The fifth best in all of comedy history, according to a Channel 4 poll, and certainly among the most intriguing – a surrealist cross-dresser as well-known for bizarre on-stage ‘bits’ involving a varied cast of characters (Sean Connery, a clarinet teacher called Mrs Badcrumble) as he is a successful Hollywood career (most notably the Ocean’s series), running 43 marathons in 51 days and professing an intention to become London Mayor.
And now, four years after his last major tour, Stripped, he’s back with a brand new, globe-traversing show, Force Majeure. TNT catches up with Izzard for a chat about the tour he’s in the midst of, which stops in London this weekend and then again in June.
He’s just completed the Euro leg, on which he toured France in French (being fluent, he performed 71 gigs in French in 2011 and has vowed to learn Russian, Arabic and Spanish next). It’s hard to know where to start when interviewing someone so accomplished, but there is something we’ve been dying to ask Izzard for quite some time.
The long-haired, gravelly-voiced promoter at TNT’s local comedy club in Streatham has often spoken of how he worked with Izzard in his formative years (stopping just short of saying he “discovered” him, but we’ve taken this to be the suggestion).
Back on track: Izzard returns with his first new show in four years
“Do you remember PJ?” we ask. “With the long hair?” Izzard shoots back, knowing instantly who we mean. “Yeah, I did some of his gigs …” Somewhat taken aback – and guilty for ever doubting PJ, too – we almost forget we’re here to talk about business.
“Force Majeure can mean ‘act of god’ or it can mean force of nature,” the 51-year old Izzard tells us, getting the chat back on track. “We have to be our own forces of nature if we want to get things done but you have to give a damn as well – give a damn about other people.”
Following on from his atheist-debating, god-considering, and regimented faith-baiting previous outing Stripped, Izzard’s new show looks less at the man upstairs and more at the people down here, and how they live their lives.
“We all come from 10,000 people and now there are seven billion, so while the right-wingers point out the differences I am endlessly going to point out our similarities,” he says of the over-arching theme of this new show. “It’s about being sound of mind and body and what we can do on earth. I do talk about god a little but it is more about what we can do.
“I am 2.8 per cent Neanderthal,” he continues, referring to a recent BBC programme Meet The Izzards, which investigated the Yemen-born but UK-raised Izzard’s genetic lineage. “Most people are between one and four per cent, even the Queen, it is only the African people who are not. So when our ancestors came out of Africa they met Neanderthals and said ‘voulez-vous coucher avec moi?’ and off that all went.”
Jog on: Izzard ran 43 marathons in 51 days across the UK in 2009
Mankind’s evolution, in a nutshell, folks. Looking at how we all came to be, and what joins us all, no matter whether you’re a middle-aged comedian touring the world or a plumber in the Netherlands, is a key focus for the show. We notice an element not so much of anger in his voice, but a firm belief in people and what we should be doing to make the world a better place.
As an activist and campaigner who ran back-to-back marathons over five weeks for 2009’s Sports Relief, and who is setting out on a mega-marathon in South Africa in the new year in honour of Nelson Mandela, he’s as qualified as any to challenge the modus operandi.
It’s no fluke that he received the annual Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism this February from Harvard. As our chat weaves through life on earth, it turns towards politics, key elements of both the show and Izzard personally.
“Most people in the world are affected by politics. You can argue that financial crises come from greedy people who want to make money,” he says.
“The sub-prime mortgage crisis [which rocked the US in 2008 and sent aftershocks round the world] was because mortgages were given to people who would never be able to pay them back. They took their money and ran off to the hills. It is always the rich that get richer during a depression, while most of us get a hard time.”
Political: Izzard at the 2010 Labour Party Conference with Ed Miliband
He talks with an air of defiance aimed towards the state of the world and it seems this side of him is growing in purpose. Izzard’s shows have always been far more than the surreal, Python-esque flights of fancy they superficially appear.
Indeed he has spoken in recent years of his desire to move into politics in the future, even going so far as to say he will be quitting comedy in six years time to focus on this alone. Does he really want to run for Mayor of London?
“Yeah,” he replies, catching us off guard. We thought it may have been a down-the-line aspiration, a goal with no fixed time frame despite media reports to the contrary. Not so.
“I am going to do six more years of comedy and drama first. I’ve got the new Hannibal TV show [in which he plays a psychiatric inmate opposite Mads Mikkelsen’s titular flesh-hungry doctor, who was so memorably played by Anthony Hopkins on the big screen]. But yes, I will get down to it.
“If you look at what I have done with my life, I sold out Madison Square Garden and the Hollywood Bowl, I toured France in French, ran 43 marathons – I can do things in a different way to what people might believe.”
It is this driven work ethic that sees him take Majeure on a globe-trotting tour that stops off everywhere from Oslo to Kathmandu. “And I am positive about people, I like people,” he says.
“I want London to be an inclusive place, more and more open and to encourage people to go for it,” he says when we ask what sort of mayor he’d be. “I will be someone who is a cheerleader of the people, pushing things forward.”
If Arnie can become governor of the world’s 12th largest economy, California, then why not Izzard for the Big Smoke?But fear not, Force Majeure doesn’t see Izzard all serious. There is still plenty of eccentricity from the man who once wrote a sitcom, 1997’s Cows, starring actors in cow suits.
“Above all it’s entertainment,” he says, as we’re wondering for a moment whether he’s gone all Mark Thomas on us. “It is funny and surreal and twisted – I cover human sacrifice, Greek gods, Lord Of The Rings, and the Death Star canteen with god and Darth Vader drinking together.” Phew.
So it seems we’ve got a lot to thank PJ for next time we see him round Streatham? “He was there and I did play his gigs,” Izzard says. “But I wouldn’t say he ‘found me’. I found me!”
Eddie Izzard – Force Majeure plays Wembley Arena,
May 11 & 12 HA9 0PA
Tube | Wembley Park
The O2, June 8 & 9 SE10 0DX
Tube | North Greenwich.
Tickets from £40.