A Little Bit of Learning is a Laughing Stock
Otago Daily News | 08.07.03

BRITISH comedian Eddie Izzard is feeling slightly bemused.

"People keep saying to me, `What are you doing here in the winter?'" he complains.

"I didn't know there were rules about this."

New Zealand comedy fans are obviously thankful there aren't, as Izzard's upcoming national tour, which opens in Auckland tomorrow, has seen shows sell out and extra dates added.

His first New Zealand tour, three years ago, was also a success - something Izzard found pleasantly surprising.

"Bands, when they go somewhere for the first time, they can say: `Well, we've got this song in the hit parade and we've got this album being played on the radio.' In stand-up, it's only really advance word of mouth, so it is quite wonderful to get to New Zealand and find people turning up," he says.

"I think people were dragged, and I think it will kind of be the same this time. They'll go `What? Who?' but friends will say `No, go on, come and have a look' and they'll come.

"With the global village and television, the sensibility is the same. I'm playing to an intelligent, thinking audience who can string two sentences together."

Certainly, Izzard operates in a more rarefied air than a comedian whose stock line is `Aren't women funny?' His current viewing matter is DVDs on Islam, with the discovery that 10th century Baghdad was the world's centre of science and learning, while Christians in Europe were arguing that science denied God.

Izzard specialises in constructing fantastic ideas or weird hypotheses or telling unusual true stories, and you just know this little fact will somehow end up in his stage show.

"It's fascinating, but trying to impart information like that through stand-up is a little tricky," he says.

It's a skill that has seen Izzard successfully spin a myriad of off-beat theories to sell-out crowds around the world. Basically, he says, he's always found knowledge fascinating and can't think of any reason other people wouldn't.

So good at it has Izzard become that no less an authority than John Cleese once hailed him as the funniest man in England. It's a quote Izzard says has haunted him around the world.

"I've never asked him about it because I don't believe he ever said it," Izzard says.

"I try to encourage people not to use it, but then I find it getting used and I didn't even know about it, because I don't actually believe that I am. Python would be the funniest people in England. If he said the funniest person in Bexhill, then he might have been talking."

A quote of Cleese's that Izzard much prefers to talk about was the former Python star's claim that, while most comedians were depressed, angry and maladjusted, Izzard was as low on resentment and anger as any comic he has seen.

"I just don't hate people enormously," Izzard says.

"Some people say it may be better to have anger when you do stand-up and just be pissed off with everything, but I'm more a builder than someone who tears things apart.

"Comedy is a very good way of saying `This is just bullshit' and using it as a weapon, but it's trickier to be used as a building tool. You have to actually put forward a positive idea and then tear down the inverse idea to that."

So, if John Cleese's appreciation isn't enough to shake Izzard out of his modesty, how about the acclaim of the women of Britain? A recent poll surveying Britain's comedy greats saw Izzard rated the top stand-up by women, news that surprises and amuses him.

"Oh really? Well, that's nice. I think I'm in touch with my feminine side," Izzard - who describes himself as a straight transvestite - says.

"I find women have, by and large, been very positive about it. Not all women - a lot of mainstream women have been negative, a lot of women outside white culture, there's a lot of negativity there - but I've found that thinking people, people with brains, are kind of positive with it [transvestitism].

"I suppose also I have the advantage of a certain profile - you go beyond being a person and become someone off the telly."

While Izzard may shrug off plaudits for his comedy, he will own up to huge pride in the recent acclaim his theatrical acting has received.

For some time now, Izzard has been balancing cinema, stand-up and theatre, and recently concluded a season on Broadway in the play A Day in the Death of Joe Egg . His performance as the father of a brain-damaged child saw him win an audience-vote award and Drama Desk Award, and be the beaten favourite at the Tony Awards.

"I'm a stand-up and I was nominated for best acting awards," Izzard says with a note of wonderment in his voice.

"It's what I'd wanted since I was seven years old, and just to get to the nominations was fine. It meant I was over the line. Just to get a role on Broadway was fantastic.

"In London, they say, `Well, you do stand-up and now you're doing theatre. I'm not sure I can take you seriously', but in New York, they say `Wow, you're doing stand-up and acting. That's amazing; let's have a look at that'. I found it very gratifying."

Fresh from that success, Izzard wrote his new stand-up show, Sexie , which he is premiering on the current southern hemisphere tour.

Like much of Izzard's work, it's not a title to be taken too literally. Rather than dwelling on the topic of sex, he's more interested in the state of sexiness, and the more unusual ways the word is used. Odds on, a tangent or two will be embarked on for good measure as well.

"They talk about things being sexed up in reference to intelligence reports about weapons of mass destruction, so they're already using the word `sexy' in a different way," Izzard says.

"It can be used in fun ways - not that weapons of mass destruction are - as opposed to pure sex. I find knowledge and learning really interesting. I'm not sure if it's actually sexy, but I'm just exploring the edges of that.

"The title of the thing really has no relation to what's in the show, but you have to come up with a title, otherwise it becomes The White Album , like the Beatles did. In the end, I could have called it Elbow, but Sexie seemed more marketable."

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