|Dress to Kill
( Fresh Air (NPR) ) Barbara Bogaev, Philadelphia; 04-13-1998
BARBARA BOGAEV, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev in for
A lot of standup comedians come on stage in conventional clothes -
- jeans or maybe a suit. It's their material which is shocking and
scandalous. Then, there's British comedian Eddie Izzard who dresses
in drag and talks about toast.
EDDIE IZZARD, COMEDIAN: Toasted! Ah, toasters are good, like them
-- like toast. Mmmm.
LAUGHTER He's got a toaster there, but it's got a turning-dial knob
thing on the side, and it lies to us.
LAUGHTER It does not tell the truth, for it has numbers from one to
six and they're lies. You set on four; you put bread in on four;
and boom, comes up three -- three. This is three toast. No good
Hardly done. You set and change to five. It comes up six. This
is six -- all burnt, all burnt. Scratch, scratch, scratch (expletive
deleted) in. Forget it.
'Cause The toaster's in there going: "stay down, lads, stay down."
"Stay down, go for the burn; no pain no gain; no fish no fowl; no
socks no shoes; no hair, no haircuts. And the other toaster is going:
what the hell are you talking about?
LAUGHTER BOGAEV: Eddie Izzard's new one-man show, "Dressed to Kill,
" is running off-Broadway at the Westbeth Theater. He's a cult figure
in England, where Channel Four television once celebrated his birthday
by proclaiming it Eddie Izzard day -- scheduling all his favorite
movies and TV series, including "The Six Million Dollar Man." John
Cleese of Monty Python, one of Izzard's idols, calls him the funniest
man in England -- maybe on the planet. His one-man show, Dressed
to Kill, is basically full speed ahead standup comedy -- a mixture
of skits about anything and everything from British imperialism and
the Anglican Church to the American space program and Star Trek.
You have a sketch in Dressed to Kill about Engelbert Humperdinck and
after -- after a bit you say very seriously, it was sad though that
you just heard on the news that Humperdinck died in L.A.
yesterday. And you get everyone going. Everyone believes this.
Then you say: "no he didn't. You're all so gullible." And you go
back and forth. You have people "yes he did," "no, he didn't." You
have tremendous control over the audience. How did you learn to command
that kind of control over an audience?
IZZARD: That's through street performing. Yeah, that's -- you learn
to manipulate the energy of the crowd, which sounds kind of floaty
and it's sort of...
BOGAEV: New Age-y.
IZZARD: But yeah, but it is true. An audience has an energy and
it can be -- it can all over the place or it can be quite -- and if
you can -- if you're a good performer, you can knit it together as
a type thing, so that they react as one.
And the street performing is so experimental, because you constantly
have cats and dogs and cars driving through your show and drunk people
walking through your show, and police telling you to move on. And
it's just -- and the weather starts raining on your head or it snows
or there's wind or -- so there's a lot of natural ad-libbing happening,
or natural forces happening against your show.
So you just learn to be able to deal with anything. After street
performing, you can deal with anything.
BOGAEV: How do you handling heckling? Do you try to take it as a
challenge to work the heckling into your act?
IZZARD: No, actually -- it's just another -- I've analyzed heckling
enough to know that it's not really a problem. I've done far too
much performing for them to be able to do anything to me. And it'
s -- you basically -- the best position to adopt if you're being heckled
as a performer is a hugely arrogant one.
And which is quite fun -- being able to play arrogance or just be
incurably arrogant, 'cause it's normally not a very socially acceptable
position to adopt. But if someone starts challenging your show, then
you would just -- you can just tear them apart because they'll never
-- they will never have had as much experience as you've had on stage.
So they challenge you, and they think it's you against them. But
in fact, the whole audience, if they're with you at this point, is
your gang. So, they're on your side. They want you to win. And
in fact, most hecklers -- 90 percent of hecklers -- are actually just
trying to help you or trying to feed the show, unless you're actually
on stage and dying thunderously, and having a really bad time, and
then hecklers come in and attack.
BOGAEV: You say right at the start of your new show that you are
a male transvestite and you fancy women. You're a tomboy. You're
a male lesbian.
IZZARD: Who said that?
LAUGHTER God, that's all -- yes, that's absolutely true. And what
did I say? Male tomboy? Yeah, male tomboy or male lesbian. Male
lesbian explains and confuses at the same time, which I like 'cause
it's kind of like washing powder -- washing or cleans, (Unintelligible)
hangs, as it flips over.
Yeah, 'cause most male transvestites do fancy women, I believe --
I strongly believe that, 'cause there's distinct link ups -- a lot
of sexuality traits we go together. And in the alternative sex world
-- (unintelligible) gay lesbian of TV, a lot of people hate using
the word "transvestite" 'cause there're very negative connotations
But I'm actually reclaiming on that word.
But "TV" is the shortened version of it, or cross-dresser or -- but
in fact there are no cross-dressers because, I mean, transvestite
just is Latin for cross-dressers, so, why we should go around using
a Latin term, I do not know. But you know, there were no women transvestites
either. And since the '20s, they've been -- women have successfully
removed the term "transvestite" from our social dictionary. Don't
BOGAEV: Absolutely. There's no meaning.
IZZARD: Yeah, it has been totally -- whereas back in the '20s, it
would have been used if we'd went back in a time machine or looked
in history books. It was used as reference, and they had women doing
male impersonations on stage in vaudeville. They definitely did in
London. And now, it's gone.
So, that's great. Women have total clothing rights and I think men
have total clothing rights. If they want them, they're just sitting
there to grab. So I grabbed them and I wear whatever I want, and
it has nothing to do with my comedy.
BOGAEV: How do you choose what to wear?
IZZARD: Well, I go into a choice section. It's part of my brain.
And it has little gates, "yes" or "no." And I go through all my
clothing and I go "yes," "no." Well, how do you choose where you
wear clothes? I just choose by the normal thought process. It's
-- there's no big deal. And, how do you choose when you wear clothes?
You just -- how you feel there, yeah?
BOGAEV: Right, right, right.
IZZARD: And it's that kind of thing.
BOGAEV: Well thank God, no one looks at me when I do my work. I
LAUGHTER IZZARD: Oh yeah, when you're on stage, well then it's sort
of -- does discover that, and this, and I end up in this sort of tomboy
area where you kind of -- I don't know -- I keep trying moving it
Clothes are just clothes. They're just bits of cloth. Just wear
It doesn't matter.
BOGAEV: When you first came out -- some people when they first come
out, they have a female persona. They (unintelligible) another name
when they dress as a woman or whatever -- put these clothes on.
Did you do that?
IZZARD: Well sort of, but there was an idea. 'Cause I would be,
as I said, male lesbian, 'cause I'd be quite happy to be a woman,
but I look very male-like 'cause when you hit your teenage period,
the -- there's coding going in. So -- and everyone's -- but you
know, up to puberty, girls and boys have a pretty similar facial shape.
But then, I've got into this sort of male jawline area, so it's -
- I just look like a guy who wears makeup.
So yeah, when I saw -- if I was -- initially when I came out, I was
sort of trying to pass as a woman type thing, but everyone said "yes
sir, no sir, three bags full sir" getting in and out of taxis or whatever,
so I thought: "oh, well stuff this. This isn't gonna work." I'm
very practical -- very practical in my approach to being -- getting
this thing working for me. So, I've come to a much more sort of tomboy
area. And it's also -- it's much easier for me 'cause I'm in the
entertainment world. You know, if you're a lawyer; if you're a forklift
truck driver -- and there's a lot of -- 'cause if you are a transvestite,
there's a lot male in you. There's a lot of -- you know, a lot of
people in the army; a lot of people do very male jobs -- and are TV.
And it's a tricky area because, you know, you're surrounded by a lot
of people who are deeply into macho and machismo. And so trying to
express your feminine side is very difficult in that middle area;
or trying to get to a middle area.
But in the entertainment world, it's our duty in the end to find the
way out, because you know that Marlene Dietrich and Katherine Hepburn
were the first women to really wear pants, and so, get that whole
thing going. And they were big movie stars. So everyone said: "oh
if they can do it, then we can do it," and then it became a fashion
thing. And that's the way it's gotta start.
So you know, by the -- by the -- when we get in the 21st century,
it's gonna chill out and everyone can wear whatever clothes they want.
It'll take some time, but you know, it's -- it's much more positive
BOGAEV: I don't want to beat this to death, but I do -- I do have
one more question. I'm just curious...
IZZARD: Beat it to death.
LAUGHTER BOGAEV: ... when you -- when you decide to come out, I imagine
you have to experiment a little bit first.
IZZARD: Clothing wise?
BOGAEV: Do you -- yeah -- do you start very, very discreetly?
BOGAEV: Or frump...
IZZARD: No, frumpy. You have to go through frumpy transvestite.
Well, it's somewhere between frumpy and over the top. You have to
go through your teenage girl phase.
You know when teenage girls first get access to clothing -- because
there's a phase where -- I remember watching a sort of magazine daytime
chat show type thing in London, in the United Kingdom, and there's
a mother going on about her daughter, she was 11.
She was wearing these high-heeled shoes. She'd caught her -- her
own daughter, wearing high heels and makeup and "I told her to get
this stuff off" she was saying.
And I thought: hey, this girl is just being me. This teenage girl
-- that's what I would have gone through. Because it's just fun clothing.
That's why I think women who do want to wear heels and makeup and
whatever, it's just kind of fun.
And then when they -- you go through the teenage girl phase, where
you go to your first disco and teenage girls just wear far too much
and there's too much makeup; skirts too shorten and way over the top.
And then in the 20s, when women get in their 20s, I feel they chill
out and think: "oh, I'm not going to wear this all the time.
This is a real pain." And just -- it's so laborious, but you know,
makeup is quite a -- just fiddly to do, and so you'd just rather
not wear makeup.
So women in their 20s and their 30s, they just chill out and say:
"well if I want to dress up, I can; but if I want to dress down, I
can as well." And that's the phase I've got to now. So, I started
out and the heels were too high and it -- and the look was all wrong.
And you have to also get a look. You have to be able to wear clothes
so that you can have friends saying: "oh, that doesn't work;" or "
that looked good on you" "that doesn't work" -- and you know, I've
got a kind of blokey male body, so I've got to say: what goes with
this? And what doesn't go with this?
And OK, my legs are better. All right, that's good. But you know
-- and just trying to get -- and my body's shaped slightly different.
So -- but then a lot of women have -- there's women who go through
-- and men who go through lots of different facial looks and body
shapes. There's women who are very mannish looking; there's men that
are very feminine looking. And there's -- the whole gamut of range
of looks are there.
So, you can always get a look that will work for you.
BOGAEV: My guest is British comedian Eddie Izzard. His new one-
man show is Dressed to Kill. He's appearing at the Westbeth Theater
off-Broadway in New York City.
We're going to take a short break and then we'll talk some more.
This is FRESH AIR.
I'm talking with British comedian Eddie Izzard. And his new one-
man show is Dressed to Kill. It's appearing at the Westbeth Theater
Your mother died when you were six.
BOGAEV: Did you develop ways of coping, as kids do, have imaginary
playmates or magic conversations with them?
IZZARD: No, I started performing, I think, because of that. I mean,
people do think: "oh, your mother died. Oh that means that's the
-- the transvestite link-up thing." But I don't think so 'cause I
just knew I was TV before she died.
But, I don't know. I'm still open-minded about that. I think the
key thing that happened was that the performing happened. Because
I wasn't really -- I remember doing a play, doing a sort of school
play. I was six. I was a raven. My mother made me a raven suit.
And I'm glad I -- I wasn't very good as a raven. And that's good
'cause, you know, there's not a lot of raven parts around.
And, I wasn't that bothered about doing the show. But then after
she died, I remember seeing a play and thinking: "ooh -- ooh, I've
gotta do this." And there was sort of applause going on. And I think
it's a surrogate affection machine, 'cause my mum was there and she
was very affectionate. Then she disappears and then the audience
is there. And I have to perform, you know.
It's quite good because you don't just stand there, and they give
you affection. You -- you've gotta go out and do your best. And
then, you know, if you're interesting, they go: "hey, that's good."
And then, it sort of takes off.
BOGAEV: You know, it's really the opposite of unconditional love.
IZZARD: Yes, it's conditional. It's very conditional, depending
on the reviews.
BOGAEV: You've acted on stage in London in Mamet plays and other
plays. You have a movie coming out with Sean Connery -- the -- a
take-off on "The Avengers" -- the old Avengers series. What's your
IZZARD: I have the biggest role in The Avengers. It's really my
film and Sean...
IZZARD: ... well no, it's -- no, I have a small role. I'm a small
-- Sean Connery is a bad guy and I'm second bad guy. And I go around
hitting people on the head, and I stare at them when I hit them.
And I chew gum. And I have a huge fight with Uma Thurman, who's Emma
Peel, and wears a lot of very tight rubbery-type clothing, which looks
really good on her.
And so yeah -- so it's a -- my role is more supporting and helping
them get their lines right and giving them cups of tea and stuff.
But it's -- yeah, it's The Avengers, which not everyone knows them
in America, but it's a -- was a great British cult kind of quirky,
campy-type thing. Camp in a good way; not camp in a -- camp in a
sort of sassy, surreal, and dry humor-type way.
BOGAEV: You have a really -- a physical presence, and your face is
very expressive. Did you have to tone anything down to act on screen?
I'm thinking that exaggerates, of course, every facial expression,
especially in closeup.
IZZARD: Yeah, I don't do comedy roles on television, so it's a totally
different beast, really. I approach it in a totally different way
and I don't -- yeah, I don't pull big old faces. "Hey look, I can
do wide-mouth frog impressions." BOGAEV: You don't want to be cast
as a funny -- in a funny role?
IZZARD: Yeah. I don't do comedy roles like that. And I'm not doing
transvestite roles 'cause everyone's come to say: "hey, comedy transvestite;
here, is a comedy transvestite role. And I'm just going no. I'm
just going to play straight roles, that are straight dramatically
and just ordinary, orthodox sexuality area.
Later on, I can play a transvestite role, when I find the right one
or whatever. But -- and comedy, I don't play comedy 'cause my comedy
is -- I was very impressed with Steve Martin. And if -- I just listened
to his CD again -- early CDs of standup.
And if you hit in this area of kind of crazy surreal stuff, people
just want to see you do that. They don't want to see you do anything,
any straight role because the hits of comedy are just so buzzy that
you don't want -- you can't wait around to get the slow feel, the
slow burn of someone who's bringing a character to a screen over,
you know, 10 minutes, 15 minutes, 20 minutes. You get drawn into
believing in this person as being a real person.
BOGAEV: Eddie Izzard, I want to thank you so much. It was a pleasure
to talk with you today.
IZZARD: Thanks very much.
BOGAEV: Eddie Izzard's one man show, Dressed to Kill, is running
at the Westbeth Theater in New York.
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Barbara Bogaev, Philadelphia, Dress to Kill. , Fresh Air (NPR), 04-13-1998.