Reporting from New York—Fans of Eddie Izzard and his over-the-top-fabulousness beware: His attire on stage at the Nokia Theatre this weekend will be a decided departure from his earlier flamboyance.
Wrapping up lunch at a Lower East Side bistro, Izzard warns that on this current tour he's in "boy mode" and will be wearing just "a certain amount of makeup -- but no more than Keith Richards." Sure enough, for his debut at Madison Square Garden, Izzard is au naturel: jeans, boots and a jacket with tails, but the only hint of the fabulous is his jacket's red lining.
For his latest outing, an extension of his Stripped tour -- called Stripped Too, Izzard says, "as in 'Stripped, As Well,' like the last one was stripped, this one is stripped too, or 'Stripped Also.' It's not a sequel" -- Izzard has made a conscious decision to be in "boy mode."
"Starting out, I had to establish I was a stand-up comedian, and I also tell everyone I was a transvestite -- it was a two-step thing," he explains. "When I got to America, I thought, 'I'll do this as one step.' Here I am, transvestite, boom, comedian, boom -- but then people thought, 'Oh, you're a transvestite comedian, that's how you do it, it's the makeup.' Then I realized, it got merged. So now I'm de-merging -- because they are not linked. I am a transvestite, and I do comedy. Luckily, I'm in the place where I can turn up in makeup or no makeup and people won't be too bothered."
Izzard is fond of merging things, whether it's acting and stand-up, his nationality ("I'm very positive on the EU. . . . I call myself a British European. I'm encouraging people to say 'Français Européen,' 'Deutsch Europäisch,' because we can be both things at the same time"), and, of course, history, of which he calls himself, "slightly encyclopedic." As this phrase -- and others he employs, such as "big intimacy," "passive research," "cozy arenas" -- shows, Izzard sees no problem with contrast. "I love juxtapositions, smashing together stuff that just shouldn't be together," he says.
Over the course of a long lunch, it's clear that this crashing together of history and absurdity -- what he calls "dumbing up" -- is the key to his particular and popular sense of humor.
The best example is a gag he dissected that then showed up in the act at the Garden. "I've got this piece, which I love saying, which is, 'After the Romans, classical thinking died and a lot of advanced thinking disappeared from the planet and then it came back with the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and then in 18-whatever-it-was Charles Darwin wrote his famous book 'Great Expectations.' "
"And the laugh on that is so nice, because they know they've got to be smart enough to know there were two Charleses -- two Charleses with last names beginning with a 'D,' both around the same time, and that book is not his book . . . I just love smashing together this weird stuff -- it's so stupid it's smart, or it's so smart it's stupid. It's somewhere there."
Izzard's act may include references to dinosaurs of the Cretaceous period, strategies from the Battle of Thermopylae or esoteric biblical figures, but these erudite topics don't stem from a classical British education. Unlike Beyond the Fringe or Monty Python, the illustrious sketch comedy troupes that his routine recalls, Izzard didn't attend Oxford or Cambridge. He dropped out of the University of Sheffield and spent his college years as a street performer in London.
Izzard says that street performing taught him valuable lessons about the art of entertaining. "I did sort of lose myself, I lost my confidence street performing and then re-found it," he recalls. "It sort of broke me and then remade me, which is what drama school is supposed to do -- or the Marines.
"I learned how to have confidence in the pit of my stomach." He also learned to be himself in front of a crowd. "At the beginning of each show actually we used to try to talk to the audience to try and bring them forward to make a semi-circle, because once you made an outside semicircle you can build up an audience.
"And so my partner Rob Ballard, he would talk to the left side, and I would talk to the right side, so in doing this on the right side, I found I was becoming a solo performer for the first time," Izzard says.
This ability to speak directly to an audience can be seen in his act today, even though he's now performing in front of tens of thousands.
At the nearly 20,000-seat Garden, Izzard came out and simply started making conversation. "Everything I do on stage is ad-libbed, not necessarily that night -- there's probably 5-10 minutes that night that's ad-libbed -- but everything has been ad-libbed at some point," he says.
Eleven years after his breakthrough in the U.S., Izzard insists that neither his success on Broadway (a Tony nomination for his turn in Peter Nichols' "Joe Egg"), on television (his Emmy-winning HBO special "Dress to Kill," the FX series "The Riches") and films (the "Ocean's Eleven" sequels, the "Narnia" films) nor his current preference to dress in boy mode has altered his view of comedy. "I don't feel I've changed," he says, "I might have gotten better at doing it, better at feeling stupid juxtapositions."
Izzard is insistent, though, that the history he juxtaposes has to be well in the past. Though Izzard certainly follows recent history like Tony Blair, Obama, Palin, Bush -- the day we spoke, he couldn't believe Pat Robertson's comments on Haiti -- he says he steers away from inserting recent history and politics into his act.
"It doesn't record well. A year later people say, 'Who's this?' Anything that's going to date is like, 'I don't want it,' " he says. "I try to focus on history that stays when the sieve comes. Only some bits stay. Hannibal crossing the mountains with elephants for some reason stayed."
At the Garden, Izzard did break this rule once or twice. But his biggest laughs came from Moses, dinosaurs getting pulled over for speeding and vomiting as a five-act grand opera.
In the brief, riotous history of Eddie Izzard, has anything besides his wardrobe changed? "I used to be specific with dates," Izzard says, "the whole reason I got into history was you're looking for things that make you stand out -- I hadn't told anyone I was a transvestite at that point -- and I thought, 'No one's doing history, I just go into the history thing,' but a good stand-up comedian friend, an Irishman, said, 'Don't bother about the dates, don't be so precise,' just be loose about it."
He affects a "Masterpiece Theatre"-high British tone, "In seventeen hundred and something -- huzzah, hmmm," with a very big smile replacing the imprecise years.