The manic, comedic force majeure that is Eddie Izzard has touched down for his last flirtation with Australian audiences – at least for a while. Before he launches himself bodily into the serious business of British politics he will unleash his new show Wunderbar. Strap in.
One is hard pressed to bring to mind a contemporary with such a diversity of notable achievement: 30-plus years as a working comedian, one-man star of what is said to be the most extensive comedy show ever (45 countries including 50 US states), published author, actor (credits including a creditable Prince Of Wales alongside Dame Judi Dench in 'Victoria and Abdul'), serious marathon man (27 in 27 days for charitable organisaion Sport Relief) and not least the advancement of gender queer societal acceptance. All this from the genius mind which conceived and delivered the irresistible Death Star Canteen.
Eddie, after 25-plus years of high-profile success in so many countries how do you choose to deal with celebrity in the high street? Do you resort to dark glasses and wigs? "No I don’t. There’s obviously a George Clooney level of notoriety and then there’s me. It’s not that bad. I suppose if you upped the level a few notches it could get tricky. People come up to me and generally say nice things – ‘hey!’. It’s quite nice for the ego and I don’t seem to get that much bad stuff. Sometimes I do get people coming up and screaming abuse at me, usually it's OK."
There’s obviously a George Clooney level of notoriety and then there’s me.
You smashed out 27 marathons for Sport Relief which was well documented in the media and through video. When the cameras were off, were you absorbed with politics and writing your next show or was it more Forrest Gump and blank canvas? “Blank canvas. While I'm running I’m trying to take in the environment. You know the thing is you can’t often take in time and space. If you do have a career and you do get it going you get to think ahead... 'OK, let’s make sure the next thing doesn’t go wrong, make sure it’s a success' and you’re never in the moment. The one good thing about running is that it keeps you in the moment.
"And if it’s a long run you are constantly pushing and pushing and bits of you are hurting – and if you’re in places you haven’t seen – a different country – the views are different, the people you meet are different so that’s a pleasant, positive thing you’re getting out of it, getting different stimulus coming in.
"I think if you’re doing training runs around your house then you can start thinking about things or ideas for shows. But when I was doing the big marathons I tended to concentrate on them. And I’d count down! I once got caught when I thought I’d finished the marathon and I had another six miles (10klms) to go. Now I count... only 20 to go, only 10 to go. I do love it, I do love the adventure of them."
In the video series documenting the marathon accomplishment you mentioned right at the top that you had failed four years earlier, what happened there? "Well, we went out in 2012 to do it. I had slightly high cholesterol so I was on a prescription drug: the doctors said 'take this, that’ll help you'. But apparently this drug is not good for lots of running and I got Rhabdomyolysis. Your muscles shred down and go into the bloodstream and start clogging up your kidneys so I was going into renal failure. I started peeing brown pee. It didn’t really hurt but I was very lethargic.
"The doctor got his book out and said this Rhabdomyolysis – you’re going to a hospital bed right now so that was the end of it. I thought I’d rest for a day or so and get back out there and catch up but no, 'it’s in your bloodstream and it’ll take two months to get it out', so I had stop for 2012."
I started peeing brown pee. It didn’t really hurt but I was very lethargic.
That must have been devastating because running marathons in Africa is not something you just get up and do one morning … the planning. “Yeah it’s a real pain. But we did a documentary on South Africa and with me saying ‘I will return and get this finished’ and I did return and got it done, which is nice.
You've been flirting with the stage from a very early age and you’ve spent most, if not all, of your adult life on it in comedy and more lately in film. Apart from it being what you’re good at, what does stage life give you and perhaps what does it deny you? “Eeer, very good question. I was seven when I first saw a play and mum had died the year before and so I think I swapped an audience’s affection for my mother’s affection... and maybe some of my dad’s affection ‘coz I didn’t see him for two thirds of the year when I was at boarding school.
“There’s an affection/ego relationship there and it’s not unconditional either: a mother’s love might be unconditional but an audience’s love is very conditional – do some good work and we’ll give you applause. So that’s a good thing and I feel it’s a fair relationship in a way."
...a mother’s love might be unconditional but an audience’s love is very conditional.
“What it takes away from you? I suppose the privacy thing we were talking about earlier… people recognise you in the streets but seeing I’m not crazily well known that doesn’t seem too bad. I don’t think it’s taken away anything I didn’t mind being taken away. It’s taken away a humdrum life of a nine-to-five existence on a salary. I’m a freelancer and all freelancers are constantly thinking ‘when is the next gig?’ otherwise I’ll just run out of money but I’m OK with that. My dad could never understand that but I’m OK with it."
British performers attempting the American market – whether it’s a television programme, comedy or a sporting code... It doesn’t always end well but you seem to have done more than alright. Why is that? "That is a very interesting… I think your questions are fantastic. One of the best questions I’ve had. I’m fascinated by this, too. I tend to like documentaries about all the bands in the late '60s and in to the '70s… and they said ‘hey, let's go and do America’ and some didn’t … and I felt I could. In my Twitter sting I say ‘I think like an American' and by that I really mean I think like an economic migrant. I think ‘Let’s go do it, let’s build it, let’s go make it, think out of the box’, which was not a very old British, ex-Empire, way… when I grew up it was like we took countries and they gave us all their raw materials.
"I felt a link with the American people. I was really into Americana, you know Batman things... all these superhero kind of things, the film industry … And because Python did it … now Python said they were always sure they wouldn’t work in America and I thought seeing as their stuff did work in America – and I was so influenced by Python – that my stuff could work in America."
And I thought seeing as Python's stuff did work in America ... that my stuff could work in America.
"I was aware that references could be problem but I just thought it would be possible and I really pushed to do it. And I think I did the U2 approach. The U2 approach was go in and play a gig and play the cities and go around and just keep putting the grass roots work in … they sold records, as well … but it was really their grass roots approach – and that was also mine.
"I know there have been some comedy people who’ve gone in and done a film and you live and die on that film. And if that film doesn’t work there’s your film career over or you go and do a tv series and that’s even harder in America to get going, maybe.
"Then the club circuit, and I thought no. I would do theatres – small theatres – my own thing, on my own and I will play every city I can. And particularly my idea was to get New York. I idolised that New York was the gatekeeper to not only America but Canada as well. And if the New York Times, particularly, said ’This person is good’ then you could start to move out from your beachhead of New York – so that’s what I did.
"I went in in ’96 and I played in New York for four weeks; ’97 a bigger theatre for three weeks; ’98 a bigger theatre again for four months and then I recorded ‘Dressed To Kill’ and that persuaded HBO to put it on . That got two Emmys and went very big, so that HBO thing was a definite ladder on the snakes and ladder board. After that I resisted going too far up the ladder and doing the big comedy, I just kept touring and I play every state now and the Americans seem to dig it. Not all Americans, obviously, the alternative audience gets it as opposed to mainstream America."
How much has comedy changed in the last 30 years and is there anything significant you would have done differently? "No, I wanted to get going earlier because my career didn’t take off until I was 30. I dropped out of university when I was 19 and then 11 years later it gets going but that stamina training is brilliant training for a long-term career. So everything since it’s taken off I try to play the long game. That’s what I do, I just play the long game, I don’t go for the quick buzz, cash-making thing, big show, big hit, I just do it slow, wide and push in that direction.
"And how has comedy changed over the last 30 years? A lot more stand-up. Sketch comedy used to be king up until, well '60s, '70s, going in to the '80s and then in the '80s it changed and stand-up [achieved] at least parity with sketch. [Stand-up] is more grabbable because sketch comedy needs a group… stand-up’s more malleable, more linked to rock and roll, it’s here to stay, it’s so cheap to put on so that’s a big change, I think."
I try to play the long game. That’s what I do.
"And also now we have comedians from all around the world performing in English which is a fantastic thing so you’ve Scandinavian people, Russians, Italians, Germans… they’re all doing English because you can tour around the world in English – as a connecting language.
"And also you can do so much around the world so Eastern Europe is completely open. I’m playing 45 countries now and there’s about 190-195-odd countries around the world, so, more to play but the Internet has enabled comedy to be out there without having a big show through a central tv station so that’s a big difference. There’s a lot of good stuff out there – and mainstream stuff that’s not that good, but I’m very positive about the comedy situation."
We asked Eddie for a selfie. Thanks Eddie!
I read in one of your interviews a couple of years ago of an encounter while dressed in women’s clothing. Humanity does seem to be getting up to speed with queer identity, transvestites and everything that’s outside normative life, do you have any good news to report on increased community acceptance? "I did report someone to the police who reported him to the Crown Prosecution Service and he was taken to court and that was only six months ago so you still get individuals – they’re still out there – who will be insensitive, homophobic, transphobic, that goes on. Some people give me grief but most people go ‘OK, OK fine’ so things are getting better I think.
[In gently addressing the interviewer's edited turn of phrase] "I try not say I’m dressing like a woman… I'm wearing a dress, wearing make-up … because women wearing trousers don’t say I’m dressing like a man. I think with the younger generations coming through the language is changing: I was identifying as transvestite now it’s more transgender.
"So the language changes, it’s got more publicity, probably due to Laverne Cox (Orange Is The New Black), Caitlyn Jenner ... just all the publicity (around) transgender people out there who are not necessarily outside society … I think that was my big task was to try and mix being a human, being transgender into society, saying I’m just another person; don’t give a damn about the sexuality because it doesn’t make a difference."
... my big task was to try and mix being a human, being transgender into society.
"What do you do in life, what do you add to human existence? Are you good at football, chess, banking… do you add something to life? Don’t get caught up in the sexuality because we know these sexualities have been there since the dawn of time and everyone’s just been lying about but now people are talking about it.
"So it’s a lot better, even in a Trump-hate, Brex-hate world it’s still going forward so I’m very positive about humanity even though there are some which I’m not positive about."
Is comedy a noble profession? "I think comedy can be a noble profession if you’re coming up with good ideas, positive ideas making people laugh in a positive way... I think that’s quite noble. If you’re a racist and sexist comedian, not so noble and so it’s a bit like anything, really, there can be positive versions of it and negative versions of it.
"I like people, I like most people, except extreme right-wing, so live and let live, treat other people as you’d like to be treated yourself… playing 45 countries going around wearing heels and make-up and whatever … I’d like to feel good comedy can be a noble profession, yes."
Thank you so much, Eddie, I appreciate your time and I look forward to seeing you in March.
Eddie Izzard Tour Dates
Saturday 16 February Canberra Theatre February 17, 18 Hamer Hall, Melbourne February 21,22, 23 State Theatre, Sydney March 4, 5 Perth Concert Hall Thursday 7 March Convention Centre, Brisbane Friday 8 March Civic Theatre, Newcastle Sunday 10 March Thebarton Theatre, Adelaide