EDDIE IZZARD STOPS OVER IN ICELAND
First published in the Grapevine.is
Saturday night Eddie Izzard took the Harpa Eldborg stage in a flash of winning combinations. Suave and camp; girl and boy; suit and heels; chaos and control. Along with his disarmingly magnificent blend of gender ‘bendosity’ and his sense of the bizarre, was his righteous sense of humor. He genuinely seems to care whether we become better, wiser, healthier, more open, and more tolerant human beings. This combination minus the makeup recalls the comic genius of Bill Hicks. What I loved most about Bill’s work aside from his tenacious wit, was his gigantic heart. Without knowing him personally I could tell without a doubt and so could you, that he also cared about making our world better. George Orwell said that “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” Bill aimed his psychedelically squeegeed, comic machine gun at the liars, the unjust and the asinine and let it rip.
With glory, no guns, and dressed to kill in a suit of measure, Izzard grinned a flash of red lipstick and comported a manicure of luminous red gloss to match. If you were able to and looked closely, you’ll have seen that he wore a European Union flag on the nail of his left ring finger and the Union Jack on his right. If you don’t already know, Eddie is running for Mayor of London in 2020. Sound like anyone you know? The other point this description will alert you to if you’re not already acquainted, is the fact that Izzard is transgender or a transvestite if you like. If you must categorise, and I know it does seem that a critical mass of us must, then you can use these terms to describe him. What is the difference? Look it up on Wikipedia. Izzard sarcastically cited Wikipedia as the source for some of the information presented in his show and I thought it only natural to follow suit in this article.
Pink and blue all over
Transgenderism or gender fluidity is something I emphatically support in comedy and in life. Essentially Izzard sashays in and out of his preferred state of dress and expression dependent on his whim, all of which is independent of his sexual orientation. If you must know, he likes women which means he is heterosexual. What an incongruence for a man wearing women’s clothes, right? Wrong. He is not dressing ‘up’ in drag, this is just how he dresses. As he fairly pointed out, the prejudice towards women wearing men’s clothes is not as reviled. Why is this? Careful. It’s not good. This reason carries a sneaky backhand and reflects how society devalues women and expects of men and I don’t think either is any better. But nonetheless I am grateful for Izzard’s talent and bravery in conquering his own fears and coming forward as he does. It is wholly attractive. His bravery and visibility paves the way for others to follow suit. I believe slowly over the course of time things will change and minds will open. Kind of like Madonna in the ‘90s with her mutually exclusive suits and female love affairs though it does all seem a blur now.
I wish we could agree right now that the polarised gender construct we’ve created over millennia and consensually persist with presently, is an antiquated fiction, a limitation of what it means to be human. Don’t you ever wonder why the colour pink is for girls and blue is for boys? Prior to the 1940’s it was the opposite way around (if it mattered at all). Pink was closely related to red which was seen as a ‘firey manly colour’. Whatever. Here is a really old painting of a holy man in a pink robe, a young boy in a pink dress and the Virgin Mary in blue. Don’t you find this all a bit ridiculous? Why do we have the need to separate and assign so absolutely? We should all be able to pick what pleases us without assumption and inference based on what genitals we have and not be judged harshly for doing so. Rather I think we should be celebrated.
The tour’s title, ‘Force Majeure’ is French for a "superior force” (as cited by Wikipedia). It is a common clause in contracts that essentially frees both parties from liability or obligation when an extraordinary event or circumstance beyond the control of the parties, such as a war, strike, riot, crime, or an event described by the legal term act of God (such as hurricane, flooding, earthquake, volcanic eruption, etc.). ‘Force Majeure’ is a fitting name for the show structurally speaking. It ingeniously references the contextual definition throughout and meanders around the many ways we are the same, connected, but are also different and have further differentiated ourselves throughout time with respect to religion, politics, language, and nationality. We follow Eddie's crazy train of thought round and round and forward and back and forward again and then back to something that was said at the beginning (reincorporation). It is brought to you in that ‘etch-a-sketch’ style that he does so brilliantly. Here is a good example:
Flashback to London
This is not my first rodeo. One of the gifts Britain had waiting for me when I moved there from NYC in 2000, aside from fry ups, was the comedy of Eddie Izzard who at the time was rising to tremendous heights. I finally saw him live at the O2 arena in 2009 after a period spent away from the limelight. As a friend and I waited for his appearance in the 20,000 seater stadium, we became engrossed with the large screens over the stage rotating, among other things, a promotional reel for a documentary called 'Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story'. Keen, I watched it through to the very credit end and saw the film was screening at the Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Square that Friday. As soon as I got home that night I jumped online and booked six tickets to see the film. It never occurred to me that this might be a difficult thing to do and it wasn’t.
Friday night my friends and I sat ensconced in the tiny theatre and watched the film transfixed. It referenced Eddie's days working as an escapologist in Covent Garden. One average day he became stuck in his chains and could not escape. A friend had to come down to the square with spare keys to release him. This changed 'everything' about the way he thought, and it became one of the turning points in his life and career. What is the difference between escaping and failing to escape if you already know how to do it? Believe is a wonderful film to watch if you like Eddie Izzard. It is also a wonderful film to watch if you do not. It is relevant to humans, fans or not. Especially those with any singular ambition in life.
The credits roll and we all stand up, and proceed to get dressed when the announcer booms "Please welcome Mr. Eddie Izzard and the director of the film Sarah Townshend!!" We sit back down. This was a screening room built for maybe 50 people. We’d seen him not five days ago at the O2, built for 20,0000. “Did you know this was going to happen?” asks a friend. They finish their short stroll down the aisle and proceed to conduct a Q&A just for us lucky people. I had no idea. I hadn’t read the fine print at all. Afterwards I had a look and the website clearly stated that there would be a Q&A after the screening. I’ve never been so glad that most people don’t read the fine print. This was the first time I was made aware of Eddie's plans to enter into politics. He seemed to still be mulling over his decision back then. If he ran for Mayor who would fill his comedy shoes, we asked? And wasn't comedy a better platform to influence change than politics? Crawl inside the belly of the beast and it changes you, usually. Not the other way around. Jón Gnarr might know something about this.
Excited about the possibility of a mind like Eddie's expanding the horizons of politics with his lateral thoughts and dress sense, I have to be careful not to get too carried away with blind enthusiasm. Ever since he announced his political intentions, I’m no longer just watching a comedian perform a show. In addition to being carried on a journey where I spend most of it laughing my ass off, I’m watching a person who wants to run for and influence social policy from the inside out. Is a comic still a comic if he is a politician and vice versa? The category police short-circuit.
Tonight, bearing this in mind, I was most interested to witness how he addressed an Icelandic audience given his personal position on gender in light of Iceland’s. None of his material was reworked or regionalised to fit or inform an Icelandic audience. Aside from a joke about Icelandic language there didn’t seem to be any custom material at all but then I forget, Eddie seldom does two things when he is on stage.
Number one: customising shows. You will know this isn’t something he does especially if you followed the preposterous allegations brought upon him by BBC Watchdog back in 2000. Read about it here.
The second is improvising. Eddie is a master of many things but as far as his comedy shows go he has instead mastered the ability to create an illusion that the material you are hearing is both spontaneous and unscripted. As Stewart Lee has said “Performers like Eddie Izzard are very good at making it feel spontaneous by giving the impression that things have just occurred to him.” The very fact that he is able to create spontaneity from script inspires a trust and willingness in his audience to follow him, or try to, on what ever quirky turn he takes you on without worry. He has a map. We won’t get lost in an accident. This may have its drawbacks. The accident, born in the manger of improvisation, gives birth to a different kind of genius.
All the same the show must go on
Eddie made a point of notifying us that we would watch the exact same show he delivered in the other countries he toured. He told us that this was in fact his 27th country on the tour and that this material which we were about to experience had been played to laughter in many cities across these countries such as Moscow, LA, Johannesburg, Berlin, London, Toronto. Same material, same laughter. The humanistic message conveyed was that across the world we are all essentially the same. Or at least some of us. ‘People like us’ he repeated on more than one occasion. I wondered what he meant by ‘people like us’? Maybe he meant those people ‘like us’ who go to his show. Was it wise people? Open people? I believe open minded was the main intention but I felt uncomfortable with the language. If listened to out of context it could border on fascistic speech. The message was humanistic sure, but substitute a different message coming to ‘people like us’ and we have a different kind of show.
In his show, Eddie had some very good ideas for how we should be evolving as people. Please feel free to visit his website and read in his own words a bit about his early beginnings. Aside from his delightful ability to articulate thought at a serious clip and with hysterical comedic timing, Eddie, like Bill who would have been his contemporary if there was a God, seems to genuinely care (insider show reference not an atheistic proclamation). That or he does a wonderful job giving us the impression he does. I choose to believe he does care about humankind, about being better, wiser, more open, more tolerant. He indicates this by taking on tremendous tasks which unfailing demonstrate that we can go beyond what we think we can do, what we’re told we can do: run forty three marathons in fifty one days, learn enough French to perform his comedy show in French, then move over to German for fun. Russian and Arabic are next.
Marathons aside, humour is seriously one of the most challenging things to create successfully in a foreign language because it involves understanding how that culture thinks. Failing our ability to psychically project our thoughts and feelings to each other, we have among some other physical systems, language. It’s like Windows X.0 - primitive and imperfect despite billions of units of investment and thousands of years of development (not so many years in Microsoft’s case). Language works well enough for simple transactions like ‘One hotdog with everything on it.’ But try to explain religion or existentialism or One Direction in a native language to another native speaker and we can only hope for the best.
Learning a foreign language is not simply mapping words to words to perform functions when asking “Where is the bus station?” It’s realising that there is no English translation for “dugleg” and yes that was the sound of sarcasm. All of this is partially responsible for why it is so satisfying to watch and listen to Eddie change accents like the clothing he wears, regardless of his accuracy. It’s close enough and sometimes funnier when he misses accidentally on purpose. Clothing like accents influence the presuppositions we hold of a person and colour how we interpret them in view of our own national landscape.
That night I learned a great deal about religion and yet did not. The ‘Force Majeure’ tour references religion which requires belief yet Eddie's belief is not contained within a religious context. Could belief just be belief? Sure so long as I don’t force you to believe what he or I believes and you don’t force anyone else to believe what you believe. Belief must be free to be belief. Else it is subjugation, among other clever English nouns. But this was a comedy show not a study class and after all weren’t the facts sourced from Wikipedia? Regardless I was made aware of a few historical people, Martin Luther for example, in a manner which exposed some of the ways religion prostrates our differences and has given way to tragic folly after folly as a result of its insistence. Intrigued I wanted to know more about that history and ultimately how it shaped our culture. Isn’t captivation a part of the learning cycle which education constantly struggles with? It made me wonder if comedy should be integrated into the learning process in schools. Creative thinking is needed in our leadership and it is exactly the kind of strategy the artistic mind serves well.
Satan and Santa Claus
However, I still don’t know why Eddie decided last minute to stop in Iceland. Perhaps Icelandair offered him a free stopover in exchange for a selfie by The Harpa? I was hoping it was because he was incredibly aware of Iceland’s history with gender equality or that he was having a secret meeting with former Reykjavik Mayor and eternal comedian Jón Gnarr. When asked about Jón at the Q&A after the show Eddie appeared to know nothing of how his mayorship went in Reykjavik. I hoped he was playing ignorant but I didn’t believe it was the case. Jón did very well in that he hired people around him who knew what they were doing in policy and process and formed the mast sail of the ship leading all forward with inspiration, wisdom, and creative thinking. I wonder if they’ve ever met? For dinner? At a pride march? They should. At one point early on in my time in Reykjavik I started to wonder if they were the same person. Just like the myth of Satan and Santa Claus they have so many things in common yet are never seen together.
1) dress in ‘female’ clothing
2) identify as straight or are in partnerships with women
3) are comedians
4) are actors
5) are involved (or will be) in politics
6) they both think creative thinking and new ideas are the way forward for society.
I suppose you need a good sense of humour to survive politics as Jón will attest to.
Nipples are Free
I wasn’t overwhelmed with confidence in Eddie's ability to improvise political wisdom when a young woman asked what he thought about the ‘free the nipple’ campaign. Practically, the movement aims to desexualise women’s breasts and argues the legal right of women to bare their breasts in public. Breasts are shown and sold in media so why shouldn’t women be legally allowed bare them? Especially in the context of their original purpose, which nursed so many of these lawmakers who outlaw it. In Iceland the movement kicked off in support of a seventeen year old student who bared her nipples online and was outrageously shamed for doing so. I emphatically agree with the outpouring of support but what I mostly remember from the campaign are quizzical images of nipples half-freed, hiding behind the bras and shirts of confinement. Please start by reading here and here if you want to know more. Here too.
Yes, so nipples. I was saying that Eddie appeared to know nothing of #freethenipple. That’s not what concerned me and it wasn’t like didn’t offer anything intelligent to say on the subject. He did entertain us with an anecdote about a plane full of brassieres crashing in the jungle. A tribe found them and the women started to wear the bras. A once non sexualised breast became sexualised when shrouded in cotton and elastic. Izzard also brought up the fact that until twelve weeks old all foetuses are female and the testes form out of the ovaries and the penis forms out of the clitoris. “It’s all the fucking same yet we are obsessed with the differences.” He understood the purpose of the campaign was the de-sexualisation of women's bodies. What arched my eyebrow was how he phrased his response when asked about what he thought of Icelandic women’s bare-nippled contribution to the campaign. In a collegiate tone, which barely disguised sexist voyeurism, he half joked ‘Yeah fine go for it, if women are up for it then yeah.” This got a big laugh. It was difficult to hear any women’s laughter over all the men.
Who knows what he really thought. Maybe he thought it was great and powerful. Maybe he thought the women were fools for giving a free peep show in this sadly sexist climate. Maybe he was simply going for a jocular laugh, and coming from a comedian I wouldn't pay much attention to it. I’d simply shrug it off into the large pile of unenlightened sexist jokes. However a future political candidate belongs in another pile.
Enfin (that’s French for ‘finally’)
Eddie explained ego very well in his show and its necessity in doing what he does on stage. I have no doubt in his ability to think creatively, inspire, or make myself and a lot of other people laugh till we’re bent in two and I respect the power of laughter. Even though I have my doubts, I choose to believe his ego will make way in 2020 London for the kind of humility needed to gain wisdom where there is ignorance and become an honourable leader. I wonder about his plans for London and what he thinks it needs to to become a wiser, healthier, more open and tolerant version of itself. During the show he made reference to the speech given by President Abraham Lincoln during his first inaugural address.
“I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
I certainly hope so too.
Death Start Lego Style https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sv5iEK-IEzw
Stewart Lee - Identity https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B4-S8n8-9RU
Townshend and Izzard Q&A Believe Pt1 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GWBLsCfFurU
Sarah Townshend on Filmmaking https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mAQikxvS-3U