By Allan Johnson
Tribune Staff Writer
March 12, 2000
(thanks Michael)

When you first see Eddie Izzard on stage, you immediately realize there's something different about him.

Yes, he is British. Oh, he also likes to wear women's clothing.

"I don't call them women's clothes, though," says Izzard, 38. "They're my clothes, so these specific clothes are not women's clothes. . . . It's just the whole idea that women wear pants, so that's not women's clothes. It used to be men's clothes, and it is women's clothes because now women wear any clothes they want. So I just say I'm wearing my clothes."

Well, Izzard has been wearing clothing usually reserved for women for about 15 years. His fashion sense will be in full view when he performs his latest one-man show, "Circle," at the Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted St., Tuesday through March 26. (For tickets and other information, call 312-988-9000.)

Izzard, who got into stand-up comedy in 1988, started wearing dresses in public when he was 23 years old. And although he started telling jokes about being a transvestite in 1992, he didn't actually wear a dress on stage until about a year later.

"People had sort of been laughing but probably thinking, Oh, he's just talking rubbish," he says.

When Izzard did that first stand-up performance in drag, he got laughs about his style of dress. But then he told jokes about other things while wearing, uh, his clothing. And the laughter was even better.

"That was the important part, because if I could get laughs talking about strange things on television while I was wearing makeup, then I knew this whole career thing could work and I wouldn't just lose it," he says. "I wouldn't just be boxed into having to do jokes about makeup."

And laugh they do at Izzard, who does edgy jokes and observations about social issues and politics. But the makeup and the outfits do catch some audience members off guard.

The off-kilter reactions usually last for "the first five minutes, maybe," says Izzard, who jokes that he's like a "male tomboy" or a "male lesbian" but says that he is not gay.

"I can't really explain that, but that's how it works. It's like if you're wearing a big rabbit suit that first five minutes. If you're still doing some good stand-up, they're coming in and going, `He's in a rabbit suit,' but after five minutes they go, `Oh, yeah, I've done that ... .' You sort of ignore it after a while."

People also get past the wearing of dresses and the makeup because it's not something Izzard constantly harps on. ("It's better to be oblique with it ... I try and talk about it diagonally now, because the comedy isn't sexuality-driven.")

But Izzard does admit there are those who do have a "huge problem with it, totally homophobic and `I'm gonna leave!'

"And that's fine; it's self-policing."

Izzard, who was born in Yemen but whose family moved to Britain when he was 1-year-old, has wanted to be an actor since he was 7. It was partly a way to make up for the affection he lost when his mother died when he was 6.

But when Izzard wasn't getting enough opportunities as a dramatic actor, he switched to comedy after discovering British sketch comedy group Monty Python and realizing "you could actually specialize in comedy." He eventually broke into movies, appearing in "The Avengers" and "Mystery Men."

Izzard went through a stint as a sketch performer and street comic before becoming a stand-up performer. His shows were celebrated in England, and he brought his act to North America, where he has performed at the Montreal International Comedy Festival and venues around the United States.

His last one-man show, "Dressed to Kill," was turned into an HBO comedy special last year. In England, Izzard performed a one-man show based on the life of blistering comic Lenny Bruce--but not in drag.

Izzard is currently in the middle of a national tour with "Circle." When he performs it in Chicago, it will be with the understanding that, as has been the case around the country, it will be received with acceptance and respect that Izzard commands just by being "honest."

"In the end, human beings tend to respect that," he says. "If you're saying you're just doing your thing and you're not getting into anyone's face, you're not saying everyone else should do it, and it's just your own personal body space, then people go `Well, all right.' Because most people, I think, are just too busy with their own problems."