The Izzard King  

Friday 14 April 2000

Eddie Izzard: Called the funniest man alive by none other than John Cleese.

Eddie Izzard is the King. No, not Elvis. Although rock'n'roll would undoubtedly have been more interesting and challenging if he had been. Imagine. A slightly overweight man who wears too much lipstick and has a fondness for playing pantomime villains in semi-flop films, forbidden to waggle his hips on TV. You could imagine the furore in parliament, couldn't you?

MP: "Who is this man, this (spit) travesty of a transvestite, and why is he waggling his hips with such gleeful abandon? Why does he like painting his nails such a lurid shade of blue and telling non-sequiturs about the Grim Reaper's lawnmower? What relevance does this have to our own Lonnie Donegan's rather cheerful brand of skiffle? Should he be squeezing himself into such blatantly sexual leather trousers when he can't even tell a joke without ambling off into odd stories about little dogs who are not happy with their wash? And what about all those disreputable friends of his, these other rock'n'rollers, that hang around his dressing room after shows like so many cats drilling for oil behind the living-room sofa? Why am I speaking like this anyway, when there's a good old-fashioned rugger-bugger going down at the gym soon? What would Sinatra make of all this?''

Ol' Blue Eyes wouldn't understand, that's for sure.

Semi-interesting factoids about England's Eddie Izzard, Number One: Not only has the comedian fired giant bees at Uma Thurman in the film version of The Avengers, but he also played a Russian spy in The Secret Agent. One of those large, chilling, stick-an-umbrella-in-your-leg-and-hotfoot-it-away-on-the-tube types, no doubt. Izzard's good at those.

"It was fun working with Uma," he says. "Most of the time I was working with her three doubles - her athletic double, her balletic double and her stunt double. Then there was her real self. I only got to know her on the final few days. It is fine, isn't it? All I did was shoot people in the head with my bee gun.

"Mystery Men was a proper Hollywood movie," he continues. "It cost 80 million, or something. Again, it didn't work out as expected. I had a nothing character that I made into a minor something character. Again, I didn't just puke up and shoot people, I shot people and did good things with them. I was into disco and the Bee Gees. The closest I've been to a starring role was in The Criminal, shot in London last year.

"I love films because that's what I wanted to do from when I was eight years old. It is an escape from myself, but it's not that I need to hide from my public self. It's just so much fun. The escapism is the thing. I like watching films - and the sets on film look pretty real. You've got cars and guns and things like that. It's a real boys, toys, transvestites kind of thing."

Eddie is the King. No, not that fellow from Monaco, although life would be infinitesimally more entertaining if he had a job like that. Doubtless, he would strut the palace boards like a regal version of ace warped British old-school cartoonists Spike Milligan and the bespectacled Eric Morecambe. Like a seaside resort given too much insulin and space to examine its own extremities. You could imagine the furore during school hours, couldn't you?

Schoolkid: "Mum, Mum. That odd royal monarch has been making fun of my jumpy spider collection again. Tell him to leave off James Mason and the outer reaches of disco, too. He makes my head hurt. I don't want to go out today, Mum, if the King is waiting.

Semi-interesting factoids about England's Eddie Izzard, Number Two: His humor is gentle, never confrontational, never humiliating. John Cleese called him the funniest man alive - and he should know. Eddie was once the Most Famous Man in England Who Hadn't Appeared on Television. Then he appeared on Have I Got News For You and talked about jam in an ocean of grammatically correct humor, and a nation of stoned housewives got up and walked. All the way to the theatre.

"There was this whole thing of not appearing on TV," Izzard allows. "A few years ago. It was because I've always wanted to do roles in films. I analysed that if you succeed too well in comedy, if you try to do a straight role, the audience won't accept you.

"I initially didn't do any TV at all, like I had a religious zeal against it, but it got too caught up with itself. Then I hit a glass ceiling, and I went from the guy who wasn't doing telly to the guy who was doing it all over the place. It was very confusing.

"I thought, maybe I'd develop the TV at the same speed as my comedy. I didn't want people to know who I am. You don't get any baggage, like Mel Gibson did when he played Hamlet."

Eddie is the King. There's always one comedian around that all the others look up to, who has a unique slant on humor and life, and all those diamond-shaped, lipstick-caressed objects in between. Izzard is the man. He sets the standard for everyone else. You can imagine the scenes during the Melbourne Comedy Festival, can't you?

Er ... probably not.

"I'm excited to go to Australia,'' Izzard says. "It's my first time. Hopefully, there will be some word-of-mouth, it won't be stone-cold. I seem to be playing everywhere, so I'll get a sudden injection of the whole culture. It will be fun. Unless it sucks.

"The image I have of Australia is that it's almost a republic. Australia is more American than the British are - it's like America with less people and wider spaces. Where Mad Max and Neighbours cross over. Suburbia with lots of guns, and people strapped to the front of big go-karts. Neighbours beyond Thunderdome."

That's not what the NRA reckon. They think Australia is a great example of why gun control doesn't work.

"Is that right?" asks Izzard, intrigued. "Well, I've decided we should go with the NRA, and force everyone to have 50 guns - children, as well. So we all stagger round with so many guns, everyone is too tired to pull the triggers."

Has anything happened to you on your current tour of America?

"It's unfortunately been rather a crazy, wild ... '' Izzard checks himself. "Did I kill anyone? ... no, sorry."

Eddie is the King. This fact is irreversible. On stage, he is pure magic. I don't mean any of those astonishing tricks with cards that Jerry Sadowitz does when he's not inciting race riots, or throwing boyfriends into the Thames like Penn and Teller. No, Eddie is magic in quite a different way. His funniness is almost terrifying, in the same way the Dadaists were nearly revolutionaries or that tea is brown. He spouts a stream of observations - leftfield certainly, but never as worrying as American audiences thought he'd be when they first caught sight of his makeup - which leave you gasping for breath. Gasping, because of the laughter, you understand. He has a stream-of-consciousness style only a few other comedians come close to, and they're all on drugs anyway. Eddie's not.

"I've always liked making things," Izzard says. "Initially, you have to make a living as well, so if you're doing that and no one's smiling, it doesn't work. I like to make something that wasn't there before. That's what is at the centre of what motivates me, like trying to push certain edges in certain areas. Essentially, I like to make things. I used to invent stuff when I was a kid. Crap things, things that didn't work. It was all in my head when I was eight, made out of wood and paper and cellophane, underwater. I was lost in a (cartoonist) Heath Robinson world of creativity.

"Wasn't the scenery in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang based on Heath Robinson's designs?''

Semi-interesting factoids about Eddie Izzard, Numbers Three to Six: He once lined up little toys on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh to attract the attention of passersby. He's been known to hang out with Prince Charles, Robbie Williams and Sean Connery, among other rock stars. He's politeness itself in conversation - genial, straightforward and eager to please. Or at least, not tease. He was born in South Yemen in 1962, 150 years to the day after Charles Dickens, and thinks his childlike character that occasionally makes an appearance on stage first materialised when he was sent off to boarding school at the age of six. He is, seriously now, hilarious on stage.

"While I'm performing, I try and forget everything and let go," he says. "When ideas come into my head, I try and deal with them like I'm having a one-sided conversation where no one's saying anything back to me. When I'm calm and forgotten everyone, I try to bring some ideas together and explore them. Improvise, essentially. I consciously try to think of nothing, let it come in, and the harder I try the less I feel. Now I play theatres, I have more space to take more time. In the clubs, you have to hit the line - pretty quick, punchlines and stuff, otherwise the boisterous element in the crowd will start forming a pack on you.''

So is Eddie's new show, Circle, going to be as funny as Dressed to Kill - the tour that devoured whole sections of Willesden Green and turned the world's only creator of a cow-based situation comedy into an unlikely superstar in America, following performances on Letterman and an HBO comedy special? Is sheep grass? Do we like dancing about architecture? Will surrealism be piled upon novelty be piled upon comedy in large wobbly masses?

You're about to find out.

"When I was seven," says Izzard, "I decided I wanted to do acting, then for years after I got no parts at all. Maybe it was because I was crap, I don't know. When I was eight, my class did a rendition of Beauty and the Beast, condensed to half an hour. I didn't get any of the main parts; I was chosen to be one of the three urchins, who had one line collectively: 'Oh, Beauty, don't go.' I wanted this line really badly, so when it came to my turn, I would say it really fast: 'OhBeautydontgo.' And they had to give it to me in the end, because I would always say it before them. That was where I first learnt the invaluable art of sneakiness."