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Sigmundur Halldorsson

The fall season in Iceland brings not only longer nights and more darkness but also a marked change in national character. People start to get grumpy and you might even talk about a nationwide epidemic of cabin fever. So those of us lucky enough to catch Eddie Izzard during his short stop in Reykjavik on his world tour, extended our summer mood by a few weeks by getting an injection of grade A comedy from one of the UK's best comics. Standup comedy in Iceland was literally unknown until a couple of years ago and is very much in it's infancy today. We caught up with Eddie in one of Reykjavik's bars. While Eddie may be a big name in Britain he's virtually unknown in Iceland. So the atmosphere was a bit strange when he first stepped onto the stage at Loftkastalinn the other night. Instead of applause nothing happened. That must have been a weird and, perhaps, rather frightening experience?

"Usually shows start with you just walking on and saying "hi" or someone will say, 'please welcome Eddie Izzard' and there's a bit of applause. This time around I wanted to get away from that and do it a bit better. So I thought lets get music and lights and do an intro thing. Then suddenly I thought, 'oh this is not going to work in Iceland because they don't know who I am', where as in England everyone knows who I am. I prefer to do it that way rather than having someone go, 'Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome...' I think that's a bit clunky. I never worry too much about it. It was great that first time, because I did nearly everything that I wanted to do and people understood it. That means that I can do it in America and that's all part of my plot. Because if Icelandic, Swedish, Dutch, French people can get, then chances are people in New York will get it. So it's a good way to cross over into America. I've never played in America and they're not interested in my humor. Well they are, but then again not. Monty Python is huge in America so it shows that they do like British humor."

Eddie, at this point, wanted to know if Monty Python had ever been big in Iceland and what other British comedians had made a name for themselves here. He'd heard that Absolutely Fabulous had been popular and he was particularly happy when I told him that Father Ted had been a big hit in Iceland as well.

"That's really good for me, indirectly though. It's Irish comedy and in Ireland everyone is really funny. The Irish seem to live on the funny side of life. It's just in the Irish culture, the bus driver, taxi driver and people in the pub, everyone is very funny. They are just naturally witty. They have a Celtic, Irish, surreal thing. So the idea of paying to see comedy is very foreign to them, they just won't do it. Ireland is always very slow to celebrate it's own creative people. Like the writers, Becket went to France and Shawn went to France and Joyce went to London and Oscar Wilde went to London. So they all have to go away and get recognition and then come back to Ireland. But they won't do it themselves, they'll just say fuck off. So Arnold who plays the younger guy in Father Ted is a part of a three guy comedy team. I told them they had to come to London but they were initially reluctant to do it. But they eventually came over and instantly became a success. All the people involved in Father Ted are Irish, the writers, actors, the person who commissioned it and it's filmed in Ireland, but its made with British money. So it's a bit like British films made in America."

One thing I wanted to ask you about is how well comedy travels between countries?

"It seems it travels very well between countries. Of all the stuff that I could talk about, I skip maybe 20 percent of it. If you talk about religion, sexuality, cats, dogs, Roman history, telecommunication, television and telephones people have no trouble following you. The people I'm going to be talking to are going to be kind of aware, kind of interested in things and they can swing with it. I've done it here and around Northern Europe, even in Stockholm."

You got your start in Covent Garden and places like that, how difficult was that?

"It is much more difficult to do street performance and I didn't do anything like I do now, except for my ad-lib with the audience which is something I learned on the street. I used to work with another guy and then I ended up doing a thing on a 5 foot unicycle with handcuffs and I used to just talk rubbish around it. People would watch and I'd be talking rubbish, but I think they were mostly watching to see if I would die. Then I started to do standup comedy and things started to get better because all the television people look to the standup circuit for new people. The whole thing is quite egalitarian as well. Before the standup circuit it used to be just Oxford and Cambridge. The comedy people in Oxford and Cambridge used to control the whole thing and they still control a hell of a lot, but not as much as they did. A lot of the performing talent now comes from the standup circuit. At the same time some very talented and funny people can't do stand up. I couldn't do it for over a year and half. I used to do sketches, just one character doing a certain thing, all dressed up in costume and everything. But now I can use that experience and combine that into my standup routine. That helps the audience seeing what I'm talking about in their mind's eye. That's where the best comedy comes from. You act out scenes and people really like it and that's the same everywhere."

What's new and exciting in the UK at the moment?

"I find it very exciting at the moment. There is a lot of Irish standup coming in, a lot of surreal stuff. An Irish comic just won the Perrier award at the Edinburgh Festival. A lot of Irish acts are coming up. A lot of us are touring in Europe and stuff. I find that really positive that more and more of us are getting out and touring and stuff.
I've just done my first one hour special for Channel 4 that goes out at the end of the year. It's a bit like the Planet of the Apes except it's all cows. Humans dressed up in cow costumes. It's a parallel world to ours. It's still 1990's something but it's all cows. In this world cows drive cars, live in houses and talk and vote for maybe 80 or 100 years. So it's still a sitcom except it has cows."

Do you think that comedy has been moving towards the more universally funny things during these last few years?

"Well everyone has been traveling a lot more than they used to. Before people would only be doing their stuff in one place. So you might be working in London before and doing a lot of jokes about London. Then you'd travel to Coventry, Manchester and Edinburgh and people would just go 'what?'. We're in Coventry, Manchester or whatever and they just wouldn't get those jokes. So now that I and a lot of us travel around a lot we have to tell universal jokes that people can understand everywhere. The alternative comedy scene that really took off around the beginning of the 80's has now moved into mainstream media. There are shows on BBC and Channel 4 featuring comics from the alternative scene and that means that the old comedians that did mostly variety shows are being pushed aside now. The younger generation is coming up now and they work harder at it and they are thinking on global terms. In the standup scene you now have comics from all over the world coming into it. That's good and it's healthy that we're touring. Now we're even coming up here to Iceland. Just a couple of years ago there hadn't been any standup in Iceland but now that's taking off as well."

In your routine you talked about how much you liked technology. So this whole explosion, what with the Internet and everything must make you feel like a kid in a toy store?

"The Internet is great. I want to do shows all around the world. I want to do South Africa, St. Petersburg, Australia and the Internet is a great way to get in. Other people have been putting up pages about me, for example in Holland. There's also been some pages put up by Polygram that I did some videos for. I think of myself more as a band now than a comedian. I tour and release videos. Next time we're in Iceland I think we'll do a video of the show. I now have videos out in Britain that are good quality but since they are shot in Britain it might be better for non-english speakers to watch something shot in Iceland.
I didn't earn enough money until recently to able to afford all that. But back in the eighties when I was in Sheffield I used to own this little machine called Sinclair Spectrum and I had it linked up to a black and white TV. There was a computer linkup called Prestel through Bristish Telecom, sort of early Internet and I had that when I was on the dole. I couldn't do anything with it. You could order things by credit card and I didn't have a credit card or any money. I could find out when planes could take off and land at Heathrow but I wasn't going anywhere. I would always buy computers and electronic typewriters when other people were buying clothes and stuff. I taught myself Basic and all that, because I took Maths A level and got an A in it. Then I went to University and did accounting and financial management with mathematics as my degree, not English literature as people would expect. So I love all that. Films are my big love and I just did a film with Gerard Depardieu, Bob Hoskins and Patricia Arquette called The Secret Agent and set in the 1880's. It's made after the book of the same name by Joseph Conrad and is directed by Christopher Hampton who wrote Dangerous Liaisons."

That's quite a serious film isn't it?

"Yes, and that's part of my reason for staying off TV in the UK, because I want to do straight acting as well as the comedy. Now I travel around and thousands of people see me, but if I do television millions see you. So I thought, I can do serious stuff because a lot of people have heard of my name in the UK but they don't know what I do and that gives me a blank check to do stuff. I think if you get too established as a comedy person people don't want to see you do straight work and that gets in the way. Comedy is such a drug, it's such a hit. Everyone likes laughing. Film is a mixture of everything. It has a lot of money in it, I did finance, it has all that technology and I love that and it has the acting and creative side and I love that as well. So film and television was always where I knew I was going to work because I was so big on all three areas of it. I understand money and how business works. So I always try to make everything work out financially. It's quite cheap to do standup compared to bands, you know with all the people and the equipment involved. I take more than most standups but it does well. This means that I can now afford to buy the equipment I want to get. I always seem to buy the latest thing and then hand them on to someone else. Have you noticed how you get these things and you can do all these amazing things on them and then you use about 15 percent of what they can do. You know how that's about how much we use of our brain and I wonder if that is linked in some way."