“Last time I was New York it was 1987,” recalls comedian Eddie Izzard, speaking via mobile phone from Stockholm, the current stop on the world tour of his solo show, Definite Article. “I gave a little performance down in Washington Square Park. I stood up and told the crowd I was from London, and people started shouting, ‘So what!’ I made about 25, 30 dollars — not bad, but I saw what a New York audience is capable of.”
History is unlikely to repeat itself when Izzard makes his official New York debut this week at P.S. 122. Times have changed for the mild-mannered, transvestite stand-up, whose surreal stream of droll observation has sold out two runs in the West End and won him a loyal international following. “We were a big hit in Reykjavik,” he declares with a contained astonishment. “Holland was completely indifferent to me. Though Tilburg was great. Loads of students. Young, hip, they really tuned in.”
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Just an ordinary bloke with penchant for glitzy cross-dressing and rumpled ironies, Izzard is himself a contradiction in comic terms. His doughy, pal-of-mine countenance and mumbling vulnerability belie his agile wit and fire engine-red nail polish. That he recently came out on British TV as an honest to goodness transvestite only means that he might show up on stage in a breathtaking crushed velvet orange number by Jean Paul Gaultier. No “my girdle’s killing me” jokes have slipped into his act. He remains steadfastly content dwelling on the reasons pears refuse to ripen or the bad luck of the Corinthians to get Paul as a pen pal.
Izzard remains unfazed by the Assault-and-Battery school of comedy. His is a peculiarly unthreatening, one is tempted to say fraternal, presence; aggression — sexuality for that matter — has been successfully sublimated into his refamiliarizing way of seeing. Guilty of anthropomorphism, literal-minded wordplay, and the occasional burst of vivid mime, Izzard turns us on through the curious turns of his wry, inventive mind. Non sequiturs with a faint unconscious ping replace the more customary wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am punch lines. Influenced by Billy Connolly and Monty Python at home, Izzard remains slightly awed by contemporary American comic prowess. “Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, Whoopie Goldberg, the early days of Saturday Night Live — this is the tradition I look to in my work.” He’d very much like to make forays into big-screen acting. He’ll soon appear in Christopher Hampton’s The Secret Agent, and has already won acclaim for his stage performances in The Cryptogram and Edward II. “I’m trying to give myself time to ease into more serious acting,” Izzard says. “When you do a lot of comedy you get comedy baggage. Everyone expects you to crack jokes no matter what and so you can lose credibility as a dramatic actor.”
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But if being a stand-up comic is an impediment to getting plum dramatic roles, many are talking about how Izzard’s recent acting experience has done wonders for his comedy. The critics have remarked on his increased confidence and heightened sense of theatricality; a few have even observed a new swagger to his stage walk. Of course there are those who chalk up the new attitude to his wardrobe overhaul. Before his newfound freedom as a declared cross-dresser, he would stumble on stage in whatever he happened to be wearing — blue jeans, a nondescript blazer, a beige polyester shirt with tails hanging out. “Someone once described my appearance as a wash of denim,” he says with a laugh. “I used to look, well, slobby. Now I can wear whatever I want. I know I don’t look like a woman when I wear makeup. I just hope I look like I’m part of this planet.” ❖