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.
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.
In 1991 Izzard finally got some attention for a routine he performed at an AIDS benefit, about being raised by wolves. The show, organized by Stephen Fry, also featured Hugh Laurie (years before House). Like Izzard, Fry and Laurie (and Emma Thompson) had started off in comedy in the early '80s, but unlike Izzard, a decade into their careers they were all very successful.
The “wolves” clip from 1991 is readily available online and is included by Townsend in Believe. The clip shows a sweaty, pudgy Izzard wearing an atrocious batik patchwork shirt and ill-fitting, high-waisted trousers. His delivery points at some of his future triumphs, but the words pour out with strange timing. Izzard looks uncomfortable.
Townsend helped with a momentous change that occurred in 1993: Izzard famously started to perform wearing women's clothing and makeup. The whole persona of the grubby comedian in the horrendous mismatched outfits and the sub–Laugh Factory presentation gave way to a stage act that showcased the self-acknowledged transvestite as a glam rock star. (“I am TV,” Izzard proudly told anyone who'd hear him, including some trashy daytime talk shows in the U.K.)
Townsend devised rocking, epic music for the act, and Izzard's whole persona mutated from the tacky casual of the second-tier comedy jobbers to full-on Marc Bolan in his prime.
“Coming out” (his words) as “TV” served Izzard's comedy well in the mid-'90s, as he started cutting ahead of his cohort of comedians. Many people still think of him as “that cross-dressing comic from the U.K.,” even though he's long accumulated several conventionally suited dramatic film roles. For this tour, an extension of the Stripped tour he began in 2008, he is “in boy mode.”
“Comedy is comedy,” he tells us. “When I arrived [in the U.S.], people thought the two things were part of the same: I had to put on makeup to do comedy. But I did comedy — I am an alternative comedian, and I just happen to be a transvestite.
“In the past I was in girl mode,” he continues. “Now I'm in boy mode, and in the future I could be in girl mode again. It's just like a woman: A woman can choose makeup or not makeup, heels or no heels; a woman has that choice anytime. No one would tell her what to do. I wish to have the same rights. I think it's in the United Nations charter that I have those rights.”
Whether in “boy mode” or in cosmopolitan, future-Europolitician mode, Izzard advocates for the persona that still defines him for many.
“Being a transvestite or being transgender is a very positive thing,” he says. He's not in the mood to joke or banter about specifics. “If it gets very clothes-centric, it gets very boring,” he says. “I can talk to you for four hours about being transvestite. The interesting thing is that if you are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, is that it's everyone in the world.
“You tend to grow up [and think], 'Oh my God, it's just me,' but it is every single culture in the world, it is human and it is a gift as well, it's a gift in L.A. and it's a gift in New York and it's a gift in London, and it's a gift in Yemen, where I was born. It could be a very tough gift — you may have to go through some very tough rites of passage, much tougher than any straight kid. That is your gift and your fight, your struggle.”
“I was born in an Arabic country,” says his Twitter autobiography. Believe expands on the details of his early years. Izzard is a “colonial,” a very British kid who happened to be born far from the motherland, in 1962, just as his family (like the Empire) was about to be expelled from Yemen by the forces of history. Izzard's father worked for BP, and after some anti-British unrest in 1963, the family moved to Belfast. During a recent promotional interview for Cars 2, Izzard and Owen Wilson joked around about the post–Gulf spill connotations of Harold Izzard's place of employment.
Izzard's mother died in 1968, when the comedian was 6. In a rather heavy-handed way, Townsend and Izzard make the Believe documentary out to be Izzard's version of Citizen Kane, with his mother's death the “Rosebud” that explains his unusually developed sense of ambition and his fearless pursuit of new challenges.
“If I do enough things, maybe she'll come back,” says a tearful Izzard late in the film, after Townsend has repeatedly confronted him with his childhood traumas. The traumas also include the obligatory middle-class stint at a soul-crushing boarding school and a brief infatuation with military life that entailed some formative experiences in the British version of the ROTC.
Maybe Townsend's theory is right — after all, she's been an intimate witness to Izzard's relentless (and largely successful) attempt to conquer the pinnacles of comedy, the West End, Broadway, Hollywood, television, cross-dressing, advocacy, marathoning, languages, politics, etc. Maybe, like Orson Welles' doomed Charles Foster Kane, Izzard is only trying to recover a lost paradise: in his case, a very British nuclear family.
But this explanation also seems a little limiting, a little simplistic. Izzard has mentioned studying with Robert McKee, the colorful screenwriting guru of the Story Seminars (featured in Charlie Kaufman's Adaptation), and a lot of his current presentation, including the authorized documentary produced by his close collaborator, feels like a feel-good story to sell to America: the overachiever, the obstacle-overcoming underdog, the man who believes “you can do anything, as long as you imagine yourself doing it first” (the movie, in fact, comes off less like Citizen Kane and more like Oprah favorite The Secret).
There's an earlier autobiography that might offer a more complex picture, perhaps one less packaged to make him into an urbane Euro-American with an unusual lust for glory caused by childhood trauma. In 1998, Izzard released a lavish photobook to coincide with the Dress to Kill tour, the show that introduced him to America (it was co-presented by Robin Williams) and established his public persona as what he would call a transvestite. Five years after “coming out,” Izzard's transvestism entailed mascara, nail polish, heels and outlandish couture outfits. Coupled with a Townsend rocking soundtrack, the effect was less “TV” than full-on rock star. Noel Fielding (later of the Mighty Boosh) probably was taking notes.
The Dress to Kill book includes long essays told by Izzard to a collaborator about his heroes (Steve McQueen, Oliver Reed), his life and his eventual aims.
On his comedy, and the Monty Python influence: “I do the thing they do. They take large subjects and talk complete bollocks about them, and they take bollocks subjects and talk about them in-depth as though they're hugely important.”
On his frustration at being a British artist after the loss of the Empire: “I wanted us to be playing on a world stage and I hated the idea of us not playing on a world stage.”
On being alienated: “I was in black PVC trousers, and orange Gaultier jacket and lipstick: 'I'm not really English, I'm just from outer space.' So you actually get the international passport to places, from being so weird you don't really seem to be from anywhere. You just seem to be a universal person.”
And: “Sean Connery played the big game on a world stage and that's all I'm interested in, which is ambition but I don't think ambition has to be bad. … Ambition is a bad word in Britain and that's bullshit.” (Izzard once told a career counselor in school he wanted to be an astronaut. “You're British,” the counselor laughed. “You gotta scale it back a bit.”)
On America: “I hate the idea of, 'It can't be done.' 'I want to be a transvestite and go to America.' 'Oh, it can't be done.' ”
And: “Whenever I leave America, even if I've been away for less than two weeks, it's a bit like I'm dead. It's like if you're not there generating buzz, your calls drop off. They're very, 'You're here, you're doing it, you're great … no, you're gone, you're dead.”
But we're back in 2011 and Eddie Izzard is in Paris, shortly before wowing, for the nth night in a row, a Francophone crowd with universal quips about typical Izzard stuff. “All you have to do is make your references easy to grab hold of,” he says over the phone. “Like I talk about Romans, Greeks, dinosaurs, God, supermarkets. There are so many things to talk about that are international references. But if you talk about very British stuff, make casual British references, it won't carry. And I studied that. I decided that I was doing a proper street act, so it was just me, making my way up the north side of the Eiger, so I had to make sure I had a lot of references that were universal. And that's why I'm about to play La Cigale in Paris, an 850-seater, in a second bloody language, which I think is something nobody has ever done.
“Hopefully a lot of alternative people will fill the Bowl,” he continues. “Well, I'm hoping for an alternative/mainstream crossover. Hopefully people know the direction I'm coming from. I've already played Madison Square Garden and sold that out. The Hollywood Bowl is bigger, but people do know that I talk very weird, surreal stuff. But, you know, if they watch the History Channel, the Discovery Channel, if they like Monty Python, if they like The Simpsons, they're gonna get it. I assume the intelligence of the audience. That's the weird thing I do. Television assumes the lowest common denominator, I assume that people are quite smart, and hopefully they'll come to the gig.
“I first started doing things in L.A. in 2002, 2003. I bought a place when I got The Riches. I love working there. Amazing people there. I would love to be able to walk more in L.A. — that's my one downside. If you're walking down the street in L.A., you can get pulled over by the police for being 'weird.' That is the funniest and weirdest thing.
“I did get stopped for jaywalking, which is bonkers. I got fined by the police for jaywalking, which is insane. If you think about it, the heritage of America, they crossed the West in wagons to get to California, and the idea that they could have been stopped crossing the American West by a policeman and told they were jaywalking is mad.”
“L.A. has ridiculous amounts of sunshine — coming from London and from Europe that's completely different. And there's great bits of L.A. that I love to go to. But you have to drive to them. I'm very happy to do stuff in L.A., 'cause I used to be a street performer in London and now to play the Hollywood Bowl, that's great.
“And to play the Hollywood Bowl is like the American dream.”