FOR THE RECORD, Eddie Izzard pronounces his name with the accent on the second syllable (Iz-AHRD). But in his typically easygoing style, he admits he doesn't mind when it rhymes with "lizard." "People in America do ask, which is very polite. Even Letterman asked. I think it might be that whole Ellis Island thing, with that bewildering choice of different names. I used to do a routine where I'd imagine the custom official asking, 'What's your name?' 'John Smith.' He gives it a stamp. 'From now on, your name's Rabinowitz.'
A Contemporary Theater May 30-June 3
That's a typically dry comment from this master of gentle absurdity. Performing comedy for over 15 years, in an interview Izzard's riffs still sound fresh, off-the-cuff, and chatty. An improvisational brilliance in his work resembles his idol, Lenny Bruce (whom Izzard portrayed last year in Lenny, directed by Sir Peter Hall in London's West End), but with none of Bruce's anger or bitterness. Instead, his style is sweet, even cuddly, if you can imagine a large, goateed transvestite with a wickedly stylish taste in pantsuits as "cuddly."
"Lenny seemed to get angry through the drugs, and when America got laid back in the '50s, he got even angrier. I've only been angry a couple of times in my life. When my mother died as a child, I remember being angry, but then I guess I decided that shit happens and I haven't been angry about much since. Once I found acting as a teenager, I became much more positive about everything, really."
Everything including, surprisingly, politics. "I don't really get angry about politics because I'm actually quite positive about what politics can do. I'm one of probably three people who go banging on about Europe and what that could be." In fact, unlike many of his fellow Brits, Izzard is a genuine xenophile. "When you're born in Yemen and spend your childhood partly in Ireland and then Wales, the whole 'England First!' thing seems silly. Being 'English,' how they talk about it, is all Victorian anyway. We're all a mixture of so many people who invaded that it makes the idea of 'English' just nonsense. Xenophobia is just a post-Empire hangover."
ONE OF THE FUNNIEST riffs in Izzard's repertoire is a sort of idiot's guide to world history, which starts with the Druids (he suggests they built Strawhenge and Woodhenge before Stonehenge) and carries right through to the present with many, many tangents along the way. He cheerfully lauds Italians, Germans, Americans, and even the French for some unexpected virtues. The Italians, he quips, are much happier riding on mopeds and saying "ciao" than they ever were being Fascists. As for America, while other Europeans decry our cultural imperialism, he claims that Shaggy and Scooby-Doo rank up with Falstaff as that rarest of literary creations: the sympathetic coward.
Izzard is famous for his offstage transvestism, though he's much less likely to draw attention to it onstage these days. "Some people over here think because of Monty Python or Pantomime Dames that blokes wearing dresses is somehow more acceptable in Britain, but it isn't really. Surely you've got the same thing. There's Uncle Milty, and Kids in the Hall—wait, they're Canadian. So there's Uncle Milty. But the Panto thing is a hop, skip, and jump from any tradition. It's really just this awful Christmas show that all the kids go to and hate. Python did it because they had no women, and they weren't good at writing women's roles, they've said as much. They'd play old, screechy women who are racist and just terrible. But if they'd truly been transvestites, that would be banner headlines."
It's not just Izzard's costume or subject matter that sets him apart, though. In a media saturated with mediocre comedy, he's not trying to wring laughs out of his audience; instead, he's up there entertaining himself as much as he's entertaining us. He's also still eager to return to the sort of serious dramatic roles that have earned him praise from mainstream critics. "I'd really like to try Richard III. If you can pull off the chatting up of the wife of the man he'd just killed in the second act, you've got it made. I said that to Peter Hall, and he counter-proposed, 'Iago.' I like playing shitheads. We've got to find an Othello, so I was thinking Samuel Jackson."
A well-loved, cross-dressing stand-up comic playing one of Shakespeare's great villains? It's an absurdity, but if Izzard's career has proven one thing, it's that a well-executed absurdity or two can be very successful indeed.