The Awful Truth

Eddie Izzard at P.S. 122.

By Cintra Wilson

Published October 21, 1996 4:57PM (EDT)

Last night I dragged Boy Strange out to see Eddie Izzard at P.S. 122. Boy Strange is my latest young love slave. Eddie Izzard is billed as "The Funniest Man in Britain." P.S. 122 is a theatre space down on First Avenue, where hotshots of the solo performance set get to bandy about their particular talents.

I was very curious to see what the Brits consider to be funny these days, because I'm absolutely stupefied by what Americans laugh at lately. Run down to any of the "legitimate" comedy clubs anywhere, and you'll see a bunch of beer-drenched self-loathing louts blathering on about how small their genitals are ("No, really! It's so small I need to use condoms with 40% soy filler!"), or how homosexuals make them uncomfortable ("So I was like, Hey! I don't mind if you kiss that guy in front of me, as long as you let my friends and I hit you with bats afterwards as punishment for contaminating God's law!") , or how much they like women ("Don't you wish all women were servile deaf-mute porn stars who gave blow jobs all day long for free?") , or how all women should be Demi Moore ("Don't you wish Demi Moore was a servile deaf-mute porn star who gave blow jobs all day long for free?"), or what they'd like to do to Demi Moore with their disappointing genitals ("Here Demi, try this! It's 40% vegetarian") , or delivering accent-laden racist diatribes about the stupidity of Muslim cab drivers ("So I was like, 'OK Sahib Towelhead, you can face Mecca from any point on the globe five times a day blindfolded, but you can't find Battery Park without a team of experts, right?' 'Oh, soddie sir! I must eat my bladder of goat now!'"). Toss in four scatological references and two little gag chuckles about the latest celebrity scandal or the big event on TV last night, and this is your recipe for getting on Letterman in a matter of weeks.

I've always thought of British comedy as being superior, but that judgment was pretty much exclusively based on the awesome absurdist power of old Monty Python shows. Benny Hill was just another sad forerunner of the current trends in American comedy, with his breast-jiggling "OOoh, I'm a big dopey boy with my finger trapped up the arse of a glamorous bird, oooh naughty naughty me!" prattle.

So I figured Izzard could go one of two ways. Tits and winkle, or Dead Parrot and Shrubbery. Izzard turned out to be a proud offshoot of the Frog and Peach school of British comedy. This guy was a completely new persona, and somebody who will never achieve a proper amount of success in America because he has far too much actual talent.

It was wonderful to see a guy wearing a full face of makeup only make one vague, honest reference to being a transvestite. It was wonderful to hear a guy assume the character of an orange or a sheep. This was guileless pothead humor at its nicest, and Izzard is simply a pleasing personality with charmingly ridiculous insights that didn't have any of the laxative edge that American comics fall back on way too often these days. Izzard covered comic territory that most people have completely forgotten about, because it's so benign and universal: supermarkets, hair, poodles, fruit, musical instruments, old ladies. "You know when women get so old they start announcing their age all the time? 'I'm 82!'" said Izzard, with his eyes full of the crinkly, bewildered adamance of an old woman in a grocery line.

He sent up America's love for the British royal family, prancing lovestruck and dreamily around the stage: "They wear things on their HEAD! And they're BORN to it! Let's slaver!" He did a brilliant bit, which rang absolutely true, about how children learning to play a musical instrument want to learn to play something "sexy": "Ooh, listen to him," he said admiringly in the tone of the other schoolchildren. "We don't know how to have sex yet, but when we do, we'll do it with HIM." This guy was the most sympathetic and innocent full-head-of-makeup-wearing heavy-metal British transvestite any of us had ever seen.

We've forgotten, in America, that it's nice to watch a nice person, that the radiating essence of a performer doesn't have to be all bound up in layers of acidic sarcasm and cooler-than-thou and leather pants. Izzard had the beguilingly lame presence of a chubby, sensitive and thoughtful person who would push his vacuum cleaner around in the mornings in a faded jogging suit and cry if a pop song came on the radio that reminded him of an old lover. We wanted to wrap him in a quilt and give him a mug of cocoa and some Kleenex and let him sit by the window. "Come in from the cold and angry world, little Eddie," we wanted to say. "You're among friends now."

Of course, Eddie will tour America as part of his world tour. Most of his audiences won't be as wildly appreciative (or as 45% British) as the New York audience, and he will not be offered a TV show where he plays a sensitive British transvestite working as a legal temp in Chicago, and he will not co-star with Mario Van Peebles in an action cop-farce ("Blimey! I never knew you Negroes were so adept at karate! I shan't mess with you."). But if he comes to your town, flock to and appreciate him, for he is real and true and good, and our entertainment industry has almost destroyed all possibilities for someone of his unique charm to exist here. Let's hope we can enjoy his friendly shine for a spell before America totally alienates him. We need what he has.

Cintra Wilson

Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton.

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