The Izzard King
text by Ben
Eddie Izzard doesn't tell jokes, he just talks: about car-driving wolves, Klingon gants, race-horses on motor-bikes and why Daleks make excellent plumbers. He's a very funny man, but just what makes Eddie tick?
It's funny talking to Eddie Izzard: funny held up at the border crossing between the rival kingdoms of ha ha and peculiar. This isn't because of anything Eddie himself does - he is very quick and open, and if an interviewer should lapse into one of those embarrassingly complicated questions which start off asking one thing and end up asking another, Eddie will probably answer both parts, shrugging off any attempt at interrogatory repositioning with a friendly but firm, "I thought I got what you meant." The thing that hits you is just how much people who really like him - and it's hard to find someone who's seem him perform who doesn't - have built his speech patterns into their own.
The deliberate pauses that say, "Ah yes, where was I?" Brief suburban station stops that remind you your train of thought is heading for the seaside: so many people go in for these now - not just other comedians, but normal human beings too - that talking to the man who originated them, well, it almost feels like he's been ripped off.
Eddie's sartorical innovations have been less widely imitated. Today's look comprises calf-length leather boots, black leggings which are almost tights, and an emerald blue sweat-top whose buttons fall open rather distractingly to reveal a silky white shoulder strap. It would be wrong to pay so much attention to the Izzard wardrobe if it didn't seem designed to be noticed: I saw him in Marks and Spencer on Oxford Street once wearing a jacket that even Tammy Wynette would think twice about.
Such chance sightings, or onstage in record-breaking theatrical runs, are no longer the only way to see Eddie Izzard. In recent months he has started to turn up on tv too, which makes this a crucial passage in his career, as, apart from being a transvestite, the thing he is best known for is not appearing on television. So far - a disruptively flirtatious and very funny showing on Have I Got News For You, a brisk little star trip on the ITV Comedy Awards, a slightly awkward chat show debut on Ruby Wax ("She said, 'You can go anywhere on the set' and I thought, 'Oh shit, that's too much choice'"), and then a brutal perfect six on Clive Anderson - the small screen seems to like him.
"Not being on television almost became like a religious thing," Eddie admits, "'Thou must not go on telly; I will kill them all with swords.' My whole position was that I wanted to do straight acting and if I went on telly and it worked then I'd have a whole load of comedy baggage that I couldn't get rid of. If Paul Merton did Hamlet now," he continues, apparently in all seriousness, "people would probably just be going, 'To be or not to be...but in a brown suit'. They'd get all mixed up because his persona is so large. I just thought if I stayed off tv, it might work better."
And it has. With two major theatrical roles under his belt - first in David Mamet's The Cryptogram and then in the less-publicised but better-received 999 Oneonta (a part which he mastered in just seven days of rehearsal) - Eddie can claim with some justification to have established "a certain believability in the fact that I can act". He's not at the Keith Allen or Robbie Coltrane level yet - he admits quite brazenly that "their positions are where I want to fucking get to" - but he's working on it. Now his straight acting career is off the ground, he can safely show his funny face on tv, which is a good job because he has a new video to shift. And the last one, Live at the Ambassadors, suffered a bit from video stockist bewilderment: "Because I wasn't on telly, they didn't know who I was. So they would buy two or three and once those had sold, that would be it."
Will tv exposure dull the Izzard aura? The idea of a comedian saying no to some form of self-advancement, even if he was only doing so out of crafty self-interest, was certainly a beguiling one. Watching Eddie being a comedy personality on Ruby Wax, that familiar slight feeling of disappointment you get when you see a comedian do part of his act on a chat show as if he's just thought it up certainly had an extra piquancy. He insists he is not going to make a habit of doing this, but transvestism, the issue at hand, was important to him. "For me to get there and talk about being TV in a relaxed way, and be fuck off about it; that was my whole plan. Someone who's out there and just thinks that they are the abominable snowman could maybe use that."
I suppose the problem is that there aren't an infinate number of ways of saying somehting important in a funny way.
"Especially in the area of tv." Eddie laughs. "If I find one that works I'm pretty pleased.
The feeling he gives you of creativity in progress is what makes Eddie Izzard such an exciting comedian, but it can also lead to misunderstanding. "What I do does have a feel of sponteity because I go in and go, 'Right, now, fish...er, fish,' but I always know roughly where I'm going to go," he maintains. "The unfortunate thing is if people think it's totally improvised when they realise it isn't they'll think I'm letting them down."
So he's not happy if people think he's making the whole thing up on the spot?
"No, I prefer everyone to know exactly what I'm doing, because that means I'm good at what I can do rather than what people think I can do."
People still make this mistake though, critics included. Eddie's act was recently described thus: "Like the bumblebee who hasn't studied aerodynamics and therefore doesn't know the impossibility of it all, he flies." But this particular bumblebee has actually studied aerodynamics very hard indeed, as the following Eddie Izzard theory of "molten material" proves. (Be warned: this man does not believe in full stops.)
"When you first come up with some new material, it tends to be a bit clunky, and then you suddenly click into an angle so that when you're doing it you think, 'Oh, here comes this bit again,' and you really power up to it and the audience feels excited because you're obviously giving it a whole bunch of energy, and then you find that you can ad-lib on it and go off at tangents, adding new bits all the time, so at the beginning the whole thing is really loose and upset, but then after you've done it about 20 or 30 times, it starts getting laid in concrete, so my idea was to artificially keep the beginning period going for as long as possible, constantly twisting the material, coming in backwards and spinning it round until it gets as good as it's going to get, then record it and hopefully move on."
Eddie has just embarked upon a nationwide tour every bit as gruelling as that classic Izzard sentence. Starting out with the final version of the set he performed at London's Albery Theatre last year, as preserved for posterity on the new video, Unrepeatable, he will hope by the tour's April close to have a new two-hour show ready to take into the West End at the end of the year. By this constant process of urbane renewal, Eddie Izzard hopes to be able to continue doing stand-up "until I drop dead".
Does he draw diagrams of his set so he knows which bits to work on?
"No, it's just a vague head thing. I know I've got to change it, and I'm always seeing stuff while I'm touring round. Last time I saw birds mirgrating and I thought, 'I've got to talk about this, because it is amazing,' and it took me ages. Normally you work on an idea for about five gigs and if it doesn't work then you dump it, but I'd held on to that for about 20 shows...and in the end I got this nice thing of them migrating and not going anywhere and this big bird at the front who's the leader has got this map all over his face; which I liked because it was very human."
The thing Eddie Izzard is trying to get, like a stand-up comedy Gary Larson cartoon or an animated version of Steven Wright one-liner, often seems to involve stretching nature to the point where it twangs back again. "People are sitting there, and I'm giving out information to them so they can paint mental pictures," he explains. "Like the wolves in the car driving along and shouting at antelope. The reason why it works is that I seem to be able to give out just the right amount of information and glue for the image to stick." He admits to learning from other comedians, freely citing Richard Pryor (especially the second Live video, and Live On Sunset Boulevard, "when he'd just got back from Africa and stopped using the word 'nigger'") as the front of his talking animal routines. Other inspirations include Steve Martin and Billy Connelly: "His stuff is always a story that he's told as opposed to that gag about two men going into a pub."
For all his self-confessed monomania, Eddie is not short of a good word for his more immediate contemporaries either: among them mercurial Glaswegian Phil Kay, his worthy successor as winner of the Top Live Stand-Up Comedy Award. "He plays a different danger edge to mine," says Izzard, "you really don't know what he's going to do next, whereas I always try and have a back-up of prepared material so I can nail it to a tree." Mark Lamarr's terrier-like audience harassment techniques also command respect. "I was watching him with [stand-up comedian] Jeff Green once, up in Edinburgh, and he was just digging away at someone in the audience. I looked at Jeff and said, 'I would have pulled out by now,' and he said, 'I would too,' but Mark stayed in for about a minute-and-a-half."
For all the cut-throat nature of their calling, there is a surprising camaraderie among comedians, at least compared to, say, pop stars. "It's much harder to be a comedian than it is to be in a band," Eddie explains. "If you're in a band and no one likes you, you can just say you're experimental. Also, bands tend to hang out in gangs and then have to drive off to Leicester after gigs, whereas comedy is based around 30 or so London clubs, where you tend to run into people."
Does he see people falling into traps?
"Speed is one - everyone wants things yesterday and if you go too fast you'll just end up out on a limb, and your talent won't have had time to catch up. Basically, you can be good or you can be fast."
No one is going to accuse Eddie Izzard of rushing his semi-mythical sitcom The Cows. "It's now about a group of cows moving into a street, and how they get on with the people there, who don't know many cows," he confirms. "It'll either be great or it'll be a pile of shit." The big news is that after what seems like several aeons, a revised draft of the first episode has now been accepted by Channel 4. Eddie and co-writer Nick Whitby are working on the second, the pilot should be done by May or June and the Henson corporation, creators of the Muppets, are thinking about cow suits. "I sometimes despair a bit of my difficulty in disciplining myself in the writing area," Eddie admits, reflecting ruefully on the prolific - and successful - output of the Coogan/Marber/Ianucci comedy clique. "I think it's the lack of instant response - it's creativity without adrenaline I have a problem with."
Running towards the danger, that's the preferred Izzard method. The foundation of his success is a combination of ruthless calculation and devil-may-care aplomb, the latter honed over years of sword-fighting, escapology and "talking bollocks from a unicycle" to the backs of retreating crowds in shopping centres from Peterborough to Worthing. "The don't-give-a-damn thing, you need to bottle that," he says of his street performer days. "They were hell gigs, gigs from hell, but learning to survive them mentally gave me a safe sheet of ice." The roots of his almost frightening (sitcom excepted) levels of application run deeper. "There are two types of people," Eddie insists. "Some who'd quite like to get something going, and others who have to - and I sort of had to."
The traumatic circumstances of his early life are well-known, and he makes no secret of their impact on him. Born in Yemen in 1962, by the time Izzard junior was six, he had moved to Northern Ireland to Wales to Bexhill-On-Sea, his mother had died and he had been sent away to boarding school to bottle himself up. "I still don't know whether I have sorted out my mother dying," Eddie says matter-of-factly. "I thought I had, but there's still this level of emotion that, if I go underneath, opens up in an amazing sort of scary flood. It's very uncontrollable. In fact, it's all over the fucking shop."
Is that what pushes him to achieve things?
"I think there might be some kind of drive in me to try and get in there and level it out a bit more. I'm walking around wearing whatever I want, make-up and stuff. I was in a shop the other day, just leaning against the shelves, and the level of confidence was way beyond what I thought I could get to. It makes you want to see how much further you can take it."