British comic Eddie Izzard burst into the American pop consciousness as a false eyelash-wearing standup comic with performance sensibilities that owed as much to David Bowie as Monty Python. But Izzard is always evolving, having built a solid second career as a dramatic actor in difficult plays by David Mamet, mainstream Hollywood films like Ocean's Twelve and in TV shows like Hannibal and The Riches. In 2009, he surprised the world by running 43 marathons in 51 days with no previous experience as a long-distance runner. In short, Eddie Izzard is not the kind of performer one can easily sum up in a few words, unless those words are smart, funny, and unpredictable.
Flyer: I tried to learn your language for this interview, but I'm not gifted like that.
Eddie Izzard: I speak English.
So, this isn't your first time in Memphis?
No, it's not. In fact, my first ever performance in America was as a street performer in Memphis. There's an Overton Park there, right?
And an Overton Square.
Yes, but they aren't the same. The park is park-like and the Square is...
It's like a triangle or something. I did my first show in Overton Square in 1987. I was performing with the US Marines' Military Band at the Memphis In May Festival. I was riding on a 5-foot unicycle escaping from a pair of handcuffs. I wasn't paid for my performance. We were all flown over and all expenses were paid, but they didn't pay us a fee because we were street performers, and we couldn't command very much.
Did Memphis appreciate the unicycling act?
I think people were bemused. But it was a brand new show, so I didn't know quite what I was doing. The main thing people would say to me — because I was walking around with this 5-foot unicycle — was "Ride that thang, Eddie boy." In the end I'd say, "No, you ride that thang."
I think "Ride that Thang" may be a good title for this piece I'm writing.
I play the Hollywood Bowl now, you know — "From Overton Square to the Hollywood Bowl" — that would be a good title.
Does comedy change from country to country and language to language?
It doesn't change at all. The only thing that changes is the references. If a mainstream comedian in America and a mainstream comedian in Britain swapped over, it wouldn't work. But if they lived in that country and got immersed in that country and were still doing comedy then it would work. In terms of a more progressive comedian like myself, I'm fascinated by the whole world, and I'm anxious to get out there and play it. So I've chosen references that are more universal. I use references like dinosaurs and God and human sacrifice. Why the hell did we do that? Ancient kings: were they idiots? You can play that in Moscow and people understand it. Or you can play that in Los Angeles or Memphis and people understand it. Everywhere in the world gets it.
So you really are trying to find a more universal kind of comedy instead of tailoring performances to suit different cultures.
Yes. Oh, yes. That would take a lot of work and I'm quite a lazy person. I'm like a big tanker ship. Once I get going I can keep going, but once I stop I don't like to get going again. So I thought why not keep the comedy the same. Still intelligent. Still very silly and [Monty] Python influenced.
You mention the Python influence. What was it like working on Terry Jones’ film Almost Anything with all the surviving Pythons?
Unfortunately, I already shot my piece. It’s really more of a Simon Pegg and Kate Beckham film directed by Terry Jones, and I think all the Pythons are doing voices to animated characters. So we weren’t all there on the set together doing scenes.
You describe your work as Pythonesque, but they also claim you as well. I think John Cleese called you the, “lost Python.” That has to be affirming.
It’s totally fantastic. I was a huge student of their work and can repeat it endlessly: “Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government.” It’s beautiful stuff.
And the surreal quality of that kind of humor also crosses languages.
Mainstream musicians play to mainstream audiences around the world. Alternative musicians will play to alternative audiences. It’s the same with comedy. Those audiences are there, you’ve just got to find them.
You described yourself as lazy, but you are constantly touring and doing film and TV. And you did that whole thing where you ran all the marathons.
That’s part of the big ship thing. Once it’s in motion, it can keep on going. Some of my gigs feel like rest. Two months in Berlin was quite restful, really. Two months in Paris.
When I read other interviews for "Force Majeure," it seems like you've confused a few people. From fashion to material, they don't always seem to understand why you aren't the Eddie Izzard they expect or the Eddie Izzard they want you to be.
Right. That idea that people are saying there's this one thing you do that we like that and want more of it, just doesn't appeal to me. It's my life so I get to write it.
There's really no easy way to shorthand all that you do.
Yes, it can be quite difficult. I think some people may block me and say, "Oh, he's that transvestite guy. I'm not going to watch anything he does." I try to be open and honest and try different things. And I think people who care, who give a damn, who want to change the world for the better, also seem to give a damn about what I'm doing. That's great. And I think the people who hate what I do are probably out there doing bad things in the world. Eddie Izzard's "Force Majeure" at the Orpheum, Sunday, May 26th, 8 p.m.