Rock steady Eddie and his plan for world domination
Comic Eddie Izzard fills West End theatres, so why is he playing a New York dive? It's all part of the strategy, he tells Michael Wright
IN THE darkness, a heavy door swings open at the side of the small stage, and a hunched figure totters in on high heels. [Intro music down. Lights up.] Blinking in the glare, Eddie Izzard appears to be momentarily fazed by the proximity of his audience, sprawled on cushions no more than six feet away from his gleaming PVC trousers. Licking his upper lip, the comic slinks into his trademark sway: a marionette suspended on strings held by a puppeteer desperate for a fag.
"I haven't started yet," he drawls, drawing the first nervous titters of delight from a crowd relishing the sight of this vision of peroxide loveliness: Fifties lipstick, leopard-skin Lycra and lime-green nail varnish.
The city is New York, the venue a dingy converted schoolhouse: an off-off-Broadway sweat-box in the East Village. They say Fame: The Movie was shot here. The place is redolent of fledgling performers overacting their first Shakespearean love-scenes; practising their first creaky plis at the barre; composing their first schmaltzy ballads.
It's not an obvious venue for a hotshot transvestite comedian who packed out London's cavernous Shaftesbury Theatre for 10 weeks last year, moving The Daily Telegraph's chief theatre critic, Charles Spencer, to rave about "that thrilling moment when a promising talent moves up several gears into major stardom". Izzard must have wanted, very badly, to play here. And he does - oh, he does.
'I've been trying to write universal stuff over the last couple of years," he says, "so that I could come over here and do it and they would go, Oh yeah!'
"It's ambition, I suppose," he declares the next day, this time blinking in the glare of the sunlit conservatory of his Central Park hotel. His speech is a drawl like a Forties screen-kiss: the lips move a lot, the tongue very little. "Ambition: that's why I'm here. British people have a problem with that word, but I don't think there's anything wrong with it. I wanted to play America. I was ambitious to play America."
He might have said "I wanted to perform in New York", but no: "to play America". The words - like his outfits - are pure rock 'n' roll. Today he is wearing the same trademark PVC trews as last night, topped off with a James Bond T-shirt, heavy pancake make-up, brick-red lipstick and pearly eye shadow.
The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Oasis have all played America. Comics Bruce Forsyth, Rowan Atkinson and Dave Allen have, to some extent, flopped on Broadway. But Eddie Izzard, 34 years old, born in Bexhill-on-Sea, accountancy graduate of Sheffield University, is heading for the very top. "This is a pre-Beatles era in stand-up," he says with a twinkle.
And New York loves him. The cool dudes of Manhattan giggled like children as Izzard splurged out his surreal musings on supermarkets, dog food and St Paul's Letter to the Corinthians. The Daily News praises "a level of intelligence that's uncommon on this side of the pond", before observing - quaintly - that "back in England, Izzard is the hottest thing since the tea-cosy".
Izzard, a self-confessed "strategy-nut", is not surprised by his reception. "I've been trying to write universal stuff over the last couple of years," he says, "so that I could come over here and do it and they would go, Oh yeah!" He describes both Monty Python and The Goons as "the big starter influences", and it is the universal popularity of the former which has given him the confidence to test his mettle on an international stage.
"America, Denmark, Iceland, France: people say these countries have such different senses of humour. But I don't agree. They all get Python. And that's what I hold in my head on tour: if they can swim with Python, they can swim with my stuff."
In a glowing New York Post review, the critic Clive Barnes suggested that Izzard's surreal musings might prove "caviar to the general public", but Izzard himself is alert to the sophistication of US audiences weaned on television comedies like Seinfeld. "I think they are more advanced than us in their sitcom tradition. They're more real. The shows feel slicker and faster; they have a higher 'hit' rate, and - with 20 writers on each one - they come up with more episodes."
Izzard's own sitcom, Cows, is finally to be screened on Channel 4 early next year, after a painful five-year gestation. Characteristically offbeat, it depicts a world in which cows talk, walk on their hind legs and have had the vote since the 1920s. Human actors with Planet of the Apes-style prosthetics will play the ruminants. Izzard himself, however, will not be among them.
'My mum died when I was six, and she was a very affectionate mother. When that happens, an individual seeks to replace the affection that has been lost. The audience has beome that for me.'
Notorious for his avoidance of television exposure, the Bexhill strategy-nut is convinced of the need to push his career forwards "artificially slowly". He claims he would turn down any offer of US television work, even if they offered him $100 million. "That sounds quite crap, but I just know I could do it. It took 10 years for me really to take off, and I'm really scared about keeping that going. I don't want to just go Krr-chmm! [here he mimes a thunderflash exploding in a bathroom cabinet]."You can have a very sad situation then."
Izzard puts his incendiary ambition down to what he calls a psychological screw-up. "My mum died when I was six, and she was a very affectionate mother. When that happens, an individual seeks to replace the affection that has been lost. The audience has beome that for me. What's good is that I can't simply insist on their goodwill and say 'Applaud now'. They won't do that. You can't fake it. So I think it's quite a healthy way of dealing with an emotional problem."
Perhaps so, but the problem does not disappear. And this goes some way to explaining why Izzard is apparently hell-bent on making his performing life as difficult as possible. He needs to feel he has thoroughly earned each ovation. Hence his recent stint in Paris, performing his routine entirely in French. Hence, he'd have us believe, the dingy schoolhouse in New York: "By coming here to play a small space, I really have to work at it. I have to tune in. In Britain I may be cruising; in New York I have to fight."
As a street entertainer, he once did an escapology act which involved freeing himself from a set of handcuffs while balancing atop a tall unicycle. It's a fitting image for the knots in which Izzard is still wilfully tying himself, years later, even as he climbs - ever so slowly - to the precarious summit of his profession.
From the October 19, 1997 Electronic Telegraph (www.telegraph.co.uk)