Eddie Izzard - Biography
By Tony Goldmark
The best comedians are wholly unique, and few are more unique than Eddie Izzard. A pre-eminent stand-up comedian of his generation and country, the incredibly hilarious Izzard sometimes seems to defy the laws of comedy itself, as he makes laughs appear out of thin air. His uncannily instinctual delivery comes off as simultaneously conversational and wise, as he miraculously ekes thunderous guffaws out of exaggerating odd little bits and pieces of everything from the mundane to the world-changing major events. But perhaps what’s most impressive about Izzard is that on paper, his material is often not unlike that of millions of lesser comics – what really sets him apart is his impeccable, inimitable delivery, which comes across as an almost childlike expression of whimsy and confusion at the baffling world surrounding him as he tries to fight nonsense with nonsense. By his definition he talks about “complete rubbish” on stage, but in fact many of his topics deal with peculiar details of science and world history, betraying an intellectualism seldom seen in comedy anywhere. But just as often, he could find revelatory observations about the most common of activities. As he seamlessly (and sometimes hilariously seamfully) switches between pre-rehearsed material and random improvisation – and he’s so quick that you can hardly tell which is which – he often arrives at deftly profound conclusions, through his methods of comparing everything to everything.
Edward John Izzard was born on February 7, 1962 in Aden, Yemen, to British parents – his mother was a nurse and his father an accountant for British Petroleum. They moved to Northern Ireland a year after Eddie was born, and then later to South Wales, three areas racked with revolution and political upheaval. They finally settled in the much quieter East Sussex seaside town of Bexhill in the south of England, where in 1968, when young Eddie was only six, his mother tragically died of cancer. Eddie was sent off to a boarding school in Porthcawl – a jarring transition, to say the least – and he desperately sought a creative outlet for himself. Desperately wanting to be an actor, Izzard tried out for every school play but never quite won the recognition of his drama teacher. Outside of class, however, he discovered he had a real skill for making people laugh. He became a great fan of Peter Sellers and Monty Python, and also gained a unique appreciation for the oft-maligned gift of mime, which later became a valuable tool in projecting himself onstage as a one-man universe.
After dropping out of college (having failed a degree course in accountancy), Izzard spent much of the 1980s working as a street performer in London’s Covent Gardens and New York’s Central Park. He performed in sketch groups at the Edinburgh Festival (where he was nominated for a Perrier award), and in small stand-up comedy clubs around London, all the while slowly but surely accumulating the cult fame – and eventually the mainstream fame – he sought. In 1991 he won the very first annual “Time Out Comedy Award” for burgeoning new talent from London’s Time Out Magazine, and by 1993, he was ready for West End.
His first live album/video (he would go on to release one of each for every tour, often with identical material) was 1993’s Live At The Ambassadors, recorded live at West End during a four-week run that proved so popular, it had to be extended to three months. In the first ten minutes alone he introduced, to his biggest audience yet, several staples of his act for years to come: playing around with the microphone, intense hyperbole, self-deprecation and historical jokes. The show won Eddie a British Comedy Award for “Top Stand-Up,” an Olivier Award nomination for “Outstanding Achievement” and the honor of appearing as the “Showcase Artist” at the Just For Laughs festival in Montreal.
One thing that separated Ambassadors from Izzard’s later performances is, for the sake of greater commercial viability, he was dressed like a man. Eddie had been interested in transvestitism since his earliest youth, when he noticed that women had “total clothing rights” – that is, the right to wear dresses or suits, whichever they preferred – and so, he reasoned, why shouldn’t men be allowed the same? Though completely heterosexual, he found wearing dresses appealing in a thoroughly non-sexual way (he’s called himself “a lesbian trapped in a man’s body”), and went public with this interest in 1985. He didn’t wear women’s clothes on camera, however, until his second album/video, 1994’s Unrepeatable, a show where he talked about everything from commercials to animals to horror movies (“I wouldn’t go to Castle Dracula, sir – you’ll get FILMED up there!”), and most memorably his experience dealing with “dickhead men” who’d heckle him for being a transvestite – “they hang out in groups of five, because they have a fifth of a personality each.” The same year, Izzard appeared at the West End again, this time as a proper actor, playing the title role in “Edward II” and starring in the premiere of David Mamet’s “The Cryptogram.”
In 1996 came Izzard’s third album/video, Definite Article. The video began with an elaborate filmed tribute to The Italian Job, one of Eddie’s favorite movies. Then he appeared onstage combining his passions for non-sequitors and theatrical extravagance by performing in front of an enormous replica of an open book – at the beginning of the show it separated and Eddie emerged from the center on a large chair atop a staircase. Then, Eddie immediately mocked the pretension therein – “They call it ‘coming out of a book,’ and you’ve got to do it some time in your life.” By now, he’d landed upon a brilliant formula for his act – in a voice only slightly loopier than his own, he combined common language with intellectual subjects, veering in and out of topics with reckless abandon, juxtaposing brutal frankness with British gentility, injecting ordinary conversation into extraordinary situations and vice versa, often building from a supposed comprehensibility to a veritable nonsense-fueled orgy of words and syllables, then getting extra laughs by injecting a logical question into his own nonsense. In Definite he discussed dog food, fresh fruit, Pavlov, quiz shows, James Bond, Hannibal crossing the Alps on elephant-back (“they were NEVER expecting that”), St. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians (“You arrogant bastard, sending a letter to an entire city! You daft git!”) and playing clarinet in the school band (“The teacher would go, ‘this is a God-awful band. I know, I’ll get their parents to listen to this. Then maybe they’ll kill ‘em’”). After recording this show at the Shaftsbury Theatre, he went on a four-month world tour with the material, hitting up Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Paris (where he did the entire show in French!) and a four sold-out week in New York. In his fourth album/video, Glorious, in 1997, Izzard became even more ambitious – though he switched topics frequently, about half of Glorious was spent re-telling the Bible, from the beginning of Earth to the firey apocalypse. In between he discussed Noah’s Ark (the story doesn’t work, he argues, because aquatic and semi-aquatic creatures like ducks wouldn’t have cared if the world flooded), the nativity (the Three Wise Men scramble to find Christmas AND birthday gifts for Jesus) and Armageddon (which Eddie presumes will be due to a massive computer error).
He continued to tour extensively, and appeared as a character actor in such films as The Avengers, Mystery Men and All The Queen’s Men. Then in 1998, at a show in San Francisco he recorded perhaps his seminal work, the CD/DVD Dressed To Kill (also the title of his paperback tour diary, co-written with David Quantick). On Dressed, he spent slightly less time on bizarre whimsical stretches, but made up for it with some of his most incisive comments yet, about gun control (“‘guns don’t kill people, people do’ but I think the gun helps”), Scooby Doo (who, Izzard successfully argues, is the most important character in the history of American culture), Euro Disneyland (“better make the castle a bit bigger, they’ve actually got them here”), and of course San Francisco (“the fog comes in quicker than the taxis…of which there are five!”) He also has a bit of fun with his own image, as a comic who alternately makes jokes about factual events and complete utter lies, when he mentions that Englebert Humperdink died in a car crash earlier that day. Upon the audience’s reaction, Izzard alternates between non-verbally shaking it off as a joke, and solemnly nodding his head, about half a dozen times until the audience has literally NO CLUE whether Humperdink is still alive or not, and starts laughing at the sheer nervousness, thus creating a fantastic piece of meta humor Andy Kaufman would have been proud of.
In the middle of Dressed, Izzard tells perhaps his funniest and most well-known bit of all time, a bit about the Chuch of England commonly called “Cake Or Death.” Discussing the relaxed, almost indifferent attitude towards spirituality that Anglicans have, Izzard wonders how they would’ve handled the Spanish Inquisition – “You must have tea and cake with me, or you die!” He then considered that the easiest question in the world might well be “Cake or death?” “Um, cake please.” “VERY WELL! Give him cake!” This leads to one of Izzard’s brilliant one-man sketches – everyone wants cake, they almost run out, one infidel accidentally says “death” but MEANS “cake,” then they run out and the choice is “Or Death”, etc.
In 1999, Izzard proved himself as a regular “Lost Python” (as John Cleese himself considered him) by hosting “Life Of Python,” the 30th anniversary Monty Python reunion special on BBC2. Izzard’s sixth CD, Circle, was recorded in New York City in 2000, and contained even more of the same, though of course in the case of Izzard “same” just means “still wildly different, but wildly different in a similar sort of way.” He continued questioning religion for a long bit, depicting a meeting between two enemies in the Crusades BOTH fighting for Jesus (“Really? …Look, we’ve come all this way…”), then arguing that the presence of dinosaur fossils suggest that The Bible was made up, since it had no “…but BEFORE that, God created the dinosaurs, which were a bit crap, so fuck ‘em.” Then started the runner where he’d sing “blasphemy…blasphe-you…” Elsewhere, he suggests changing the British national anthem to “God Attack The Queen” (“Send big dogs after her / That bite her bum”), considers the implications of a monkey with a gun, and in the middle of discussing Irish history to a bunch of blank American faces, sighs “do you know there’s other countries?” The album ends with a classic bit just as notorious as “cake or death.” Titled “Death Star Canteen,” it depicts a pointless argument that goes nowhere, between Darth Vader and a cafeteria employee who doesn’t recognize him. “I am your boss!” “You’re Mister Stephens?”
In the mid-00’s, Izzard temporarily took a break from stand-up to focus on a career in Hollywood. He’s since appeared in such films as Ocean’s Twelve, My Super Ex-Girlfiend, Across The Universe and Valkyrie, and most notably did the voice of Reepicheep in The Chronicles Of Narnia: Prince Caspian. In 2007, he co-wrote and starred in the FX series “The Riches” as Wayne Malloy, the head of a family of grifters who accidentally kill a rich family, and make the best of the situation by assuming their identities. Its’ pilot premiere scored the second-highest premiere ratings in FX history, behind only The Shield. Eddie Izzard has turned from a freewheeling, cross-dressing, bizarre little twisted scamp, into one of England’s top comedy stars, but fortunately, as the lucky bastards who managed to see him on his 2008 “Stripped” tour can attest (a tour which, to this date of writing, has NOT yet been documented as a CD or DVD), Eddie Izzard hasn’t come close to mellowing his crazy.