Beyond a Joke?

Melody Maker mag: April 13,1996 | thanks Teri

It could almost be one of Eddie Izzard's brilliantly off-the-wall jokes. Bloke who makes his living by chatting about cats drilling for oil and the mystic properties of a blue pair of underpants and the dangers involved in smuggling rice pudding to the Afghan Rebels - essentially anything with little or no relation to reality - takes an interest in the socially aware world of politics. The punchline? He turns out to be an natural activist. Funny, eh?

For once, the comedian best known for talking bollocks in a frock isn't laughing. Having been deeply shocked by the fact that two and a half million people under the age of 25 didn't vote in the last election, Eddie's earnestly thrown his all into the Rock the Vote campaign and is currently stressing the importance of taking part in the electoral system. To the untrained eye, it even looks like he's finally found something too serious to joke about.
"If you do want to change things, sitting back and saying, 'I'm not going to do anything,' is not going to start the debate," he states, in between heavy flue-ridden sniffles. "The best way for democracy to happen is if everyone is involved and making their point heard but, at the moment, a minority make decisions in Whitehall and a lot of people float through life while these decisions are made for them. So we're encouraging people to get involved."
As the name suggests, the Rock the Vote campaign is a chiefly music-based initiative, with awareness of the issue being raised by the participation of a wide range of pop stars (everyone from DJ Carl Cox to Teenage Fanclub), but the first actual RTV event is a comedy tour organised and compered by Eddie. Once again, the breadth of talent involved is staggering (such varied names as Harry Hill, Steve Coogan, Mark Lamarr and Lee And Herring) and the cosmopolitan feel is secured by the project's apolitical stance.

"I happen to be a Labour party member, so, from my point of view, if you had a thing saying everyone vote Labour that would be great, but this isn't that beast," says Eddie. "This is saying you can vote for whoever you want. You can fore for the Stone Drunk Hanging Over The Back Of The Banister Party if you want. Just use your vote. It's got to be better than doing nothing."

Convincing people that voting is actually a good idea is only half the battle, of course. You can only take part in the democratic process if you're on the electoral roll and so RTV are offering a registration service for students, travellers and anyone who avoided signing up in the hope of dodging the poll tax. And if, after getting on the roll, no one seems worth voting for, then Eddie and Co also have a handy suggestion. "Spoil the vote," says the comic. "They should have something on the ballot that says, 'I don't want to vote for anyone.' That would be an interesting vote to record, because if you get millions of people voting, I Don't Give A Shit About Anything or I'm Pissed Off With Everything, then people in charge would have to take a notice of that. And, sadly, that's the only thing that politicians seem to react to, blocks of votes swimming around."

The theory behind RTV comedy tour seems relatively sound, but you can't help but wonder how effective humour can ever be in the political arena. The anti-Thatcher stand-ups of the Eighties, for example, made no impact with their barbed diatribes and this point forms the basis of a forthcoming "J'Accuse" program on C4, in which The Sunday Times critic, Cosmo Landesman, argues, "Satire has encouraged people to see politics as an entertaining spectacle, always a farce, never a tragedy".

Eddie doesn't entirely agree.vote2.jpg (25013 bytes)

"I haven't analysed how it works but they say Chevy Chase brought down the Ford Administration,: he says. "He kept doing sketches on 'Saturday Night Live' where he fell over and everyone knew he was doing [the former US President] Gerald Ford, because Ford had fallen over twice. And the point was you can't have someone running the country who keeps falling over, what's his government like? And so he was voted out."

The British equivalent, of course, is SDP leader David Steel, who claims his career was ruined by "Spitting Image".
"Yeah, I thought David Steel had a lot of respect, but he had this little, fawning puppet and it did seem rather unfair," muses Eddie. "So comedy can have some power, but it's more destructive than building. This is my thing, now, because I want comedy to have a positive political effect. I've searched for a way to be positive about Europe but I can't find it. But I'll keep on searching."

In a way, Eddie Izzard is the perfect comedian to front a project that seeks to tap into a fresh feeling of political activism. He has none of the fact-based militancy of someone like Mark Thomas, preferring instead to rely on a vague sense of moral concern and a feeling that "something" has to be done. There are no firm policies incorporated in Eddie's vision of RTV apart from a desire for change that , for his sins, makes him the user-friendly embodiment of New Labour.

I'm quite passionate that health care is a human right, but I also like the idea of people running their own businesses," he concludes. "A politician doesn't have to be a power-hungry nut. I've spent a lot of time thinking about this and I wanted to be sure of what I thought and of being able to articulate it. And then I just thought one day that the time was right and that it was time to get involved."
Izzard for Prime Minister? Register your vote now.