Image aside, Izzard can kill a crowd

By Douglas J. Keating
(added 03.31.00--thanks Peggy)

Eddie Izzard's enthusiastic fans saw a somewhat different man Tuesday, when the British comedian opened a five-day, sold-out engagement at Painted Bride Art Center.

This was Izzard's first appearance in Philadelphia, so one assumes that most of the audience had experienced the transvestite comedian primarily on television, where his popular HBO special, Dress to Kill, has been running for about a year. In it, Izzard performs in heavy women's makeup, dyed spiked hair, and clothing that, though it doesn't include a skirt or dress, is distinctly feminine.

For his second U.S. tour, Izzard shaved the light beard and mustache he had grown and wears just a touch of makeup. His undyed hair is quite conventionally masculine, and if his outfit on Tuesday - toreador trousers, matching top and heeled boots - had a slightly feminine look, neither did it look out of place on a man.

But enough of fashion and image, for in the end neither seems to have much to do with Izzard's success. He is extremely popular in Britain and plays to full houses in this country because he is very good at what he does. His wide-ranging, imaginative monologue is consistently interesting and funny. Few comedians can hold an audience's attention for more than two hours, including intermission: Izzard does it easily.

Playing, perhaps, to the perceived interests of the largely youthful Painted Bride audience, Izzard led off with a riff on the differences between British and American sports and then segued into the Olympics, for which he opposes drug testing. "If you're smoking dope and running in the 100 meters and come in first, you deserve two medals," he observed. And that led him to imagine a "stoned Olympics" where all the contestants competed while under the influence.

Next he was talking about a guy putting bees in his mouth to get into the Guinness Book of Records, then about the metric system, then about various animals ("Swans are essentially snakes attached to cats"), then about mad-cow disease. Izzard went into a flight of fancy about a search for "mad cows" that had one being asked to count to seven. "I can't. I'm a cow," was the bovine's perfectly sane reply.

By the end of the show, Izzard had covered a slew of topics ranging from "that waving thing" the British royal family does to a bit about Jesus preaching to an audience of dinosaurs that the meek shall inherit the Earth, to a brief intellectual history of the world, to Darth Vader ordering lunch.

As he careens from subject to subject, Izzard has the gift of making his routine seem as if he is thinking it up on the spot. His ad libs and asides to the audience, with whom he has an easy rapport, add to the semblance of spontaneity.

It seemed that way Tuesday, even though the performer was suffering mightily from the flu. His voice was hoarse, he coughed occasionally, and his face was flushed from fever. "You'll probably come down with this in about three days," he told those in the front row. But if they were as well-entertained as the rest of the audience seemed to be, they probably won't mind terribly if they do.

Exercising his clothing rights as a comedian

By Douglas J. Keating
(added 03.29.00)

The last time British transvestite comedian Eddie Izzard came to this country with his appropriately titled show, Dress to Kill, he performed in full makeup, hip-length high-heeled boots, spiked blond hair, and a velvet jacket.

Izzard is touring the United States with a new show, but when he comes to town this week for his first Philadelphia engagement, he probably won't look so womanly.

But then he might, for it's difficult to tell in advance how Izzard will look or what he will or will not be wearing. "Women can wear makeup, but they don't have to wear makeup. They can wear pants or skirts. They have total clothing rights, and I feel that I have total clothing rights," Izzard says. "I can wear whatever I want, whenever I want."

When he came to Philadelphia a month ago to do interviews in advance of his sold-out engagement Tuesday through Saturday at the Painted Bride Art Center, Izzard obviously wanted to dress and look like a man. With a small beard and thin mustache, black leather jacket over a T-shirt, dark jeans and genderless, black-leather heeled boots, he was a masculine-looking bloke. No one who saw him talking, smoking and sipping coffee in the bar area of the Society Hill Sheraton lobby would have guessed how familiar he is with the contents of a woman's makeup kit.

Over the last decade, Izzard, 38, has become one of the most popular comedians in Britain. He also has a following in France - though he says he speaks French with the vocabulary of a 14-year-old. Judging from the response to his current show, Circle, which is also sold out in Boston and New York, a strong Izzard audience is developing in this country as well. Although his Dress to Kill tour a couple of years ago was critically well-received and well-attended, he thinks what really made his reputation here - and got him on the late-night talk-show circuit - were the excerpts from Dress to Kill that debuted last year as a comedy special on HBO and are still shown occasionally on that network. Describing himself as "as a very lazy person with huge drive," Izzard notes contentedly that "HBO is working away and I'm just sitting at home."

On stage, Izzard delivers a rapid-fire, stream-of consciousness monologue that riffs through a topic and then bounces sharply, and not always logically, to another. Politics, religion, movies, history (British and U.S.), taxidermy, archaeologists, dinosaurs - anything is fair game for the well-informed, witty and consistently funny comedian.

Izzard's transvestism is part of his act and his performing persona, he says, because it is integral to who he is. "I've known what I was since I was four. I'm just being honest, just being up-front, and people seem to go for it."

Izzard is also frank about his sexual identity. "I am having and do have relationships with women," he says, describing himself as a "male lesbian."

"I don't fancy men. I've been open about that because people used to think I was hiding from being gay. What would be the logicality of going through all the hell of coming out as a transvestite and then hiding the fact that you are gay? It would be insane."

Izzard's coming out as a transvestite to his family and friends coincided with the beginning of his career as a solo comic. As a teenager, he had become infatuated with the Monty Python comedy troupe, and during his one year at Sheffield University, where he studied accounting, he started to put together skits of his own.

After dropping out, he took a show to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with the hope of catching the eye of a television producer. "Nothing happened," he says. "I got very despondent. I went on the dole. I sat around doing nothing for a year - I watched television literally for a year."

Pulling himself together, Izzard came out and started performing on the streets of London. It was a tough way to make a living, but, he says, "I found my voice on the streets."

Moving to comedy clubs, he was by 1991 declaring himself a transvestite, even though he performed in male attire. "At the beginning of 1993," Izzard says, "some journalists started saying 'Well, I've never seen him in a dress. Is this a gimmick? What's he talking about?' So I thought, 'I'll push it further. I'll wear makeup and what clothes I want.' "

Izzard's monologue, as well as his wardrobe, is in a constant state of change. He says he adds to it by saying whatever new things come to mind while he is on stage. If a bit gets laughs, he adds to it in subsequent performances. He never writes it down, saying he wants to keep his material fresh and fluid, not "cast in concrete," as long as possible.

"When you create a new bit, it has real life and energy because you haven't heard it," he says. "You get this extra energy, and the audience switches on because you're just lighting up. . . . I try to keep it in that molten state."

Izzard has traded on his popularity as a comic to move into acting, something he says he has wanted to do since he was a child. In England, he has performed straight, serious stage roles, most notably as comedian Lenny Bruce in a recent London revival of Lenny. He also has had several small roles in such films as The Avengers, Velvet Goldmine and Shadow of a Vampire, which is due for release in the fall.

Politically outspoken, Izzard is particularly committed to the European Union and has helped the ruling British Labor Party promote the concept in appearances in Britain and on the continent. "I'm totally passionate about the Union," Izzard says. "I'm the opposite of George Bush, senior, who said he had a problem with 'the vision thing.' I've got the vision thing right down: I'm into more democracy on the Earth. . . .

"On the continent of Europe, we've murdered each other for two and a half thousand years. We've had a lot of energy for murder - from Charlemagne up to Stalin and Hitler and Milosevic, we're good at it. If we could just put that energy not into murder but into coming together, we could be a huge melting pot, like a huge New York."

Izzard compares his passion for one Earth as well as one Europe with what he is seeking to do on stage as one of the few transvestites who is a public figure. "I take something that is essentially considered a perversion," he says, "explain it in a different way, and say, 'A lot of people are this way, and we don't know why. We're just human beings.' "