Scheduled for five nights at the Kodak, comedian talks Bible Belt, Napoleon, spelunking and the future of The Riches
Wednesday, July 30, 2008 - 6:40 pm
When Eddie Izzard gets onstage at the Kodak Theatre next week for a five-night stint (Aug. 5-9), he will present a message he’s been spreading across America for the past four months. For his Stripped tour, the comedian and actor traces the history of the universe from beginning to today, talking about, in his words, “everything that’s ever happened.” It’s a brilliant and funny show (I recently caught it in St. Louis) in which he moves from spot-on dinosaur impersonations to creationist theory to Moses and the burning bush to imagined fights between geologists and paleontologists (“It’s about the rocks!” “What about the monsters in the rocks?!” “They’re rocks!”).
Izzard, who’s still awaiting word on whether the FX channel will commit to a third season of his critically acclaimed series The Riches, devotes a big chunk of time to deconstructing God: “There’s no point in worshipping God, because he’d have to have a better track record than that to be worshipped.” Izzard recently spoke with L.A. Weekly.
L.A. WEEKLY: Is it more nerve-wracking to perform the smaller cities or somewhere like Los Angeles, where you probably know more people in the audience and have a better sense of what works and what doesn’t? Eddie Izzard: Well, I don’t actually know anyone in the audience anywhere. My dad and my brother might turn up in New York or something, or there might be two or three people, but with the whole audience I don’t think that really helps. I do think that to go around the Bible Belt places — I think that a lot of the audiences were kind of thrown when I was playing there. But it’s the same audience. It’s just socially progressive in your thinking. It’s an interesting thing. The social-progressive audience around the world, they can all talk to each other. They can all just get in a room and talk to each other straight off the bat. You don’t really have to get anyone up to speed. Mainstream audiences would have to reset there ... A mainstream American audience, if you got them together with a mainstream British audience, you know, the mainstream American audience would say, “Well, my sports are these, and this is the guy I vote for and he does this and that, and this is my world and I go to this shop.” And the British guy would say, “Well, our sports are these and they’re different.” Whereas the social progressive people would say, “Well, I know there’s a whole range of sport and whole range of religion. What religion are you? Are you Buddhist? Oh, you’re Hindu, ah yeah. Or the Christian right, how does that work? Now I know a bit about Hindu.” And the social progressive people just — it’s a great audience. They’ve already thought a lot about things and questioned things and have different lifestyles and can hook up quite easily. So when you play for that audience, it’s not terribly tricky. They can swing with it.
I think we worked out that about half of every audience is dragged along, so within that half of the audience there are people going, “What the fuck is this?” Not necessarily all of them. But it’s not like I’m getting, you know, strongly evangelical people coming and real right-wing people coming. It’s not like they’re sitting there just waiting to give me a hard time. Maybe in the future, if my profile keeps getting pushed up the ladder, maybe at some point people will come along and get really pissed off at what I’m saying. But, you know, I’m not trying to push it down people’s throats. I’m just saying what I think, and here it is, kids. So I do get some grumbles and stuff in certain places, but I find that if I put it out in the way that I’m trying to put it out ... I’m not sure quite what I’m saying with this ...
It’s not like you’re proselytizing or like you’re preaching, per se. I try to make sure that it’s more like, “This is what I think,” as opposed to “this is what you should think.”
Did you ever get called on any of that stuff in the after-show Q&A’s? [Instead of giving autographs outside the theater, Izzard often returns to the stage after the show has ended and answers questions from fans.] In the Bible Belt, people said they were surprised that [I] said it, that [I] could say it because no one says it around here. And it also surprised a whole bunch of people in the audience that they were also up for hearing that said. In a coastal audience in America, obviously that’s not the thing, and in a European audience, that’s not the thing. But in Bible Belt, you know, less people have that chat around their coffees of the day, I suppose. You just think, well, I feel this stuff but I won’t have a chat with Freddy or Suzanne because they’re probably not going to agree with that. [Someone at] the merchandising store said to a merchant, “Does Eddie know that scientists have proven that the Bible is right?” And I do know of that information. Whether I believe those scientists are correct, I cannot agree with. But obviously there are people coming along.
Have you ever chickened out and not gone down a line of thinking that might get you in trouble?
I try not to. I try to feel what I’m feeling and so I say that, and if people agree with that, then you don’t need to go and persuade them. And people might be jeering about it or whatever and that doesn’t — I don’t know quite what that does. I’m just sort of saying it out loud. I don’t believe in God, but I believe in human beings. It’s an interesting message, because there are 6.5 billion of us and 3 or 4 billion of us are in a position to do something or other. And if we could harness the goodwill of those people, then I think we could do something. And people don’t have to unpickle their religious beliefs. They can harness that energy. Like the people who stood against Hitler. There were a lot of religious people who stood up and said, “This is not right.” And they were put in concentration camps and killed because of it. So, you know, a lot of people with strong character can be religious. And you don’t have to pull it all apart. I can say that I’m not believing in the bloke upstairs, but I still go to church. I find it quite peaceful.
Yeah, and I don’t imagine that you’re harboring any deep-seated thoughts or feelings that are going to make the national headlines if you say them out loud.
Yeah, absolutely. You can grab a bigger headline by saying something much more aggressive. I’m more for putting some ideas out and see where it ends. Someone could come along with quite an idea; it’s good to put the ideas out there.
When was your last big national tour? Five years ago.
Did you notice any differences in America in that five years? You’re checking in with America for 30 or 40 dates every five years. Are there things you observed this time around that are different from the last time you did this? Interesting question. I don’t know if I can quite tell that. In these last five years I have spent more time in America than I have beforehand. You know, I was sort of based in London and the 2003 tour was much more extensive. And when I went then I still wasn’t in tune, I think, with American coastal thinking. This time I am. I think my attitude has changed. Because when I was a kid, I thought that America was a bright shining place that went to the moon and saved everyone’s problems and everyone was really nice. And then Watergate happened and gradually you get more realistic and realize, okay, countries can’t be that. And I thought America was this other country of Reagan, linking up much closer with Thatcher. It was all about money. It was all about aggressive foreign policy. And that was America. And having been here for the last five years, for really a lot of that time, I realized that the original America does exist. The one that I really liked, it’s still here.
During the Clintonian years — whoever’s running the country, if you’re outside the country you tend to generally think that everyone’s thinking with the head of that administration. That’s not true, but that’s what everyone thinks. People used to say to me, “Oh, you must love your business venture,” and I hated it, couldn’t stand it. So that’s the big thing that’s changed. And that’s why I’m happy to go to places where people vote Republican at the drop of a hat ... I’m still happy to go there and have a chat. And even if they weren’t very strongly Republican, or back in England if they’re strongly conservative, I’m still very happy to chat with people. I’m very interested in what people think, and all the ideas swirling around.
I mean, I’m very involved — well, as involved as I can be at the moment — in European politics, and I’ve made my stand there. I think that the European Union is a good thing. We’ve got to try and make it work. And a lot of people in England, particularly, people very loudly shout against it. The general population in England, I think, casually think, “Well, I’ve been told it’s not a big deal.” It’s a really tricky argument, Europe, because it’s so much easier to explain how to be against it than it is to be for it. The arguments for it are slightly more complicated, somewhat more complicated, than the arguments against it. The arguments are basically, “Who are these people? They speak a different language.” And so getting involved in that is interesting. You’ve just got to talk to a lot of people and you’ve got to read a lot of stuff. In America, that question doesn’t exist, but the God question, I suppose the God question is really confusing. Interesting, in American politics you have to at least tip your hat to God — if you don’t say that you’re talking to God, hanging out with God, chat[ting] to him all the time — to get elected. And then in Europe, it’s almost exactly the inverse. Tony Blair played down his religion and then became more religious — I assume you become more religious if you become Catholic — when he left politics. I find that very interesting. I think that’s because of the world wars.
America seems to me to be about five or six different countries. The Southwest, for example, is so different from the Northeast and the Midwest, as different as Germany and Spain. It would be the same in Europe, but different carvings up. I suppose there’s two or three or four bits to the United Kingdom. Geographically, you’re so big that it makes things ... You’re all spread out. So far it’s been the people in the middle going, “There’s no one else on the planet, it’s just us.’ I think that must be somewhat of the thinking, because they could drive for hours and not see that many other people.
Yeah, that’s where I’m from. You mentioned when we chatted briefly in St. Louis that on your off days while touring you like to do sightseeing and get a better sense of the cities that you’re in. I’m wondering if there are specific things on this tour that you saw, say for example in Tampa, or wherever, in Detroit. When it comes to the cities, and particularly in the Northeast, we pick up a long history. I was getting tours around Philadelphia, Boston. Went to the Boston zoo around the back, which was very interesting. By the time we got to Tampa I was quite exhausted, and it was so hot that the idea of wandering around and looking at things ... I was told that St. Petersburg was the place to hang out, but I just couldn’t get there. The energy — I have to keep very careful on the energy because I get ill. I did go to Houston Space Center, and to the one in Washington as well. I’m really into the astronaut program that you have, and one day maybe Europe will have but we don’t have it now. I saw Shiloh, that was very interesting — the battle of Shiloh between Pittsburgh and Memphis.
Wow, I know absolutely nothing about that.
Oh, really. Yeah, I’ve watched the Ken Burns documentary quite intensively and I find that fascinating. And your Revolutionary War, your Civil War, a lot of that military history. And, you know, to understand that, World War II, World War I — I know the overarching side to that. I was going to be in the army, so I do have a military brain that’s going on inside this action transvestite body.
I didn’t realize you were going to be in the army.
Yeah, I was considering doing an officer cadetship. But I think that being a transvestite could have been a down-marker on TV there. I was very much in the scouts. I was like your equivalent of an Eagle scout, called a Queen’s scout. Got all those badges up the wazoo, camping, rock climbing, canoeing, pot holing, what you call spelunging, I think.
Spelunking, yes. Pot holing?
Yeah, we call it pot holing. It’s going down in holes, that’s why we have the word “pot” there. Why do you call it spelunging?
Spelunking. I don’t know. It’s one of my favorite words, though.
Yeah, it’s like someone just said, “Look. We’ve got all these letters, can we just make a word out of it? Let’s give it to the guys who go down in the holes because they need a word.” Spelunging. Is it a hard G or a soft G?
It’s a hard K. Spelunking. K-I-N-G.
K-I-N-G. Spelunking. Anyway, so that, and then I went to a boarding school that had an enforced cadet thing for three years, and I was trying to get promotions in that. I did this special course. So military history, military tactics, Battle of Austerlitz, what Napoleon did at Pratzen Heights ... you know that battle?
No, no, my military history is ... somebody punched me in the shoulder once during Boy Scouts and I quit the next day. Well, the Battle of Austerlitz is the one to know about because it shows Napoleon at his most cavalier. It’s like almost insane what he did, but because he was traveling on this massive confidence — he did blitzkrieg. The Romans, I think, invented blitzkrieg, or maybe Alexander the Great invented it. Blitzkrieg is just moving faster than any other fucker. That’s the trick of it. And Napoleon did it. He moved his troops about 10 miles faster a day than anyone else, so they turned up places when they weren’t expecting him. And Austerlitz is just weird. There are these things called Pratzen Heights, they’re like a raise in the ground, and he put his troops on it, and then he started shooting the peace with the Austrians. And so the Austrians were going, “Oh, he’s scared.” And he said, “Well, go get your guys up to Pratzen Heights because there’s a good peak there. And so they thought that he was running scared. And he took his people off it, and they put their people on it. And then he just turned around one way and said, “No, fuck it, let’s fight.” And they were totally thrown ’cause they thought he was shooting for peace. And then he had his men creep up to Pratzen Heights and take it again, and then they turned the guns on the Austrians and they said, “Oh, fuck it” and they gave up. It’s just insane what he did there. I find it handy to know these things. I don’t know why, but there you go.
It’s interesting, I should know more about it, I guess. Well, only if it interests you. I think with all learning you have to go off what appeals to you. I don’t learn a huge amount about curtains.
See, we’re the exact opposite that way. I got the curtain thing down. Hey, how was New Orleans? I noticed that you’re doing a benefit for New Orleans and I was wondering if that was based on an experience that you had down there. Did you perform there during this tour? Absolutely. I went to New Orleans before Katrina, and that was fun, and I liked it and I liked its European flavor. I feel, being a sort of history student, that I do find the history within the place, which obviously going back a few hundred years becomes European history — I find that fascinating. Because you sit in New Orleans and look out and it’s just like, “Shit, I’m sitting in France,” looking out the window. And then Katrina happened, which was hellish, and then everything got fucked up with the administration at FEMA. The Riches, the pilot, was shot in New Orleans, so I was there for five weeks. We were the first to shoot there after Katrina. And at the time I was thinking, maybe I could do a show here, you know, give some money back, raise some money and give it in. I’ll work something out. And I couldn’t at the time. I had to really come straight on there.
Since then I had been trying to get back there, but it’s been pretty difficult because a number of the venues are still out and the rest are really booked up. So on this one, it wasn’t on the tour list, the tour was not there. And then I said, “Look. By hook or by crook, we are going and I will do a street show if I can’t do a show. I have to do something in New Orleans. Whatever happens, I am going there.” My promoter Arnold Engleman worked very hard on going down there, trying to get through to people, to phone up people, to say, “Can you make a gap and let us get in on one day?” It was quite hard to get in there, which is a little counterintuitive. But anyway, I got in, and it was set up, and we did it. It was good to do. We gave all the money — I think we raised about 80 grand, which we gave to the NHS of New Orleans, which is the Neighborhood Housing Services. They’re working on projects, rebuilding houses, building from scratch, encouraging other architectural schools around the country which are helping — students building things. A lot of stuff that’s coming from people. People power. That thing that sort of goes up and about. Probably the savior of the world will be people power. Just honest-to-goodness people who with whatever voting thing, you know, whatever they see the world, just helping out. You know, that’s probably going to be the savior of the world. That’s what brought down communism, I think. Not Ronald Reagan turning up and saying, “Take down this wall,” but that people thing.
Like a collective, conscious decision.
Gorbachev let it relax, and I think he’s never been thanked for that. Maybe he didn’t quite realize what would happen, but, fuck it, it came from him. And then people just stood up and marched, and they could have all got shot and that kind of stuff, but they did it. They came down. And now Eastern Europe is this young powerhouse, which I want to go do gigs in. I can’t learn all the languages, but I have this idea that if I go and play universities, I could probably do it in English, I think.
[The conversation turns to Scrabble; we have a mutual friend who’s really good at word games.]
She’s really ... she’s kicking my ass right now. She’s good at crosswords and she’s good at Scrabble. That annoys me because I’m very competitive and I can’t compete in that area. I just —
It’s embarrassing. I mean — I don’t know if I said it in St. Louis, but Scrabble was invented by Nazis to oppress people who suffer from dyslexia.
Yes, you did.
So, I just write it off Scrabble.
Has there been any resolution as to whether The Riches is coming back for a third season? No. I keep saying I’m doing seven seasons, and I stand by that. They’re still just working out their thing at their end, but that’s what I’m doing, I’m doing seven seasons. Seven seasons for seven brothers. It’s a musical. Seven Seasons for Seven Brothers, which I think would be kind of a weird musical but there you go. So, we haven’t resolved that yet, but —
That must be kind of hard. If you’re doing it regardless of what happens with FX, then I guess it’s not hard, but it seems like you might be in a holding pattern.
It doesn’t matter for me because I can do gigs. I’ve tried to arrange my standup position. And I’m very happy with where I’m going with this show. And I’ve decided not to record it until next year. And then maybe not to put it out until the year 3000, well, not that long. I’m trying to work out the quickest lead time I can do to go and doing places. I’ve got a full night to do after this, and I constantly try to choose my film projects carefully. And also I’m not just getting, “Hey, there are 10 projects going in the world and you can do any one of these.” So I’m constantly looking for film projects. The Riches is there. When they script that back on, I will cut the time out and off we go. And meanwhile I can take this show, and there are many other countries in the world that I have to go play. Especially in the U.K., where they’re going to beat me around the head with bananas if I don’t get there soon. But the trouble with the U.K. is that I need six months to a year lead time. I have to do it in a different way. I’m doing these 11 o’clock shows. I’m really into doing these 11 o’clock shows. I kind of love that now. I started doing them in Los Angeles at the Coronet.
Yeah, last summer I drove by the Coronet for like two or three weeks in a row, and I was like, “Eddie Izzard, why is Eddie Izzard playing at the Coronet? Is he really playing at the Coronet or is his name just up there?” And then it vanished one day and I was kicking myself because I really would have loved to have seen you there.
Well, the truth of the name thing was I was playing there. And we were just telling the people on the Web site, on the mailing list, which is a finite number of people. There are a number of people who want to see the show, but they don’t necessarily want to get e-mails all the time. They just want to say, “Hey, sign,” you know. There are lots of people I like but I don’t necessarily want to be on their mailing list. So we were having maybe the same people come over and over again, so I thought, let’s widen out. We’ll do a little bit of listings, and a little bit of — let’s just shove my name on the thing outside, that’s sitting out there. Because I was playing there pretty regularly, like once a week or once every two weeks. So we did that, so that’s what that was. I was probably playing there at that time, and then it just changed hands again.
Oh, yeah, now it’s Largo. The club Largo moved into it.
Absolutely, it’s Largo. And Largo was my first place, and I went to Largo to say, “I need to play a place — can you suggest any?” And the guy who runs Largo said to go to the Coronet. So I tried the Coronet and went and camped there. I might now have decamped to a bigger place. There’s a place called Ricardo Montalbán Theater.
Oh yeah, right in Hollywood.
There are about a thousand seats there, and I kind of like it because it’s a great room. And all these great radio plays — they did radio plays of the films there. So there’s all the history there, which I like. And I do love the Coronet. The Coronet is a fantastic room. But if you go and play a 2,000-seater after having played a 300-seater, the jump — you have to change your gears. But if I went from a thousand seats to 1,500 seats, I wouldn’t make much of a gear change. So I might move onto that stage.
What do you mean you have to change gears? It’s just a different approach to playing a bigger crowd?
Yeah, you have to slow down a bit, just wait for the laughter to come back. You know, now I’m going and playing Radio City with 6,000 and it felt like the Coronet, and last night I played 1,200 and that would be like the Coronet now. If you play a room enough and if you have enough gigs, and you’re happy with what you’re talking about, you forget about the audience and it becomes your own bedroom, or your own living room or something. And people are coming into your own living room, even though it’s not your own living room, but you hold that thing in your head. And the fear, which ... standup, it’s really massive, logically. What if you don’t get a laugh after five minutes and then you get no laughs for the next hour and a half?
I think that’s a nightmare that I’ve had at some point.
Yeah, it’s nightmare which I can’t even begin to consider. It’s like the astronauts on the pad while shit happens within five seconds, which did happen on Apollo 12. They got hit by lightning.
Has it ever happened to you, where after five minutes you’re like, “What the fuck am I doing here?”
In an early day. I make the analogy, actually, something everyone can link to, would be car driving. Everyone drives. Even the stupidest people at school — we never say, “Oh, that guy is so stupid. Never drive a car.” Everyone drives a car. It’s really weird. It’s amazing what humans can do, considering that the stupidest people in the world can get in a car. And cars are really tricky. But anyway, when we drive a car, none of us think we’re going to hit anyone, or hit any obstacles or trees or anything. We just don’t consider it. If you did, you wouldn’t get in. Some people do have a problem with driving and it’s because they’re considering those things or what they would do. But you’ve got to get into a car and think, “It will be fine.” Because it’s a big fucking tank, and it’s very unforgiving, and it hits living things, you know. And if it hits a tree, the tree tends to be unforgiving. But we don’t consider that.
So that’s what I do. But there was one gig way back, when I was just ... you get a 20-minute set in London. That’s what you have to do. And then some of us when we started getting up and playing the end of the sets, we’d get an hour up there or more. So we were trying to have the chance of doing a double set. If you had enough glue going with you, if you had enough reviews going “This guy’s funny,” and you bring enough people, or encourage enough people to get there, you could persuade the owners of the club and say, “Give me a double set. I want to do a double set.” So you’d get these extended sets, about 40 minutes. And I went on to do one of these — I think it was a free one, but anyway — and I started off and I got them, and then I lost them. Then I got them back. And I probably ended up with a 1-0 win. It was like, I was 2-0 ahead, and then I went down to about 3-2 against, and then I got them back. Maybe I won 4-3 in the end. But in the middle bit of it, I was floundering. And the people, I could see, psychologically they were going, “We thought you were funny but you’re actually useless.” They pulled out mentally from the gig and they weren’t even going to listen to what I was saying because they’d invested with me and they were sort of angry in their heads. And then I had to really stay tight and put the jokes together perfectly so that I could get little bits of laughter back so I could build it back up, so it’s, “Oh no, oh no, he can do it. It’s just that something went weird in the middle of it.” And in the end, I got them back to a gig that I sort of won. And that was the last time I remember. It was a horrendous thing. There was one other gig I did where I just lost it. I didn’t get it from the beginning. That was a television warm-up gig. I think that was the biggest embarrassment ever.
Considering you’ve probably performed hundreds or thousands of times, two losses, that’s pretty impressive.
Well, there’s more losses but those are the ones that are most sort of concrete. The Comedy Store in London, I lost many times there before I won. But it’s like when you started driving the car. In your car-driving career — mine, anyone else’s — there were probably lots of dings or bumps, or when your bunny’s hopping along into the street, or when you pulled out in the middle of a busy road and you stalled in the middle of it and everyone was looking at you or honking. We’ve got a whole bunch of those. We tend to write those out of our brains, because it’s not useful to hang onto that memory stuff.
I still imagine that time where my life changes within like 30 seconds and I hit somebody. And then it’s done, my life is over and it’s my fault and I’m in jail or something.
Wow, you go through that?
I do, actually. It makes me a much more careful driver. But I do imagine zipping around a corner somewhere, not thinking, and then, boom, all of a sudden I’m in jail for the rest of my life. And there’s a little bit of relief in there. Not that I killed somebody, but that I’d no longer have to worry about paying rent and paying bills and getting food.
Yeah, people having sex with you against your wishes, that would be —
Right, that would be a bigger concern, I guess.
Well, hey, that’s what you hang onto.
Yeah, that’s why I don’t hit people in my car, because I don’t want to end up against a wall.
Thinking, “I’m not paying the gas bill, but this guy’s having sex with me, and I don’t like it.”
All right, well, I’ve kept you longer than I said, and I don’t want to keep you any longer, and I’m out of questions.
There are no more questions.
There are no more questions. Congratulations on ... so, these five days, they’re the culmination of this tour?
Of the American leg of the tour.
And then you head to Europe?
And then I head nowhere, actually. There’s nothing booked in. But I have to play Australia, New Zealand, Canada. Alaska’s saying, Could you come, please?
Oh, you gotta do that.
There’s France in French, there’s Germany in German, there’s Russia in Russian, there’s Scandinavia in English, there’s Holland in English, United Kingdom and Ireland, I can do in English, and South Africa.
Do you have to prepare differently? Do you have to go over your whole routine, say, in German or Russian?
No, I just do the same thing. It’s designed — think about it. You saw it. So I go to Germany and I say, “Chickens, do they rule the world? And, you know, cavemen. When we were cavemen we were doing this.” There’s no one going, “I’m Russian. We were never cavemen.” I’ve chosen and I’ve designed the way that I’ve developed it to be universal. Because I’ve noticed that bands were going, “Hey, Moscow, good to see you! You don’t understand what I’m saying but this one’s called ‘Freaky Deaky.’ And here we go.” And then they’d just sing it in English. And I thought, well, fuck it, I’m not going to change mine then. So through my massive laziness, I’ve designed it so that when I go to Paris I say, “Bonjour ... les hommes de cave ...” Are cavemen les hommes de cave? I’m not sure. That’s all I do, I try and find out what these key words are, what’s the main thing. Then I just go up and I’m talking about cavemen the same in Berlin. The foreign-language ones are going to be there. I have to do those over the next two years.
Eddie Izzard performs at the Kodak Theatre Aug. 5-9.