"It’s also a pissing contest between us and rock ’n’ roll. I mean, why should rock ’n’ roll be able to play not only arenas but stadiums whenever they want to and we have to ask permission if we’re allowed to play arenas? It’s all kind of odd."
– Eddie Izzard
Guy MacPherson: Hello, Mr. Izzard.
EI: Hi, how are you?
GM: Good. Finally we connect.
GM: I’ve interviewed you a couple of times. I hear your name pronounced ‘IZ-ARD’ and ‘IZ-erd’. I’ve always said ‘IZ-erd.’ Which is correct?
EI: Most people in North America find it easier to say ‘IZ-erd’ but my father, when he picks up the phone, says, ‘IZ-ARD speaking.’ That’s exactly what he says. Not ‘Iz-ARD’ because a lot of people in North America want to hit the second syllable really hard, but ‘IZ-ARD’ hitting the first syllable. But I don’t really give a monkey’s between that one and ‘IZ-erd.’
GM: Okay. Got it. I’ve talked to you twice before and this is the first time I’ve learned, reading the notes, that you spent time as a teen in Canada. Why didn’t you ever mention that to me before?
EI: I’ve mentioned it to everyone I could. I thought it was getting a bit long in the tooth. It’s not like every time I talk to someone I’ve got to mention this. It revolves around I almost died in Lake Ontario. A woman called Alex – she was Alex Christmas back then and she now lives in New Brunswick. I was hoping she was going to come and see me when I was in Halifax, but I realized it was quite a long way away. But anyway, yes, they’re coming to the gig on Friday night. Ralph and Sally and Val Christmas. They have this crazy family. But yeah, two months when I was nine I was a Canadian kid. And that was long enough that by the end of it to feel like you’re Canadian. I mean, I was playing baseball and doing paper rounds, and swimming in the loch and fishing. The only time I’ve ever done fishing in my entire life and I got really into it. It sort of started from nowhere and stopped after two months.
GM: What brought you over?
EI: Two of my dad’s school friends emigrated to Ontario; one to Toronto, and Val and John Christmas had moved to Cambleford, just north of Belleville. They had six kids and they were up for taking on two more. Dad was working for BP and had to be in Montreal for a month. So it was a big summer holiday. He worked out this thing that he would go to Montreal for a month and we would live with the family for a month, just on our own with them, and then he’d turn up and it would be him and us with the entire family for the second month. It was just a wonderful, wonderful time.
GM: Who knew?! You’re one of us!
EI: Yes, I have this strong link to Canada. Normally British people get known in Canada quite well and they struggle to get known in America. And I’m playing Madison Square Gardens and the Hollywood Bowl in America and I’m still having to hack my way up the mountain in Canada. So it’s slightly back to front. But it’s good. I’m touring and I’m playing four nights at Massey Hall in Toronto. It’s getting there. I’d like to play everywhere so people go, ‘Yeah, that English guy. Yeah, we know him.’
GM: I find that surprising, because we’ve always embraced British culture. I think we watched Monty Python before the Americans fully embraced it. But you’re playing big theatres here, let’s not kid ourselves.
EI: I know what the difference is. It’s that Monty Python was on television so people could get it, they could watch it, and it would come around the next week and they’d pick it up. And in America my real breakthrough was when HBO endlessly played Dressed to Kill to death. And it got two Emmys and that kind of stuff. That sort of kicked me through it, that one thing. And I’ve never really pushed it on television again. I didn’t want to because I wanted to do drama roles, like I’m now doing Hannibal Lecter, also filming in Canada, here in Toronto. The position I’ve got where I can do a dramatic role and then go and do a surreal comedy tour, one right next to the other, is because I haven’t pushed the comedy on television. I never had the big TV series. So in Canada, that’s my problem. It’s like an advantage and a disadvantage at the same time.
GM: You’re playing Hannibal Lecter?
EI: No, I’m in the TV series playing Dr. Gideon. Dr. Abel Gideon, who is the pretender to the throne of Hannibal Lecter.
GM: I see. And it’s a TV series for who?
EI: It’s NBC. It’s playing on a Canadian channel at the moment. It’s Mads Mikkelsen, Hugh Dancy and Laurence Fishburne and a bunch of really good people.
GM: And it’s already on, you say?
EI: Yeah, it’s in its second season. We’re filming the second season now. I just filmed another two episodes of season two.
GM: Wow, I should watch more TV.
EI: Yes. It’s dark and twisted. It’s just called Hannibal.
GM: You mentioned Madison Square Gardens and the Hollywood Bowl. Those are huge. I’ve seen a couple shows in arenas: I saw Dane Cook and Russell Peters. You’re on that level now where you can play those kinds of venues. Does it just become a big pissing contest among comedians as to who can play the biggest venue?
EI: Oh, yeah. Yeah, that’s exactly what it is. I mean, it’s got ego in there. But it’s also a pissing contest between us and rock’n’roll. I mean, why should rock’n’roll be able to play not only arenas but stadiums whenever they want to and we have to ask permission if we’re allowed to play arenas? It’s all kind of odd. And if you look at it, Russell Peters plays arenas, Dane Cook does – I’m not sure if he’s done a recent arena tour – I do. There’s about ten comedians in Britain doing it but there’s not many more in America doing it. There’s quite a number that could but they choose not to. And getting good at doing arenas, you have to do a whole bunch of them so that you can really have a sense of what the trick is to play it: how to play it so that you’re filling that space as opposed to just looking like you’re swimming around in it. I like playing really small venues. Like, after this tour, which is in theatres, I’m going to go to Germany and do standup in German in a 100-200 seater.
GM: In German?
EI: In German.
GM: I guess every type of venue has its pluses and minuses.
EI: Yup, that is true. The bigger venues you do have to arrive and have a presence. Smaller venues are like a speedboat and bigger venues are like an ocean liner. You have to sort of wait for the laughs; your timing has to be slightly different. But you can get in a speedboat and then get out of that and get into an ocean liner and do that. You can do both. I love the ability to do both. Because I don’t have a television series. Some people go, ‘Who is this guy? Is that toilet cleaner, Eddie Izzard? I don’t know what that does.’ But if you say I’m doing Madison Square Garden and Hollywood Bowl, they go, ‘Oh!’
GM: ‘He must be somebody.’
EI: That’s a nice little counter to put out because I’m not doing X Factor, Y Factor, this thing on telly, that reality show. I have to really bat above my weight and playing arenas is kind of handy for that.
GM: You mentioned rock bands. They have this wall of sound. You’re just one voice and one person.
EI: Yes, they do have the wall of sound. But really good sound people and the screen take everything to the back. At Hollywood Bowl, the best place to watch is from the back. It actually looks amazing from the back. I use regression of technology. If you’ve been to any rock concerts in arenas and especially stadiums, they do a lot of editing and vision mixing. They cut to the guitar, they’ll cut to Keith Richards, they’ll cut to this and cut to that. In the end, you might be essentially watching television in a big field. And what I do I call regression of technology: We take two cameras, one which is essentially a backup for the first one. So in essence it’s just the one camera and it shoots a full shot that is placed in the centre of the big vertical screen. So there’s a small me and a big version of me standing behind, just like in the iconic Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane shot. And on either side there are two half-versions of me. And the camera just stays with you and pans with you. So you choose what you’re editing. It never zooms in, it never zooms out. It doesn’t get wide, it doesn’t cut to the people in the audience or anything. It just shoots it. So if you’re at the back or the front, you see the same gig. And that way, you’re the editor.
GM: I see. But you don’t have that on this tour because it’s theatres.
EI: No, people don’t need to worry about that. In the end, I’d like to play arenas all around the world but I have to keep building it up in different countries where I’m known. So like in Germany, I’m hardly known, whereas in Canada I’m quite well known and in America I’m very well known, in Britain I’m well known, and Scandinavia I’m fairly well known. So it’s all different countries at different levels. So I just have to keep building it up.
GM: When a lot of British comics visit other countries, it’s usually to ex-pat audiences. But you’re going to Germany and performing in German so it’s not going to be for the ex-pats.
EI: No, I refuse to play ex-pats. I don’t mind if ex-pats come but it’s got to have a majority indigenous people. So I’m going to be playing Shanghai next year and Tokyo, Japan, Kathmandu, India… I don’t mind if some Brits or English speakers come along, like Americans or Canadians or Irish or Australians, but as long as the majority are locals, then that’s working. I mean, English is this lingua franca. It’s no longer our language that we own; it’s the language that we sort of started off with and then it’s been given to the world as the gift of the most simple communication that we can work out on its basic level. That’s great. It’s for everyone to play with and everyone to do business with and hopefully to make friends with. I’m already touring France in French and I’m playing Montreal in French.
GM: When you’re playing, say Japan or Shanghai, that it is a lot of locals in attendance? How can you control that when when you’re not performing in Mandarin or Japanese?
EI: It’s a little difficult up front. I played Russia – St. Petersburg – and that was about 100% Russians. We talk to the guys and say, ‘How much English is spoken out there?’ Because we want to be there. And they’d already had an Irish comedian, Dylan Moran, who’d played out there. So they already knew that the Russians were going to show up. So there were about a thousand people in St. Petersburg, 1500 in Moscow. So in Shanghai, what we do is we look for promoters, we see what’s going on on the ground. Like I know in Tokyo they’ve already got a lot of Japanese standups. And I was talking to a Japanese woman who was doing my nails yesterday, so she was, as I am a transvestite and I get my nails done. I said, ‘Do the kids speak English in Tokyo?’ I just ask people who I meet. I said, ‘What about in Tokyo University?’ ‘Oh, yes, they speak more English there.’ So that’s the first place you head; you head to the university. Or you find a promoter who says, ‘Yeah, I’m already doing that. And we estimate you can do this and you can do that.’ So we take their advice and then we go and do a look-see. Like, I was in Dubai and I went and saw a friend who was playing there, Al Murray, a British comedian, and it was 100% Brits there. 100%. And I thought I don’t want to do Dubai under that. Because I was born in Yemen. I wish to learn Arabic and play Cairo and then play Lebanon and then build it up from there: Morocco – Marrakesh – would be a good place to play. And if I learned the Cairo Egyptian Arabic, that’s the best one to learn because apparently they use it in the films. So I’m constantly meeting people, I bump into them in the street and I say, ‘What’s the situation? Can I do it in English? Will the locals come, if I go to the university, does that work?’ Because any university, the kids are just going to be grabbing English by the handful. They’re going to be ambitious – they wouldn’t have got to university if they weren’t ambitious. And they’re going to realize that English is the first language to learn as a backup and it can widen their horizons. So it’s just logic. You put it in there. The big thing is I know that comedy is international and not national. That’s my big theory. And I think I’ve proved this correct. The mainstream Canadian comedy will talk about Rob Ford, will talk about the mayors of Montreal and what’s going on politically and with the sports stars; the mainstream British guy would do the equivalent, and the American would do the equivalent. But the alternatives like us will talk about dinosaurs and God and squirrels with guns and helicopters that can play banjo or whatever it is. And you go to Russia and they go, ‘Yeah, this is stupid. Yeah, we understand it. We’ve got dinosaurs.’
GM: You talk about Star Wars but that’s universal now. But you’re also talking about Greek mythology and chaos theory. You just need to be a human to understand it. I also like that you don’t talk down to people who might not even know what chaos theory is or anything about Greek mythology. Obviously you make it palatable. Some comics have strong interests in some topics but think they can’t do it on stage because no one would get it. But you make it so they get it, or can at least enjoy it.
EI: Well, I assume the intelligence of the audience. And there was a logical self-policing of the public. And Python smashed the doors open around the world. And I’ve checked around the world. As I was playing Eastern Europe, I said, ‘You guys have Python?’ And they’d say, ‘Yay!’ And I was phoning Michael Palin and Terry Jones and saying, ‘They’re screaming for you guys.’ I mean, I’m in Zagreb, I’m in Belgrade. That’s it: Assume the intelligence of the audience and the bright ones, or anyone who’s autodidactic or been to university or whatever, and they like this kind of stuff and they’re progressive in politics, they will dig it. And they’ll say, ‘Freddy, you gotta come. Siobhan, you’ll love this.’ And they drag others to it. And that’s how it works. Whereas right wing extremists are gonna go, ‘That guy’s a liberal and he likes people; we like killing people. Let’s not go to that show. Let’s go to the I Want To Kill People show.’
GM: And the politics you’re talking about are not at a local or national level; it’s more sort of issues relating to any human.
EI: Yeah, exactly. Because in the end, we were 30,000 people, 10,000 people two-hundred thousand years ago. And now we’re seven billion. We’re all the bloody same. And just right wing press separates us out into separate things. But we’re all the bloody same.
GM: Did I read you wanted to be mayor?
EI: Yup. Not like the Toronto mayor. More in a different style.
GM: You’d get in your own trouble, though.
EI: (laughs) Well, they’ll say, ‘Aren’t you a transvestite?’ and I’ll go, ‘Yes’ and they’ll go, ‘Oh, that’s fine.’
GM: Yeah, as long as you own it, I guess.
EI: Well, that’s it but I think that’s what Rob Ford is trying to do in retrospect, saying, ‘Yeah, I smoke crack. And I’ll be in work tomorrow.’ And you go, ‘Well, hang on, no, you gotta do something else.’ So yeah, I’ll tell them I’m a transvestite and what else? There’s nothing else, really, to come out after that. I like running marathons and I’ll paint my nails and I can do things out of the box, I’m ambitious and I want everyone else to be ambitious if they want to and I’m a radical centrist. And they’ve already done polling on it, which is a great thing. The Evening-Standard in Britain put me into a poll with other Labour candidates and I came out pretty good.
GM: Is it going to happen?
EI: Yeah, I’m running in 2020. I’ve already stated this. For Member of Parliament or Mayor of London in 2020. But there’s an election in 2016 for the mayor and I’ve been put into that poll and I’d do pretty good if I run in 2016. And there’s a general election in 2015. So I’ll be an activist up to that point then I’ll go for election.
GM: I know you’re involved with Unicef. You’re a funny guy and you think absurdly and at times you want to be serious. Does that ever cause confusion among people?
EI: I think as soon as I told everyone I was a transvestite, that’s so bloody serious. Some people think British men always want to throw on a dress, which isn’t very true. Transgendered people get beaten up as in any other country. But we do have this pantomime thing, that I think in Canada you have as well. But as soon as I started telling people I was a transvestite, it was so serious, it was so crossing the line. I mean, Boy George didn’t say he was gay for ages. But I was saying straight off the bat I’m a transvestite and I don’t look terribly girly, either, so it’s a bit of a struggle. So they could realize it was all kinda serious. And it wasn’t part of the comedy, either. I wasn’t doing transvestite comedy; I was just doing surreal comedy and I happened to be wearing a dress or whatever. So that helped me get a serious platform. And then I started talking about European politics, which is the hardest thing to talk about in the United Kingdom. It’s like an American going up and saying socialism is an interesting thing to have a look at. And I don’t know what the equivalent is in Canada. I suppose it’s like the French part separating or something weird. It’s such a difficult touchstone. So transvestite and then I started talking about Europe and that was a lot of seriousness in there. And I’ve been campaigning in elections since 2008 quite actively. So it’s only four different election cycles I’ve been through. So everyone knows I’m serious and that’s okay. They’ve allowed me to do that, along with running marathons. I’ve always stuck to my guns. I haven’t gone, ‘Hey, I’m into this! No, I’m actually into cheese now! No, free everything for everyone!’ And I don’t say I hate politicians; I think we’ve got to have politicians. There’s a lot of politicians trying to do some good stuff. So I’m trying to put a practical thing on it and see what I can practically do to try and help.
GM: Russell Brand will say don’t vote.
EI: I know Russell’s into that. And that’s cool for Russell to do that. And it’s good for him to have his say. I’m saying do vote. I’m trying to be practical on the thing. I don’t feel we get anywhere by everyone not voting. And I don’t feel all politicians are all trying to do terrible. I don’t think all businessmen are trying to do terrible things. So I’m trying to encourage ethical business and ethical politics. And try not to smoke crack.
GM: Good luck with that.
EI: Yeah, I know. He seems to be a barrel of laughs. Anyway.
GM: Once you get involved in politics, the crack is next.
EI: Yeah, I know. I was thinking to go into politics and I always had in my mind probably not a good idea to smoke crack.
GM: On your Twitter account, you say you think like an American. How does an American think?
EI: Well, if I analyze that down, what I was trying to say was I think like an economic migrant. I think America has a distillation of that. Canada could be the same. Australia could be the same. New Zealand… a number of countries. Well, maybe those three. But America really crystalized it in this, ‘Come, you can go for it. Anyone can go for it. Let’s go! Let’s build it! Let’s think out of the box.’ And that’s what I mean by it. But I also wanted to associate myself with Democratic Americans, as opposed to Republican Americans or, I suppose, the Tea Party Americans. So I put it down. I was thinking I should change it to ‘like an economic migrant’, someone who wants to go build it. Because I’m touring in France now in French and that is so huge because it’s 200 years since the Battle of Waterloo and a thousand years since William the Conqueror. And I’m touring France! I just think it’s so beautiful. It’s politics with an open hand; you reach out with an open hand. And the French are going, ‘This is really groovy! This guy’s doing it in our language.’ And again, it’s self-policing, self-promoting because the cool people are saying, ‘Hey, you’ve got to come and see this English guy. He’s doing it in French. It’s not brilliant French but it’s pretty damn good and he’s making people laugh.’ And my video is available online for $5 or €5. I loved it. And German’s going to be great, too, because of all the history: Second World War, First World War, all that stuff. German’s are now doing it in English. French have now started doing it in English. The Russians are doing it in English. And the Italians as well. It’s all changing and it’s all happening in the UK at the moment, these language jumps. It’s amazing. It’s stunning. I just think it’s wonderful and such a positive human thing. The Russians are doing it in English! And the French! Less so for the Germans to do it in English, but for the French to do it in English. It’s just going to be beautiful.
GM: Do you know Sugar Sammy?
EI: No, I don’t know.
GM: He’s a Canadian comic. He’s Indo-Canadian, born and raised in Montreal, so he speaks and performs in English, Punjabi and French.
EI: Yeah, I think I have heard of him, actually. And he does standup in three languages?
GM: For different audiences, yeah.
EI: That’s excellent. That’s really good. Some people are bilingual or trilingual, and that’s good to a certain extent, but it’s even better if people hack their way into a language and not be a natural speaker because then you can really feel the sweat and you can feel the journey they’ve taken.
GM: You perform just in those three languages or are there more?
EI: No. At the moment it’s just English, I’m pretty good at French now so I’m touring in that, German I’m just beginning. January and February will be the German ones. Then once I get German, I’ll do Spanish. Once I’ve got Spanish, I’ll do Russian. Once I’ve got Russian, I’ll do Arabic.
GM: I read your biographical chapters on your website. Is this going to be a book?
EI: No, I think that was from a book. There was a touring book when I toured America big time in 1998, so I think that’s from 1998. So there is one book out, which is supposed to be a tour book and I think the book company turned it into an autobiography and I said, ‘No, no, that wasn’t how I planned it.’ And I talked to this really good journalist but then he took himself out of it and then it became like this autobiography. So it was a little bit weird but anyway that’s what that is. A real autobiography will come at the end of my days.
GM: You don’t know when that’s going to be, though.
EI: I know, but I’m going to do a US Grant at the end of it. I’ll do it right at the end.
GM: I read in there you have an older brother. What did he do?
EI: He teaches me the languages. He’s going to be there with me in Germany. He’s my tutor in French and German and Spanish, as he speaks those three. And then I’m going to drag him into Russian. We’re going to learn Russian together. And then we’re both, as we were both born in Yemen, we will learn Arabic in Cairo. It’s a beautiful journey to do with your brother.
GM: What did he do for work?
EI: Languages is his thing. A translator.
GM: So your family always got a kick out of watching you perform through the years and get famous?
EI: Not hugely. I mean, initially there was a distinct resistance. My dad was always kind of cool on it. My step-mother was less into it. And I was doing accounting and financial management so, ‘Do that, don’t do this. It’s crazy.’ And it wasn’t working, either. But once it started working, then everything’s been fine. And dad was always saying, ‘As long as you’re happy.’ And now my step-mother’s happy about it as well.
GM: You travel all over the world. Do you get to spend any quality time anywhere or is it all hotel rooms and onto the next place?
EI: It’s a little bit of hotel rooms and stuff, but we do try and do things in different towns and cities and look first at the history. I’m a big history buff so I do like looking into big chunks of history lying about the place. In Boston we were doing tours of Lexington and Concord. I was just saying to my promoter in America I’d like to play Gettysburg. He said, ‘I’ll look into it. I’ll find a venue.’ So that would be great. And we visited Shiloh when we were going down past Nashville. So I like looking around. The Eastern European countries are great to visit because there’s so much of that, hundreds of years of history.
GM: Not as much history in Vancouver. But you’ve got two nights here so you’ve got to get out at some point.
EI: Yes, I have to get in that speed boat and go up the river and visit those places that you can do. You’ve got speed boats.
GM: You did that in the ‘90s here, didn’t you?
EI: Yes, I know. I like doing it. It’s like the thing I do because I just can’t believe that you can say, ‘Yeah, I can drive a speed boat.’ ‘Okay, get in. Off you go.’ It just seems so weird. Because we have rowing boats in England and you have to say, ‘Can you row a rowing boat? Yes, I can. Alright.’ ‘Pedalo. Can you do a pedalo? Yeah, I can do that. Alright, you can go in that duck pond.’ Whereas in Vancouver you can say yes you can go in this huge river.
GM: It’s the ocean.
EI: Yeah, the one I went up was a river.
GM: Well don’t fall in like you did in Lake Ontario.
EI: No. Well, that was more just the rip tide pulling me back out. I was dragged out of the water. I screamed help. And initially I was thinking I can’t say help because of British embarrassment. It’s too embarrassing to say help. And then I was like, ‘Nope. Fucking help!’
GM: Yeah, it’s too hack to yell help.
EI: Now I think it’s funny. Not funny, but it was true. I was not in a good place and I was dragged out of the water.
GM: Did you keep in contact with that girl through the years?
EI: With the family. There was a gap and then I came back and started playing Canada and filming in Canada. And I’ve been in touch with them ever since. Me and my brother went back I think it was two years ago. We went back to the house up in Cambleford north of Belleville and we all hung out there. My brother brought his kids. So it was great. And they’re coming to the show on Friday.