It‘s not easy being Eddie Izzard in America. A heterosexual English transvestite comedian touring a country that makes little distinction between Britons and homosexuals, let alone straight TVs and queer ones, Izzard is a standup whose shows are filled with long, elliptical jags of idiosyncratic humor, obscure historical references, and internal dialogues that trail off into uneasy silences.
”Robert Graves,“ Izzard says, explaining how he works historical characters into his routine, ”took the bones of history in I, Claudius and filled in all the characters, saying, ’They could have been like this.‘“
Clearly, Eddie Izzard is an English comic very different from fish-and-chips standups like Alexei Sayle and Frank Skinner — the kind of ”bloke“ funnymen who curse, wear leather jackets and talk a lot about drinking and messy sex, and who, to Americans sedated by daily doses of Leno or Letterman, seem little more than soccer thugs with microphones. Izzard also curses, of course, but his spiel so celebrates history and pop culture that we never notice its many ”fuck-all“s — yet neither does his routine’s smartness come off as cerebrally intimidating. He is a one-man Monty Python crew, a surreal Seutonious leading us through questionable interpretations of history.
At first glance, Eddie Izzard would seem an impossibly hard sell in this country, yet his maiden tour here, 1998‘s Dress To Kill, was a coast-to-coast smash, leading to an HBO special that spread his name even wider — paving the way for his new performance, Circle, opening June 13 at the Henry Fonda Theater.
On one particular afternoon Izzard sits puffing on a cigarette in the Living Room, as the Chateau Marmont’s lounge is known. He‘s staying here to get a little R and R — though he’s been lined up for a full press of interviews — before appearances in Vancouver and Seattle. ”You couldn‘t possibly,“ he almost whispers into a cell phone, ”get me some American Spirit cigarettes, could you? The yellow ones.“ He’s made California‘s anti-smoking obsession a keystone of his act, predicting a day when we’ll be forced to socialize in libraries. ”No smoking in clubs where bands are playing is insane. You can‘t smoke in the Viper Room — what self-respecting viper would go there?“
Trim if not sleek, the 38-year-old resembles a wayward son of Oliver Reed or Ozzy Osbourne, his eyes poised to go into their trademark pop at any moment. He’s sporting only a little liner around them today and wears a black long-sleeved T-shirt, old black 501s (cuffed), a Guess? woman‘s watch, a small earring and striped high-heeled sandals. He looks, in the subdued light of the Living Room, ready to take on the press.
”I am an action transvestite,“ he says. ”I always wanted to be Emma Peel“ — just one way Izzard defines himself onstage. A silkier persona, the ”executive transvestite,“ is another. ”I feel that I’m a cross between a butch and a femme lesbian,“ he says, explaining his conflicted personality. Of course, such contrasts may be lost on his audiences, even in the relatively enlightened U.K.
”Everyone assumes I‘m gay,“ he says. ”Before, I said I was heterosexual because I’ve always fancied women. And then journalists wrote it up as ‘He insists he is heterosexual’ — implying the opposite. So I said forget the heterosexual bit, I‘ll just say I’m a male lesbian. Oh, it gets confusing, but I think sexuality is confusing.“
Izzard worked his way up from street performances in the 1980s, to the club circuit, to Edinburgh. ”My mum died when I was 6, and I think my childhood got knocked off and emotionally crashed there,“ he says, trying to explain his drive to perform. ”Later I came back and reclaimed that kid who was preserved as a 6-year-old. And adults seem to really like an adult behaving as a child. But if something works I tend not to analyze it too much.“
In Dress To Kill, American audiences got to see Izzard‘s full range of weirdness in a show that ran two and a half hours — unheard of, for standup — and during half of which he gave the appearance of a slightly drunken man talking to himself. Which was part of the show’s genius: What often seemed like abrupt self-realizations or free-associative ad libs were actually pre-planned moments so convincingly delivered that Izzard often gave the impression of a comedian suddenly confronted by a career crisis. The show wheeled from a Cockney-voice version of Star Wars, to an overview of Britain‘s impoverished manned space program (”astronauts“ climbing up very long ladders to see over rooftops), to loony impersonations of entire religions and nation states.
Circle promises to cover similar ground, although Izzard’s appearance has somewhat changed. He took to Dress To Kill‘s stage with frosted hair and blue eyeliner, worn along with a woman’s Chinese silk tunic and black PVC pants. Totally femme, if not flaming. Advance word, however, has it that for Circle, Izzard‘s look has butched up a bit by including a pair of trousers under a minidress, high-heeled boots and, sometimes, a goatee.
While the American and Canadian press has unequivocally embraced Circle as a tour de force, British reviewers earlier complained that he sometimes lacked his mischievous stage energy and that the show consisted of too much recycled material, as well as awkwardly passe political statements. (”He’s not a polemicist, but a one-man wardrobe to Narnia,“ sniffed the London Times reviewer.) The British press is notorious for turning against those it‘s used to praising, and perhaps these reviews were the measure of an opinion tide turning — or they may have been legitimate criticisms about a new show that was just finding its voice.
”I didn’t used to talk about political stuff in my work, which was observational and surreal,“ he says. ”In Britain they act surprised if I do anything political. But I‘m quite positive about what you can do with politics. I don’t believe all politicians are bullshit. I believe there are some out there who want to set up better systems and better ideas.“
Such as the current Labor Party prime minister, whom Izzard wholeheartedly supports. ”My politics are generally Tony Blair‘s end of town,“ he explains. ”People say he’s dictatorial, but I think he‘s got a heart and he cares.“ Izzard also sees the new Europe as the best way of ending nationalisms and political superstition. Which may explain his appearances in French nightclubs. ”I haven’t really taken off there yet — about 70 percent of the audiences are bilingual Anglo-Saxon, and the rest French. But it‘s just a joy to do, getting laughs in a foreign language — comedy is human, not national.“
Beyond his concerts and occasional forays into live theater (including a critically acclaimed portrayal of Lenny Bruce in a Peter Hall–staged London revival of Julian Barry’s play Lenny), Izzard continues to appear in films (Velvet Goldmine, Mystery Men), though these cinema works have not fared as well as his theater projects. He‘s hopeful about the upcoming Shadow of the Vampire, the movie about the filming of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (starring Willem Dafoe). He has a secondary part in it, as the actor portraying estate agent Jonathan Harker, whom he imbues with typical Izzardian ambiguity. ”There was one dangerous scene in the opening, where I come down a 50-foot ladder,“ he recalls. ”I told the director, ‘I’ll do it, but if I die, then I want you to know I‘m not happy.’“
Eddie Izzard performs Circle at the Henry Fonda Theater, 6126 Hollywood Blvd.; Tues.-Sat., June 13-17, 8 p.m.; (323) 468-1770.