Can Eddie Izzard, a comedian with a cult following in England, become America's next favorite Brit?

By John Lahr

On an unseasonably warm February afternoon in Toronto, the British comedian Eddie Izzard, dressed in a blue Lycra "rave shirt", took out a Psion organizer from his backpack, pecked at the keyboard with a finger whose nail was haphazardly varnished a deep purple, and scrolled through some comic notions that over the next few months will probably find themselves worked into the crazy flow of his new act:
  • The Grim Reaper has been around since the dawn of time. Scythes however were only invented after the Iron Age. Before that did the Grim Reaper just have a club? A Grim Clubber?
  • Talk about bees and their wily ways. Do speech as an Australian who thinks he's President of Austria because he's dyslexic.
  • What's the point of being in the Merchant Navy? Lots of discipline and no guns or fancy uniform. Typical thing they must   say would be, "I want to take potatoes to dangerous places."

Izzard was in Toronto on the second stop of his "Dress to Kill" tour, which would go on to the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen and then to New York's Westbeth Theatre Center, where it's now playing. At thirty-six, he is something of a cult figure in England, and is the first comedy act to make the difficult passage across the Atlantic since Dudley Moore and Peter Cook achieved it, in the early seventies.  But Izzard, who has a mop of highlighted blond hair and a short, stocky body, considers himself "a very lazy person with a huge drive," which is why he fakes himself out by doing so many comedy gigs, West End acting assignments (the world premiere of David Mamet's "The Cryptogram," Marlow's "Edward II"), and now screen roles (this year, he can be seen playing opposite Sean Connery in "The Avengers"). He says, "Even my standup is designed for the laziest way of doing standup. I don't write it. I just go on stage and go,"   For him, it's an out-of-mind experience.

"My mouth and my mind are not in control of me," he says. "I'm not driving; I just let go." In "Dress to Kill," his nonsense manages to touch on the space program, James I, the Gunpowder Plot, established versus pagan religions, sci-fi movies, astronomy, anthropology, and computers, to name but a few topics.  Izzard's imaginative high-wire act, a kind of standup equivalent of skydiving ("It feels like flying around in the air, just swooping and diving, being on top of it"), is tense, and games are more fun when they are tense.  To the Monty Python veteran John Cleese, who has called Izzard "the funniest man in England, " the prospect of performing this kind of theatrical free fall is more or less like being taken away by the Gestapo into a dark room."

Izzard for his part, grew up listening to the Pythons and has committed many of their routines to memory; he and a friend used to recite variations of the "Four Yorkshiremen" sketch, to pass the dead time in chemistry class. ("We never had a house. We lived in one corridor." "Oh, we used to dream of a corridor. We lived in a shoebox in the middle of the road.") But , unlike the Pythons, who went from university into theatre and television, he is a college dropout who got his comedy experience as a street performer, and became a masterly purveyor of what in the trade is called "Comedy bollocks" or, as he explains his particular brand, "Take highbrow stuff, well researched, then talk shit about it." In his busking days (he worked as part of a double act in London for about four years before briefly going solo on the street, in 1987), he "learned to be able to talk and talk and talk and just not stop." He ad-libbed to audiences as he performed a water-evaporation trick, escaped from a wooly jumper while handcuffed and riding a unicyle and engaged in heavy-duty sword fighting. ("Our deaths for your entertainment" was the shill.) Izzard still improvises and expands his comedy material with his public. When an idea registers - he calls this "hitting funny" - he makes a mental note and adjusts the moment when he relives it the next night. No contemporary comedian is more adroit at calling the audience into play - something he learned to do in those early street days, when