Eddie Izzard, actor, comedian and “executive transvestite,” has never been at loss for material. Meandering hilariously through topics as wide-ranging as The Battle of Hastings, Medusa’s hairdresser, and cavemen inventing fire so they can eat something other than salad, the desultory stand-up comic uses all of history as his playground. “It’s fantastic,” he says. “I’ve discovered that history was this amazingly unkept place. It makes you sound so clever to know that Alexander the Great’s dad was called Phil.” Now, with his latest special, Eddie Izzard: Live From Wembley, and the documentary Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story airing back-to-back tonight (EPIX, 9:30 p.m. EDT), Izzard talked with EW about his loose, often ad-libbed style of comedy, and told us five of the strangest tangents and detours it’s gotten him into.
1. “I was talking in Dallas of all places about opera, and in these arenas they have these huge PA systems, and if you shake the microphone in your hand you get this vibrato and you sound like an opera singer because the sound is so big. So I said that this is all opera is, but then some bloke started singing from the arena. In the American Airlines Arena in Dallas, I had a male soprano on the left start singing. I was trying to shut him up, but then I just thought to let him go. So he sang a long, strong note of opera. And then I said OK and everyone reacted and gave him applause, and then a woman piped up from the other side. So this woman started up, so I said I OK, I have to let her go. Then another woman joined in. So we had about five opera singers singing last night, separately. I was trying to say that there was a ghetto of opera singers in Dallas, who were sent away from New York or something.”
2. “I was talking about the Battle of Thermopylae and I said it was made into a film by Shirley Temple, set onboard the Good Ship Lollipop. And I said that they were anagrams, which they’re not, but the key thing is that lollipop and Thermopylae sound like they could be anagrams of each other. So then I said last night that the Greek for “lollipop” is Thermopylae, so it was the Battle of Lollipop. But then I realized that if I tried that at gigs in French, lollipop would be something completely different so it wouldn’t work.”
3. “There was a strange bit in the documentary Believe that I’ve not really used much, it’s just so weird. It’s about Papa Doc Duvalier, the old Haitian president, and Baby Doc Duvalier, and it’s a bit like the Three Bears story. It’s quite alarming and extreme, this bit. Idi Amin goes around to a house in the woods and there the Duvaliers live. Papa Doc Duvalier’s porridge is too cold, Mama Doc Duvalier’s is too cold, but Baby Doc Duvalier’s is just right. Then he goes upstairs and there’s three beds. And he’s sleeping in Baby Doc Duvalier’s bed when the Duvalier’s come home…and they skin him. It’s a fairy tale, and those fairy tales should be alarming, but this one’s so extreme, because these people are just horrible people, so I had to put something extreme into it.”
4. “I once had this idea of molten material, because when someone comes up with new material, it’s fantastic and fresh and exciting. But then it gets more leaden and set in concrete as time goes on. So I thought, why don’t I always keep my pieces molten, flowing around like mercury, so I can constantly change them and then maybe it’ll stay always fresh. So I said, I know, I’ll just take the structure of the whole thing and cut it up and do everything out of order, but that really blew my mind and I had no idea what would come next. It can get a bit scary, and scary’s not good in this game.”
5. “I was in Canada, and I used to have this piece of material, where I said “What’s your national anthem?” And I said that I’m sure that in Canada it’s: “We’re great, but not that great, la-la-la.” So I said that I feel that they should change their national anthem to “Canada, Canada, Canada, Canada, Canada, Canada” [to the theme of “America” from West Side Story]. That was kinda fun because it fits nicely, and I said that if you do that, everybody at the Olympics would want you to win because they’d just love having that go off when the flag goes up. And I’ve done this a few times, and I was in Vancouver and I said, “Well, what really is your national anthem?” Then, just like the opera singers, I let them sing it. But because they were socially progressive people and not strong nationalists, they sang it very quietly. So the entire audience sang “O Canada” under their breath. Just whisper-sang it, the whole way through. It was eerily beautiful.”