Eddie Izzard On Comedy, Drag And Being The 'Lost Python'

May 5, 2014

The world has showered many accolades on British comedian Eddie Izzard. The New York Times claims that Izzard’s only competition for sheer comic genius is Chris Rock. John Cleese once said he’s “the lost Python.” Robin Williams called Izzard a “velvet razor… gentle cutting edge.”

But if you ask Izzard to describe himself, he opts for: ”star of stage and screen. Tireless supporter of charity. Runner. Political campaigner. Fashion icon. Human.”

Izzard’s latest 25-nation stand-up tour is called “Force Majeure.” He’s is performing across the United States this month and through the summer.


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The world has showered many accolades on British comedian Eddie Izzard. The New York Times claims that Izzard's only competition for sheer comic genius is Chris Rock. John Cleese once said that he's the Lost Python. And Robin Williams called Izzard a velvet razor, gentle cutting edge.

But if you ask Izzard to describe himself, he opts for runner, political campaigner, fashion icon and human. True. Aren't we all human? And yet, not that many humans have the brilliance and courage to rocket to fame doing things like strutting on stage in drag and poking fun at the Spanish Inquisition.

But that's pure Izzard. Here he is in his 2000 HBO special "Dressed to Kill" where he rifts on the idea that the Inquisition would have been far different if it had been run by the Church of England instead of the Roman Catholic Church.


EDDIE IZZARD: Cake or death? Cake, please. Very well. Give him cake. Oh, thanks very much. It's very nice. You, cake or death? Uh, cake for me too, please. Very well. Give him cake too. We're going to run out of cake at this rate.

CHAKRABARTI: Eddie Izzard's latest 25 nation standup tour is called "Force Mejeure." He's performing across the United States this month and through the summer. Now, Izzard is a comedian. But when he came to our studios, the first thing he did was a little fact checking.

IZZARD: Thank you very much. I've got to pick on one thing. Fashion icon? I said that I was a fashion icon?

CHAKRABARTI: Right here on the front page of your bio on your website. There it is. I've got it printed out.

IZZARD: I say on the...


IZZARD: Hang on, but that's not me saying that.

CHAKRABARTI: It's the bio.

IZZARD: Oh, I see that's some - oh, right, no.

CHAKRABARTI: Notice how it says at the top, in your own words, his youth in his own words.

IZZARD: Yeah, I think it's the next bit on from that.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, in fact...

IZZARD: So, I will get on to the guys at the website. So we're going to take out fashion.

CHAKRABARTI: You can tell them to add fact checker too, because it's not that often that I have a comedian come in and the first thing he does is fact check our scripts.

IZZARD: I know. Well, it's - I'm a fashion - I'm not a victim, I'm a, you know, someone who is a bloke, who's put on a bit of makeup, and you know, I've got to carve a line as a very blokey body that I have. It's - what is the word, the adjective that I'm looking for? I am - I'm someone - I'm a fashion learner. I have learnt fashion.

I don't have it built in. And the people do think, oh, you're a transvestite, you'd notice. I don't have that design thing built in. I've had to work very hard on that. So I'm a fashion student, a vague student learner. I don't know. This isn't the great - I haven't got the line polished yet for what I am in the fashion thing. But sometimes vast mistake of fashion, I think, would have been...

CHAKRABARTI: Vast mistake?

IZZARD: Well, especially when I first came out. That was even - before even blokey attire I was all over the place.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, let's hear a little bit more about this current tour that you are on, the "Force Majeure" tour.


CHAKRABARTI: French for force of nature, I believe.

IZZARD: Yeah. People say act of God, I translate as force of nature. It means major force literal.

CHAKRABARTI: Is it a declaration of your own talents on stage?

IZZARD: No, I think it's a declaration of what everyone needs to be in life. We need to be a force of nature. We need to actually - if life is like a river, we're paddling in our own little boats. You've got to paddle like crazy, mate. You can't - you've got to either forward paddle or back paddle. I sometimes back paddle, which is quite interesting.

I back peddled or paddled to stop my comedy career rising so that I do drama, so that I can now do "Hannibal," and "The Riches," and "Valkyrie," and "Oceans," movies. To bring that up while I was back-peddling and paddling on my comedy career.

CHAKRABARTI: And we had mentioned in the introduction that you call your comedy Python-esque and John Cleese himself said you're the Lost Python. I mean, that's quite incredible praise.

IZZARD: That's top honor, that's - yeah, I asked John as well, 'cause I wasn't sure if he had said it, and he said he did say it. And I think he meant, I didn't quite ask him what he quite meant, and I think it's that I was just born 20 years too late.

CHAKRABARTI: Were they an unconscious influence early in your career, or very conscious one?

IZZARD: In my standup career, totally conscious. I mean, I borrowed from a John Cleese sketch, a very early sketch, which I just think we did. We just did one of his sketches from his early days when he was even pre-python. But yeah, it was - I was just trying to be in Python. I was trying to do surreal stuff.

At the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland, which is a big place everyone goes in Europe, and yeah, I was just trying to do that. And I couldn't sketch comedy going. And then I did street performing, which totally took me away from Python. I did physical situation comedy, getting on five-foot unicycle, escaping from a pair of handcuffs. So I learned how to play myself.

This was something I realized I felt America did better than Britain. And then the standup became this perfect mix of the narrator, which is me, and then going into character work where little people talk like Darth Vader and the woman behind the canvass. Especially a woman - and that's the character work. So it all mixes together.

CHAKRABARTI: Interesting, because I'm just looking at how you self - you describe yourself on your Twitter account, and you say, I'm a British European, and think like an America.


CHAKRABARTI: So, I mean, is that a big part of how you would do your work?

IZZARD: And I was born in an Arabic country is the last part of that.

CHAKRABARTI: Born in an Arabic country, Yemen, right?

IZZARD: Yeah. So the thinking like an American - well it's, the go do it, or go built it of America I loved, which is in fact, the distillation of the immigrant spirit. That's what I like. I feel like an immigrant even though I, you know, grew up mostly in Britain even though I was born in Yemen.

CHAKRABARTI: But let me ask you. There is one part of your life story, which I know you've spoken about openly before. I don't know of a better way to say than it just strikes me as inexorably sad that so much of your career you felt has been an attempt to bring your mother back who died when you were what, 6 or 7?


CHAKRABARTI: To reconnect with her somehow.

IZZARD: Yeah, this documentary called "Believe," and in that there was this bit, Sarah Townsend, she directed it, and she kept shooting to try and find something, because I'm quite blocked off emotionally. And then finally she found this moment where I didn't actually know quite what I was saying. It does seem to be true. I do seem to be kind of trying to stack up enough things that could reach through and just bring her back.

I don't know. That might--I don't know what was - I didn't know quite what I was saying. I've never said it before, and I feel it's a very curious thing. I'm just trying to get my mom to notice from somewhere else. But I don't think she's ever coming back. It doesn't seem to. No one ever comes back. I don't believe in God anymore. Why would He let Hitler live longer than my mother? That doesn't make any sense.

I think it's all random. I believe in humans. I believe in us. I think there's more goodwill than ill will. And, yeah, but I'm going to keep working, because I've swapped the affection of my mother for the affection of audiences, and it's not unconditionally. It's conditional. So you have to do good work. Otherwise they give you medium response. If you do really good work, they give you very good response. So, yeah.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, speaking of good work, I want to play one last little bit, which I believe is more recent of your work. It's from the "Force Majeure" tour. And you mentioned God just a second ago, which seemed an apropos introduction to this bit.


IZZARD: But if a God did turn up, we'd want him to sound a certain way. We'd want him to sound deep and throaty. If a God turned up and said, I have returned. I have been away for many years, and now I am back. And you, you people of Europe, you do not go to church anymore. What are you doing on a Sunday? We're watching bump sets of Scandinavian psychodramas.

Woo, didn't expect that answer. Yes, "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," fish for the banana haircuts. The cheese sandwich that ate itself. Well-enda-belinda-bal-la-da-genda. The girl with the lumpy jumper.

CHAKRABARTI: That's Eddie Izzard for his new "Force Mejeure" World Tour. I saw that you had on Facebook asked Americans around the country to give you interesting historical facts about where they live.

IZZARD: Yes, this is a great idea that someone came up with, and I thought, yeah, let's run with this. So I'm asking everyone if they put hashtag Eddie Izzard Tour out there, then we'll be able to pick up these facts, put out interesting facts that they found out about their city that I'm coming to, and all the dates are listed on eddieizzard.com.

CHAKRABARTI: Eddie Izzard is a comedian and actor. His latest standup show is called "Force Majeure." Eddie Izzard, what a pleasure to speak with you. Thank you so much for coming.

IZZARD: Thanks very much, nice to be here.


CHAKRABARTI: HERE AND NOW is a production of NPR and WBUR Boston in association with the BBC World Service. I'm Meghna Chakrabarti.


Hashtag Eddie Izzard. I wrote it down. I'm Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.