In Toronto, on the opening night of his new North American tour, comedian Eddie Izzard stops his routine suddenly. He smiles broadly, straight out at the theaterful of people, and says, "I'm talking crap. Haven't done a gig in ages." Izzard, you see, does comedy the hard way: he doesn't write anything down, and he doesn't rehearse anything, either. During his surreal soliloquies with riffs on everything from cows ("They have rights... though not many") to a new Canadian national anthem ("Oh Canada, how many A's do we have?/Like 'banana,' only different"), he frequently pauses to gather himself to figure out what to say next. Among Izzardophiles--the hard-core fans who'll follow "Circle," his new show, to Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York--the moments when he says "Um, yes, ba-dum ba-dum... and that's all true" are the especially delicious trademarks of his style.
Izzard--whom Monty Python legend John Cleese calls "the funniest stand-up around"--is a smallish man, with a big, generous face and a voice capable of whiplashing from a high, adolescent croak to a thespian basso in a split second. The content of his gags ("Before Stonehenge, there was Strawhenge and Woodhenge") is like the subject matter of a modern painting--only half the story. The way he says them--very, very fast with a little kid's instant grin of discovery--is the brushstroke, the part his fans love. The downside of Izzard's improvisational courage is the same as an NBA hotshot point guard's: a lot of flashy passes end up in the stands. It doesn't faze him. Izzard just stage-whispers into his face mike, "They're not going for it, Swindon."
Did we mention that Eddie wears women's clothes--good ones from Jean-Paul Gaultier--and not just as part of his act? He's a bona fide cross-dresser. He's also engagingly self-confident, in an unpretentious way. When NEWSWEEK talked to him on the eve of his tour, the first thing he wanted to do was get the subject of transvestism out of the way. "Being a TV is in the chromosomes, in the genes," Izzard said. "It's similar to being a transsexual--adjoining rooms, so to speak. But TS's are further along." This particular night Izzard was in "bloke mode": leather pants, tight black T shirt and no lipstick. Emphatic eye makeup, however, and very high-heeled boots. "I was initially a frumpy transvestite," Izzard recalled. "I looked like a small elephant in high heels." He added--almost as if his improved fashion sense had something to do with it--"I have a girlfriend, and I do fancy women."
Izzard was born in 1962 in Yemen (his father worked there for British Petroleum) and was sent to boarding school in Britain when his mother fell ill with cancer. She died when Eddie was 6. "I wanted to be an actor," he says, "but I couldn't get any parts in school. Then I discovered Monty Python and thought I can just do this comedy thing." Izzard started as a street performer. One day he saw another guy with "a metal girder attached to a helmet, with spikes coming out, and attached to the spikes were flaming kebabs." Izzard realized, "If I were performing, people would say, 'Let's go across the street and see the guy with the girder'."
So he switched to indoor stand-up, and then added impressions. Exactly two--James Mason and Sean Connery--which serve as voices in his cast of characters, including God, Jesus, Moses, JFK and Dr. Heimlich (who, when choking, asks somebody to perform "the me maneuver" on him). And he "does history," which he gets from "watching telly, the History Channel, endlessly." Izzard riffs: "I'm interested in classical thinking with the Greeks and Romans, then things' going very stupid after that. Someone in the third century A.D. says, 'Uh, I dunno what's going on'."
Oddly--or perhaps not so oddly--Izzard's most dedicated fans are women. All the members of his unofficial American fan club, Executive Izzardites, are female. "He's the kind of guy you want to cuddle with" and "I'll turn the video on to keep me company while I clean house" are typical replies--99 percent of which came from women--to an Internet newsgroup query asking fans what they fancy about Eddie. The affection doesn't emanate solely from bonbon ladies taking a break from QVC jewelrythons. "Eddie educates as well as entertains," says Sheri Wilson, a 27-year-old molecular geneticist. And, unlike all those Drew Carey-esque boyfriends out there, he's got really great taste in shoes.
When informed of the ardor, Izzard sighs. "Yeah, but if you start to believe it, you can lose your life and your soul." His solution is to push his artistic envelope. Armed with only high-school French, he took one of his shows to Paris. He's appeared in films--mostly forgettable parts in forgettable movies (the villainous chauffeur in "The Avengers," for instance)--and starred in the legitimate London theater as Lenny Bruce in "Lenny" last spring.
Nevertheless, Izzard still hankers after the comedic big time. Carolyn Strauss, VP for original programming at HBO, where the video of his '98 American tour "Dress to Kill" still plays, says, "He takes you right beyond the garb into the persona. We'd love to work with him again." Tickets to "Circle's" New York run sold out in five days. When an extra show was added, the tickets vanished in 36 hours. But some fans have grown positively possessive of Izzard's nichey strangeness. "As for his going mainstream, I hate it," e-mails Rebecca Townsend, a 28-year-old insurance exec. Cleese is reassuring: "I don't think Izzard will lose his weirdness. He won't change his act just to be more successful." Right. After all, he outfunnied that guy with the girder long ago.