Comedy Chic

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I make no apologies for the fact that I will from time to time use these pages to offer my devoted readers profiles of individuals that I find especially noteworthy or interesting. In truth, I find my tastes (if they can be called that) are often shared by at least a fair percentage of my fellow Caledonians.

Therefore in that vein I offer the following excellent look at one of my favorite comedians and people, Mr. Eddie Izzard.

If you don’t like it, get your own blog.

So there.


The following is reposted from the New York Times.

Eddie Izzard’s Master Plan

EDDIE IZZARD’S metaphors don’t sit still, onstage or off; they leap into the conversation with an almost physical presence, even when he’s simply describing how tough it is for a comic to be accepted as a dramatic actor. “If you arrive in comedy,” he said, “the studios won’t let you get off that horse. You have to shoot it, you have to kill it, you have to Bill Murray kill it, boom!” and he mimes shooting a horse as he explains, “Bill Murray successfully did that so he could get to the dramatic place he wanted to be; he really had to kill that ‘Ghostbusters’ place.”

The man who chats offstage is a less frenetic version of the performer whose fans recite lines from his stand-up shows, like “Dress to Kill,” the HBO special that made him a cult figure 10 years ago. In person, he also does voices and accents, talks about Napoleon and George Washington, drops in bits of songs. (“It’s going to be about cats!” he said, jumping into a spoof Broadway musical and cheerfully singing, “He’s dead, he’s in a box,” all as a quick aside.) He pulls out a phone and shows photos of a recent vacation with his father and brother to Yemen, where he was born before the family returned to Britain when he was 1.

But just as the inspired silliness of Bill Murray shooting the “Ghostbusters” horse almost obscures a deeper point — Mr. Izzard has analyzed that career for all it’s worth — the surreal wit veils a methodical determination to be taken seriously in drama. The guy who may be the most brilliant stand-up of his generation really wants to act. His ambitions are huge, but when he talks about his step-by-step career path he makes himself sound like some plodding worker ant.

That would be complicated enough without adding — and he’s the one who brings it up first — that he’s a transvestite, or an “off-duty transvestite” as he tends to put it now, since he’s been appearing onstage in jeans and a blue sport jacket in a workshop version of “Stripped,” the show he’ll take on a four-month national tour starting next month.

That was hardly his look in “Dress to Kill” or other stand-up shows. Then he appeared in heavy eye shadow, glittery shirts and sometimes skirts and fishnet stockings as he roamed the stage delivering riffs about culture, history and language — routines that are literally loopy as they swoop and circle back on themselves. In his recent New York show he quacked like an evil duck left behind after Noah loaded the ark (because, really, would the ducks have drowned?) and acted out a scene in which Jesus returns to heaven and tells his Father how he messed up on Earth. (How did he die? “Donkey cart accident.”) As he interspersed these pieces with bits about Wikipedia or updating computers, out of nowhere the evil duck quacked again.

But he did all this looking like his character in “The Riches,” the television series in which he plays Wayne Malloy, the father of a family of “travelers” or con artists who have taken on false identities and settled into a McMansion. Wayne masquerades as a lawyer named Doug Rich, which means that these days Eddie Izzard could pass for a corporate lawyer. (He is also an executive producer of the series, whose second season begins Tuesday on the FX network.)

“The Riches” and his nonfemme appearance are part of his bid for the leading roles that have eluded him onscreen. He was most widely seen as the computer genius Roman Nagel in “Ocean’s 12” and “Ocean’s 13” and has another small role in “Valkyrie,” the Tom Cruise World War II movie coming this summer, but more often he has landed in parts that make you wonder what he was thinking, like the mad scientist in the flop “My Super Ex-Girlfriend.”

He has had more substantial roles in plays, including David Mamet’s “Cryptogram” in London and “A Day in the Death of Joe Egg” in the West End and on Broadway (where he was nominated for a Tony). During the time of that run he lived in the West Village, and we met at Tavern on Jane, a casual restaurant a block from his old street of brick town houses. “It’s really beautiful,” he said of the neighborhood, and he recalled “going to that corner shop to get as much wood as I could to heat up — the snows of 2003.” As he does onstage, he sometimes breaks off sentences and zooms ahead, as if his mind were racing too fast to bother finishing; the rest is clear, anyway.

His humor reflects the scattershot lunacy of Monty Python, but with flashes of Robin Williams’s manic energy and a sophisticated silliness that is entirely his own. Walk into a room, say “Cake? Or death,” and some people will fall on the floor laughing at the phrase from one of the most uproarious and sharpest parts of “Dress to Kill.” He imagined what it would have been like if the Church of England, instead of the Romans, had tried to conquer the world. It might have resembled a polite invitation to tea with the vicar, he said in the act. “Cake? Or death?”

Describing Mr. Izzard’s humor, Mr. Williams said by e-mail: “It sounds like a contradiction, but his comedy is gentle cutting edge. Kind of like a velvet razor.”

Part of this edge comes from walking onstage not knowing exactly where he’ll begin, in performances that have a sense of direction rather than a script. I saw two workshop shows a few nights apart at the Union Square Theater, and the second began with a completely fresh, high-energy rush of material, a dazzling little prologue: he danced out as though he were on Broadway, raced through a snippet about “Hamlet” (“Dad is dead?”), did Christopher Walken as George Bush, and said he is clueless about Broadway shows because “I’m a straight transvestite; I know nothing about musicals.”

He doesn’t always mention being a transvestite in his shows, he said. But he did in the two I saw, and it worked as a disarming strategy: acknowledge it for fans who are wondering what happened, then move on. “I am a transvestite; I’m just off-duty at the moment,” he told the audience, and immediately went on, “I never was a transvestite; it was a tax thing.”

As he explained later: “Some people would heckle me and say ‘Where’s the dress?’ and I’d say ‘Don’t oppress me, you Nazi’ — tends to shut them up. Because I have fought for the right to be able to wear a dress, not that I have to wear a dress. I didn’t jump out of a not-wearing-dress box into a have-to-wear-dress box.”

But isn’t he now in a have-to-wear-pants box for career purposes?

“Slightly,” he acknowledged. “Socially, politically, the number of out transvestites in the public eye are few.” And in American-accented voices he imagined one studio executive trying to persuade another to hire him:

“ ‘Yeah, he’s a transvestite — but he hasn’t been wearing a dress for a while.’ ”

“ ‘Yeah, I suppose that’s O.K.’ ”

Being a transvestite is “still not part of the establishment,” he said. “ ‘Twelve transvestite senators turned up today’ — it hasn’t been said yet. You’re always sort of outside the loop.”

When he started performing in England, he wore ordinary men’s clothes but worried that the press would learn of his transvestism and run with the news in a lurid way. He told reporters that he was a transvestite; they thought it was a joke. “So I thought, I’ll wear a dress and wear makeup,” he said, “and they wrote, ‘O.K., he is a transvestite, but he looks a mess.’ ”

“By the time I got to America in ’96, I thought, I’m going to bring it to America so I don’t have to do a two-step here,” he said. Eventually people saw him only as the cross-dressing stand-up, though, so he veered again, and here he is as Doug Rich.

Sort of. In the poster art for “Stripped” he is wearing an open lacy shirt, suit and jeweled collar pin, an image he described as rock ’n’ roll. He may be wearing a bit of eye makeup — more than most men but less than Keith Richards. It’s a dandyish, Beau Brummel look that hints at the balance he has to find at this stage of his career.

Like so many performers, he can trace the first impulse of that career to childhood. His father worked for British Petroleum, and after the family moved back to Britain, his mother died of cancer when Eddie was 6.

“The acting career is the most important, because that’s what I wanted to do in the first place,” he said. “When I was 7, I wanted to act. I saw a kid up onstage, and I think it was a substitute for Mum dying. The audience was showing affection or admiration for something they saw onstage, and I just thought, I need that.”

He has plenty of adulation now. John Cleese famously called him “the lost Python,” and there is wide opinion that in his generation — he’s 46 — his only competition for sheer comic genius is Chris Rock.

But no one is saying, “Wonder who’s better, Izzard or Sean Penn?” Why is he so bent on doing drama?

“Because the world stopped me getting anywhere. I was ready at, really, 7. I was ready at 10.” Even now, he said, his attitude is a relentless “I will not stop until I get the thing.”

It’s not as if he was a natural at stand-up. He was more facile at sketch comedy but couldn’t get a job; he tried street performing and was bad at it. And at first, he said: “I could not do stand-up to save my life. Apparently now I’m quite good at it, but I know how I’ve got that good: it’s just by — I will do gig after gig after gig after gig.”

He can be an extremely effective actor. His strongest screen role so far has been as Charlie Chaplin in Peter Bogdanovich’s underrated 2001 film, “The Cat’s Meow,” about a 1920s murder on William Randolph Hearst’s yacht. His Chaplin is a driven, complex character, self-absorbed yet madly in love with Hearst’s mistress.

Mr. Bogdanovich said he had never heard of Eddie Izzard when his name was mentioned for the role but went to see his stand-up act, then asked him to lunch: “I remember he came in wearing a padded bra, and I thought, ‘O.K., I’m not going to say anything about this.’ ” Mr. Bogdanovich now gives Mr. Izzard huge credit for helping to shape the character by improvising and working on dialogue.

“Hollywood and movie producers tend to think in clichés,” Mr. Bogdanovich added, considering why Mr. Izzard’s film career hasn’t taken off. “They just see him as a stand-up who occasionally acts, and they don’t realize the depth of his talent. He can do just about anything. Eddie is very, very gifted, not just as an actor but as a writer and a shaper of material.”

“The Riches” gets him partway to the dramatic place where he wants to be. The Malloys — Wayne, his wife, Dahlia (played by Minnie Driver), and their three children — are acting every minute of their lives, pretending to be the Riches. But the show is deliberately not Wayne-playing-Doug-channeling-Eddie. The series has its dark moments even as it puts a clever, mordant spin on the idea of upward mobility and reinvention in America.

Fun and smart though it is, though, it’s not in ground-breaking “Sopranos” territory, and Wayne Malloy is not quite a star-making role. Last season’s ratings were good, not spectacular. And as the screenwriters’ strike was ending, FX decided not to go back into production to complete the season, truncating it to the seven episodes already shot. John Landgraf, the president of FX, said it had been a practical and economic decision, because the last episodes would have competed with a flood of returning network series. If the audience grows a bit, he said, the show could return for a third season.

To Mr. Izzard, “The Riches” is a major step toward other leading roles and a way to leverage himself into even more stand-up. An American series seen in foreign countries, he said, opens the door to doing stand-up there. He has performed in French and says he plans to learn German and Russian well enough to do gigs in those languages too. If he is a worker ant, he’s an ant quietly plotting world domination.

And while few people would bet on “The Riches” returning, he insisted he’s not worried about Season 2, but Season 7. He would not budge from that position; he is relentless. The difficulty of bringing back “The Riches” was, of all things, the question he would not hear.

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Now playing: Counting Crows – Cowboys
via FoxyTunes

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2 Comments

  1. My Dear Lord BardHaven-

    Thanks for this profile. Eddie Izzard has been one of my favorite comedians since the late 90s. I have not seen as much of his dramatic work, but will now actively seek it out.

    E.B.

  2. I’ve loved his comedy; I’ve loved his acting; more, I love his stories and his interviews, because he is so unconventional, so completely his own brand of reality–which is why the group that was Python succeeded, which is why Williams succeeded–because they were and are not like everyone else. These are the forces that other actors and comedians imitate. Greg Behrendt ( http://www.gregbehrendt.com/ ) is another comedian who’s established himself on his own, without imitation. It’s sad that genuine individuals are so rare. But I’m glad we have them.


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