SOMA Magazine, November 1998 by
Last night he was dressed to kill in a fabulously shiny Jean Paul Gaultier smock and tastefully appointed makeup, but this afternoon, Eddie Izzard is merely dressed. Yesterday's San Francisco debut at the Cable Car Theater was another long day in what's been a long year for the 36-year-old British-based comedic performer. After over a decade spent on the underground comedy circuit, his star has started rising rapidly. With 1998 drawing to a close, his resume looks quite full -- he performed in San Francisco for a month on special invitation from admirer Robin Williams, acted in two Hollywood feature films and appeared, by personal invitation, with Monty Python at the Aspen comedy festival. He also stormed onto Broadway last
|year and sold out for over eight weeks -- laugh a minute, no doubt.|
Yet like many in his profession, Izzard proves to be a
man of tremendously
powerful contradictions. His show, a deftly engaging conversational
monologue peppered with non-stop laughs, is at the same time a cathartic set
of personal experiences and observations. Like all performers, behind his
act is a serious, almost somber person. Then there's the TV-transvestite,
not television-business, not Izzard's most interesting personal detail but
certainly his most immediate.
|"I am a transvestite but it's not a big deal," he sighs over coffee and a fat-free oatcake at a Geary Street coffee shop, cigarette in hand. "I was four when I knew and 23 when I came out. I looked very 'blokey'; no one ever thought I looked like a girl. So I thought, 'This isn't going to work, I'll head more into a David Bowie area.' I'm practical like that."Born in Yemen, and moving to North Wales and Northern Ireland before settling in southern England, childhood was never easy for Izzard. His mother died when he was|
|six, and having ignored the initial pain, Izzard found relief from the various problems of growing up by immersing himself in the world of comedy.|
"At that age I was really getting into (Monty) Python," he
enthuses. "I was
really comedy and film-driven, (watching) Python, Steve Martin, Richard Pryor
and early Benny Hill."
Conversely, Izzard also had a fascination with war as well as a love of Steve
McQueen and his ilk that continues to this day. "I call myself an action
transvestite," he purrs. "As a child I loved action stuff and war, guys like
Steve McQueen. He's an action hero and I'm an action kind of person. I'm a
male tomboy-all that riding on motorbikes. I was going to be in the army
because of the running and jumping, but the killing didn't seem so positive.
I did like going around making things go bang. I was a bit of a
pyromaniac... .I was fascinated with all that kind of stuff."
During his teenage years, Izzard found others who also liked to blow things
up. "When I was 15 there was this kid I knew from Holland, and he would get
all kinds of explosives-big large bangers-and bring them over. He was a
small explosives expert, so he would get things like those soda fountain air
canisters. We had this big thing of metal, filled it up with gunpowder; then
buried it in the ground and waited for it to go bang... .1 did like all this
running, jumping, and ducking down."
In an attempt to quash his teenage awkwardness, Izzard unsuccessfully tried,
over and over, to find a comfortable space between popularity and rebellion.
"I was a scout patrol leader but I wasn't a good laugh. I was a bit like my
dad, I tried to 'be there' all the time. At 13 I was a prefect at school,
and everyone hated me for being a school pig. You just got hated. I went to
the next school and they lined me up to be the head of the house and I just
turned it down. I was trying to be a rebel because I thought I was
incredibly boring. I've always felt pretty uninteresting."
Despite the attendant baggage of his childhood, Izzard has always tried to
look on the bright side of life.
"When my mother died I didn't deal with it at that point," he starts. "When
I was at college in 1981 starting to do my first shows, I really tried to
think of positive things. For ten years when fuck-all was happening I tried
to look at the good side of it. I think I must have a genetic thing, my
dad's sort of like that. But also the best way to look at things is when
you're positive about something you actually feel good about it. I don't get
fueled by hate. If I had shit times, I'd say, 'Well something had to happen'
or 'I learned from that.' You can always learn from fuck-ups."
When Izzard found himself unceremoniously pushed out of college, he decided
to nurture his art on the streets, taking a purist's path rather than seeking
out the fast-track to success.
"I think if you do this long hard route it's a bit like running the track,"
he explains. "On the outside I really should go to telly and get a
half-million deal, but I'd rather take a small route that's much longer and
The small route has made his show "Dress To Kill" the product of years,
rather than months. He presents his act like an evening soiree, where guests
are enjoying the thoughts of a warm host who's had a few martinis to mellow
the mood. Under this veil of calm, though, Izzard presents a maelstrom of
issues-such as childhood, current political issues, and his own personal
politics and confusions. Curiously, Izzard never makes any of it seem bitter.
"I do try to be bitter; in a slight sort of way," he says. "It's bitter with
a smile.. casually bitter I am actually bitter; but only if I can be
bothered to remember I am actually bitter. I'm not too pissed-off with the
world, I'm quite fascinated with it."
Izzard never works from a tight script, preferring to work along themes and
see where the show goes. "If you're going there to laugh, laugh for fucks
sake. I don't really care if you laugh. That's a place I've moved to, where
you can be very casual in a room with a bunch of people-as opposed to 'you're
doing a show, people pay money, entertainment must be given.' It's much more
'let's talk about shit and let's see what happens.'
Perhaps the most unique element of Izzard's act is its presentation. Styled
like the set of a pop video, and augmented by Izzard's laconic thespian
movements, "Dressed To Kill" is too theatrical to be simple stand-up. "I
used to watch Billy Connelly (the Scottish comedian/actor) acting out
scenes," explains Izzard. "He would act the thing out and everyone would be
killing themselves laughing. I realize you have to have an idea, then act it
out. They love it. And I'm trying to get comedy to keep upping the
production values, get it away from this thing of 'knock 'em out.'
"In the early days of comedy videos in the '80s, they didn't think in a very
progressive way. Rock 'n' roll acts have research, the development of A&R
teams... Even though a lot of record companies will be very corporate, with
a lot of people in suits, they'll throw individuals in there who aren't and
can help. I've had to fight very hard to start working like a record
company, upping the production content. I want to keep moving it up. It
might not always come off, but that's the quality I go for."
Surprisingly, given his great awareness of the power in rock 'n' roll
aesthetics, Izzard was not a teenage music buff. "I sort of bypassed music
for a while," he says. "I got into it around the time of Ian Dury and the
Blockheads 'Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick,' (1979). That was one of my first
singles. I play keyboards and I had a chance at getting a deal-in the punk
era everyone had those one-deal opportunities. As you know from last night,
I had very low sexual self-esteem, so I went through this
rock-and-roll-is-sex stuff. But I ended up recognizing that comedy is much
more self-effacing and speed of mind. You can just be a bit more of a nerd,
On first sight Izzard appears a touch disheveled, like a '705 glam rocker who
doesn't quite know where he's going next. Don't be fooled, though. He is
any-thing but lost.
"I do know where I'm going, strategically," he replies stiffly. "I've
studied ten years out in the cold."
Part of Izzard's strategy is not to confine himself to stand-up. Having
already appeared on the big screen in The Avengers and The Velvet Goldmine,
Izzard will debut in an HBO special next year as well as make a couple of
movies. He is a keen follower of Hollywood and its possibilities.
"I can talk like them," he chuckles. "I can read Variety. I'm thinking of
where I want to go and trying to line it up right. There are a lot of
people, it's all business, and they all have their agendas. They don't know
what to do with me; they don't believe it will work until I make it work."
Izzard bristles at the notion that his brand of comedy might be a little too
oblique for mainstream U.S. audiences to digest. "I assume the intelligence
of the audience. I don't dumb things down-I sharpen them up," he sniffs.
"Python's already done it. Americans got Python, they get The Simpsons. If
they can under-stand The Simpsons then they can get my stuff. When they're
talking about banal things in Seinfeld, it's all thought-though, spending a
lot of analytical power over something small and stupid. I like doing that
He lights another cigarette and sips the last of his refilled coffee.
"There's always a lot of interesting things in my head, but I thought I'd
better start doing them. Like doing gigs in French in Paris. I pushed for
that, and the last time I did 95 percent of it in French. I want to do it in
German, Italian, Spanish, Japanese. I've got the rest of my life to do this
and I like languages, it makes it more international. I want to do the rock
'n' roll thing around the world; there's no need to translate it. Eventually
I think I'll get it, just 'cause I'm relentless like that. I just keep going
until they give in and start coming, or some sort of buzz gets out."
Eddie Izzard. Determined enough to get there, cool enough to make it, tough
enough to last.