Dress To Kill
Written and performed by Eddie Izzard
Westbeth Theatre Center
Source: Village Voice, 04/28/98, Vol. 43 Issue 17, p157, 2/5p, 1bw
The first reaction to comedian Eddie Izzard is necessarily laden with confusion. You may find yourself squinting and asking questions like, "What's Ozzy Osbourne doing in those open-toed pumps?" "Will that housewife from Manchester please move aside?" or "When did Rod Stewart get his neck removed?" But soon you'll have figured out that you're in fact gasping at Britain's hottest stand-up comic. And if his tacky mid-'80s tranny style doesn't make you queasy, brace yourself, because he's poised for overexposure. Brits are already tired of the accolades-- John Cleese apparently called him "the funniest man in Britain," and he received praise for his role in the world premiere of David Mamet's The Cryptogram. He'll soon be brushing his velour up against movie stars like Sean Connery and Uma Thurman in The Avengers and appearing in Todd Haynes's Velvet Goldmine. The fame machine must be jammed. It's picked a guy who sprang full-blown out of Austin Powers' head and has the guts to write a pilot about anthropomorphic cows and then appear on television with Damien Hirst.

To say nothing of his transvestitism, which he openly declares some time after walking onstage in powder-blue eyeshadow. In the U.K., Izzard has been denounced by conservative clergy for wearing women's clothes, but in New York, especially at a show so close to the meat packing district, a disclaimer seems hardly in order. Izzard's style reads so much more glam-rock androgyne than full-on RuPaul that calling himself a transvestite only invites a closer critique of his wardrobe. And the girl ain't got no taste! He's adorned the club in Warholized portraits of himself, hung up a few chrome grids, and blasts out-of-date house music for the feel of a suburban gay disco. But he's quick to add to his confession that he "fancies girls," lest the atmosphere give you ideas.

True to much of the hype, and less out of place than he was at P.S.122 earlier this year, Izzard's material is hilarious, and his weird body equally amusing. He takes awkward posture, jerky limbs, and silly mime to heights not seen in British comedy since Vanessa Redgrave played Cleopatra. His subject matter starts out deceptively banal and then explodes with absurdity. A discussion of the Church of England's split with the Catholic Church leads to a bit about "C of E fundamentalism," in which ministers give the ultimatum "tea and cake, or death?" Through two sets, Izzard manages to make all of this look spontaneous, as if such ideas could just spill out of anyone's head.


Last time I was in New York it was 1987," recalls comedian Eddie Izzard, speaking via mobile phone from Stockholm, the current stop on the world tour of his solo show Definite Article. "I gave a little performance down in Washington Square Park. I stood up and told the crowd I was from London, and people started shouting, 'So what!' I made about 25, 30 dollars--not bad, but I saw what a New York audience is capable of."

History is unlikely to repeat itself when Izzard makes his official New York debut this week at P.S.122. Times have changed for the mild-mannered, transvestite stand-up, whose surreal stream of droll observation has sold out two runs in the West End and won him a loyal international following. "We were a big hit in Reykjavik," he declares with contained astonishment. "Holland was completely indifferent to me. Though Tilburg was great. Loads of students. Young, hip, they really tuned in."

Just an ordinary bloke with penchant for glitzy cross-dressing and rumpled ironies, Izzard is himself a contradiction in comic terms. His doughy, pal-of-mine countenance and mumbling vulnerability belie his agile wit and fire engineered nail polish. That he recently came out on British TV as an honest to goodness transvestite only means that he might show up on stage in a breathtaking crushed-velvet orange number by Jean Paul Gaultier. No "my girdle's killing me" jokes have slipped into his act. He remains steadfastly content dwelling on the reasons pears refuse to ripen or the bad luck of the Corinthians to get Paul as a pen pal.

Izzard remains unfazed by the Assault-and-Battery school of comedy. His is a peculiarly unthreatening, one is tempted to say fraternal, presence; aggression--sexuality for that matter--has been successfully sublimated into his refamiliarizing way of seeing. Guilty of anthropomorphism, literal-minded wordplay, and the occasional burst of vivid mime, Izzard turns us on through the curious turns of his wry, inventive mind. Non sequiturs with a faint unconscious ping replace the more customary wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am punch lines.

Influenced by Billy Connolly and Monty Python at home, Izzard remains slightly awed by contemporary American comic prowess. "Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, Whoopie Goldberg, the early days of Saturday Night Live--this is the tradition I look to in my work." He'd very much like to make forays into big-screen acting. He'll soon appear in Christopher Hampton's The Secret Agent, and has already won acclaim for his stage performances in The Cryptogram and Edward II. "I'm trying to give myself time to ease into more-serious acting," Izzard says. "When you do a lot of comedy you get comedy baggage. Everyone expects you to crack jokes no matter what and so you can lose credibility as a dramatic actor."

But if being a stand-up comic is an impediment to getting plum dramatic roles, many are talking about how Izzard's recent acting experience has done wonders for his comedy. The critics have remarked on his increased confidence and heightened sense of theatricality; a few have even observed a new swagger to his stage walk. Of course there are those who chalk up the new attitude to his wardrobe overhaul. Before his newfound freedom as a declared cross-dresser, he would stumble on stage in whatever he happened to be wearing--blue jeans, a nondescript blazer, a beige polyester shirt with tails hanging out. "Someone once described my appearance as a wash of denim," he says with a laugh. "I used to look, well, slobby. Now I can wear whatever I want. I know I don't look like a woman when I wear makeup. I just hope I look like I'm part of this planet."

Eddie Izzard: Dress to Kill
England's funniest transvestite since Dame Edna makes a freaky U.S. splash
The format is familiar: a man standing onstage for an HBO comedy special. But the stocky bloke in full eye makeup, red lipstick and chunky heels is an oddity even among comedians. With his spiky blond shag, shiny vinyl pants and snug mandarin -style dress, he affects a campless drag aesthetic that he describes as "executive transvestite." Eddie Izzard deals with his transvestism the same way he deals with the other talking points that guide his loose show - he brings it up, sends it up and moves on. And once his ambitious, fuck-all ramble gets going, you forget that he's in heels and makeup.

"I grew up in Europe," the thirty-seven-year-old Briton tells an audience of San Franciscans, "where history comes from." Izzard never descends into standard stand-up subject matter: sex and work and airline food. Instead, he embarks on a scattershot, geniusly scatterbrained romp through the history of Western civilization. He rumbles along a somewhat high-minded course - from paganism to imperialism ("Hitler obviously never played Risk!"), talking shit about every important historical touchstone from the druids to Pol Pot's house arrest to a variety of misguided European empires ("The Austro-Hungarian Empire? Famous for fuck-all. They just slowly collapsed like a flan in a cupboard").

Izzard spent several years performing improv routines on the streets of London, and his comedic roots start to show when he veers off course and launches into freaky, free-associative meanderings. He speculates on how Engelbert Humperdinck chose his stage name, stretches it into a Star Wars sendup and wanders into a riff on original sin ("Forgive me, father, I've did an original sin. I poked a badger with a spoon"). Sometimes Izzard gets lost in the material and loses the audience, too, but more often you're happy to go along for the ride.
By Mark Healy
Source: Rolling Stone, 06/24/99 Issue 815, p73, 1/5p.