Makeup and punchlines
Yes, Eddie Izzard wears women's clothing, but it's the lines, not the apparel, that make the comedian.
Peter Birnie, Vancouver Sun Theatre Critic
Eddie Izzard truly defies description. He's a stand-up comedian whose routines are far from the standard schlepping of stale jokes, he's a Brit whose fluency in French allows him to perform two-hour shows in Paris, and he's a transvestite. The straight kind, politely referred to as "a bloke in a dress."
On the phone from Perth in Western Australia, where he's touring his new show Circle before bringing it to Vancouver for shows Tuesday through May 26 at the Arts Club, Izzard tries to explain his unique brand of stand-up comedy. Without having written or rehearsed anything, he'll breeze on stage in an elegant
Gaultier pantsuit and high heels to ramble on in what seems at first to be a stream of non sequiturs about politics, history, sociology and makeup. Many U.S. critics comment on how hard it is to keep up with Izzard's blistering pace, but his string of observations is delivered with such crisply defined English enunciation that the characters of Coronation Street sound more foreign.
"My mouth is trying to catch up with my thought-patterns," he explains. "Hopefully I can find enough people in America who can understand what I'm saying. Canada should be fine -- I've played Vancouver before, and they seem to get it."
He hasn't been seen here since a couple of comedy-festival appearances in the early '90s, but no one is likely to forget the sight of a good-looking man, fairly short and stocky, wearing red lipstick bright enough to reach the back row of any theatre. Now nearing 40, Izzard was 23 when he finally accepted something he'd known since he was a little boy, that he liked to dress in women's clothing. A 1998 profile in The New Yorker links Izzard's transvestitism to the death of his mother from cancer when the boy was six years old, and quotes U.S.psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz: "There's an underlying belief that the mother has everything; and so by becoming the mother you've then lost all want, all need."
While his stage act has for years featured Izzard in elegant outfits and tastefully overdone makeup (he calls himself "an executive-model transvestite"), he doesn't take it to the outrageous extremes of Barry Humphries, aka Dame Edna Everage. Izzard simply walks on and makes a few cracks about being a male tomboy ("Running, jumping, climbing trees and putting on makeup when you get to the top") before taking off on his infinity of tangents. Lately he's grown tired of being expected to dress in drag, and so sported a beard for the U.S. start of the Circle tour.
"It's easier to wear what you want on stage," he declares. "If you come out in an elephant suit people will say 'Oh, I've seen elephant suits on the stage before.' I'm just trying to have the freedom to wear whatever I want to,
Izzard gave up trying to explain to the media how a transvestite need not be homosexual. Now he lets people think what they want and then reaps the benefits. "Girls seem to dig it a whole bunch," he says. "I thought when I came out that women would have gone 'no' but they seem to be fascinated."
The Izzard routine is far from that. As each performance takes on individual twists, he'll start out talking about Hitler's happy honeymoon, with Adolf and Eva doused in petrol and set on fire in a ditch, then end up explaining the Church of England as an excuse for Henry VIII to rape and pillage. If his take on the portly king sounds like Sean Connery, that's because Izzard can only do accurate impressions of Connery and James Mason; his greatest strength lies in a clear sense of how far to push an audience with potentially shocking political
and historical observations, delivered with a finely practised physicality that allows "a bloke in a dress" to nimbly create for a moment the many characters that occupy his mind. The glue holding it all together is a technique for linking sketches that's so unique his fellow comics in the U.K. call it "Eddying" -- he hums and haws and says "yes, that's all true" until the next thought pops into his head. It's both alarming and endearing, much like the man's material.
Appropriately for someone born 150 years to the day after Charles Dickens, Izzard's life after his mother died became a Dickensian hell. Packed off to a boarding school in Wales where caning still held sway, he cried a lot, took the route of so many other public-school boys in turning his emotions to ice, and sought an outlet in school theatrical productions.
At 17 he honed his improvisational skills on a chemistry teacher so slow at finishing sentences that Izzard could jump in with a punchline, pleasing his classmates and feeding the lad's deep need for attention.
"He was getting paid to teach chemistry," Izzard says, "but I just used his lessons to practise comedy."
In college at Sheffield he eschewed a degree in "accounting and financial management with mathematics" to concentrate on sketch-comedy shows with a Monty Python-like troupe of fellow comedians. While by 1998 he would join the actual Python gang (minus the late Graham Chapman) on stage at the Aspen Comedy
Festival, back in 1981 a 19-year-old Eddie was disappointed to realize that a trio of revues for the Edinburgh Fringe, Fringe Flung Lunch, Sherlock Holmes Sings Country and World War II: The Sequel, would not be his ticket to fame.
"For three years I thought someone might come to the Edinburgh Festival and go 'Yes, we like your stuff, you're coming with us to do stuff on telly.' "
Instead he took to the streets, busking for four years in a duo, then solo. "It was a fantastic sink-or-swim training ground. Having just watched Russell Crowe in Gladiator, I can say it was not quite gladiatorial -- no lions -- but it
could be really difficult. People would walk into your show and start manhandling you if they were drunk, so you learned an amazing ability to deal with the audience. If you didn't you would die.
"You couldn't really do much observational material or surreal stand-up, that wouldn't work on the street. There's not enough glue between you and the audience there, so all you can do is the first level of humour, the comedy of the space -- 'What are you wearing that for?' and 'Who cut your hair, mate?' "
Brimming with confidence, he abandoned the piazza at Covent Garden to move inside London's comedy-club circuit. "You take what you've learned and go indoors to a stand-up club," he says, "and it's almost bursting out of you because everyone's already looking at you. You don't have to fight all these other elements, rain and wind and drunken people."
But the drunks remained, in the form of "beery-leery kids who would be ready just to scream abuse at you," and so he itched to develop a one-man show for face-forward, hopefully sober theatre audiences. Live at the Ambassadors was the 1993 result and Eddie's career has been so successful since that he's not only
branched into drama (a 12-week London run starring in Lenny, about equally rude comedian Lenny Bruce) and movies (Mystery Men, Velvet Goldmine, The Avengers) but even decided to test his family's French heritage and his own ability with the language by performing in Paris.
"It was awful," he admits of a 20-minute trial run. "To look back at the video and see me sweating and stuttering and stammering, it's quite painful. People hate humiliating experiences.
"But I can now do two hours, all in French."