Drag King

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Izzard first arrived on U.S. shores as the ultimate oddity: a straight man from Britain who liked to wear women's clothing and was in possession of more makeup than a crazy aunt. But the clothes never made the man: His sexuality was and remains a moot point to the audience; he's funny, but not to look at. His father recalls that even at a young age, Izzard was fascinated with his mother's stocking tops. The kid was 4, but he knew: He was a woman trapped in a bloke's boxy body, and he fancied women, so he must be a, well, male lesbian. (For a while, Izzard even thought of having Little Eddie chopped off, but he decided to skip the knife and head straight for the Versace.) He was stealing lipstick at the age of 15, and finally came out in 1985, at the age of 23; he would tell a British newspaper of his lifestyle six years later. Izzard told his dad he was a trannie during a soccer game, and the old man said it was fine by him.

In his first comedy special--Live at the Ambassadors, recorded in February 1993--Izzard is nearly unrecognizable, sporting a blue blazer, blue jeans, and brown cowboy boots. He looks very much like a man who should be standing in front of a comedy club's brick wall, albeit a man wearing blood-red nail polish. And he sounds very much like a man struggling to make up his bits on the spot; it's less stand-up act than rambling, freeform monologue.

His 1994 show, Unrepeatable, is a bit more in focus but long on familiar topics: advertising ("Wash your clothes..or no one will shag you"), laundry ("You always have to sacrifice a few socks and a pair of pants to the God of Laundry"), food labels ("This jam was made by groovy people out of fruit that agreed to be in the jam in the first place--free-range fruit"), and politics ("I'm a revolutionary liberal...I think, storm the House of Parliament, kick the fuckin' doors in, get in there, and say, 'Look, we'll pay for the damage'"). Watching those early tapes is like looking at old childhood photos; he's still soft at the edges, still covered in the comedian's baby fat.

"I've worked it up into a thing now, but stand-up was not easy," Izzard says. "It took me a year and a half between the first two gigs. I never thought I was gonna do stand-up. I liked being funny, but I think I can have a germ of creativity and just work it and work it and work it and get it into shape. I must have had a sense of humor--I think my family has a sense of humor--but being able to be funny now, like just trusting I can work something into funny, I sort of take that for granted."

He hit his stride with his fourth special, 1997's Glorious: As he likes to say, the surreal had given way to the surreal and observational, which, at last, had given way to the surreal and observational and historical. A bit about the death of Princess Diana morphs into a protracted bit about The X-Files, which leads to a mention of his mother's death, and somehow it all ties together. He begins talking about Noah's Ark and the Siege of Troy, gets around to insisting that Achilles should have put his vulnerable heel "in a fuck-off block of concrete," then somehow ends up on a long discussion of vacuum-cleaning. By the time of Dress to Kill, Izzard had become James Mason narrating a History Channel documentary starring Monty Python, only with Izzard as John Cleese and Michael Palin and Graham Chapman and so on.

In the end, Izzard has hit upon the great secret of stand-up: For the audience to be entertained, so too must be the man delivering the goods. Izzard is the rare comic who looks to be having a better time than his audience; he nearly levitates on the stage, bouncing about in shiny finery. There is no rage in his humor; he has no demons to exorcise, unlike, say, one of his idols, Richard Pryor. The anger was vanquished when he came out as a transvestite. Now, beneath the makeup and Versace, there is only a brilliant little boy in search of the ultimate giggle.

"The child of 6 got locked up and lost to the world when my mum died," he says. "I worked out how to open the lid on the kid who can come out and play, but with all the knowledge of my life. The idea of playing in the head is almost like opening out your brain, and my brain tends to move quite fast. That's why I have difficulty writing. I can't type as fast as my brain can move, which is really nice. I'm very pleased that my brain does that, and I suppose if you think about it too much, you begin worrying it might go away. It zips around, and I think because of my dyslexia, I think laterally instead of vertically, which makes for interesting sideways connections. It's fun jumping around, and it's also fun when it starts happening, and I am not controlling it.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky