‘I just speak a lot of bollocks’

[from mg.co.za]

Comedian Eddie Izzard is famous for being a heterosexual cross-dresser. It’s not something he has ever shied away from discussing — he once described himself as “a male lesbian”.

But this is incidental to his stand-up comedy, which has not only made him famous but had him declared a genius by his contemporaries. None other than John Cleese once referred to Izzard as “the lost Python”.

One of the few stand-up comedians big enough to fill stadiums, his latest show, Stripped, has broken box office records in Europe and the United States. Aside from this, he is a serious thespian, having done everything from David Mamet’s Cryptogram to Peter Nichols’s Life and Death of Joe Egg, and he has been in films including Ocean’s Eleven and Valkyrie, sharing the limelight with Tom Cruise. In the latter he got to indulge his fascination with World War II by acting as a German soldier plotting to kill Adolf Hitler. Lately he has been involved with charity work and has been running all over England, literally, doing marathons to raise money.

When I get through to him on his cellphone, Izzard is on a bus, somewhere in the US. He is personable but tired and serious, saving up laughs for his next performance. He’s in diplomatic cultural ambassador mode, enthusing about how excited he is to be working with Madiba, whose 46664 charity has inspired Izzard’s visit.

“South Africa is a legendary place,” he says. “You’ve been to hell and managed to get out of it. I’m excited to perform there — one gets bored of the same old tour schedule of the United Kingdom, the US and Europe.

“I’m donating all the money from the shows to the 46664 Aids charity. It’s an honour to be associated with Nelson Mandela,” he says predictably. Next week that honour will translate into expensive jokes as the local public buys into Izzard’s charity drive, paying between R500 and R1 000 a seat to see his brand of comedy.

His trademark includes long, rambling monologues, strange bits of pantomime, tons of self-references and material that is often about “the history of the world and dinosaurs, the ancient Romans and Greeks, and World War II”.

Unsurprisingly, it took a while to catch on and Izzard spent his 20s languishing in obscurity. “Things started working when I was around 30,” he says (today he is 47). “I dropped out of college when I was 19 and there were about 11 years of nothing happening.”

I ask him how he endured the tough times: “What kept me going, I suppose, is a sort of madness — this little part of your brain that says I can actually do this despite all evidence to the contrary.

“At that stage I wasn’t even able to get street performing gigs. I was doing an accounting degree and I dropped out, so the security of that was gone. I just watched a lot of television and tried to keep my mind off the fact that I was failing again and again.

“It was distressing, but I’m very positive and a stubborn idiot, so I just kept soldiering on.”

I ask if it’s possible that his comedy took a while to catch on because it’s highbrow — loaded with historical, political and philosophical content. “I wanted it to look highbrow, but really it’s not,” he says. “I actually just talk a lot of bollocks from Wikipedia, really. Perhaps it’s intelligent, but it isn’t intellectual. In the end I ended up looking highbrow because I know a lot of facts and figures, and I tend to dump that out.

“My comedy is designed to ask big questions. But hopefully it all remains playful.”

Izzard is less playful offstage. It’s a good idea, when interviewing him, not to mention religion. The ensuing diatribe will take up valuable interview time in which you could be asking questions about his penchant for cross-dressing.

An edited version goes something like this: “The more I’ve started questioning things the less I believe in a God. Before I was agnostic, I’m now a nontheist. I just look at the logic of how the world and the universe unfolds, and I’ve come to the conclusion that he [God] isn’t there.”

Does he worry about expressing these thoughts in a God-fearing place such as South Africa, where people are easily offended? “If I say I don’t believe in God and it offends people, then I, in turn, am offended by their denial of freedom of speech.

“If I ridiculed God then maybe …” He pauses. “Well, I suppose I do, but I think that’s a reaction to religious indoctrination I experienced at boarding school. I’m getting a bit of payback on that.

“I guess that underneath the humour I’m searching for the truth. And I think I’ve got to tread the path that’s in my head. Throughout history people have taken religion and used it for their own gain, but I will say that someone like Desmond Tutu is an example of an extremely strong person who has been inspired by religion to do great things. I’m trying to put out a balanced view. It’s extremism that I dislike.”

In action, Izzard’s routines are surprisingly light, as silly and absurd as you would expect from someone heavily influenced by Monty Python. Beneath that, though, he’s hinting at bigger things: “The planet has been around for 4500-million years,” he says, “so by now we need some answers. If we don’t get them by the end of this century I don’t think we’re going to make it.”

At that stage, it seems, asking why Izzard wears ladies clothes would be inappropriate. But he gives a final self-appraisal — exhibiting a touch of his famous sense of humour, he says: “I think I’m great. But, then, I’m biased.”

Eddie Izzard performs in Johannesburg at the Nelson Mandela Theatre, Joburg Theatre complex, on February 2 and 3, in Cape Town at the International Convention Centre on February 4 and 5, and in Durban at the International Convention Centre on February 6. Book at Computicket

Written by Momo in: Interview |

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