Eddie Izzard on San Francisco, the French, Impromptu Comedy and How Transvestites Meet Chicks
FILTER MAGAZINE | Holiday Issue 2003 | by Mikel Jollett; Photography by Steven Dewall

"Hi, I'm EDDIE IZZARD. This is an interview with Filter magazine, an American publication which deals with the manufacture and sale of filters and filtration-related devices. Sort of like a sieve thing But then 'Sieve Magazine' never caught on That'll do, yes!"

He's talking into a small video camera because he's being taped for some DVD-extra documenary type thing and he's not wearing any makeĽup at all. We're standing in a mostly empty fifth floor lounge at the Four Seasons Hotel in San Francisco. The night before he walked on stage at the Orpheum Theater in full make-up. falsies and a half-open blouse while 2000 people screamed the way people scream for full-on, no-fucking-around rock stars. But he's not a rock star He's a comedian. And an intellectual. And an actor. And a transvestite. And the funniest person you'll ever meet. He finishes his DVD intro and we sit down at a table with a view of Market Street while the camera crew squats in the distance. For the next hour he plays the part of the Emmy-winning, world-touring Broadway-acting, cross-dressing British comedian he is. And though he's feeling `blokey' today (i.e. like a "bloke:' no make-up) his demeanor is classic Izzard: rambling; razor-sharp, daring and funny--like some kind of insanely intelligent circus juggler who keeps 10 flaming ideas in the air at once.

He's touring the world and he's preparing the release of Circle his new CD/DVD. Which is all another way of saying that he is finally becoming the action-hero transvestite he's a ways wanted to be: irreverent successful and mercilessly honest.

I saw your show last night it was terrible.
I know...l can get better. Maybe in a couple more days.

I kept thinking, "If you're going to see a smart transvestite do comedy about Moses, squirrels, and the Doppler effect, there's no better place to do it than San Francisco."
Yeah. They went nuts and then they paid attention. Here, they're like London and New York where they scream and then they get all quiet and say.. "Now lay us on the comedy."

I think I did too much research for this, because I was really excited about the interiew. So this is the part where I freak out and go "Ohmygod you're so great and genius and I suck and that whole thing..."
No. don't do that.

That way if I actually throw upon you, you'll know why.
I'll just be nonchalant.

Good. OK, first question: I always think of you as this DeTocqueville figure-that French intellectual who wandered the U.S. in the 1830s going, "This country is good. But slavery is fucked-up." There's criticism, but also an abiding love for the country.
It's interesting because I've had a weird relationship with America. I loved America initially. I Love Lucy and Bewitched were my first experience with America. l've been fascinated by that. And the American "let's go do it" thing. So if it'd been the turn of the Century, or if I'd been Irish during the potato famine, I'd have been out here. And all those films where they show someone going [In Irish accent]. "I'm gettin' outta here. fm goin' to tha new country."

It all gets kind of curious now though, because American foreign policy gets in our face.There was an Arabic journalist who said, "People say that we hate the American people. We don't. We love the American people. We hate American foreign policy There's a difference.

Part of the reason I was so excited to see your new live show was because I was interested to hear what you had to say about post-9/11 America. And it was weird, because I noticed a real tension in the room when you brought it up, it got really quiet. The same kind of critique you might have given the U.S. a few years ago is hard to swallow now.
You could take this thing to say America is right to go in and do this or America is wrong. And I think some bits are right. Like I'm for all dictators being put into the international court, which, of course, America won't sign up for. And If the world wants to go in and take them out. they can. Just go in and arrest them in that sort of "lets get Mussolini out of power with a bunch of German paratroopers" kind of way. And in fact, I think using German paratroopers is a good idea. That would be a lovely thing to give to Germany. They're obviously organized.

What's weird about Germany and France is that it you go to Germany-whose ass we kicked in the war-they love us. You go to France-whose ass we saved-they hate us.
Well, the arrogance of the French is a bit like the arrogance of the Americans. You see, the French don't swing with the Americans because they're embarrassed about World War II. The idea that them was a D-day on their land is an embarrasment. You had to go in and rescue and liberate their country? Their pride was wounded. They had Napoleon for fuck's sake. He was the best fighter in the world.Imagine America 100 years on, where the Mexicans come in and liberate your country from some fucking God knows what. And then time goes on and the Mexicans are like, "We're doing good now because we discovered diamonds, gold and oil in abundance in our backyard and it goes on forever." And they become the most powerful country ever. America would hate that.

[A waitress walks up with a tray, wine and some glasses.]

[To the waitress as he's handed an enormous glass for his wine] Could I have a big glass. please?

Waitress: [Not getting the joke] Actually, that's the biggest one I have.

[Marveling at the enormous glass] This is great. [Pointing to the top of the glass] Do you ever fill it up to there?

Waitress: This is how we do things here in San Francisco.

[Deadpans] I know. You're almost crazy.

[The waitress leaves.]

You're more like a public Intellectual than a comic. You tend to flatter the intelligence of your audience. It's very educational. Like, if you watch Chris Rock or something, you go, "Ha. He's really funny." But when you watch Eddie Izzard you go, "Ha. He's really funny. And I'm rather clever because I understand why he's really funny." So in that way, it's more like a cultural experience. Like going to a museum. The next day you go, "I went to an Eddie Izzard show last night. Look how smart and cultured 1 am."
I found that I do that. Which must be nice in a time of dumbing down, to smarten up. [Then quickly, as an aside, as he adjusts his collar] But that sounds rather like you've just put on a good tie or something, "I'm smartening up." Yes. you assume the Intelligence of the audience. And it means that people sometimes have to do a bit of work to get the links in my jokes. I also think I'm probably a big sham. Because I don't see myself as an intellectual at all. I see myself as a pop culture sieve. Someone said I was a human search engine.

I think that's true, but I also get the sense that you do comedy for a different reason than most. You've become this stand-up comedian, or public persona, or actor because you can carve out a public identity for yourself, like, "I am a smart, funny, charismatic, straight transvestite." And most comics don't do that. Most comic, are caricatures, of certain archetypes. You know, Woody Allen is the nebishey Jew. Eddie Murphy is the gregarious black guy. And there is no archetype of the "Straight, charming, good-looking, smart transvestite guy," so you're making one.
I can't come into this thinking any of the positive things. Like smart or whatever. My thing is to just get laughs, just like any ocher stand-up. I found that no one is going into history. So I thought I'd do that because I love that stuff. As a white male stand-up you're trying to get a unique thing. My first transvestite joke actually was. 'if you're a black person. you can rail away against white oppression. If you're a woman, you can rail against male oppression. If you're poor, you can rail against the rich. If you're straight. white, male, middle-class--that's crap. So thank God I'm a transvestite."

Yeah, you're also like the macho-est transvestite ever to put on lipstick. I mean, I guess if I was a transvestite that's how I would be. Like I'd have to assert my straightness. Don't you think part of it is just that you want people, women really, to know you're not gay? Like, "No, no. Not the effeminate, queeny gay transvestite. But straight. funny, smart, famous. give-me-your- fucking-number transvestite."
I want to be a warrior princess transvestite. Kind of the Carrie-Anne Moss in The Matrix transvestite. You know, an action transvestite. I'd be very happy to be gay, or if I was bisexual that would be the most logical. You know, wear all the clothes and fuck everyone. But I am straight and I don't know why. And there are a lot of others like me. And no one thinks we exist until I say, "You know the woman who comes home and finds the husband wearing her clothes and says, 'I'm never going to talk to you again. And you're not going to see the kids either.' Those are my people." And everyone knows that story. But they've assumed that this guy is gay but married, and has kids for some weird fucking denial reason. But no, in fact, a lot of guys who change their sex end up with women.

Other transvestites must constantly tell you what an inspiring figure you are.
Not really. Not as much as you'd think because I think not enough people are out yet. I get a vibe. Like a woman showed up with her son and said, "Thank you.You've made this OK." And he was there wearing a little bit of make-up. That was in London. And there's a lot of weird things, like a lot of straight women swing with it and when I came out, I thought they just wouldn't be into it.

Well Eddie, you're also famous.
True, but it's more than that because if it was just fame then they wouldn't go on about the look so much. Just talk to women. Check it out. Women are more into having a thing with other women than men are with men. Women seem to quite like guys wearing make-up, if you think about the whole metal thing or even the Rocky Horror thing. It swings in a big way. And men don't pick up on this and women do. And I thought, "great" since I'm into women.

OK, this is the part of the interview where we discuss joke deconstruction. Your routine seems to be based on four things: absurdity/satire, physcal comedy, audience rapport and idea reincororation.
Well, that last one, that's not me, that's been around for ages.That's just storytelling.

Right, the big joke where you say something at the end that you said at the beginning then say, "Thanks that's my time." and the audience says. "Gosh, look how clever he is..."
"He remembered something" [laughs]

And then there's the rapport you establish with your audience. You want to make everything you're doing transparent. When you mime like you're writing on your hand when a joke doesn't work (as if taking note of what not to do for future shows) and the encouraging comments to hecklers, "Oh, nice heckle"-it strips away the artifice a bit.
Well, the more real you get, the more protected you are. Somebody yells, "You're just a guy on stage." "Uh, yeah, I am." And the writing on the hand is a way of getting jokes on the way out-You do a bit of material end say. "Chickens. Chickens are bad aren't they' They've got beaks. No teeth. Don't trust a thing with no teeth." And if no one's laughing, you look at your hand and pretend to write on it. "Don't talk about chicken. Chickens. fuck'em. Fuck chickens "

I know you're very impromptu where you get up and you just go off, but there really is a strong sense of design to it.There must have been a point in your life when you were thinking, "I want to be funny. l want to be entertaining. How can I be that?" And at some point you said something and thought. 'hey, that worked. Reincorporating an idea. That's funny.
Yeah, its only about 5 percent impromptu. I talked to Robln Wllliams about this. I'm a complete student of comedy. l'm probably the only person you'll find that's done all three types of comedy. I've done sketch comedy. l was a complete child of Monty Python. And then I've done street performance. l'd say.."I'm here. I'm going to do a show, I'm going to implode my spleen" Performing for people who don't want to watch in the first place. And then I've done the thing on stage using all the street skills of how to talk to an audience and all the internal skills of playing characters. At that point they all sort of folded in. I didn't think I'd have to go through three friggin' mediums or the humiliation in the start-up phase. But I'm a good learner. And I really don't think I'm naturally good at anything.