|But in reality the death of his mother virtually shattered
the family; the boys were sent away to a series of boarding schools. The first
school, St. John's , was in Porthcawl, Wales. "It had caning and no sweets, "
says Izzard, who sang "Jingle Bells" to himself to go to sleep at night. "I
found chewing gum in a hedge and cleaned it up and ate that." He adds, "It was
alot of crying." At boarding school, he says, "I learned to close down
emotionally." Later as a teenager, when he discovered he could chip in funny words to
complete his chemistry teacher's slow sentences ("My hit rate was one in five"),
he found a way to banish gravity; he also found a public ("I became popular").
He says, "I think it links up with Mum. She suddenly disappeared. All this
big-hearted affection disappears. It's an affection- replacement thing."
Izzard, who was sixteen when he decided to become a performer, thinks that performing for love is a good trade-off. "you do have to give. You can't just stand there and they give it to you," he says. "You go out and you perform your heart out." There is a kind of fierceness in his focus on an audience. "They gotta commit, big time, " he says, choosing his verb carefully. "Or just bugger off." The primary appeal of this act is "to make myself laugh," he says. "The second one is to make them laugh." Izzard's laughter engineers a kind of emotional equipoise in him--it's about having all the information and yet not really knowing anything. His humor, he explains "is informed but not informed." He's aware that in life, as he puts it, "Shit happens. There is no answer." This is reflected in his act, where history begins in earnest and ends in fiasco. "Easter. There's a ceremony. It's got a pagan ceremony just sitting underneath it. Easter. Tough time for Jesus. Not a happy lad. All the disciples there saying, 'He's dead. Our leader is dead. How will we remember this day?' 'Well, uh, I was thinking chocolate eggs. That could work.' 'Wrapped up in crinkly paper?' 'Yes, and you can put more chocolate inside when you open it up. A second amount of chocolate inside!' 'Very good, Zebedee.' (One of them's called Zebedee). 'Yes, that's it! And a bunny rabbit shall give it out. A bunny rabbit! With big ears, for the bunny rabbit will be the symbol. For when the ears are down and out, it is a cross.' "
A gentle snow was falling when I rolled into Aspen around dusk, a week after Izzards Toronto gig. The town was full of city folks who were spending the week listening to comedians and honoring the giants of the craft, including Larry Gelbart, the cast of "Cheers", and the cast of "Monty Pythons Flying Circus," whom HBO had flown over to be reunited on stage for the first time in almost two decades, in a show taped at the Wheeler Opera House, a local Victorian theatre. At night the silence of the mountain world and snow-silted frontier storefronts that had been turned into designer boutiques gave the place a dreamy sense of unreality.
Izzard, who had spend most to the day snow-boarding and had banged his head, also seemed a bit dazed, but not from his fall. Almost the first words out of his mouth were "Ive just been asked to do something at the top of the Python Show. I cant believe it. Im talking to Michael Palin about the Huguenots. Im going with Palin and Terry Jones and Eric Idle to Steve Martins one-act plays. I cant really take it in."He was at the Python rehearsal promptly at two-forty-five the next afternoon, his backpack crammed with ski clothes for a gag that the Pythons were cooking up. The Flying Circus team, including the ponytailed Terry Gilliam (the American cartoonist who has since become a director) and a mock urn containing the "ashes" of the late funnyman Graham Chapman, were already up onstage and seated in a row of lounge chairs like so many smiling trophies. A scrum of TV technicians, talking continually into headsets, surrounded the troupe, who kept up a show of professional jolity while lights and furniture were being adjusted around them. Izzard was standing in the aisle admiring the spectacle when a functionary came up to him and told him hed just won the festivals Amstel Light jury prize for best one-person show. Izzard turned the moment into a little comedy. ("Ive never won anything, really," he lied. "Im casually bitter about it, but in a very relaxed way.") the, tentatively, he joined the hubbub, moving across the stage to the far right, where John Cleese, the grandee of the group, was sitting and inhaling oxygen as an antidote to the thin Colorado air. At the sight of Izzard, Cleese put down his mask, hauled his famously gangly six foot five torso to its feet, and sort of beckoned Eddie into his outstretched arms. On royal occasions, such moments of conferring honor are called "elevation", but the embrace of the Old Turk and the Young Turk seemed to confirm the Pythons as much in their power as it did Izzard in his. "Theyve decided to give me an award for being British," Izzard told Cleese, who laughed. "Youve got one for being British, too.""Eddie, Im English, in case you hadnt noticed." "Well, Im Yemenese, really." "A Yemeni comic. Id forgotten that." Cleese quickly got down to business, suggesting that Izzard come onstage as an imposter at the opening of their segmentthat he insinuate himself among the Pythons and start answering out of turn when the interviewer, the comedian Robert Klein, began questioning them. "We come on without you the first time. Theres one too few chairs. We then go off, and then come back on slightly chaotically. You should come on at that point. In-ski up, you see what I mean. With your own chair. You should put it down and sit there. After we begin, you answer. Make up any fucking rubbish you like. Then we come over and unmask you and tell you to piss off. Wed like you to go down the stairs there." Cleese pointed to the carpeted red stairs that led into the auditorium and down the aisle.
issue of Izzards costume was resolved"We had a bad idea," Cleese
admitted, after everyone agreed that to put Izzard in ski clothes would give away the gag
too earlythey got down to just what Izzard would say when Klein opened the
discussion by asking the Pythons how the group first met. "Ill just take
it," Izzard said. "I met John on a train and Michael was the ticket-taker. Terry
was doing a train robbery down the other end with Eric." Cleese wheezed with laughter
and took another slug of oxygen.The Pythons and Izzard were ordered into the
wings to practice their entrance. The crepuscular gloom seemed to liberate a bit of boyish
excitement in the cluster of Merry-Andrews. "So Ill be the nutter fan
whos trying to break in," Izzard said. "Ill just try walking in
behind everybody," Cleese was telling Gilliam to go on first, and Palin was dibbing
last. "Ive gotta work out a Last Going-On Performance. Get a laugh early,"
he said. Jones giggled. Gilliam groused. Idle mumbled to no one in particular, "The
is an improv. This is a Python improv."
After deciding on their
entrance, they practiced Izzards exit. "Well let you go on a bit
longer," Jones said.
"If I get into
it," Izzard said.
"Well play it off
the audience," Cleese called out as Izzard started to improvise the "Four
Yorkshiremen". The Pythons stood watching Izzard carry on, their eyes as bright with
delight as his. Afterward, he slumped back into a chair between Gilliam and Cleese.
"Not exactly what I thought Id be doing yesterday morning," he said to
Cleese. "Being in Aspen. Being with you guys. Doing this." As he left the
rehearsal, he said, "If I get too overawed, Im fucked. Ive just got to go
on like I was at college again. And they were at college. And fuck about."
On the night, Izzard showed
no sign of nerves. He strolled from dressing room to dressing room chatting up his idols
before showtime. When Izzard was a student at Sheffield, he has once interviewed Palin for
the university paper; now he and Palin were standing in the corridor talking about how you
handle hecklers. "Say something funny" or "Boring" are the two worse
ones that you can get," Izzard said. "Youre a cunt is fine." He
expounded on his street technique of "positivizing" negative situations:
"If someone says, "you cunt bastard, you say,
Absolutely. Im king of cunts. I am the absolute cunt of all time I was trying to be a cunt bastard and you noticed it. You embrace it and take it to you; and you repeat it over and over again until you sort of take it away from being a problem. Youve made it part of your space." As they waited to go on, Izzard stood with Palin, Jones and Gilliam, watching a television monitor of a clip of Palin with Connie Booth, singing "The Lumberjack Song and old Python macho sendup where the lumberjack wants to be a transvestite. "Ive always thought I should do that song and spin it around," "Izzard said. "Im a transvestite but I want to be a lumberjack." On the TV Screen, Izzards moment was well handled but brief. He managed to raise his quota of laughs and, in the process, to get pelted on the shoulder by Terry Gilliam with a well-thrown bread roll. But Izzard really hit funny that night in his own show, talking about the singer Engelbert Humperdinck. "How did he get his name? Were they all sitting in an office saying, Look, were going to call you Bigelbert Hempledonk. What about Binglebert Humperdonk? I was thinking Geldebert Hingledunk. Hinglebert Enkledonk. Or Engelbert Humperdinck. Thats it!" In his dressing room later, Izzard mulled over the joke. "My instincts tell me that I need to play more on things around Engelbert. I need to go Senglebert Bunderkink or Dinglebert Dingadonk. Engelbert Humperdinck. Thats the one!" he said. "Im not quite sure I know. When it comes out of my mouth, Ill know, Ill feel its right." The next time I saw Izzard was on the small stage of the Westbeth Theatre, in New York. He was talking about Guy Fawkes and how he was "hung, drawn, and quartered." At the word "hung," Izzard tilted his neck and mimed a noose around it. At "drawn," he stepped back and pretended to sketch Fawkes. "No, thats not it," a man shouted from the audience. Izzards eyes twinkled as he peered into the murky room. "have you only just worked out that thats the first lie Ive told you all night?" he said. "As it happens, theres a constant lying that goes on through the whole show." "Instinctively, Izzard did a little of his "positivizing." "He put his hands on his hips and rolled his eyes to the ceiling , imaging that mans bad review of the show. "The lies that were said in that room." He said. "I wanted to go out for a good night of realism."