Paul Byrne | 11/99  | | added 04.18.00

NOTE: This is an old interview but I thought I would add it since I've never seen it before plus it's nice and long...

Everybody loves Eddie Izzard, and Eddie Izzard pretty much loves everybody. But, wonders Paul Byrne, is he really still as funny as he used to be?

I remember the first time I caught Eddie Izzard doing his stand-up. It hit me the same way happening upon an episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus hit me as a teenager. Or catching sight of Gary Larson's strip The Far Side amidst all the Garfield and Love Is… dross in my Dad's newspaper. Nonsense, when given as much significance as common sense, can be a wonderfully hilarious thing. And Eddie Izzard waffling on about cats drilling behind the sofa, Spock and co putting their phasers on a Sudden Interest In Botany setting, or pears waiting patiently for you to leave the room so they can quickly turn to mush, all made for perfect nonsense.

But like Python (who have officially handed their baton onto Izzard) and Larson's The Far Side, there's always a danger that sustained wackiness can eventually become tiresome and tired, that what was once nonsense gradually becomes someone merely going through the commotions. For Izzard, who has painstakingly built up an enormous following through his yearly tours and sly marketing (the last four tours all coming with an accompanying video and CD, available in the foyer), the desire to be "as big as U2" - as he said to me in 1994 - has not diminished. But isn't he due an audience backlash, a been-there-heard-that stare from the front row?

"There's always that danger, sure, that audiences will overdose on your humour," offers the 37-year old comedian. "But that's something you really have no control over. All you can do is try and keep the material as fresh and interesting as possible. I am very particular about each new tour being a completely new show. It usually takes a few dates to iron everything out, to explore the various avenues a subject offers up, but by the time I get to Ireland on this tour, it should be in pretty good shape. So hopefully, there won't be too many people yawning. Unless they've just been to see me the week before, of course."

Having just completed a well-received six-week run at London's Queen Theatre as the late American political comedian Lenny Bruce in Julian Barry's Lenny, Izzard has also been busy in recent months adding a few more films to his burgeoning acting CV. His early film choices – The Avengers, The Secret Agent and Velvet Goldmine – hardly reflect his film buffery though.

"Well, you must know that when you get involved in a project," offers Izzard, "no one can tell if it's going to work or not. You don't go into a film thinking, well, this is going to be a flop, but hey, it'll be good experience for me. I'm only the supporting actor in these films, after all. I tend to go into subjects that interest me, and even during stand-up, I'm constantly re-editing my material every night until I find what the audience likes most. With a film, so much editing can happen between the script, the shoot, the actual editing suite, the test screenings. There are so many opportunities for it to go wrong."

Izzard is a little bit more optimistic about his upcoming projects though.

"I've just done the dubbing for Shadow Of A Vampire with John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe, and when I read it I thought, God, this is a good premise. Really spooky. And then when I learnt that these two guys were attached to it, I was hooked, even though I didn't get the part that I wanted to get. So I think that one's going to be interesting. It's the making of Nosferatu, with Malkovich playing the director, FW Marnau, and Dafoe playing Max Schreck, the vampyre character. Also, there's The Circus, a great script again. Pulp Fiction meets The Long Good Friday. And then there's The Criminal, quite dark, which won't be huge probably, but I think it will do well critically. It's a first time director, Julian Simpson, and when I talked to him, he seemed to know his stuff."

Accepting that his profile as a stand-up comedian is something of a hindrance when it comes to acting, Izzard also agrees that his playing a stand-up comedian in Lenny is a bit like Bowie playing the alien in The Man Who Fell To Earth. Typecasting, anyone?

"Yeah, maybe I will have to sit on comedy for a while," smiles Izzard, "not do it for a few years, so that people only see me in straight pictures for a while. I might have to do something like that. But I'm in a better position than I would be had I done a big television series or something like that. And I have tried to avoid doing comedy on screen, except for Mystery Men, which hasn't come out over here yet. I was told that strategically it was a good move, having just done a tour in America and then having a Hollywood film out there. But I wasn't crazy about the idea of doing a comedy until I realised that Ben Stiller was taking his character very seriously. And I thought, actually, that's how I can get around this. Get dramatic, get straight, even though my character will be talking complete crap. I think after Lenny I have a few cards on the table though, in that I was able to play a serious part and get good reviews for it."

A self-confessed workaholic, Izzard's gradual conquering of his native England and then Ireland and the rest of Europe (delivering his shows in France in almost-perfect French) has led to his setting his sights firmly America. Having already built up something of a cult following in New York, Izzard added San Francisco and LA to his Dress To Kill tour last year, both shows attracting a multitude of stars and publicity, with Robin Williams signing on as producer to help sales.

"Robin Williams came in to put his name over the title in San Francisco and LA, and he invited a lot of people along to the first night in San Francisco – which is where he lives – and Eric Idle invited a lot of people to a preview show in LA. There was George Harrison, Steve Martin, Carrie Fisher…"

Trying to make some of the world's most respected – and powerful – comedians laugh - some of them undoubtedly Izzard's early idols - must have been something of a surreal challenge?

"The thing about famous people is that they don't really react. I think they look around and see how everyone else is reacting. I think in LA they all probably knew each other; it was quite a quiet night. I really had to bash it into them. But I like that kind of pressure; it was good to get away from the laughing-hysterically-even-if-you-haven't-actually-said-anything-funny-yet reaction for a change. It's something I'm not actually getting on this tour either, which is great."

Given the amount of work and careful planning Izzard puts in to his plan to be as big as U2, does he feel closer to that goal now than four years ago?

"Well, I think it's already gone better than one could initially wish for, even though, ambition wise, I've always wanted to really break America. But doing things like the French shows, to do German and Italian shows, and Spanish shows, and to do a serious movie role are all right up there on the list of things that I want to do. So there's still a lot to go for. I don't think that I'm just trying to keep busy. I'd like to be less busy than I am really."

Having lost his mother at the age of five, Izzard has said of his stand-up shows that the audience serves as a "surrogate affection machine". Is that still the case?

"It's definitely like a base-level drug need. I have found that I can stop touring for a long while, because normally I'd finish a tour and feel this desperate need to get out there again as soon as possible. But I do think that base level need for an audience is there in many performers who come from a dysfunctional or single parent – or zero parent – family. I'm sure you could be adopted into a loving family, and everything would be fine. Madonna's mother died when she was six, and Orson Welles mother died when he was young. So you see similarities there, but that's usually the inspiration, the initial starting impetus."

Most comedians would naturally love to have the official Monty Python seal of approval on their career, but when Cleese and co invited Izzard along as an honorary member for their reunion show in Aspen in 1997 – referring to him on the posters as "The natural successor to us" – did he feel he then had a lot to live up to?

"No, I don't worry about it all. They have high standards, and I hope I have high standards. They've influenced me heavily, growing up, and I do stand-up in a way that I think they might have done stand-up, but the fact that I'm in a different medium means I don't really have to match them. I've met them all too and gotten to know them, and none of them disappointed, which can often be the case. So I don't find it at all absurd; it's just great. I used to sit in Camden Street and recite Python sketches, so this is just a joy."

Having rarely put a foot wrong in his career, Izzard stepped into a major pat a couple of years ago when his much-trumpeted TV-scripting debut, The Cows, proved a disaster. A wonderful idea on paper perhaps, but on celluloid, this was one joke – a family of cows living as humans - that wasn't very funny at all.

"That didn't work for a series of reasons. Normally programmes like that have a pilot, then a first series, before really starting to cook on the second series. We didn't have a run at it, and it just became this one-off special with a bizarre amount of publicity. It really should have come out quietly. And also the prosthetics for it, we needed something like Planet Of The Apes, but we only had a television budget, and we ended up with these huge bulky prosthetics. It was then that I thought animation might be the way to go with it. I haven't left it yet, because I do want to do a Simpsons, South Park, Ardman Animation kind of thing. Having decided not to do a TV series myself, an animated series would be ideal."

Finally, what does Izzard make of the recent boom in Irish stand-up comedy, with our native comedians currently snapping up awards and top TV series aplenty?

"Actually, I thought I predicted the wave, to be honest. I said to Ardal and Kevin and Barry, you should come over to London. I booked them in, and then I set them up with a television series, which didn't come off in the end, so I had to cancel the gigs, do them myself. But I knew it would work. I thought they would tear through once they came over though. I think they could tear a hole in New York too. Me first, though, please."