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A Symphony of Silliness

America finally falls for the boundless comic imagination of Eddie Izzard

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For his acolytes, it’s a heartwarmingly familiar sight: Eddie Izzard rocks back onto one heel, bouncing nervously in place onstage. His whole body is arched slightly backward, as if about to catapult himself into the audience. In fact, he’s about to unleash a series of insightful observations on subjects profound and prosaic, disguised in a hyperkinetic blur of non-sequiturs, hallucinatory images and out-and-out nonsense. This is all typically prefaced by an offhand, “So, yeah…,” in the manner of a dinner guest searching for the next conversation topic.

The 46-year-old British standup comic usually knows full well what he wants to say, if not precisely how he will say it. An Izzard show is a symphony drifting through a wild range of melodies that eventually merge into a multilayered harmonic climax—with plenty of room throughout for artful improvisation and a great many happy accidents.

If Jerry Seinfeld’s comedy was about nothing, Izzard’s comedy is about everything. His 1996 show Definite Article begins with a riff about thimbles and ends with a spectacularly ludicrous description of the big bang (“Everyone stood well back …”). It’s an ambitious approach that has made him a sensation in England since the early 1990s, but one that Americans have been slow to absorb. We’re sadly unused to the notion of comedy with a visionary overview more substantial than random digs at Paris Hilton and SUVs. (We’re also unused to comedians who happen to be transvestites, although Izzard has reportedly toned down the wardrobe on his current tour.)

Of course, Izzard, like pretty much every other comedian who ever lived, always really wanted to be an actor. In 1998’s Dress to Kill (available, like most of his one-man shows, on DVD) he described breaking into London’s Pinewood film studios at age 15 in the vain hope of being discovered. That didn’t happen, but since coming to comedy prominence, he has built up a respectable if inconsistent film and TV résumé in both comedy and drama. Seeing Izzard repeat the words of others has always seemed like a waste of brilliance, but at least it’s finally given him a true American breakthrough. He debuted last year as the patriarch of a family of grifters on FX’s The Riches, and its modest hit status has made Izzard’s name at least a little more bankable in the U.S.—enough, at least, that he can at last be welcomed to the stage of the Ryman Auditorium.

The Mother Church of Country Music has endured its fair share of blasphemy from comedy guests lately, with George Carlin, Jon Stewart and Kids in the Hall blasting away merrily at religion. The old girl will just have to get used to it, as Topic A of Izzard’s current “Stripped” tour is the illogic of religion—leavened by digressions about, as a review in the Dallas Morning News noted earlier this month, “monkeys playing banjos, giraffes playing charades, frogs playing pinochle” and other surreal silliness. When Eddie Izzard is onstage, everything after “So, yeah …” is wonderfully unpredictable.

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