he notes. Instead, he looks at the longevity and variety of the career of someone like Steve Martin for inspiration. "I'm not in such a rush anymore," he says. "With stand-up, you can do it until you drop dead. It's much longer-lived than rock & roll."

And, of course, with his success has come the predictable backlash in some quarters of the British press. This, too, Izzard takes in his high-heeled stride. "That's OK. People will get pissed off," he says. "Also, if they always tend to write positive things, you get bored of that as well and want them to write some negative things."

Whether or not the mass public understands his comedy or that his stage persona mirrors his real-life transvestite proclivities is not something that worries Izzard unduly. "I think Middle America doesn't get it. Middle Britain doesn't get it either. Middle France doesn't get it. There is a middle of every country that won't get it. Which unfortunately is rather a lot of people"

From the August 24-September 6, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.