English comic Eddie Izzard played a short-notice show in town Friday night. Three shows, actually, in three different languages.
The March 28 appearance was an ideal match of an over-achieving comedian and an over-achiever audience. It was in the best tradition of using New Haven as a “try-out” town before heading off elsewhere, and using the city’s singular audiences to best advantage.
Izzard’s visit, which people found out about just days before it happened, was a warm-up for a similar gig the comic has planned in Europe. The multilingual approach, Izzard explained during his English-language sub-set, came about because he realized he’d be playing Normandy on the 70th anniversary of D-Day. This led to him preparing the same routine in English and French, later adding German “to be fair.” The sets were translated by Izzard’s brother Mark, with the comedian shaping and editing the material as he learned it.
Izzard is internationally known for his stage comedy, his film roles (Ocean’s Twelve, Ocean’s Thirteen, Across the Universe), his Emmy-winning TV special Dress to Kill (based on an earlier stage comedy tour) and his charity work (running dozens of marathons in the space of two months for Sport Relief). The shows on his upcoming tour are at large theaters; this warm-up show was at at the intimate Whitney Humanities Center auditorium on Wall Street. Tickets were free, on a first-come-first-served basis. The crowd was overwhelmingly Yale, though a few townies found out and got in. There seemed to be a lot of drama types in the audience, including Yale School of Drama comedy specialist Catherine Sheehy and a number of student actors.
Not only was the concept of the three-part show brazen and ambitious; the content of the comedy routines seemed tailor-made for a university audience. Izzard cracked jokes about King Charles I, the Magna Carta, Martin Luther, Richard the Lionheart (“The David Beckham of Kings”) and other “kings with weird old names,” the assassination of Julius Caesar and the unlikelihood that there is a God. (“God doesn’t exist, by the way.”) He riffed on how language developed. He did a lengthy routine about God and Darth Vader fighting over a plate of carbonara in a cafeteria that doesn’t allow trays. He likened the Roman Empire to a group of “fascist plumbers.” He dressed down the age-old upper-class Olympic horse-riding art of dressage as “stuff you’re never going to do in your life unless you’re going to be parking horses in cupboards.”
Izzard told the Yale crowd that since the German version of the routine had already been trimmed and improved more than the English one, he found himself “having to do the German show in my head … in English” as he performs it. The French set, by comparison, had entire bits that came from an earlier Izzard tour, and was still catching up to the newer material. “When I started ad-libbing in French,” he told the crowd during the English portion, “German started coming out as well.”
Some of Izzard’s comments about the performance came in the form of an introduction. Others were made in a special Q&A session after the final (English) set, around 10:15 p.m. on Friday. “You call it a talk back? Is that a Yale thing?” he said of the post-show discussion. Some students had specific questions about how Izzard prepared the show, and how he balanced his career as a comic and a serious actor. He says his stand-up career initially took off when he found he began to write his own material rather than waiting for others to give him opportunities. Later he realized that, instead of doing a set, memorized routine followed by an announced bit of free association or improv, as he’d seen many comics do, he should master the tricky art of improvising in the middle of a show, to throw people off and make the performance fresh. It seemed that this three-part performance came out of that same type of audacity, keeping several steps ahead of his audience.
One student asked about Izzard’s transvestitism, which he has made a centerpiece of some of his shows but barely discusses in this one. (During his long bit on atheism, for instance, he remarked, “Follow my logic. I’m pretty good with logic. I’m a transvestite.”) Izzard took the question to heart, first acknowledging that he’d had to trim his nails for a film role, but he did happen to be wearing “girl’s jeans.” He then said that he doesn’t consider his wearing of women’s clothes to be “drag” or “crossdressing,” since he doesn’t do it for show or for effect. He noted, to the appreciation of many in the audience, that the fights over sexual identity will be won when the issue becomes “boring — ‘Oh, you’re gay? Yawn.’” Finally, he said that this show wasn’t about his being a transvestite. “It was about the three languages.”
The Normandy date and last Friday’s Yale shows appear to be the only times that Eddie Izzard is doing his new set (titled Force Majeure) in several different languages. He’s beginning a two-month, 35-date American tour at the end of April. The closest he comes to Connecticut on that tour are Boston on May 8 & 9 and New York City on May 13-18.
This wasn’t the first time that Izzard used Connecticut as a launching pad for a new tour. He tried out his Dress to Kill set in 1998 at the Stamford Center for the Arts before he brought the show to the Aspen Comedy Festival and to an extended run in New York.
On his whole international tour, Eddie Izzard isn’t likely to find as good a fit with an audience—intelligent, multilingual, interested in history and social progress—as he did in New Haven. Hope Friday’s enthusiastic reception doesn’t make him too cocky as he travels around the rest of the country. But when you’re talking about Eddie Izzard, is “too cocky” even possible?