The Jesus Christ of stand-up

If it wasn't for Lenny Bruce, there would be no modern comedy, says Eddie Izzard, who takes the title role in a revival of Lenny, a graphic portrait of the original foul-mouthed comic

by: Jay Rayner (Sunday July 25, 1999)

The managers of London's Queen's Theatre are desperate to give Eddie Izzard bars of soap. They keep knocking on the door of his dressing-room, with these pristine bars of Imperial Leather clutched in their hands as welcoming gifts. Izzard eyes the bars. 'Dirty, dirty Lenny,' he says, in the clipped American accent he has perfected to play Lenny Bruce, arguably the first alternative comedian, who died of a drugs overdose in 1966. 'But first I've got to get clean to be dirty.'

Bruce could be very dirty, although not in any way that could ever be helped by soap. ' Time magazine called him Dirty Lenny and he hated it,' says Izzard, who has been doing his reading. Still, you know what the headline writers meant. Bruce used the kind of language way back in the Fifties that even in the Nineties gets bludgeoned with asterisks. He talked about cocksuckers and motherfuckers, about niggers and wops and kikes. He talked about the kind of stuff that makes you slam back in your seat, rigid with shock, horror and surprise. He talked about loveless couples who found a bond through their shared bout of venereal disease. He did material about white liberals entertaining 'their coloured friends'.

'Children ought to watch pornographic movies,' he once said. 'It's healthier than learning about sex from Hollywood.' And this long before 1963, when sexual intercourse was invented.

'The point about Bruce is that he wants us to be shocked but by the right things,' wrote the late Kenneth Tynan, this paper's drama critic, in the Sixties. 'Not by four-letter words, which violate only convention, but by want and deprivation, which violate human dignity.' Accordingly, Bruce spent the back-end of his drug-ravaged career either awaiting trial on obscenity charges or sitting in a courtroom fighting them.

The casting of Izzard in the title role of Lenny, a play about the comedian by Julian Barry, first performed in New York in 1970 and now revived in a production directed by Sir Peter Hall, makes perfect sense. Sure, there's none of the seething violence in Izzard, that acid need to burn the senses, but there is a similarity in style. Like Bruce, Izzard approaches his material as a jazz musician approaches a melody, firing off on riffs that barely cling to the original theme but which somehow always manage to return to them.

'Lenny Bruce was more nihilistic than I am,' Izzard says, sticking to the impressive American accent. (He has a rehearsal later in the afternoon and can't see a reason to drop it now.) 'He was pointing out the bullshit. If there was something that was shit around he was pointing it out.' But, he says, there are still those things in common, a willingness by both of them to slam together 'religion, history, politics, to shake it all down and to see what comes out'. As Izzard sees it, Bruce was the first jazz comedian, the one who had to exist so that modern comedy could happen. Recently, a new slogan has gone up on the posters advertising the play. It reads: 'He is the Jesus Christ of stand-up. He died so alternative comedy could live.' And then, after reciting it, Izzard adds: 'Everyone can say motherfucker because of him.' That isn't on the posters.

Izzard has cut his hair for the role and dyed it black but this performance will not be an impression. That would be an impossibility. Bruce was a slim-hipped slip of a thing and Izzard is chunkier with big, beefy forearms and wide thighs. Instead, he says, he's trying to capture 'the essence, the spirit'. 'Lenny was a kid when he got into showbusiness. He wanted to get to the top. When he started out, it was really standard stuff. Then he started saying what was really on his mind and he saw that people reacted. He saw it was good way to get known and to make a statement.'

What Izzard will be doing, though, is working on Bruce's material. At various stages in the show, he has to come up front and do improvised stand-up, built around transcripts of the original act. Izzard acknowledges that making this work has demanded as much from Peter Hall as from him; as a director, Hall has always been wedded to the text. 'I've done David Mamet so I, too, understand about doing every dot and every comma. I know how to do that thing,' Izzard says.

This, however, is an entirely different proposition from his previous acting roles, a real synergy of actor and stand-up: 'Peter's come halfway to me and I've come halfway to him. I will definitely rap. I will have a piece where I know where I'm driving to but I'll be able to come off that piece. I do want the audience to have a sense that they don't know where it's going. The thing is I could drop some of my stuff into his stuff and people wouldn't notice. And then people might mistake his stuff for my stuff, because he did lots of really surreal material. I want to make it live.'

So what time is the curtain meant to come down each night? Izzard grins. 'I don't know. We've had a bit of trouble working it out. I don't know how long each half is meant to be.' These are things he has to deal with before the opening night next month.

There is, of course, no guarantee that a London audience will get what this show is about. In 1970, when it first played on Broadway, Bruce was only four years dead. He had become a symbol of the counter culture. To mention his work, to say you listened to the recordings of his shows or that you had read his autobiography, How To Talk Dirty and Influence People, was to identify yourself with a particular kind of cool. That can't apply here. Most of the audience may never have heard of Bruce, let alone listened to his recordings. Izzard accepts that this is true. But, he says: 'People in the media or the film industry, they know about him or at least they would claim to know about him. That kind of word of mouth will give the show the push it needs.' Either way, Izzard is not intimidated. 'Anything that scares me but is positive I'll go towards,' he says. It's like the first time he went on stage as an actor, or when he came out as a transvestite. Both were a challenge and both were worth doing and so is this. In any case it's only for a 12-week run. The show closes on a Saturday. The very next evening, he starts a nationwide tour as himself in his home town of Bexhill-on-Sea. He'll be going back to do the very thing that most qualifies him to play Lenny Bruce.