The Izzard King
Alameda Times Online| 09.12.03

YOU may know Eddie Izzard as the world's foremost transvestite comedian. Sure he wears make-up, paints his fingernails and hits the town in a sharp red leather mini-skirt. But watching Izzard perform, it's easy to forget labels, skirts and accessories almost instantly.

Take out the word "transvestite" and you're left with Eddie Izzard: world's foremost comedian.

That's a hefty moniker, but it fits. In his native Britain, Izzard commands rock-star idolatry. His stand-up shows play to sold-out crowds in massive stadiums.

In the States, Izzard, 41, who is straight but likes to wear women's clothes, has a smaller but no less devout following.

His first show in the Bay Area, 1998's "Dress to Kill," had a hit run at San Francisco's Cable Car Theatre and was filmed next door at the larger Stage Door Theatre for an HBO special. Response to the special was enthusiastic. Izzard won two Emmy Awards, and the DVD has sold more than 100,000 copies.

When Izzard showed up last year at Borders at Union Square to sign DVDs, rabid local fans turned the appearance into the store's most mobbed event ever.

Not bad for a guy born in Yemen, raised in England and prone to wearing stiletto heels and false eyelashes.

The last time Izzard performed locally was in 2000, when "Circle" played the Curran Theatre. For the last few years, Izzard has been focusing on other projects in film and theater -- some requiring dresses, some not.

Now Izzard is back with a new show, "Sexie," which runs through Saturday at the Orpheum in San Francisco.

On the phone from a pre-Bay Area stop in Portland, Ore., Izzard is a little groggy from his show the night before.

When he started this tour in July in Australia and New Zealand, Izzard says, "I was completely going off the top of my head."

The show is a little more formed now, and by the time he films it later this year in England, he says "Sexie" will be somewhere close to finished.

"My shows are like a piece of sculpture," Izzard says. "I slice big chunks off here, add things there and fine tune constantly. I work on material but always leave the gate open for ad-libbing."

Going with the flow

Anyone who has seen an Izzard show knows that he doesn't tell jokes as such. You won't exit the theater with cool one-liners to share at the office the next day.

Izzard's style is more free-form. He calls it "talking crap," and he's not far wrong.

In "Circle," which comes out Sept. 23 on DVD, Izzard shows his mastery of material that is part stream of consciousness, part college seminar, part Monty Python sketch.

A riff on popes, for instance, can morph into a musing on organ grinder monkeys, which then turns into a slam of Charlton Heston and the American obsession with guns. A history junky, Izzard often infuses his act with twisted lessons on Greeks, Romans, philosophers, scientists and world religions.

Izzard says these aren't jokes but "flows."

In "Circle," he flows through the creation of the universe as he imagines the God of Chaos living in a trailer somewhere in space trying to make flan in a cramped kitchen. Things aren't going well when the god's son, Kelvin, pops in to say "hi." The flan explodes, thus explaining the big bang and the creation of "helicopters, jams, radioactive socks and spaniels."

"Sexie" promises to be more of the same blend of history, humor, foul language and fishnet stockings.

Izzard returns to the comedy stage after taking three years to make some movies. Some were good, like Peter Bogdanovich's "The Cat's Meow," in which Izzard played Charlie Chaplin. Others, like the yet-to-be-released "All the King's Men" co-starring Matt LeBlanc of "Friends," have been critically dismissed.

Of his first few films like "The Avengers" and "Velvet Goldmine," Izzard says, "I'm less pleased with the early work. But that's my way. I start off without a great sense of how to do things. I'm not naturally good at anything, but if I work, I can get good at most things. In early films I was walking around pointing. I didn't know how to make a performance kick from the screen."

Unlike many actors, Izzard not only watches but also studies his film performances.

"I'm completely judgmental," he says. "It's like an athlete watching films of the game. It's the only way you learn what worked or what was weak."

The 'Joe Egg' scramble

Izzard's acting chops have been put to the test on the London stage as comic Lenny Bruce in the hit "Lenny" and most recently in Peter Nichols' "A Day in the Death of Joe Egg."

In "Joe Egg," Izzard was a last-minute replacement for Clive Owen, who left to make a film. Rehearsals were rushed, but Izzard's reviews were strong -- so strong, in fact, that the production moved to Broadway, where critics fell all over themselves coming up with new ways to priase Izzard.

For the role of troubled father Bri, Izzard received a Tony Award nomination for best actor in a play. He lost to Brian Dennehy in "Long Day's Journey into Night."

On the Tony Award telecast in June, Izzard was shown sitting nervously in the audience wearing a rather conservative man's suit.

Did the legitimate actor side of Izzard duke it out with the transvestite side and win?

"Not at all," Izzard says, with a hint of frustration in his voice. "I am a transvestite. I will wear what I want when I want. If I feel like I have to wear make-up all the time, that's oppression not unlike what I felt as a young man who was oppressed and couldn't wear make-up. You have to be free to do what you want, otherwise you're moving from one box to another. I was playing a bloke-y role in the play, and it wouldn't have been right to turn up to the awards in a skirt."

Although he didn't go home with a Tony, Izzard says he was overwhelmed by the experience and the accolades.

"This was the first award for acting I'd been near since I was 17 at college," he says. "That felt good. If you come from stand-up comedy, you're not supposed to get Tony nominations."

Big fan of the big screen

While on tour -- his American leg ends Nov. 8 in Philadelphia -- Izzard goes to a lot of movies. A recent favorite was "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" because he liked Johnny Depp's performance so much.

"I'm kind of in awe of him," Izzard says, "which is a bit stupid."

He also travels with 60 to 70 DVDs and a portable player. A few titles in his current traveling collection are "Brazil," "Chicago," "Bowling for Columbine," Lawrence of Arabia," "Swimming to Cambodia" and "Islam: Empire of Faith."

"I do my research through DVDs rather than books," he says. "I can get through them quicker."

Everything Izzard does or sees becomes fodder for his act. When you're fishing in the stream of consciousness, you've got to keep the waters fully stocked.

In his 1998 autobiography, "Dress to Kill" (written with David Quantick and Steve Double), Izzard says of his work, "some of it is pithy and wry and a deal of it seems to come from Captain Pompous and His Inflatable Ego."

His fans wouldn't have it any other way.


Comic keeps on top of things in free-form performance 'Sexie'

IN addition to the expected laughs and free-form comedy, Eddie Izzard's new show "Sexie" will be remembered as "the one with the breasts."

Izzard performed the first of five shows Tuesday night at San Francisco's Orpheum Theatre in front of an adoring audience that included Robin Williams, a longtime Izzard fan who helped introduce the British comic to American audiences four years ago in "Dress to Kill." Also in the crowd were assorted Bay Area notables and socialites. Even skier Johnny Mosely dropped by to see what Izzard would do this time around.

"Sexie" marks Izzard's third San Francisco appearance. The last was "Circle" three years ago.

When he walked onto the Orpheum stage amid the clamor of loud rock music and the swirl of dizzying lights and a giant video screen full of hallucinogenic images, Izzard had noticeably grown since his last visit. Probably the most famous transvestite in show business, Izzard has always cut a glamorous figure with his unique blending of male and female clothing and well-designed make-up.

Tuesday, he emerged in the spikiest of spiky black heels, leather pants that buttoned down the leg, a light (and tight) purple blouse and an ample bosom.

"I know what you're thinking," he said. "Wow, he's got big -- eyes. I had an operation to get bigger eyes so I can see my (breasts) more clearly.

A self-described "male tomboy" or "action transvestite," Izzard said he has gone through periods of wanting to wear falsies and not wanting to wear them. He was in a no-chest period for a number of years, but then he says he got "breast envy" and ordered the enhancement via the mail.

"If you can buy them, flaunt them," he said.

The shapely faux figure is indeed as slimming as Izzard said it is, and he recommended the augmentation to any man who'd like to detract attention from his thickening belly. Whether the many straight men in the audience will seriously consider Izzard's advice remains to be seen.

Tuesday night's enthusiastic crowd was remarkably diverse, especially in terms of age. There were screaming teenagers and equally vocal older ladies. Of course, there were also the devout Izzard fans who fill the first few rows with wild outfits and an abundance of feather boas.

When it comes to laughs, "Sexie" is on the level with "Circle," which is to say neither outing approaches the outright hilarity of "Dress to Kill," the show that served to introduce this country to the wonders of Izzard's free-flowing monologues.

There are loads of laughs in the new show as Izzard wanders through topics as diverse as Greek mythology, superheroes, Abrahamic religions, cavemen, greyhound racing and balsamic vinaigrette.

There's just nothing that makes you laugh so hard that you can't catch your breath, which happened frequently in "Dress to Kill" (rent the DVD and try to keep a straight face during the "Engelbert Humperdink is dead" routine).

Except for the breasts, there were no real surprises in "Sexie." Izzard seemingly pulls topics out of thin air -- a shy, invisible superhero named Sue, firemen and their slide-y pole, replacing fox hunting with fly hunting -- then subtly works them into the larger fabric of the two-plus-hour show.

Amazingly, he managed to combine Greek sirens, the Doppler effect and emergency vehicles into a hilarious recurring motif.

A master of the absurd, Eddie Izzard gets laughs from lines that are barely even funny. It's his timing, his outrageous charm, his bendy British accent and his somewhat enigmatic persona. He keeps you guessing, but he never lets you down.



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