Eddie Izzard: Global Joker
From The Economist (Nov.'99)
Along with food and fashion, humour is a favourite subject for national
stereotyping. As the clichés go, the Americans think that irony is a
metal while the British think it's the stuff of life. One culture's
bellylaugh is another's blank look. The message is simple: comedy does
Comedian Eddie Izzard, however, begs to differ. Mr Izzard is an
Englishman who has just finished playing the American comedian Lenny
Bruce in the American play "Lenny" on the English stage. In early
December his one-man show, "Dressed To Kill", opens in Paris. There he
is going to perform in French, the very same act which, in England, had
them laughing in the New York aisles. Mr Izzard, needless to say, thinks
there is such a thing as a global joke.
"This idea that there is no collective sense of humour is garbage", he
says, "When [Monty] Python went to America they didn't need a
translator. It's the specific references that create problems, you know.
If I go to New York and I want to talk about our political system, well
most people know who Tony Blair is, but they wouldn't necessarily know
Gordon Brown. But if I describe him a little, that's fine. In 'Lenny' we
switched some monologues. Lawrence Welk would have taken too much
explaining in London ('there was this guy, he had a band show'). But
Jackie Kennedy was no problem. You have to be careful of brand names.
Marathons aren't called Marathons in the US, they're Snickers. But it's
not the same with humour."
Izzard on humour is similar to Izzard on anything: a quasi-performance
full of long, evocative phrases that run into one another with not a lot
of pauses for breath. But under the verbiage is a fully developed
ontology of humour based on psychographics, not demographics.
"Alternative humour is understood by alternative groups, whether they
are in Germany or Sweden and whether they have a history of alternative
humour or not", says Mr Izzard.
He has built a career assuming the existence of a universal funny bone,
performing not just in Britain but also in France, Iceland, the
Netherlands, the United States, Canada, and Sweden. He is now learning
Spanish and German so he can travel further, and he'd like to work in
The one-joke-for-all-people theory is the reason my Mr Izzard, who came
to the fore as a motor-mouthed transvestite, thought he could play
Brucem the fast-talking, short-lived, stand-up comedian who became
famous in the early 1960's for saying the unsayable. "He was the Jesus
Christ of alternative comedy; he died for our sins, " says Mr Izzard,
who adds, "I think it's important that people are scandalized as much as
possible" - a sentiment that Bruce himself would have loudly applauded.
When "Lenny" opened in London, however, the thing that scandalized most
critics was not the nudity (and there was a lot of it), ot the song
medley performed by Izzard/Bruce where "fuck" is the only lyric, but
rather the gall of putting Lenny Bruce's monologues into an Englishman's
The complaints were all about the physical: Mr Izzard's accent faltered;
his frame was too stocky; his persona too nice (this may be a function
of chronology: blasphemy as a concept was a great deal more shocking 30
years ago). No one ever saud, "the jokes don't work", although whether
they will agree in Bruce's home territory, New York, remains to be seen.
Next spring there are plans to take "Lenny" - ideally with the same cast
- to Lenny Bruce's old stomping ground, and the theory of the global
joke will be tested once again. "An English transvestite playing Lenny
Bruce?", says Mr Izzard, "it might be so wrong, it's right." Funny you
should say that.