Eddie Izzard Has a Lot to Say
“Did you know that hors d’oeuvre means ‘outside the work’? It’s in haute cuisine — ‘hors’ means ‘outside’ and oeuvre is ‘the work.’” Pause. “What am I talking about now?”
To speak with Eddie Izzard is a delight, but also a maze, filled with digressions, quirky asides, random comedic riffs and also literal notes to herself. (At one point, she stops mid-story to jot something down in her phone to remind herself to use the anecdote she’s telling me as part of a future stand-up routine.) We’re talking over Zoom as she prepares for that night’s show in Minneapolis, and I’ve just asked how her vast knowledge of history informs her comedy. She replies by impishly and faux-pretentiously referring to her “comedic oeuvre,” which then inspires a discussion about the origin of the word “hors d’oeuvre.” Over the hour that we spoke, I quickly deduced what my role would be: I didn’t just ask questions, I would also frequently help her regain her train of thought. She roamed and wandered, and I held on tight.
Now 61, she’s touring North America with Eddie Izzard – The Remix: The First 35 Years. As a press release explains, the live shows are “a chance for Eddie, inspired by her ever loyal audiences, to remix and reimagine her favorite bits from her entire career.” The stories and routines you know so well from her previous shows and from YouTube? Well, they’re back, but different, and she’s still figuring out exactly how this reworked material is playing with the crowd. But she’s having a blast, and she’s very happy to talk about her comedy journey.
The truth is, she’s just happy to talk: Decked out in long, gorgeous lashes and red lipstick, she bounces around from topic to topic — from Brexit to Donald Trump to Monty Python to the Battle of Thermopylae to Darth Vader — without batting an eye. She launches into routines, does impressions, discusses the early days of Hollywood’s studio system and marvels at the differences between U.K. English and American English. Izzard came out as trans in 1985, announced an interest in seeking political office decades later, and in between she has pursued an acting career while also doing stand-up. (Not to mention, the massive amount of charity work and advocacy she champions.) She knows that some people don’t want to hear the opinions of performers — especially comedians — but she’s going to just keep giving them anyway. And she’s not about to abandon the essential tomfoolery of her onstage banter, where she ponders the mystery of bees and Noah’s ark and whatever else tickles her fancy. She makes smart comedy out of a childlike delight in foolishness. As she puts it, “It’s very silly, but it’s beautiful.”
You’ll often read Q&As in which the writer advises, “This interview has been edited for length and clarity.” That’s especially true of this conversation: I excised many of Izzard’s segues into world history and extended comedic ad-libs, focusing instead on her most salient points about stand-up and the state of the planet today. In general, Izzard is a positive person — or, perhaps more accurately, she’s trying to put something positive out there when there is so much that is negative. We covered many things, including her current feelings about John Cleese, why she’s interested in portraying Hamlet (and every other character in that play for her forthcoming one-woman show), and why she prefers telling stories instead of jokes on stage. Oh, and she has some thoughts about whether comedy can change the world.
How is Minneapolis?
Minneapolis is fine. I just went for a little run through downtown Minneapolis. I’m staying in a groovy hotel — whenever there’s grooviness, that’s a good sign, it’s the sign of a positive future. I grew up in a small town — in a large city, there are certain parts where you go into a groovy restaurant or coffee bar.
I was in Windsor, Ontario — if you look at the map, Detroit is there, then there’s the river, and you jump over and it’s Canada. This smaller town must have grown up over prohibition — there’s a lot of money that was made because everyone obviously decided, “We don’t think this is actually illegal. We’re just going to keep drinking.” We’ve got this term (in England), cigarettes behind the bike sheds — that’s what the bad boys, bad girls did. I was never bad enough — I didn’t start cigarettes until later. You call it “under the bleachers”?
Yeah, that’s the American expression.
Bleachers seem slightly better than our bike sheds, which was literally a block where bicycles could be put as you come to school, and then you hid behind them. If anyone came around, you were behind a bike shed — there’s no way out of there. Whereas bleachers, you could see things coming — it seemed cleverer.
Anyway, it’s not very cool as a creative person to be positive on business, but I was going to be a business person. I did accounting and financial management — I’ve always had this sense of being able to do business — but I’ve decided to do it in a way that I thought was the grooviest way I could. I’m just trying to get my T-shirts right for the moment, “Cake or Death.” It’s part of my show — the remix to “Cake or Death.” Sarah Townsend, who did the Believe documentary, she came up with — instead of doing just the words on a T-shirt, you had a picture of cake. And for death, you had a picture of a skull. Then there were two boxes, and you just tick one or the other. I thought it was a beautiful little design, which we’ve got to get going again. Then there’s the motto of my political life, which is be brave and curious, not fearful and suspicious — got to do that one. Everything I do — if it is fundraising for charity, if it’s a business thing — it’s got to have imagination, attention to detail.
This tour started in the South. You’ve said in previous interviews that that wasn’t by design — it’s just how the schedule worked out. So how did it go in the South?
Well, Georgia has two Democratic senators. Atlanta was the second most important city in wartime production for the Confederates. People won’t know this — you may not know this — but Lincoln was having a tough time. Grant was stuck outside Richmond, looked like nothing was moving. But in the end, (the Confederates) lost Atlanta and the war was won.
I remember when I first signed DVDs in Atlanta, and I (saw) all the people with shaved heads and tattoos and weird piercings — I was going, “This is not what I thought Atlanta was.” I thought it was the burning of Atlanta and “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” It’s changed. We’re going to play Salt Lake City — I was flown there to talk in the LGBTQ gala, and I thought, “Salt Lake City? Really?” But our cities, they are the ones that say, “Let us go forward — let us reach out our hands and see if we can connect. Can we find common ground? Do we have to all hate each other?” Out in the countryside, it’s more back in the olden days — in your country, in my country, in France, Germany, even in the Arabic countries. But the towns and cities show the way forward. It’s the only way forward for humanity — learning to live together, work together in some shape or form. So I look for those things. As someone who’s going into politics, I want to encourage them wherever you can find them.
When bands go out on a new tour, they play their older, most beloved material. Stand-ups don’t really do that, but that’s the idea behind the Remix tour. How are audiences responding to hearing old jokes reworked with new bits?
It just got to a sweet spot. Pittsburgh, I suddenly thought, “Okay, now we’re cooking with gas.” Trying to remix “Death Star Canteen” was tricky — it’s got so overplayed or maybe I overplayed it in my head. It’s the problem with prayers in religion — take the Christian faith. They have the Lord’s Prayer — no one listens to those words when you read them out, and so the words get locked. They lose all their power — they lose any poetry they might have had. And I suppose the Lord's Prayer is an idea — “Forgive me if I’ve been bad to someone. I forgive them if they’ve been bad to me. Please let us have enough food to eat.” You put it in your own words, it becomes a good thing to say every day to live. But if you just give it to people, it’s just, “Da da da da da da, ba ba ba ba ba ba.”
I’ve got this idea — I’m talking about bees and wasps. I always used to talk about the wasps being the Nazis of the bee world, and bees make honey and they’re the only creepy crawly that makes anything. If you’re God, why would you say, “I want a bunch of creepy crawlies”? What does it help? But I ad-libbed this thing about hornets, because we don’t really have hornets, but we were in Canada when I was a kid on holiday, and a hornet was in the car. “Get out of the car, there’s a hornet!” “What the hell is a hornet?!?” That was the end of the story, but I’ve added this thing — we’d locked the hornet in the car, and then the hornet drove off, bastard. He drove all around Canada with my dad’s credit cards in the car. (The bit) is complete garbage, but kind of beautiful, if you commit to it. And it’s almost vaguely plausible.
How did you approach remixing “Death Star Canteen”?
I went back and revisited, what is the essence of Darth Vader? I first started making Darth Vader impressions in 1982, around Empire Strikes Back time. I found I could put my head in a jug/vase kind of thing and make that deep-sea-diver (sound). Now you can say silly things: (Darth Vader voice) “Luke, do you have any stamps?” or “Would you like some soup?” But the essence of what that whole exchange was was that I would just say whatever I wanted Darth Vader to say and that the woman (at) the canteen is just responding to what he’s saying. So he can go anywhere and then she can go anywhere.
I’m bizarrely lazy — very hardworking and bizarrely lazy. I won’t sit down and go through the sketch, listen to it over and over again to work out what are the essential points. What I do is while I’m on stage, I work my arse off — every time I’m going through it, I’m going, “What are the salient points I want to get out that really remind me of the old (routine)?” (I’ll say) certain things which mean something to me and don’t mean things to other people — (Vader) says, “We will blow up Alderaan, Bernie the Bolt!” That means nothing to American audiences and Canadian audiences, but it means a lot to British audiences over about 35, 40 because it was a TV quiz game back in the 1970s. It’s getting zero reaction (in North America), but I’m enjoying it because I’m just getting it shaped up and ready for the U.K., where it’s going to get a reaction — and it could be quite large because my audience has grown older. But there are some younger people coming as well.
(A bit) has got to work for me. Trying to work out what the definition is of an artist — there’s a lazy definition, which you could say an artist does whatever the hell they want, which is kind of true. You need to bring the audience to your stuff — hopefully you’re not just knocking out stuff but you’re going somewhere weird. The Battle of Thermopylae was made into a film over the years by a number of people — Shirley Temple made her version, which is called On the Good Ship Lollipop. I said, “Think about it: On the Good Ship Lollipop, Battle of Thermopylae, it’s an anagram, it’s exactly the same letters.” And then I leave this huge gap while people are going, “Yeah, is it an anagram?” Then I say, “It’s almost exactly the same letters” — it’s actually not. (I liked) the idea that Shirley Temple was getting bored of doing the mop-top songs: “But I want to do Battle of Thermopylae, mom.” And she shoots it and there’s all this violence in it and death — just like in the 300 film, which is now 15 years ago, that’s when I was coming up with (this bit). I said that they took all the violence out of the film because kids watched it in test screenings and they melted just like the Nazis did in Raiders of the Lost Ark at the end.
That is the essence of what my stand-up is — for my crazy stories, they’ve got to be almost true. I used to talk about whales being the DJs of the sea — if you speed them up, you’ll find they go, (Pretends to be a whale) “This next track’s going out to all the minnows. Happy swimming, kids — don’t forget, always go to school.”
Your comedy is more stories than traditional jokes. When you started out, did you just know you preferred telling funny stories?
I could not do jokes to save my life. I remember sitting in a bus going to games, and I remember (my teammates) were all telling jokes. I thought, “I only know one joke.” I loved Python, and Python were very influenced by the Goons, which was Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe. The Goons did an episode each week, a story — some strange, unbelievable story. Python were very influenced by that, and I was hearing both these tapes at the same time — my dad was playing me the Goons at the same time I was getting tapes of Python. So I had stereo surreal stuff going in, and I loved their stories, which were generally vignettes, shorter sketches — but later on they got into larger-form things.
Stories are the things that I like — you put the jokes in there and the characters as well. I used to do sketch comedy, and I thought, “I’m just another stand-up. There’s a whole bunch of us who do stuff like I do.” But I got into this (idea of) characters talking one to the other, which I got from Richard Pryor, because he did it — two African-American guys going hunting, and they had this chat where they did this quarter-turn. I thought, “I can do that, then I can do my characters.”
(I did a bit) around God and Noah — James Mason playing God and Sean Connery playing Noah. I started doing this talking-characters thing, and I found I could have multiple characters. I remember I made a mistake one night — I had two James Masons or two Sean Connerys. But I would commit to accidents and go with it. (The idea) was Noah puts two of every animal in (the ark), but the lions and the tigers eat everything, and so at the end, the whole boat’s covered in blood. “It was a bad plan by God.” God comes into it a lot — I say He doesn’t exist, but I congratulate people on sticking with the idea that He does exist.
Some people, as they get older, finally embrace religion. I don’t sense that’s going to happen for you.
Dad had no religion at home. My stepmother — she arrived when I was 13 — we never talked about religion. (Even) in their 80s, they were quite adamant: “No, there’s nothing there.” I was impressed by it — and I was already there on that.
My mom died when I was very young — she was a nurse and a non-smoker. I don’t think there was any religion (with her). After World War II, I think a lot of people backed off from religion a bit. I’ve read about this Six Days War, and a lot of people who fought in that for the IDF, they were not religious — the hardliners said, “This win was a miracle and now we must do the settlements,” but the people who fought in it said, “No, we were the survivors of this war when God was obviously not there.”
This is my thing: World War II, if He’s not coming down with 60 million dead, He’s not coming down if you’ve got a cough. He’s not coming down if ganny’s got a bad leg. He’s not coming down if the world’s got COVID. He’s just not coming down. If you sit around waiting for God — they did in World War II. Just think how much prayers were going up from all around the world — we were in a hellish situation. Hitler should not have been created. Stalin should not have been created. Both came out of fathers who beat the hell out of them when they were kids — they (grew up) respecting those fathers and decided to beat the hell out of the rest of the world.
I hope, going forward, countries like Germany and Japan can lead the way. I’m looking for positives out of negatives. I came out as trans almost 40 years ago now, so things do generally improve — and then there are one or two individuals who get their countries in a headlock. Under Putin’s system, that war is not a Russian war — it’s Putin’s war, he’s dragged the Russian people into it. They have a close link with the Ukrainian people — it’s an insane situation. And this has happened again and again in humanity.
Do you think comedy can help change the world?
Music or comedy or the creative arts can encourage a spiritual shift, but they can’t change the laws. Politics does that. You’ve got to be in politics to do that — you’ve got to be inside that machine to try and make that machine go positive rather than negative. It has been negative in my country, and it was negative under Trump. This whole idea of liars getting in — overt liars, people who are sociopaths who just don’t care. “I’m going to lie and lie and lie and lie and see if anyone can keep up with me” — that one hasn’t been done before. “Can you keep up with my lies?” All politicians will exaggerate — “We’re going to fiscally do things better” — but it’s the extremists who lie. It was the Soviets and the fascists who said, “We’re quite happy to lie at all times.”
Because you’re interested in politics and are conversant in world history, what has it been like to actually visit America recently, versus what you’ve been reading about America? Do they seem like two different places?
I’m not going around playing town-hall meetings. I’m not going in front of MAGA people, because they don’t believe in anything that I believe in. The people who come (to my shows) are very groovy and positive-leaning. They’re coming and seeing a trans person do stand-up for an hour and a half, two hours. They’ve got to be self-policing in a certain way. (Laughs)
I have played all 50 states in America — Bill Maher said, “Just go to them, because the groovy people will come out,” and that’s what happens. I talked to a mother — I think it was in Dallas — and her son had come out as trans and she wanted to help. She decided to be positive to this son who was now wanting to be a daughter. She was amazed to find so many progressively-thinking people in my room, because you would’ve thought there would be one (progressive) person every 10 miles in Texas — but, no, there’s a lot of people, especially when they come together.
But humanity is lost if there is no political consequences for this overt lying, this cavalier lying. “I’m just going to make shit up and get away with it as far as I can if people vote for me.” We won’t make it to the next century — the 21st century is the coming-of-age of humanity. In Britain, Brex-shit happened, but I think more than half the country didn’t actually want that. It’s seen as this big shot in the foot, but younger people are growing up. We’ll see what the country says as the years go on, because the older people will time out.
Speaking of Brexit, John Cleese was a vocal advocate of leaving the EU. Lately, his opinions in general have been disappointing. As a fan of Monty Python, how dispiriting is that for you?
I’m not going to get into a fight with John. Certain things have been taken out of context. He wants freedom of speech — (he thinks) people should be able to say what they want, I understand that perspective. But I don’t agree with his position, because certain speech, certain ideas, if you arrange things in a certain way — if you use certain terms — it causes so much pain and hurt. It’s got so much historical callback that even if you’re using it ironically, it’s very difficult — the people who like saying horrible (things), they will say, “Yes, we agree with this thing.”
You had Archie Bunker, All in the Family. We had Till Death Us Do Part — yours came from (our show), the racist father and the progressive (son-in-law). The writer, Johnny Speight, was saying, “Look, isn’t this racist mindset wrong? Isn’t it crazy?” But some people said, “No, that’s exactly what we think and here’s a character that we really like.”
I’ve never played that line. I call Hitler “a mass-murdering fuckhead,” which was repeated back to me at the press conference for Valkyrie, which I thought was very nice. “You said that Hitler was a mass-murdering fuckhead — do you still stand by your words?” “Yes, I do.” The (reporter) was giving me a gift, as opposed to remonstrating with me. Historians should use the term “mass-murdering fuckhead.” It’s harsh, and you need harsh because he was beyond hellish and twisted.
How does knowing a lot about history and politics help your comedy? I don’t mean in terms of subject matter: I’m talking about having that foundation for your work.
The comedy I like doing is quite silly, but I try to use all my intelligence and filter it through these things. My last show, I was talking about my theory of the universe and how the universe works, which I think might be correct — I’ve checked it out with physicists and it’s not crazy, but there’s too many unknowns out there, so they can’t work it out.
But I think analyzing history helps me more politically than comedically. You could dismiss (my comedy) and say it’s all silly, but it is childlike as opposed to childish. I talk about chicken Caesar salad (being) more famous than Caesar salad because (Julius Caesar) was advised by chickens in a lot of his battles — like Mark Antony, who I claim was a chicken, was a really good military advisor. Now, that’s stupid, but I like knowing the history — I like knowing how that worked.
I like studying humanity through (history) — I find that interesting. I can probably take more of it into politics than I can take into comedy, but it makes your comedy seem intelligent — it just has this nice balance. When you were a child, if you were having a good time, a lot of the stresses of the world weren’t there with you — paying your mortgage just wasn’t on the horizon. So when I’m on stage, I play like the audience would like to play.
Now, the opposite question: How does comedy help when you’re focusing on your political career?
(Comedy) is a puncturing tool, a destroying tool. It only works to talk about the other team and to have a sense of humor about yourself so that when people think, “Oh, we’re going to hear this person talk, hopefully there’ll be something funny in it,” you can say, “I believe this and this. Let me tell you what Boris Johnson thought,” and then you can put your comedy in there.
The communication part of it is useful for politics. Volodymyr Zelensky comes from the world of comedy. If you go through comedic people, I think there was a mayor of Reykjavik in Iceland — I think there was someone who was quite right-wing in Italy. Anyway, not necessarily a whole basket full of (them). But I was analyzing how to survive, live, run things, leadership before I was overtly funny — that came afterwards. I was thinking of doing politics way back when I was 18 — I thought, “I can’t do comedy. You choose one or the other.” So I did the comedy, but there came a point, I was in Louisville talking to Newsweek in 2008, and I thought, “I’ll tell them I’m thinking of going into politics to see what happens.” People (thought,) “Oh, that’s curious,” and probably didn’t really take me seriously. Two years later I said, “No, I’m definitely (doing it).” I tried to go in 2020, the last election, which happened early in 2019. And then I tried to get in (in 2022), but that didn’t happen. I’m definitely going in this time. Things can go wrong, but I’m a determined person so I will get in. I’ll just keep pushing.
Let’s say you win election and take office: Will you miss performing?
Yeah, probably. But you’ve got to. Glenda Jackson did it — I’ve got to go do it. Arnold Schwarzenegger did it. I can’t leave it to Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. I can’t leave it to “liar, liar, pants on fire” politics. I perform in different languages — that (wasn’t) on the list. I’ve run over 130 marathons for charity — that wasn’t on the list. Came out as trans back in 1985, which was almost 40 years ago — that wasn’t on the list of standard things you do. So I do things a little bit differently, but positively. I’m not trying to affect anyone — I’m trying to just reach out and say to other people, “Vote for me. I will put all my energy in it. I’ll try and play with a straight bat,” as we say in cricketing terms. I’m just a regular person who happens to be trans, but I’m determined.
Will I miss the performing? Yes, but there’ll be a whole lot of talking going on, which will be me in front of people. I love films, but I won’t be able to make films for this period. I have made a number of films and I wanted to make a lot more and I wanted to direct films — that has to wait.
Everyone has things (that have to) do with their own ego. If you’re a politician, you’ve got to have an ego, but if it’s too much about ego, then you’re Trump or Boris Johnson: “It’s all about me.” Now, it’s got to be, to an extent, about yourself — you’re saying, “Trust me to get the thing forward and give me a high-enough position that I can do some good.” But then you have to know how to dial the ego down. I’ve studied a lot of people who I consider great — Lincoln and Mandela are my spirit guides. My 27 marathons was a salute to Nelson Mandela — I did meet him, and it was wonderful to meet him just before he passed.
Was Mandela funny?
Yes, he was relaxed. He was very much himself. His short-term memory had gone — he did repeat things a few times. But he was (perfect Mandela impression), “So, you are a comedian, and where’s your partner? Bring her in — I went to talk to her.” He was the commanding person that he was. He knew he was Nelson Mandela, that great person.
You did a one-woman performance of Great Expectations, and you’re about to do the same for Hamlet. From our conversation, I was thinking that perhaps you’d be interested in that play because of its portrait of a man, reluctantly, rising to power.
It’s interesting, because he doesn’t rise to power. If you think about it, it’s illogical — his dad died, the son should be the king. Why is the brother the king? Now, apparently they did have a high council who would say, “This person should be the king.” Also, did (Shakespeare) write all of it? Some people are dead-sure he didn’t write it. Some people go, “Every word he says is fucking genius.” I go, “No, he wrote some really good stuff, and some stuff he worked into really good stuff, and some stuff had good bits in it and then didn’t have good bits.” Some paragraphs are just impenetrable, even if you update some of the words in it.
But as regards to revenge and power, that is an interesting thing going on for our times — it’s always an interesting play to go to. It’s considered such a high, top-of-the-game acting role, and no one would give me the role. I was pushing around saying, “I want to do something Shakespeare, I want to do more.” And they go, “Yeah, well, you’re trans. You’re this and you think you’re going into politics — you’ve come from comedy. You didn’t go to drama school — (you’re) not on anyone’s list.” So I said, “I’m going to give myself all these roles.”
Great Expectations (was) a similar style to (this), but if we took the bar to here (holds his hand out), we’re not going one bar up. (Raises his hand higher.) We’re going a few leaps up. There’s nothing guaranteed on this — I just have to work my arse off and do all the previews I can, and then I will be in front of the press. So we will see what they say.
It’s interesting — (the play is) all about delaying. Hamlet, once his dad tells him, “This guy, my brother, get him out of here,” he doesn’t do it. He doesn’t do it at any point. Even when (Claudius) is praying, (Hamlet) says, “I can’t kill him because he’s praying.” Well, just wait until he stops praying, walks out the door — then you nut him. He doesn’t do that. I think Shakespeare was wanting to delay it or it just worked better: “If we just keep drawing this out, then we can have a bloodbath at the end.”
This idea of Hamlet delaying what he needs to do — have you ever suffered from indecision? I’m guessing not.
I have delayed, but I have strategically delayed. The best decision is the right decision. The second-best decision is another decision — it’s not quite the right decision. The worst decision is no decision, so that no-decision place is somewhere I don’t like to be. But sometimes, in life or in politics, you do have to hang on, hang on, hang on. If you took the Battle of Austerlitz, Napoleon hung on and hung on until the timing was right. But then he won that battle — they thought they had him in a vice, but he had them in a vice.
I hate being indecisive, but sometimes you just have to hold on. It can look like you have no guts, but in fact it’s the rock-and-the-hard-place thing — if you delay on the rock-and-the-hard-place thing, whichever way you go, you’re going to get vilified. But things can shift, and then you could say, “This is the way we need to go, because this is no longer an issue.” Or “I can see this crumbling away, and this is the way we need to go.”
Robert Bolt, who wrote Lawrence of Arabia, which many consider one of the greatest screenplays ever, there’s a line in it — I just watched it again for the eighth time, ninth time. Somebody says, “(We can’t just) do nothing,” and (another character) says, “It’s usually best.” It’s not really stand-up, but it (has) that quality.