Face of new British humour: a bloke in a skirt
Eddie Izzard rollicks from mad cow disease to Thatcher

Jason Anderson/National Post/03.02.00

Sara Krulwichv, The New York Times
Eddie Izzard's show runs at the Bathurst Theatre until Saturday.

Ever since the rise of "alternative comedy" in the 1980s, it's become a media cliche in the U.K. to insist that "comedy is the new rock 'n' roll."

They are responding to the rise of comics like Eddie Izzard, whose new one-man show, Circle, made its Toronto debut at the Bathurst Street Theatre last night.

Izzard's absurdist sensibilities, like those of his contemporaries, are derived more from fringe theatre than bawdy stand-up comedy. In other words, the era of Benny Hill is over and the heirs of Monty Python have won the day.

The maddest of them all is Izzard. In fact, he has become British comedy's second biggest export after Rowan "Mr. Bean" Atkinson.

So if comedy is the new rock 'n' roll and Eddie Izzard is a rock star, then he's not the kind who's admired primarily for his technique or level of craft, like Eric Clapton, or for his ability to communicate big emotions, like Bruce Springsteen or Bono. Izzard is more like Prince at the peak of his powers -- sly, surprising, sexy and probably bonkers.

The show last night marked the first date in his North American tour and first show since appearing on London's West End in a production of Lenny.

A self-described "bloke in a dress," the 38-year-old Izzard appeared onstage sporting spiky blond hair and a beard and wearing a black shirt and pants. He looked more like Kenneth Branagh as Hamlet than his trademark flamboyant self.

"I should mention I'm a transvestite," said Izzard by way of explaining his attire, "but now I've got a beard. Aren't I confusing?"

Surprisingly, sex is not a big subject with him -- but just about everything else is. In Circle, he riffs on everything from General Pinochet to mad cow disease to the Ottoman Empire to the British army chucking ice creams at Axis forces at Dunkirk.

Constantly free-associating, he's not afraid to talk himself into a corner -- in fact, he does it constantly.

"I'm talking crap," he said after another flubbed segue. "This is my first gig in ages. Oh, wait, the drugs are kicking in."

The near-sellout crowd of 500 young urbanites was more than willing to forgive him his stumbles as long as he kept delivering such inspired material, like pondering the bizarre fate of cows.

In England, he said, "we were feeding our cows the crushed up bits of their brethren." But in France, they got "to eat pooh."

"Maybe in Germany they eat broken computers and in Italy they eat cigarettes." The he paused for effect. "What the f--- happened to grass?"

If he can win over a Toronto audience with such Brit-specific material, such as Margaret Thatcher and mad-cow disease, then maybe the rest of the world is his for the taking.