Jump to Part II

Fans turned up at our Oxford Street Megastore in their thousands to get the chance to see comedian and actor Eddie Izzard up, close and personal, and they were not disappointed. (thanks Sarah M.)

18 December 2002

Nobody - least of all the man himself - was expecting a crowd like this. What everyone presumed would be an intimate pre-Christmas stand-up 'n' signing session with one of Britain's most enduring comedy talents in front of a respectable throng of the Izzard faithful, has actually transpired into the sort of jam-packed, near-hysterical welcome normally reserved for dignitaries of the teen pop variety.

While we were spared - just - the fainting fits and Oxford Street road closures that have in the past accompanied visits from Westlife, Ricky Martin and Ja Rule, the sheer length of the queue of the self-confessed Action Transvestite's friends and fans, appears to have genuinely touched the multi-talented Izzard.

Despite suffering from the beginnings of a particularly nasty December cold, he bounds onstage, goatee-bearded and in a Bowie-esque burgundy suit/black shirt combo, and with his eyes takes one huge astonished sweep of that massive queue, snaking around the entire basement floor of the Oxford Street Megastore, up the stairs and round a large portion of the ground floor too. A security guard tells me that in the basement alone there are over 800 people and yet this doesn't stop him assuring everyone assembled that he will stay until he's signed every last DVD and video. God only knows what time he finished: for all I know, at the time of writing this, he could be there signing still!

But perhaps the turnout's not so strange after all. Having taken his stand-up routine around the world in recent years- most famously to the States and to France (where he performed his entire act in French) - and appeared successfully as an actor in both the theatre (A Day In The Death Of Joe Egg, Lenny) and on screen (Velvet Goldmine, Circus and the forthcoming The Adventures Of Mike S. Blueberry) UK fans of the insanely meandering and surreal live routine that made him famous in the first place, doubtless relish any rare opportunity to see the man on home turf.

On this occasion, before the signing slog begins in earnest, what 's promised is a completely off-the-cuff Q&A forum, allowing audience members the opportunity to shout out random questions for Izzard to answer, random being the operative word here. Over the course of half an hour he covers a variety of topics ranging from the sensible ("When will you be visiting Canada?" Answer: next year) to the trivial ("Why did you have brown eyes when you played Charlie Chaplin?" Answer: because we guessed they were brown) to the downright surreal ("Are otters minions of the devil or messengers from God?" Answer: neither - all they do is swim about and look around).

I'm paraphrasing of course. Almost every spontaneously pitched question tonight - however unpromising it first appears - is dignified with a fully-formed Izzard response, replete with great lateral leaps of fancy and the man's characteristic accompanying actions. As if by magic, almost as soon as the comedian begins to answer you find yourself thinking "What a brilliant question", but the skill of course, is all Izzard's.

Take the seemingly banal: "Which do you prefer? Cats or dogs?" After a split-second's worth of thought he answers that he prefers dogs, before launching into a story about a former family pet dog who behaved exactly like a cat and who used to sit over the heating vents at home in order to blow-dry its ears. It's not a joke at all and, as reported above, the bald facts of the story aren't even particularly funny: live however, the overall effect is hilarious.

This is because more than just about any other stand-up (with the possible exception of Billy Connolly), Izzard is a comic who has to be seen to be appreciated. Throughout, actual jokes - of the beginning, middle and punchline variety - are thin on the ground though he does tell one very good one which, he divulges, Sean Hughes once offered to buy off him for his own act. It goes: "I went out last night had a few jars, then I went to another pub and had a few jars, then I went home and had another few jars. God I've got to stop eating so much jam.”

Twice he gets a little prickly, first, when he's accused of being a traitor to the transvestite cause for (apparently) abandoning his trademark glam make-up and clothes regalia in favour of (for him) reasonably sober, macho attire and second, when asked why he's abandoned Britain for the bright lights of Hollywood. In both cases, he becomes pretty serious and careful with his choice of words, suggesting that both subjects are close to his heart. The transvestite thing, the female side of his appearance comes and goes, he explains, and now he just happens to be in the "action" phase of his schizophrenic Action Transvestite personality. Besides, he adds, it's difficult enough being taken seriously as an actor if you turn up to every audition in make up and leather boots.

On the subject of abandoning the UK he becomes even more animated, explaining firstly that he still lives here, in London, and secondly, that by taking his act over to the States and to Europe, he's proved comedy isn't necessarily a respecter of national boundaries. He even sees himself as something of a trailblazer for British names too, mentioning that since he went to the USA in 1996, he's kicked down enough doors to allow other talents like Bill Bailey, Graham Norton and The League Of Gentlemen to more easily peddle their quirky British wares to American audiences.

There's more of course, lots more. From reminisces about the orgy scene on the shoot of Todd Haines's Velvet Goldmine, to swearing in French, Friends Reunited and the merits and demerits of the harmonica and beyond, an evening with Eddie Izzard can encompass just about subject in the known universe. Not for him a stock set of tried and tested, crowd pleasing jokes; as tonight proves - along with the illuminating voice-over commentary on the new DVD, Circle - he really does make most of this stuff up as he goes along. The fact that just about everything he says is also funny, clever and weirdly true, really does qualify him for the term genius.

And there's more... Eddie Izzard reveals a list of languages he'd love to perform in. "It'll be Spanish next," he says. "Then Italian, Russian and finally Arabic.

"By then it might not be needed. I hope we'll be wearing Star Trek-style wrist communicators hooked up to a computer the size of Swindon that'll instantly translate what we say. With broadband technology, that's feasible soon."

The ad campaign for his new stand-up video, Circle, is two photos - one an arty face shot, the other him in full negligee drag - without any words to say what it's actually advertising.

"It's a hell of a teaser campaign, isn't it?" laughs Eddie. "Just posters of me for no apparent reason.

"The later adverts do mention my video, but I'm pleased if people are thinking: 'That action transvestite is having a very public breakdown and paying for it.'"

Giving an insight into his stand-up technique, Eddie Izzard says early shows on next year's tour will make him nervous.

"The important thing is to write anything new," he says. "In a way, it doesn't matter if it fails.

"I'll do fan club warm-up shows in July, which are always rowdy. Some new stuff is bound to be awful and they delight in telling me. Yet they'll also be first to see the good bits, too."

Even signing a video for a friend gets Izzard into anecdote mode. "'To Sam?' Ah, my dog Sam was the inspiration for my drilling cats routine," he recalls. "He wasn't a cat, but he thought he was.

"To this day, I get cat owners telling me, 'That's the funniest thing you've done.' That's the tiniest bit annoying. That was my first day at stand-up school, it's like saying: 'Everything you've done since is a bit rubbish!'"

Part II of the Interview
Drugs and Irony? Eddie Izzard speaks out!

6 January 2003

Moments before he stepped out into a packed-out, live Q&A session at the Oxford Street Megastore in London last month, Mark Wood caught up with Eddie Izzard to talk about Edinburgh, Europe and anything else he has in store for next year…

Surreal stand up comic, versatile actor both on stage and on screen, self-confessed “action transvestite”, Eddie Izzard has carved a whole career for himself out of smashing through the boundaries. Not only did this national institution further the cause of cross-dressers everywhere by appearing on stage in a dazzling array of chic glam garb, he’s also the man who took his genius brand of lateral rambling to audiences all around the globe. He even translated his routines into the French language to the delight of Parisian audiences.

Izzard will always be happy to wax lyrical about his current chief obsessions – which at the moment are Europe, America and the decimalisation of drugs. But as only days before the interview a huge city centre fire had sadly destroyed the tenement complex which housed the legendary Edinburgh Festival comedy venue, I thought it only right to find out what memories he could share of The Gilded Balloon – particularly as he’s likely to be featuring in a benefit concert for the place this coming year.

“The Gilded Balloon… such a lot of history. Apart from doing the comedy there, there's endless amounts of history of comedians hanging out. I had an entire lifetime of hanging out with Jo Brand - this was when I thought I was up and coming but I obviously wasn't up and coming enough. Jo was with this journalist and I came up and was talking to her and she said: 'Oh, I'm off I'm going to get a drink now,’ so I was suddenly left with this journalist who was obviously thinking 'I don't want to be with you, who the fuck are you?' so he left and I just thought Ooh.. I. Am. Nothing.”

“Apart from that it’s just hanging out and talking to people. I've got so many people's faces standing around in this area that must not exist anymore. Actually, someone phoned me up and said: ‘Can you do a benefit?’ and I said: ‘Yeah if we can get these dates right because I'm doing this documentary for the Discovery Channel and I might just be out the country at that point or somewhere…”

Ah, the documentary series. Having disclosed that he’s just signed up with The Discovery Channel to make a series of pro-European documentaries in 2003, it’s clear that Izzard’s latest boundary-smashing mission is geographical, political and cultural in nature. For this project it’s clear he wants to challenge the obstacles to a full unification with our European partners.

“Unification is a positive strength of the European mix. Obviously there will be screw-ups, there will be things going wrong. People say: ‘Oh Europe - aren't there all these problems with it?’ Well, yes, but the British government isn't perfect and neither’s the French government, there's NO government that's perfect. Name a government that's ever been perfect! Where from day one to the last day of the administration, everything was perfect and nobody complained and everyone is fine. It doesn't exist!”

Does all this mean then, that he identifies as a European? “Absolutely. I'm English European. Like African American, I'm English European. You can be Scottish European, you can be Deutsche European… I still want England to win every football match they can but I'm an English European and I will fight to make sure that we never roll tanks across any European borders again. That’s in honour of the 15 million who died in the Second World War. Let's get the payback for them and all finally come together and make some wonderful shit because we're very good in Europe at making stuff. It's just that between Alexander The Great and World War II we used to stop every fifty years and murder each other. We're excellent killers. You want someone killed, get the Europeans in.”

Get Izzard on a subject he feels passionately about and he must be the simplest interview subject in the world. All it takes is one question and he’s off, leaping from point to point and frequently leaving sentences and phrases unfinished as he charges on to the next idea. The upcoming documentary series is obviously one such enthusiasm, and the mildest enquiry as to its possible content provokes a further lucid outpouring from Izzard.

“It's essentially about the strength of the mix of being English, and the fact that our strength isn't in the Victorian idea that we're English and all these other foreigners can piss off. In fact, we’re strong because of the mix of our genes and the fact that we’re made up of Angles, and Saxons, and Romans, and Normans, and Celts, and Hugenots and these's and that’s… all these people that came in through invasions, and through immigration.

“As for this so-called purity, when people talk about purity they mean inbreeding. Inbreeding is when cousins marry – [Izzard pulls idiot face] duuur - so everyone ends up stupid. Hitler's Arian race was gonna end up as the thickest bunch of twats in the world, whereas we're strong because we have so many different cultures going through us. It's great to be English and patriotic but don't be nationalistic. The Red Cross of England, which we think of English, and St. George is actually from Anjou - from our Norman past. So the series is just trying to illuminate upon this fact and it's just saying it is great being mixed because that is where our strength is.”

Europeans aside, Izzard’s latest DVD release – entitled Circle – was filmed in New York two years ago and, judging from the hysterical audience reaction to the routine, it provides irrefutable proof that the man’s gift travels west at least as comfortably as it does eastwards. In comedy circles, where British talents are supposed to struggle perpetually against the Americans’ perceived deficit of irony, this is indeed a triumph.

“If you watch the Circle show you can see American audiences having a sense of irony,” posits Izzard. “I mean some do get it. Middle America, on the other hand, does not. I did an HBO special that went out to all over America and when I was doing an interview on National Public Radio people were phoning in from all over the States. Middle America doesn't have a sense of irony but it’s not a geographical location I feel, but more a sense of mind. That said, there's probably gonna be more people in the cities who are more switched on. If you're out in the countryside and you're chewing on a bit of corn going ‘ooh aaar’ - and you seem to have a west-country accent even though you're in America - then you're lost.”

Formed out of what’s basically one long soliloquy, and with many, many outstanding moments throughout, two of Circle’s highpoints revolve around being stoned. To the obvious delight of the NY audience, the man speculates both on how Creation would have happened if God had been a stoner and on what the world athletics “Stoned Olympics” would be like. Does he think that cannabis should be decriminalised?

“Yeah, absolutely. It's the only way forward. We've seen the troubles with prohibition. Loads of people who seem to have huge fortunes these days have made it through bootlegging whether they still be criminals or now-legit people. Same with the drug thing, you ban them all - because they weren't all banned in the 19th Century you know - and you get these huge drugs barons with huge amounts of guns and murder. So they've got to be decriminalised but at the same time there's got to be more education because they are dangerous. Let’s also use the word ‘drugs’ everywhere, drink is a drug, cigarettes is a drug, or rather, they're all stimulants. They're ALL the same.”

By Mark Wood