The Izzard king

Most people know comedian Eddie Izzard as the twisted British transvestite. But in his new show, Circles, he proves that he is more than just another pretty face.

By Coleman Neary

Even in the world of stand-up comedy, where peculiarity is a certified asset, Eddie Izzard is a genuine curiosity. Depending on which side of the Atlantic you're standing on, he is either the most promising comedic force since the days of Monty Python or a space oddity that's a name in only the edgiest of households. But it's safe to say that in funnyman circles, Izzard is the one and only native of Yemen who is both an Eagle Scout and a devoted wearer of eyeliner.

If you are a follower of Izzard, you already know about his hard-to-define dressing habits: He plucks his eyebrows and wears makeup and high heels, though not with quite the same bulky panache that he used to. Although he once took the stage in lipstick, pumps and a Gaultier-geisha kind of frock, his latest look is sleeker and more butch. Now he wears tuxedo pants with rhinestone piping, a designer tee and heels. And he's dumped the ruby- red lipstick for a low-key stain. "Once you establish that you are allowed to wear makeup," Izzard says, "then you can establish that you're not going to wear it all the time. Otherwise, you become a professional transvestite who gets paid for other things."

When he's tarted up onstage, Izzard comes across like a beefy hybrid of Dame Edna and Iggy Pop, but as he settles in to a preshow plate of chicken and cashew nuts at a Chinese joint in the West Village, he is surprisingly low-profile. He's got a Nike cap pulled over his carefully plucked brow, and he's wearing a nondescript black tee. His longish fingernails are painted silver, and they're chipping.

Izzard describes himself as an "action transvestite." This means that, in addition to applying eyeliner and nail polish from time to time, he is learning to fly a Piper Alpha, he snowboards and he has seen The Matrix three or four times. He also fancies girls. In fact, the one he fancies—his girlfriend happens to be sitting at another table in the Chinese restaurant—is well worth fancying. Of course, if you set all of those curious characteristics aside, he's simply a working stiff.

Izzard's latest one-man show is called Circles, and it concludes a sold-out North American tour with a seven-night stand at Town Hall beginning on Tuesday 20. In it, he displays something rare for a comedian: faith to assume the intelligence of his audiences. During the show, the 38-year-old Brit skips from subjects Richard the Lionhearted and the Stoned Olympics to the Invasion of Grenada and the Islam of Cat Stevens—and he does so without ever mentioning obvious topics like Viagra or Jennifer Lopez's butt.

He moves in brilliant orbs, wrapping his surreal, brainy, somewhat distracted musings around core material—and then simply letting it flow. "The show circles a bunch of material together," Izzard says. "I was interested in circles, in the idea that all the planets are round, all the orbits are circular—circles seem to come up again and again. To an extent, I sort of ramble wherever I need to. "

Outwardly, anyway, Izzard is not a slave to form; he stops and starts and loses his train of thought and ad libs (or so he'd have you believe) his way from one chunk of material to another. He starts the show by picking on the Nasdaq, but it's anyone's guess where he'll end up. Still, it's a safe bet that what comes out of his mouth will dredge up the absurdities and atrocities of the past. The history buff reimagines the Opium Wars as battles fought with opium-tipped bullets by soldiers who were "off their trolleys" and plays a scene in which Jesus hosts the Last Breakfast, at which he serves his disciples Rice Krispies (his corpuscles) and orange juice (the Lord's plasma).

For someone so far out of the mainstream, Izzard's career has steadily and successfully steamrolled from the stage to television and movies in the past decade. He credits New York with providing him his first foothold and following in the U.S., beginning when his Glorious show debuted at P.S. 122 in 1996. His next production, Dressed to Kill, enjoyed a four-month run at the Westbeth in '98 before moving on to San Francisco and L.A., and ultimately living on as a 1999 HBO comedy special.

Despite his success in this country, Izzard believes that he's something of a difficult package to push on Americans. "I'm a transvestite doing stand-up that's quite weird and buzzy," he says. "I'm not an easy sell."

Carolyn Strauss, vice president of original programming for HBO, didn't think so when she saw a videotape of Glorious. "There are very few people who can get up and say, ŒI'm a heterosexual transvestite,' and have it not matter at all," she says. "You sort of look right past the nail polish and mascara, and you're just into this very unique, erudite point of view."

Besides becoming a premium-cable star last year, Izzard joined the old cast of Monty Python onstage for its reunion at Aspen's Comedy Arts Festival (he played a Python imposter brilliantly) and drew 11,000 to Wembley Arena for a Dressed to Kill show that ended up being England's largest comedy event and the world's second largest. He also indulged his penchant for straight dramatic stage roles in Marlowe's Edward II and Mamet's The Cryptogram, and combined his acting and comedy to star as the late comedian Lenny Bruce in the play Lenny.

Izzard started his own comedy career in London's Hyde Park. He didn't juggle, mime or eat fire; rather he spun weird webs of comedy and delivered them on a unicycle. He says that the demands of getting laughs outdoors, where every move has to be overexaggerated, helped him with his latest role, in Shadow of the Vampire, a film about the making of the German classic Nosferatu. The movie, due out in August, features him with John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe; Izzard plays the silent film actor Gustav von Wagnerheim.

"We needed someone who had an intuitive sense of the physical gestures of silent films—these leaping, larger-than-life gestures," recalls the film's director, Elias Merhige. He was looking for a guy who could play the actor as well as the actor acting. During rehearsals, he says, "Eddie just lit up the place. I was like, Yes." The film debuted at Cannes and Izzard even received a few raves for pulling off the difficult task of playing a bad actor well. That should come as no surprise, if you recall how he's injected life and charm into a number of ho-hum movies in recent years, including Velvet Goldmine and The Avengers.

Izzard's serious dramatic acting has had one unforeseen side effect: He feels he's become unfunny in real life. "This is my theory: You develop comedy as a social skill, and once you start earning money off it and people say, ŒHey, you're fucking funny' don't even think about it," he says. "But when you're being funny offstage, it feels like you're showing off, and people say, ŒTurn it off already.' You become a boring bastard offstage. I want to change that. I want to start picking it back up. It worries me."
Circles is at Town Hall Tuesday 20­June 26.