Eddie Izzard is widely regarded as one of the top stand-up comedians of his generation, with a surreal, stream-of-consciousness style that’s a hit in Britain, America, and pretty much everywhere else in the world.
Izzard started doing comedy during his only year at the University of Sheffield in north-central England. He spent a decade in relative obscurity until a performance at a 1991 AIDS benefit lifted his profile. He went on to win a British Comedy Award for “Top Stand Up Comedian” for his 1993 show Live at the Ambassadors. His U.S. breakthrough came from his show Dress To Kill, which was shown on HBO in 1999 and for which he won two Emmy Awards. He recently became the first solo stand-up comedian to perform at the famed Hollywood Bowl.
Izzard has also acted in many movies (including Velvet Golmine, Ocean’s Twelve, Ocean’s Thirteen, and Across the Universe), starred in in the television show The Riches with Minnie Driver, and provided his voice to the animated films Igor and Cars 2.
Other notable things about Eddie Izzard are that he ran 43 marathons in 51 days for charity, he appeared briefly onstage with his heroes on Monty Python Live at Aspen (and has been referred to by John Cleese as “the lost Python”), he was a huge supporter of the London Olympics, and he is a heterosexual cross-dresser.
This interview was conducted by phone on 11/9/12 for a preview article for Izzard’s stand-up comedy performance at the University of California, Santa Barbara on 11/17/12.
Jeff Moehlis: Any thoughts on the U.S. Presidential election?
Eddie Izzard: Yeah, I’m very happy. If you go back to my tweets, you can see a BBC survey from populations around the world, and it seems that everyone wanted Obama to get in. Which is a little unusual, assuming there’s equal amounts of right-wing and left-wing people around the world. Everybody wanted Obama. I wanted Obama. I’m a Democrat, so I’m very pleased. I was worried going in.
And all that money that was spent. I mean, all that money by the right. All that Rove money. All that from Citizen’s United, all that where-the-hell-does-that-come-from unknown money. It didn’t do anything. It even went backwards. The Democrats got more seats in the House, even though they didn’t get the House back. Didn’t lose the Senate. And President Obama got back in. I think it’s beautiful.
JM: How would you compare U.S. politics to British politics?
EI: You have a system of checks and balances that were put in to stop despotism. That’s written down, that you don’t want someone to run off with it and become a king. But it has got to a place where a President can’t do much because they have to keep pushing things through the House, and the House keeps stopping it.
In the old days, we had the House of Lords, who were unelected, and they just sat there blocking everything that the Liberals and then the Labour Party came in and tried to do. And we had to totally pull that apart.
I think that maybe America’s initial idea has been turned around, especially with The Tea Party just doing obstructionist, irresponsible politics, where they just wouldn’t compromise. You’ve got to get a balanced thing, and they just wouldn’t even compromise. What the hell is that? That’s not politics, that’s just being children. If you do get in and you get a majority then you can do something. The Tory Party, they didn’t quite get a majority, and they had to do a coalition. That does happen around the world.
But we shall see. I just saw President Obama talking today about the Fiscal Cliff. Is The Tea Party going to obstruct again? Are they going to try to do that? He’s being much more forceful this time. Last time he seemed to come in and say, “Hey, hands across the aisle. Could we work together?” And they just sat there and said “No”. And it wasn’t the moderate Republicans. It was the Tea Party crazies. I mean, the tea party from Alice in Wonderland is what they seem to be based on. The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. That’s what these people seem to be.
JM: Do you still have any political aspirations?
EI: Yeah, I’m running in eight years time. In May 2020 I will stand for election.
JM: When do you start campaigning for that? It seems a long time from now.
EI: Well, I have already told everyone that I’d like to run for Mayor of London, or Member of Parliament. If the gates are open, I will go to the Labour Party and ask to try get the nomination. But I will have to compete for the nomination. There could well be other people doing it. It would be good for me if I had to win the nomination against other people. So I’m campaigning as of now. This is all the campaign.
JM: The show that’s going to be here in Santa Barbara is part of the university’s Arts & Lectures series, so there will be a number of college students there. Could you tell me a little bit about your own college experience?
EI: My dad insisted I do it. I wanted to do acting. I wanted to be an actor. And then I sort of morphed that into wanting to be a comedy actor, like a member of Monty Python, in my teenage years. When I was seven I wanted to act. So if my dad hadn’t been so keen on it I might’ve just missed university altogether.
I went there, and after one year I just wasn’t working. I was doing loads of shows and I just dropped out because I’d failed my exams. That sort of made the decision for me, by failing my exams. But I stayed around, because I could just sort of be there. I was on unemployment, but I was doing unpaid work at the student’s union. I was just doing shows and not earning any money. So that was my course, really. I sort taught myself how to be an entrepreneur, and not make anything for a long time. Any money, that is.
JM: You mentioned Monty Python, and I know they’re a huge influence on you. And you got to work with those guys. What was that experience like for you?
EI: That was like being on the England football team. They asked me to come over for this get-together they had in Aspen in 1998, and I did feel like I was the football player / soccer player being brought on as a substitute, because Graham Chapman had passed on by that time. So that’s what it felt like, just hanging out with them before the show. It was quite magical. Yeah, that’s all I ever wanted to do, to try to be in Python, which obviously wasn’t going to happen, but certainly I was almost in Python. So it was great. I loved it. And it will stay with me forever.
JM: John Cleese lives here in the Santa Barbara area.
EI: Yes, I know that.
JM: Are you planning to visit him when you come out?
EI: No, I wouldn’t make that assumption. I try not to assume things. It’s weird, I just don’t press people and say, “Hey, it’d be nice to hook up.” I just think they’re like, “Oh God, it’s that guy.” If I found out that John was there I’d absolutely like to see him, but I just don’t want to hassle people, so I tend to keep myself to myself. In case I’m a pain in the ass. It’s just a thing that I’ve had all my life. I know other people actually who show up and say, “Hey, I’m in town. Do you want to hang out?” I just don’t do that.
JM: I’m a huge Monty Python fan myself. It seems that the British tend to prefer the Life of Brian movie, and Americans tend to prefer the Holy Grail movie. Do you have any theory about why that’s the case?
EI: I don’t know. There is a general thing in America, that even all the Democrats have to be able to say “God bless America” to be in politics, whereas in Europe no one says “God bless United Kingdom”, “God bless France”, “God bless Germany”, “God bless Russia”. We just don’t say it. And we don’t think it. We don’t sit there waiting for God to bless us, or God to help us out if something’s that going wrong. We noticed in the two World Wars, God doesn’t do anything.
What they did with Life of Brian, and they feel it’s their best one as well, it takes a lot of it apart. As I think Terry Jones said, it’s talking about dogma. It’s heretical. It is talking about systems of belief. The great scene where the schism happens, about five minutes after they’ve decided that Brian is a Saint, and they say, “You’ve got to hold up your shoe”, “Take one shoe off and hold it up.” They say, “No, no we should find shoes and collect them all together.” And they say, “No, the Gourd. Follow the Gourd!” It was just really well observed and silly. It was funny. And all about a guy called Brian, and not about a guy called Jesus. The religious right just went off on it. And I think Jesus would have like it.
We’re steeped in knights and things. We have knights up to our elbows. Knights and castles. So, I mean, we do like Holy Grail, but maybe it’s something to do with you having no castles, no knights, none of that stuff, so you grab hold of that. I mean, Game of Thrones is written by an American guy, isn’t it? You know, Lord of the Rings.
For us, Life of Brian is a clever written piece, and it has the edge, but Holy Grail’s not far behind. That’s what I think.
JM: You’re in London now, right?
EI: Yeah, I’m in London.
JM: What were some of the highlights for you of the London Olympics?
EI: There were so many. The fact that people were grumbling before the Olympics, and then two or three days in everyone shut up and everyone started believing. And the volunteers… I worked very closely with the volunteers, as much as I could, to encourage them. I did all of the videos to encourage them to become volunteers. It was as if I’d chosen them individually, even though the professionals chose the volunteers. The volunteers put themselves forward. I was just like a cheerleader, or ambassador-cheerleader. The volunteers were great.
The athletes… You know, we did a pretty good haul of medals at Beijing. And we did another great haul, and the Paralympics as well.
Everything landed! Out of a hundred things to land, we landed about 97%. There were a couple of things that didn’t work. I’m not talking about winning a medal, I’m just talking about organization, positive spirit, and the permanent staff that were there from Sebastian Coe downwards, the police, the armed forces that were there. I loved it. I loved the hell out of it.
I didn’t go and see a lot of it live. A lot of the people in Britain wanted to and they couldn’t get a ticket. I had this pass which meant that I could go and see anything. And I didn’t want to go, so I didn’t go. I just watched it on my iPhone, I watched it on my iPad. I saw Andy Murray win the gold medal in Scotland, because I went up there to work on something else to do with the Olympics up in Scotland. I showed the taxi driver, as he was driving along in Edinburgh. I said, “Look, Andy Murray, a Scotsman, is winning the gold medal at the Olymptics against Federer.” It was great. It was wonderful.
My last marathon, the 43rd marathon when I ran around the United Kingdom, I purposefully ran past the Olympic Stadium. And I got the camera to shoot the stadium. “Look, it’s being built, it’s going to be ready in three years, then we’ll do the Olympics and we’ll go for it.” Sometimes you have to inspire, that was my feeling. My friend who I was working with, a guy called Greg Nugent, he came up with the “Inspire a Generation” motto. And that’s what we did. We have inspired our generation.
Americans, you landed on the moon, and that was great, and that inspired us and inspired me. So this was us doing our thing for our country. And any other kids around the world will think, “Wow, that was well run. They’re all positively spirited.”
I love the volunteers. Because it’s not a British thing that we did there, it was a human thing. There were people out there that do have this get up and go. I think it was great.
JM: What advice would you give to an aspiring comedian?
EI: My advice is to do a hundred gigs. It’s as simple as that. It sounds a bit brutal. “That’s not much help”. But it’s a bit like “What advice would you give to a car driver?” Well, drive a hundred hours. Drive a hundred hours in a car and then you’ll get the hang of it. There’s not much else you can do. You can’t say, “Read this book on car driving and you’ll be there.”
Literally, do a hundred hours, do a hundred gigs. That’s the thing. The more you do it the more you get acclimatized to it. It’s tough, because it’s like learning to drive without a driving instructor. You go onstage, and there is no one standing next to you or whispering lines into your ear. You’re just doing it live, and you can’t stop. Television shows you can stop. Films you can stop. In live shows, you just have to keep going. So that’s it. If you want it enough, you can go and get it. But if you don’t fight for it, it won’t happen.
JM: What is your stance on people who film clips of your live shows on their phone and then they post it on YouTube? Does that bother you?
EI: I’m not wild about it, but I’m not going to go crazy about it. It tends to have bad audio, because if they laugh it tends to laugh over the lines anyway, so it’s not like you will say I will watch this and not buy a DVD or a download or something. We ask them not to do it, and I think if they get posted we take them down. It’s an ongoing process.
On the 19th of this month I’m about to release a download of my show in French. It’s going out on French television. So you’ve got Madison Square Garden available on DVD in America, or you can get the French show as well, if you’re crazy.
JM: Do you find that certain jokes or certain topics work better in America than in Britain?
EI: No, what I do is I write universal humor. I block out ideas that will only work in Britain. And so any idea that I come up with has to work in America, or Iceland, or France in French, or Moscow, or Berlin, or Kathmandu. So dinosaurs, supermarkets, haircuts, baked potatoes, cars, God. People know that. All of the progressive audiences can clue into that. Mainstream audiences would go, “Who is Alexander the Great, and velociraptor, what is that?” But I assume that they’re watching History Channel, Discovery Channel, that they’re clued into stuff. So I assume the intelligence of my audience. And it’s not a massive intelligence. It’s not like they have to be some sort of super-brain. You’ve just got to be street-smart, wise, open-minded, interesting, inquisitive. I’m assuming that you’re a smart person.
I think the audience likes that, they give it back. Because when they get it, when I say that Darwin wrote his most famous book Great Expectations in the mid-1800′s, people laugh because they know it’s not Darwin, it’s Dickens. And they’re clever enough to know that it’s Dickens and not Darwin. But both start with “D”, and actually published those two books two years apart, you know, Great Expectations and Origin of Species. Certain people aren’t going to like my stuff. Right-wingers aren’t going to like my stuff. Nazis aren’t going to like it. And people who don’t know anything aren’t going to like it.
JM: Do you want to set the record straight on anything about your life or career?
EI: No, not really. I speak French. I want to learn other languages. I’m very proud to have been the first stand-up to do a solo show at the Hollywood Bowl. That’s a beautiful thing. The Madison Square Garden show is now out now on DVD, and coming to play Santa Barbara’s just going to be a lot of fun. I did a gig last night in French, in London, and it was just so much bloody fun. I can’t quite expain it. So nothing to set straight. It’s all out there.