Riffing on Religion
Straight.com | 08.29.03 | thanks Diana

Sexie Shoots Higher Than Eddie Izzard's Hemlines With Its Subtle Brand Of Philosophical Wit

By Shawn Conner

One of my first questions when I reach Eddie Izzard is whether I can ask what he's wearing. "No, you can't," the British comedian says, on a short vacation in a location he wishes to remain undisclosed. "Why would you ask that question? That sounds like something you would ask on a phone-sex line."

Izzard has a point. But the query is just my not-so-subtle way of bringing up a topic that's hard to ignore: his fondness for wearing women's clothes and makeup, both on-stage and off. However, now that the subject has been addressed, we can move on to more important things, namely his surreal, often brilliant comedy.

For nearly a decade, Izzard has been exporting his peculiarly English sense of humour to North America. He's gone from playing small clubs to theatres the size of the Vogue, where he performs Friday and Saturday (August 29 and 30). In Britain, he's graduated from street performing to appearing at the 10,000-plus­capacity Wembley Arena. The talent that has allowed him to do this combines verbal dexterity with a penchant for situations and ideas that are part Monty Python, part History Channel. On-stage, his mind careens from one subject to another as he riffs on pop culture, history, and religion. He addresses and/or imitates Alexander the Great, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and others as though they're blokes from down the pub. In one of his funniest routines, he envisions Darth Vader in the Death Star canteen:

"I don't need a tray--I am Darth Vader! I am your boss!"

"You mean you're Mr. Stephens from catering?"

His shows can be enjoyed purely for the absurdist wit and his love of vernacular, but Izzard's subtle use of physical comedy ups the laugh quotient when it comes to acting out such ideas as the Grim Reaper trading in his scythe for a lawn mower.

"I've always had the feeling that in the surreal-comedy area, mime came along with it--not Marcel Marceau­type mime but just sort of loose, thumbnail comedic mime," he says. "It's a very useful tool in standup, and one I think is almost needed so you can act out scenarios. Some standups don't do that at all, they just tell verbal jokes. But I feel the greatest areas of comedy in standup are where you can act out an idea and the characters that could be in that scenario. It's handy to have mime because it helps the audience paint in everything in their heads."

When Izzard returns to Vancouver it will be to perform his sixth one-man show, Sexie. "The name has nothing to do with the show, really. I could have called it Elbow, but Sexie seems more sexy than Elbow, which is kind of elbow-ist." The cross-dressing comic also remarks that the former makes for a better brand name for the shades of lipstick and lip-gloss that will be produced by MAC cosmetics under his auspices. "Having been somebody who used to steal makeup, it's great to have a deal going with a makeup company," he notes.

But the new show has as much to do with sex as his past efforts, which is to say next to none. "I'm still going through religion. I'm trying to explain Muhammad to people now, and greyhound racing. And Yemen, where I was born. Just a whole range of disparate, stupid things invading my head at the moment in this post­September 11 situation, which was based round religion, or the fundamental version of religion. I am fascinated by these religions, which from my point of view are all philosophies. There's no guy with a big beard upstairs. Which is why everybody's getting it wrong." He pauses. "Well, maybe I'm wrong, maybe there is someone upstairs with a big beard." Who sounds, when impersonated on-stage by Izzard, like James Mason. "Yes, on a good day--or his cousin on a bad one."

On the other hand, in the world according to Izzard, Noah (as in the guy with the ark) sounds like Scotsman Sean Connery, with whom the comedian appeared in the 1998 remake of the British spy series The Avengers. Izzard has also appeared as Charlie Chaplin in Peter Bogdanovich's 2001 Hollywood period piece The Cat's Meow, and in Shadow of the Vampire and Mystery Men, among others. His recent projects include a London and Broadway production of Peter Nichols's 1967 play A Day in the Death of Joe Egg and the French-made film Blueberry, which he calls "a baguetti Western". He'll continue standup and film work for as long as he can, he says. "The thing is, you can do comedy in film, but you can't really do a dramatic version of standup--that's called 'not funny'."

When he's through touring Sexie, Izzard will doubtless release a performance of the show on DVD, as he's done with past efforts like Circle and Dress to Kill. On those discs, fans can access an audio track in which Izzard comments on his own performance.

As a student of film himself, Izzard cites the audio commentary by director Peter Jackson on the Lord of the Rings DVDs as an example of the kind of insight into the creative process he enjoys. But where Jackson explains his decision-making in terms of story, Izzard critiques his own performances, while offering enough insight into the workings of his comedic brain to fill a Standup Comedy for Dummies guide. For instance, he says that in Circle it's just "stupid logic" that takes him from Richard the Lion-Hearted to the image of a lion "with a bicycle pump for a heart and not much to do". Discussing a riff about the irony of a sports event called the World Series that Americans win every year, he remarks, "We're trying to get this gag to work."

"I just thought, well, seeing as I go through this process of generally ad-libbing and workshopping each piece it might be quite interesting to go through the performance and say, 'Well, this is a bit weak; that's kind of fluffy; this is okay; I like this,' " he explains. "It just seemed like a no-brainer, as maybe might be said in North America."

Eddie Izzard plays the Vogue Theatre on Friday and Saturday (August 29 and 30).


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