The distinction between predominantly gay drag queens and largely heterosexual transvestites, like himself, is one that English stand-up comic and actor Eddie Izzard has frequently addressed at the outset of his shows. He’ll further distinguish between the “action” or “executive” transvestite—again, like himself—and the “weirdo” transvestite (exhibit A: J. Edgar Hoover).
But whether he’ll be dolled up for a particular show, made up or mustachioed, is a distinction Izzard’s not so interested in. I’d heard that he’d be comme un garçon for his upcoming Just For Laughs gig, and in trying to avoid the faux pas of asking him if he’d be in drag, I perpetrated another—“I understand you won’t be performing as a transvestite.”
“It’s not untrue,” says Izzard, “it’s just that I am a transvestite. It’s a bit like saying to a gay man, I hear you will not be having sex with anyone on stage. That’s not quite the right analogy, but I’m putting it in that way because I have pushed in the world to give myself the right to wear whatever clothes I want, whenever I want to wear them.
“I am now in boy mode because I’m doing a drama show on American television. When I was going up for films, I had to be in boy mode, so the only time I was allowed to wear whatever I want was when I was doing stand-up. Now that I’ve done a bunch of shows like that, I think, let’s do a bunch of shows not like that. Then I’ll go back to it and twist it around. I just want to keep moving and jumping up and down and doing it whichever way I want. So I don’t know what I’ll be wearing—it should never matter. If people are worried about what I’m wearing, they’ve got the wrong end of the stick. It’s the comedy that we’re there for.”
Right here, maintenant
The comedy we’re there for, in Izzard’s case, is an incisive yet charming balance of informed references to history and current affairs on the one hand, freeform surrealism on the other. The pronunciation of his family name lies between “wizard” and “bizarre”—not inappropriate, given his deft deployment of freakish free-association. And just as Izzard won’t plan his wardrobe in advance, nor will he plot out which jokes, in what order, he’ll deliver.
“My show in Montreal will involve whatever comes into my head. I never try to lock myself down for anything, there’s never a specific subject or theme. It is really just where the hell ever my brain is at a certain point in time. It will probably involve material that I’ve done before, material that I haven’t done before, stuff on Montreal, stuff in English, stuff in French, anything that I can cram in there and spurt out of my brain. That makes it slightly less trackable, but more fluid and sort of right here, right now—what’s happening in Montreal maintenant.”
Yup, you read correctement. Izzard’s a bilingual laughmeister, and eager to further expand to German at some point (followed by Spanish, Italian and Russian, though his projected quintilingualism approaches the quixotic). In 1996, he participated in the TV series Channel Hopping, a crash course in all things French for British teens, and his Circle DVD from 2000 includes a French-language show from Paris. While not perfectly fluent, he held his own. “Stand-up is the hardest thing to use a language in—you really have to be a super-expert, because you’re playing around with words like toys, like air, like water. Unlike singing, where you can just use those phonetics, don’t know what you’re saying, chuck it out there, we have to really be in there.”
Cracking wise in another language is a bit like getting your black belt in karate, but Izzard’s quick to point out an imbalance. Anglophones get accolades for switching tongues, but when anyone else speaks English, “no one jumps up and down, bangs a gong and hails them enough for doing so.
“I’m very involved in European politics, and I was on a program, talking about Europe and Britain, and it had two French politicians on, arguing their case in English, which is an amazing thing. Hopefully one day, not too far off in the future, I’ll be able to argue in French on the points of politics. But it’s a really tricky thing, and anyone who can do it in more than one language should be given a gold star and a big hat.”
A gold star and big hat for Izzard, then, not so much for pronouncing Monteal “maw-ray-awl” as for harbouring a clear internationalist vision as practical as it is principled. His love of languages is indicative of that—“It crystallized at a point when I thought I was going to try to do things that could symbolically make a difference.”
A childhood spent in part in Yemen, France, Holland and Northern Ireland might account for that to a degree. So might his affinity for history, that catalogue of human foolishness, that roadmap of wrong turns. It’s no surprise that, alongside Peter Sellers and Billy Connolly, Monty Python were a major comedic inspiration to Izzard. Surely they were to any bloke from Old Blighty, but Izzard’s work clearly echoes the historical hilarity Terry Jones brought to the venerable U.K. comedy troupe.
“Even though I’d loved Python, I hadn’t really articulated the fact that they would cover history, and reenact the Battle of Gettysburg with the Women’s Town Guild community organization, hitting each other with handbags in a muddy field. Even though they were doing historical stuff, it hadn’t quite hit me in the head, and then one day I suddenly realized, God, it’s all just sitting there, and no one’s doing it. As a white, male stand-up, you’re looking for something to make you stand out slightly. It’s perfect—human beings keep repeating themselves, keep doing stupidity and killing each other over and over again and not realizing that doing all that stuff, it’s just going to fall back on you—to talk about that, in a kind of loose and throwaway way.”
During our conversation, however, Izzard’s not the least bit “loose and throwaway” in addressing the issues of the day. He speaks knowledgeably and expansively on matters ranging from Live 8 and the Third-World aid/trade debate to the contrast between Saddam Hussein and Robert Mugabe, and the necessity of the International Criminal Court. Despite the recent referendums, he has high hopes and great praise for the E.U. as a long-term move in the right direction. “You need a big idea, a big mind, you need to think big, in 50-year terms. It’s going to be a slow process, but you need to win the hearts and minds.
“Basically, to understand Europe, you have to understand about 1,000 separate ideas. And if you can get those thousands of ideas in your head and see how they all link together, then you can argue it backwards and forwards. Most people are going to take in about five ideas, you know? A thousand? Fucking forget it. I find all this stuff boring as hell, but I will pursue it and keep cramming it into my head so that I can argue, in an informed way, that we must all be coming together.”
For now, he’ll save those arguments for the talk-show circuit and transatlantic cell-phone chats like ours. “I haven’t really gotten terribly political with my stuff—I’ve gotten sociopolitical, and I’ve done historical, but not with any main, overriding message, trying to say, ‘Believe this, know this, change this.’ I actually prefer the idea of talking complete crap, no matter where it’s based, and then separately going off and saying, ‘And now I’d like to talk about Europe,’ a political-agenda thing. I don’t know, I keep vacillating on whether I should practice so I could make a point in a very humorous way, or whether I should just stay off it. So that’s a work in progress in my head at the moment.”