Will he perform in girl mode? Or will it be boy mode?
“For the tour, Stripped, I’m doing it in boy mode,” Eddie Izzard said from Toronto. “The Sexy tour was very much in girl mode. I’m going to keep changing it around now.”
If you’re a fan, you know exactly what he’s on about. For the uninitiated, Izzard is a celebrated U.K. comic and actor who happens to be a transvestite. So the 48-year-old sometimes dresses onstage as a woman: skirts, heels, lipstick … the whole she-bang.
This might seem more British eccentricity than anything else, although Izzard (who identifies himself as straight) says transvestism is an urge he has harboured since the age of four. In any case, his outfits – be they masculine or feminine – are almost forgotten after he starts speaking.
The New York Times deems Izzard the most brilliant standup comedian of his generation. John Cleese calls him the “Lost Python.” No surprise: Izzard’s whimsical, sophisticated and often bizarre monologues do delve deeply into Monty-Python-like absurdity.
In one routine, Izzard pretends to be a smooth-talking bee-keeper who makes advances on women – unsuccessfully, as it turns out, because, “I’m covered in bees!” In another, he postulates Britain did well as a colonizing country, simply because of its “cunning use of flags.” And elsewhere: “They went to the moon and they brought back rock. Trouble is, we’ve got rock. That was the one thing we didn’t need, wasn’t it?”
During his current Stripped tour, taking him across Canada, Izzard promises to cover the waterfront.
“I talk about everything that ever happened, with gaps,” he said in a phone interview. “Everything in the world, from God to Darwin to the Romans to the Greeks to the Egyptians to Moses to giraffes and cave men.”
Izzard is less known in Canada than in the U.S., where he sold out Madison Square Garden in January. If you’re unfamiliar with his standup, you might know him from the TV series The Riches, about a couple of con artists who assume the identities of an affluent American family. Izzard has also acted in such films as Ocean’s Twelve, Ocean’s Thirteen and Valkyrie (in the latter, he’s a German officer running Hitler’s communications network). His best role was starring as Charlie Chaplin in the 2001 movie, The Cat’s Meow.
If they ever decide on a remake of Marathon Man, Izzard might be a good choice – or, at least, a literal-minded one. In September 2009, he ran 43 marathons (1,770 kilometres) in 51 days. This remarkable feat raised more than $2.8 million for the charity, Sports Relief. Izzard trained only five weeks before undertaking the runs in Britain.
Not surprisingly, Izzard identified tenacity as one of his defining characteristics – something that has stood him in good stead over his showbiz trajectory. It took a decade of woodshedding, from 1981 to 1991, before his career truly began to take off. Izzard honed his skills in comedy clubs, live sketch shows and busking the streets of London.
“I don’t think I have the gift of anything creative.” he said. “But I did want to do creative stuff. I do have the gift of determination. If there’s anything I’ve been given, it’s that.”
Born in Yemen, Izzard spent his early years in Northern Ireland and Wales.
He recalls being thrilled as a 12-year-old when, during a class skit, he made someone laugh. “I thought, ‘Oh, that sounds pretty good.’ ”
Izzard became a class clown at age 16. A chemistry teacher used to write on the blackboard, then, after a long pause, repeat aloud what he had just written. Young Izzard would fill these silences with funny quips.
“I just used, quite consciously, two years of chemistry lessons to increase my ability to ad lib into these gaps.”
As a young man, he dreamt of stardom. And he wanted it fast. Izzard’s early goal was to land a recurring role in a Monty Python-style television series by the time he was 25 years old. When this didn’t happen, he re-thought his priorities.
“I realized speed wasn’t important. No one’s ever going to say, ‘This guy, his creative stuff was rubbish. But look how fast he did it.’ ”
Complicating the issue was Izzard’s transvestism. Relatively early on, after becoming a performer in Britain, he leaked his secret to the press. Although there has been the occasional ugly incident (he was once beaten by thugs in Cambridge), Izzard’s proclivity is mostly accepted by audiences.
Whether it’s understood is another matter. For instance, some believed he was dressing “in drag” as comedy shtick. Others wondered if Izzard was gay, bisexual or transsexual. He said he’s none of those. And the women’s clothing is no gimmick. It’s just who he is.
“It has nothing to do with comedy,” Izzard said. “It’s like a woman turning up wearing a dress or wearing trousers. No one would bat a eyelid over that.”
For the neophyte, the notion of a straight transvestite might be confusing. Izzard counters by suggesting heterosexuality can be equally complex and befuddling. For instance, what about the woman with a preference for the “bad boy” who’s “a bit of a bastard?”
“It does get very confusing. So I think that all sexuality is confusing,” he said. “I’ve got all the boy stuff. Plus this extra girlie bit. I don’t know why. I’ve just been given those genetics.”