Eddie Izzard’s Tics

eddie-izzardWe recently saw Eddie Izzard’s new Force Majeure evening of stand-up comedy.  It’s a strange performance–classic Izzard in many ways, but full of inexplicable moments, too.

I’ve been a fan of Izzard’s work for a long time.  I’ve seen most of the stand-up performances that he’s released on DVD, rewatched bits of them on YouTube, and thoroughly enjoyed his star turn in the television series The Riches.  I always laugh heartily when I’m not being amazed by his dramatic skill.

Force Majeure was a lot of fun, but there war many times during the two hours of performance (plus a thirty-minute interval) when I was metaphorically scratching my head and wondering just what was going on.  And sometimes, why I was more bored than amused.  Well, bored may be a little harsh; but impatient might do in a pinch instead.

The audience was wild for Izzard from the first moment that he appeared on stage.  It was certainly the first time I’ve seen anyone other than a rock band get a standing ovation before the first word was uttered from the stage.  To his credit, Izzard seemed nonplussed, and his first line, once everyone had settled down, was “I guess I’d better be funny tonight.”

And funny he was, from the opening gag that he would be discussing an old familiar staple of stand-up comedy, human sacrifice, to his final riff on the absurdities of dressage as an Olympic sport.  (“The truly sad thing about dressage is that once the competition is over, you will never have a need for all the skill again.  Unless you have to parallel park a horse.  In a cupboard.”)

What made me impatient in the course of the performance was something that is another staple of Izzard’s style: long moments in routines that involve repetition of words or movements without advancing the humor a great deal, lots of stage business that involves a sort of miming of an action coupled with mumbled mouth noises that are meant to be either meaningless or just filler (of a “yada yada” sort, but not so articulated).  Sometimes, this non-sense is deliberate, and pays off, as in one routine where he mimes a pair of moles digging through dirt underground for a very long time.  At one point, the length of the mime is a question of timing: just when you’re least expecting something—anything—he snaps in the joke.  But for the vast majority of the routine, Izzard is just miming the pawing of a mile through dirt and humming to himself, to no apparent point.

There were other moments where the humor was less than trenchant, but satisfying, as in his observations on how cursing in English inevitably seems much more powerful and effective that cursing in other languages.  This routine allowed Izzard to boast about his astonishing ability to do stand-up in French and Spanish and maybe even in German.  Even if it was essentially a one-gag routine about how a phrase like “far-fucking-out” automatically translates into “fan-fucking-tastico” or “ausgefuckingseichnet,” it worked, and it left the audience feeling like maybe they were as smart as Izzard for getting the joke in a foreign language.

But the gag that kind of knocked me out was one that didn’t really make me laugh.  The set up was certainly funny.  It was a long digression in the midst of another piece of self-congratulation on the numerous enormous venues where he has performed around them world, including Wembley Stadium.  On a taxi ride back from Wembley into central London, he falls into a conversation with the cab driver, who comes from India.  The next thing you know, Izzard is off on the way that Welsh and Indian accents sound very much alike, the chief difference lying in the speed of the speech: a Welshman on crack sounds a lot like an Indian, and conversely an Indian slowed and slurred sounds like a Welshman.  He proceeded to demonstrate and although his Welsh wasn’t as effective as his Hindu, it was a good routine (if, again, a bit overextended).

Having come to the end of that riff, he then congratulated the audience on its appreciation of its subtleties.  He then praised our sophistication by noting that we had reacted to it with as much gusto as young audiences in Moscow recently had.  That bit of flattery left a hole in the air for a moment; then Izzard delivered the punch line, which was something about the universal nature of laughter and by implication our common humanity.  That kind of saccharine pandering was so at odds with the rest of the show that there was suddenly another immense hole, another potentially embarrassing interlude of dead air.  Then, as if realizing what was expecting, the audience gave him a round of applause.  (It wasn’t a rousing round, nor did everyone participate, such was its awkwardness, but we performed to cue.)

And I thought later that that moment showed what a dangerous comic Eddie Izzard can really be.  He wasn’t really pandering to the audience.  He was daring to sneer at us, and daring us to recognize the sneer.  It was of a piece with his intellectual braggadocio, and that’s a quality that I’ve always enjoyed in his performances.  Many comics are funny, some can be scary.  Izzard can be both at once.  Lots of comics will take risks, but few slice the risk so thin that they dare the audience to turn on them by a manipulation that is too overt.  I didn’t like the way it made me feel, but I had to admire the man for daring it.

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