You have to believe you can do standup before you become a standup, believe you can act before you become an actor, believe you can be an astronaut before you become an astronaut, but you’ve got to believe. This is one explanation of Eddie Izzard’s success offered up by Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story, the 2009 documentary made by Izzard’s ex, Sarah Townsend.
Eddie Izzard is that comedian known the world over for running, jumping, climbing trees, putting makeup on when he gets up there. It’s the male tomboy thing. He does standup around the world in multiple languages and acts in drama films. @eddieizzard
The film then goes on to try to glean where this confidence, ego, and belief in himself comes from and why he’s so perplexingly driven. (The guy did 43 marathons in 51 days and set the record for doing most countries in a standup tour, several of which he did in the local language.) Ultimately, we learn that his drive is related to his mother, who died when he was very young. But before we get you down, Believe is not all about that. A lot of it follows Izzard’s journey from putting on puppet shows in boarding school to joining a comedy duo and street performing in Covent Garden to starting standup. One thing I didn’t know was that he had his own club for a while called Raging Bull where he was the compere everyone came to see. Soon he brought his act to West End and came out as a transvestite. Largely, he received a good reception to this revelation, though he was beaten up once. We follow Izzard to America where he got roles in films and met Robin Williams, who helped him break into the U.S. comedy scene by attaching his name to a California production. We also get to watch Izzard’s style change from typical frumpy comedian clothes to rockstar. The interviewees seem a bit baffled that he’s able to maintain the rockstar image while being in such an anti-mystique industry.
Dress to Kill (Virgin Publishing, 1998) is a book that delves into the history of his personal dichotomy in his own words. It is a transcription (by David Quantick and Steve Double) of Izzard’s verbal interviews, which often follow his characteristic dyslexic train of thought. In fact, with zero introduction or context, the book begins with Izzard’s musings on Steve McQueen, Monty Python, and misc. movies he’s seen. But by the end, you forgive it, as the outro reads, “I’ve just re-read everything that I’ve said here and I really do talk a lot of crap….So if you do come across a passage that you think is bollocks, just take it out and wear it as a hat.”
John Cleese had been in a Footlights revue called Cambridge Circus over there in the 60s and they’d all gone around and got reviews from all the big-name reviewers. Or that’s what it looked like. The big-name reviewers had names like Frank Rich or whatever and John Cleese and the others went out and found taxi drivers called Frank Rich and got them to write reviews.
But eventually we get into his story and learn about his childhood, the sorts of things that the Believe documentary didn’t get into, like how he used his broken off toenail and fallen out front tooth to make cuff links for his brother’s Christmas present. Or how when he was 14, he used to go around the countryside sleeping in farmers’ fields. Preparing to be in the army takes equal weight as playing football or trying to get parts in the school plays.
Probably the most interesting chapter in the book is about when he came to terms with being a transvestite. This is largely something glossed over in Believe. They had mentioned he had come out as TV on stage and that he was beaten up once for it, but didn’t go into the sort of detail that he goes into in this book where he has to lie in the dark and try to wrap his head around it, or how working at the call center helped him feel comfortable. He also goes into more detail about the fight in Cambridge, what it was like going to trial, and the reasons for the choices he made in that trial.
It was very important to wear make-up for the court case or their imaginations would have run riot….It’s like American television; I have to do every interview in make-up to tell them, ‘This is what it’s going to look like, guys. This is going to be the Marc Bolan end of transvestism.’
Izzard is famous for playing in all sort of countries, often in the local language. Here, he talks about how easy it is to get accepted as a Brit if he acts more like he’s from outer space than from Britain or any other recognizable locale. He even admits that given the opportunity, he would do a gig on the moon.
Most of us come from all over anyway. Izzard is Isard in France (Isard meaning mountain goat) and Issard in the Pyrenees. After learning Russian and doing a gig in Russia, he would like to learn Arabic and do a gig in South Africa, where he was born.
With standup comedy, I feel we’ve been held back. I remember on British television, some kids were asked, ‘What’s the best comedy?’ and they all said, ‘American comedy,’ because they see the best of American comedy, they don’t see the dross. I’ve always hated this thing that our comedy can’t cut it. It fucking can–we’ve just got to get it to the USA.
Like in Believe, there’s a lot about street performing, and just a bit about being in films. Even more than that is breaking into film lots as a kid, hoping to get “discovered.”
Then we get a bit abstract, and Izzard gives his theory on the shape of space (circular), the importance of landing on the moon, problems with religion, and the un-tapped parts of the brain.
…that’s almost like the Tarantino balance of excessive violence and inane gossip. Balance. For me, wearing make-up and being ballsy, that’s what I’ve got to do….I don’t think there’s a divine plan behind the layout of the universe. I’d go for a mixture. I’d go for a certain karma thing that happens in this world, and therefore I think it could happen everywhere. I do believe that what goes around comes around. Maybe that’s just ice cream vans.