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Eddie Izzard at the Hollywood Bowl 

What makes Eddie run?

Thursday, Jul 14 2011
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If you check out Eddie Izzard's Twitter feed, you'll be welcomed by an iPhone self-portrait of the 49-year-old actor-comedian looking trim and smooth-faced, sporting a smart goatee and dashing, plucked eyebrows. His current location is set to "Earth," and his Twitter-size autobiography states, "I'm a British European, I think like an American and I was born in an Arabic country."

This is how Izzard wants you to think of him in 2011: a youthful, masculine, transatlantic cosmopolitan accustomed to choice dramatic roles in big-budget Tom Cruise and George Clooney superproductions (Valkyrie, the Ocean's Eleven franchise), respectable voice-over gigs (Disney's Cars 2, The Simpsons) and prestige cable TV projects (The Riches, The United States of Tara, an in-development political drama for FX, the lead in an upcoming adaptation of Treasure Island for Syfy).

In his spare time, Izzard runs marathons for charity, campaigns for the U.S.' Democratic Party and the U.K.'s Labour party and works on his foreign-language skills so he can tour his comedy in non-English-speaking countries. He just finished a long, well-received stint in Paris performing in French. For a few years he has been saying that around 2020 he plans to enter electoral politics, possibly as part of the British delegation to the European Union.

click to flip through (2) ILLUSTRATION BY KYLE T. WEBSTER
  • ILLUSTRATION BY KYLE T. WEBSTER
 
 

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And on July 20, this British European who thinks like an American will be the first stand-up comedian ever to commandeer the Hollywood Bowl. After conquering Wembley Stadium and the Madison Square Garden, Izzard is going for the trifecta of legendary showbiz meccas.

"I think the backseats are gonna have the best view," Izzard, on the phone from the noisy streets of Paris, says enthusiastically about the Bowl's notorious cheap seats. "I actually went out to the back and I sat and watched from there. There's no stand-up comedian that played a solo show at the Bowl, so I think the backseats are gonna be the best ones 'cause you're gonna see the gig, and also see everyone else there."

The Bowl holds a special fascination for Izzard. Monty Python played a memorable three-night stand at the iconic venue in September 1980 that was later released as a live concert film. Izzard is a Python freak who memorized all their routines as an up-and-comer; Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl would have been part of his syllabus. Unlike most musically inclined Brits, for whom the Bowl has been nostalgically imprinted by the Beatles, for comedians like Izzard the venue is haunted by visions of John Cleese in matronly drag loudly trying to sell "albatross!" to the polyester-clad dining crowd as a snack.

"Monty Python. Definitely Monty Python," Izzard confirms from Paris. "I think the Beatles played there twice, Python played three times. A lot of Python was the continuation of the Beatles' spirit. So it all ties together. ..." Since Izzard often is referred to as "an honorary Python" (in 1998 he joined the surviving members of the surreal comedy troupe onstage at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colo., as a "Monty Python impostor"), the implication is that his upcoming gig is the latest link in the chain of cheeky, clever British amusement targeted at West Coast Americans.

But Izzard being Izzard, even this vaulting ambition overleaps itself.

"I've been to the Bowl a couple of times and it's the Greek amphitheater. Once I play Hollywood Bowl, I'll feel I'm allowed to play actual Greek amphitheaters here in Europe," he says. Given his steady progress since his breakthrough in the 1990s — when he first became noticed as an enormously witty improviser after years of hungry obscurity — he's most likely not kidding. Izzard doing his History Channel–style material about the classical civilizations at the Acropolis? Eddie Izzard Live at the Colosseum (the original one in Rome)? Why not? All Izzard apparently has to do to accomplish something is set his mind to it.

If you want solid evidence of the part of Izzard that "thinks like an American," you might want to check out a strange little documentary called Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story. Released in 2009, it was nominated for an Emmy last year for Outstanding Nonfiction — Special Category. It was assembled by Sarah Townsend with Izzard's blessing, and it's structured around footage of his 2003 Sexie tour.

Townsend is an undersung figure in the rise of Eddie Izzard from his dismal years in the comedic wilderness to his current status as global superstar. She is presented in the documentary as an ex-girlfriend, but she was much more than that, partnering with Izzard in his earlier stomping grounds at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival; running Raging Bull, the influential alternative comedy club in London that put Izzard on the capital's comedy map; and serving as manager and producer of his shows for many years.

Townsend met Izzard in 1989, after a decade in which the comedian had tried everything to break into the big time. Izzard applied his talent and fierce, calculating ambition to university theatricals, alternative festivals, plays, duo acts, every conceivable form of street art and improv, and gimmicks — he used to perform on a unicycle and while engaged in escape-artist tricks with chains and ropes. He eventually settled into solo stand-up, but not much happened until he met Townsend.

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