Eddie Izzard calls himself a “radical moderate” — radical in approach, moderate in message. The British comedian and actor cheerfully defies cultural norms in many ways, from running in more than 80 charity marathons to cross-dressing. Then, having captured people’s attention, he eschews extremism to advocate cross-cultural understanding and tolerance.
Whether that combination will prove politically effective will be tested soon enough: Sometime after 2020, Izzard plans to “do an Al Franken” and run for Parliament in the U.K. His platform is a humanist one: “We’ve got to learn to live together and work together in some shape or form.”
But for now, Izzard is acting (he has a featured role in the current film Victoria & Abdul, opposite Judi Dench), writing (his memoir, Believe Me, is a best seller, and his first screenplay will be produced next year), and touring to, among other places, the Granada Theatre, where he will talk about his life and work on Thursday, October 19, at 8 p.m. He touched upon all these pursuits in a recent interview with the Santa Barbara Independent.
You realized you were transgender at age 4. Did the discomfort of feeling like an outsider lead, however, obliquely, to a career in comedy? Indirectly. I did a lot of self-analysis when I came out [as trans] at 23, and I began doing stand-up at 26. A lot of my comedy involves analysis, and if you’re analyzing something, you’re somewhat outside it. Just like a journalist, a comedian needs to be objective enough to be able to say, “Have you noticed all this stuff that’s happening?”
You learned different languages so you can perform in many countries in their native tongue. Is this part of your attempt to reach out to other cultures? Yeah, it’s comedy without borders. I’m about 75 percent fluent in French. I’m going to be developing my next show in French in Paris in December. I can do okay conversational German. I’ve just started learning Spanish.
Does your act translate better to some cultures than others? It works in all cultures. One can say I have a British sense of humor, but I don’t. I actually have a surreal sense of humor. It totally matches up with that of surreal American comedians, from Ernie Kovacs onward. When you make an observation like, “Human sacrifice — that was bloody stupid, wasn’t it?” anyone in the world will answer, “Yeah.”
Then you take it further: “At some point, somebody said, ‘The weather is bad; the crops have failed; so we’re going to kill Steve. The crops will be fantastic once Steve has had his lungs ripped out.’” Now, why would the gods like it if you killed a human being who was created by a god? It’s an insane idea, but it occurred all around the world. I can play that in Moscow or Berlin or Oklahoma City. They all get it.
It’s nice to find such commonality, but we nevertheless live in a divided, suspicious world. What is the role of the artist in such turbulent times? It’s tricky. Sometimes you [as an entertainer] are talking into the bubble. You can talk to the progressives who agree with you, but you’ve got to get through to the anxious middle. You’ve got to encourage them to be brave and curious rather than fearful and suspicious.
Can a performer be a positive role model? Well, you first have to be your own role model. I couldn’t find one [when I decided to come out]. So I found one in myself. Not everyone’s going to do that. But once you start doing it, other people will say, “That’s how I can express myself.”
Eddie Izzard stops in Santa Barbara for his book tour, Believe Me, Thursday, October 19, 8 p.m. Call (805) 899-2222 or visit granadasb.org.