EDDIE IZZARD FEATURE
Cuddly transvestite comedian Eddie Izzard has charmed British audiences with his cute conceptual chat, but can he conquer America? Eddie Gibb believes lzzard has the world at his stilettoed feet.
f Eddie lzzard was to wear a T-shirt with
all the dates of his current world tour
printed on the back, rock band-style, it
would have to be a very long T-shirt
indeed. But that’s OK; he would probably
just match it with patent leather boots and leggings, and call it a mini-dress. There are a lot of unusual things about lzzard, and after several years as an ‘out’ transvestite, the fact he wears clothes originally designed for women is now perhaps the least of them.
lzzard has just schlepped across Europe, from Paris to Copenhagen via Reykjavik, before ﬁnishing, as you read this, a three-week residency in New York. ‘It is rare that a foreign comic can win over an audience in the United States, a country that likes to be self-sufficient when it comes to pop culture,’ noted the New York ﬁrms in a very favourable review of lzzard’s show. lnevitably he was compared to Monty Python — one of the few British comic turns to have cracked America — but at least in New York a man in a dress is unlikely to cause much comment.
This time last year, circumstances were rather different. lzzard had just travelled to Lewis to play Stornoway Town Hall. lnevitably the local Free Church minister (equally inevitably called the Revd MacLeod) had heard of this abomination visiting the island and denounced lzzard in very Biblical terms. ‘The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man and the man shall not wear women’s clothing,’ quoted the minister from Deuteronomy, before threatening to haul any member of his congregation who attended the gig up before the Kirk session. Naturally lzzard responded in comic kind. referring to ‘Pope MacLeod’ on stage. Sharp intake of breath amongst audience.
‘If someone starts throwing a stone into my garden, I’m not going to say, well I see your faith has it written that stones will be thrown over the wall,’ says lzzard, ‘and I didn’t say Rev MacLeod was abhorrent before I got there . . . he started it. I don’t tend to go in and attack — I see many different viewpoints. I try to say, “this is what I believe”, and I think that is a stronger position than actually saying, “you can all piss off”.’
lzzard is talking shortly before the start of his world tour, and appropriately enough he’s looking pretty rock ’n’ roll in leather trousers and leopard-skin print shirt, with a tousled hair- style which could probably be described as blondes-have-more-fun. At the risk of being sued by either party, lzzard bears an uncanny resemblance to Rod Stewart, though I’m not so sure about the green nail varnish.
As lzzard said repeatedly when he came out as a trannie, he is all for ‘equal clothing rights’, a pick ’n’ mix approach to clothes. What’s slightly odd, however, is that he chooses to shop in Dorothy Perkins; why ﬁght for equal clothing rights when you end up looking like Judi Dench?
But enough of this dressing-up chit-chat; what of the inner man, the comedian who can sell out a theatre in London’s West End for months but refused to translate his comedy onto television? Let’s take the last point first. ‘l’m doing telly now and the thing of not doing telly — forget all that — I love it, I always did love it and I’m going to prostitute myself and do every show that’s going,’ says lzzard. ‘l’ll do Give Us . . . Give Us A Fiver or something. I’m going to be all over telly.’
Pencillcd in for January is the hour-long pilot for the lzzard—scripted comedy which he has been talking about for so long now that people began to assume it was some kind ofconceptual joke. And of course it is — he’s just managed to
‘I love telly, I always did love it and I’m going to prostitute myself and do every show that’s going.’
persuade Channel 4 to bankroll the idea. According to lzzard, the show will be standard sitcom format, with ‘a sofa, parents and three kids, and they live in a house, in a street’.
So far, so suburban but — did l not mention this? — it’s about a family of cows, who by some quirk of evolution have learned to talk, drive cars and many other requirements of late-20th century living. And in the kind of drug reference that underpins much of lzzard’s strange, alternative-universe humour, they know where to score the best grass. He has always made great use of anthropomorphic animal references in his stage show, but Cows sounds as if it may have also been influenced by cartoonist Gary Larson’s they’re-smarter-than- us take on our bovine buddies.
By way ofexplanation, lzzard says only this: ‘Cows are inherently groovy. They’re big and agrarian and vegetarian and they’re not very good with technology, but they like it. They watch 24-hour weather programmes and they wear great wigs.’ Oh well, guess we’lljust have to wait and see.
What he is determined to avoid, however, is a straightforward television comedy show, and
live performance remains lzzard’s preferred comedy vehicle. His roots are in street performance, where he honed the twin skills of improvisation and holding an audience’s attention.
On the opening night of his two-month residency at the Shaftesbury Theatre at the end of last year, it all came ﬂooding back when a button fell off his jacket. Naturally he decided to sew it back on, while continuing his act. For a man who appears almost incapable of following a train of thought to its logical conclusion (he usually follows them brilliantly to very illogical ones instead), lzzard recalls the incident with absolute clarity.
‘l impressed myself,’ he admits. ‘There was this Gaultier jacket which I had just spent a bundle of cash on, and the fact that the button fell off on the opening night was so crap. It had these threads sticking out, so I just thought I’ll talk about this, but the threads wouldn’t come out so I said “scissors”, and scissors came on. Then someone threw a needle and thread on stage and everyone thought I’d set that up, but it was just a good heckle — and I couldn’t back off.
‘lt was all happening in slow motion, so l was thinking, I’ll make it double strand because that’ll be easier to do the knots and l was thinking, I’ve got to keep the audience with me or it will really drop off. I threaded the needle first time on stage. which is amazing because normally you can’t do itjust on your own.
‘But the knot pulled through so I had to do a bigger knot and it held, then through twice and round and round. Then I said to everybody do you do round and round? I knew all I needed to do was get the button on, if I didn’t get it on it would be a real fuck-up. That’s what I learned from street performing — all you had to do is ﬁnally do it.’
This analysis of the mechanisms of his comedy seem at odds with lzzard’s apparently rambling, stream-of-consciousness style. The button incident also shows the way a trivial incident can be spun — no pun intended — into an extended routine. Little of what lzzard plans to say on stage is of any greater consequence - honey bees, blue underpants in the white wash — but this universal humour is almost certainly why he can play theatres from Manhattan island to the Outer Hebrides.
And it’s not really even an act, just a projection of his own bonkers imagination. ‘I specifically want to be no different on stage performing stand-up and off stage,’ he says. ‘When I ad lib off, I sometimes stumble around trying to get the language right. I never realised it was so incredibly important — language is just so powerful, way mightier than the sword in the long term . . . in the short term the sword’s quite powerful.’
Eddie Izzard: Deﬁnite Article is at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on Thurs 31 Oct, Fri 1 Nov and Edinburgh Playhouse on Sat 2 Nov.
The List 18-31 Oct 1996 7