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Eddie Izzard Live at The Ambassadors, 1993
How Gen X failed on gender
A note on pronouns: Izzard’s preferred pronouns now are she/her, but in the past she has said that she uses different pronouns according to whether she’s in ‘girl mode’ or ‘boy mode’, and recently she said ‘I prefer she/her, don’t mind he/him, and I’m going to be relaxed about it.‘ Accordingly, the pronouns in this piece slide around a little; on the night in question Izzard was in ‘boy mode’, and I’ve used he/him for that time period.
One night in early 1993, finding that he had a spare ticket to an Eddie Izzard show at the Ambassadors in London, my fellow editor Tobias asked me if I wanted to go. He has since admitted that as he waited for me under the clock at Waterloo he wondered why the hell he’d invited me. We’d known each other for a couple of years but he and I had never gone out on our own before, and he thought I was a bit dim.
Something happened to both of us that night that has rarely happened to me in my life, and not at all since I turned 30: we both laughed until we genuinely wanted to stop, because it was hurting. We laughed until we cried; we laughed until we felt a bit sick; we laughed until the red plush seats were seriously threatened; and then we carried on laughing, because we had no choice. All around us, people were having the same experience. I kept looking left and right, worried that I was making a complete show of myself, to see that my audience neighbours were doubled over and wiping their streaming eyes with their shirt sleeves.
There’s a bit of me that suspects Tobias and I would not be where we are today (living together, planning our retirement and writing The Metropolitan) if we had not gone to that show. There is always something soaringly transformative in the combination of a willing live audience and a talented performer. With comedy there’s an added sense that someone who makes you laugh, or who laughs at the same things as you, must somehow be the same sort of person as you. By the time we made our way home that night Tobias and I had started to see each other differently.
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As we arrive at the Ambassadors we know exactly two things about Eddie Izzard: his ‘Raised by wolves’ routine, and his ‘Le singe est dans l’arbre’ routine. They inspire instant adoration. In 1993 Izzard is often described as ‘surreal’, which has nothing to do with the literal meaning of the word and everything to do with the fact that nobody knows any words that describe what he is doing.
He flops backwards and forwards, flailing his arms, wobbling his head and bouncing his knees. And all the time he sings and talks to himself in a soft, powdery voice. He takes his time - the pacing is unpredictable - and you’re never sure which bits are improvised and which are scripted. It all adds up to an impression that he is entirely unfettered, somehow released from all rules and conventions: punchlines, presentation, joke structure, the quantum mechanics of space-time.
This is an era in which comedy is selling by the bucketload; it is, we are told, is the new rock ‘n’ roll, and has the drugs and groupies to match. Newman and Baddiel have sold out Wembley, and a squad of brilliant sketch show gangs - ‘The Fast Show’, ‘Smack the Pony, ‘Big Train’, ‘The Day Today’ - have seized control of the TV stations. Performance styles tend to be deeply bifurcated by sex. Male stand-ups adopt exaggeratedly aggressive personae, shouting and swearing and being wildly offensive; Bill Hicks has a line about the perfect vulva being like a paper cut. Female comedians tend to be character-based and get laughs out of their bodies - too old, too fat, too big in the bum - and their voices, which can be either comically high or comically low. Male stand-ups talk about sex and wanking; women stand-ups talk about tampons and giving birth. Both do so as explicitly as they think they can get away with.
Izzard lands in this scene like a dandelion clock drifting into a cement mixer. Most stand-up comics generalise from the personal to the universal, but the universal is where Izzard begins and ends. His routines start off as observational comedy before veering into extended fancies, many of which feature talking animals. His underlying theme is the common absurdity of human experience: the daily impediments we face, and the hasty workarounds and low cunning we employ to defeat them. The use of animals and other non-humans in quasi-human roles has the perverse effect of making his observations feel more, well, human. (Sometimes - maybe most of the time - it’s easier to empathise with cats than it is to empathise with people.) At the end of the show you know no more about Izzard’s real life than you did at the beginning: he is an everyman, and the act - in which he appears to frequently lose his place - constantly underlines his own fallibility.
Many of his scenarios focus on the lightning sub-verbal communication that flares between people facing a collective problem, as when a talkative person gets on a crowded urban bus, or when a Dalek who is desperate to use his plunger recruits his fellows to tip him sideways so that he can get the right angle over a blocked sink. Stand-up is inherently an individual sport, but Izzard's comedy centres the crowd, the tribe, the gang, the pack (of wolves). It exhibits a vast inclusive humanity; we’ve all lost a flip-flop while trying to run, we’ve all walked unwittingly into a cloud of gnats. We all try to present ourselves as dignified humans while regularly revealing the anxious, jellified idiot beneath.
He might look like a Clapham estate agent, but he is one-of-a-kind. I’ve never forgotten that night at The Ambassadors. I doubt I’ll ever again laugh that hard for that long.
The role of stand-up is imperious in its essence: I say ‘laugh’, you say ‘how much?’. Izzard’s control - of herself, of the audience and of her material - is so total and skilful that she commands without ever appearing to be in charge. This discipline, and the capacity for work that must underlie it, came into the most astonishing focus in 2016, when Izzard attempted to run 27 marathons in 27 days to raise money for Sports Relief. Izzard is not an athlete - except, of course, that someone who can come close to running 27 marathons in 27 days is also an extraordinary athlete. There was something startling about this project: it seemed to indicate an urge towards super-human extremity, a determination to establish the mastery of the brain over physiology. Like her comedy in 1993, it hadn’t occurred to anyone else that it was possible until she did it.
Gender codes in 1993 - the permissible boundaries of behaviour for men and women - were deeply and strictly enforced. That night I was wearing a full face of makeup, high heels and a miniskirt; Tobias would have liked to wear eyeliner but didn’t feel that he could. Izzard’s clothes at the Ambassadors were classically bland: baggy Chandler jeans, neutral cowboy boots, a loose black jacket. He wasn’t even metrosexual, let alone gender-bending; except - and you only notice this in the camera close-ups, it wasn’t visible from the audience - he wore discreet earrings and red nail varnish. Izzard was a lot more fettered than we knew.
Looking back, aspects of the 1993 show feel poignant now, like important signposts that we didn’t read: the appearance of fallibility while actually exercising iron discipline, the absence of toxic masculinity and edgy sex jokes, the drive towards inclusivity, the motif - in the animal routines - of human experience untethered from its expected corporeal form. In the audience that night we failed to notice that a truly exceptional individual was trying to lose himself - or maybe find himself - in a crowd.
Later on, and for a long time before announcing that she is trans, Izzard wore female-coded clothes and make-up and said that she was a transvestite. Us Gen Xers loved that; it played into our self image, our assertion - as the generation that made Boy George a superstar - that we’ve always been totally relaxed about diverse sexuality and people who play with gender. We have a habit of abject dishonesty on this topic. We do not want to reckon with how we actually behaved at the time. I remember Boy George’s first appearance on Top of the Pops in 1983, and I also remember what we said the next day at school. George Michael - who had been dressing like a dancer from G.A.Y. for nearly two decades - didn’t come out publicly until 1998, five years after this show; among people we knew - between ourselves, in fact - his sexuality had been the subject of gleeful and slightly scandalised gossip.
How would we have reacted, in 1993, if Izzard had come on stage wearing full make-up and a dress and then performed his act in exactly the same way; if he had said ‘I am a largely straight man, but I love feminine expression’? We would have been bemused, and perhaps startled. We would have been able to interpret it only as a costume; we would not have seen it as simply a set of clothes. He would have seemed strange and slightly threatening, not a cuddly everyman. We would not have been able to conceive of him as being, essentially, one of us.
Izzard managed to successfully reject the conventions of stand-up, but could not throw off the iron grip of gender roles; his super-relaxed demeanour concealed a difficult striving towards ‘normality’. As a generation, we utterly failed to create the space in which Izzard - hell, most people - could simply exist authentically. And now gender-critical feminists - of whom I am one, in most respects - berate her for saying that she is a woman, while she tours TV studios explaining her pronouns and taking punishment, as only someone who’s run 27 marathons can. An apostle of expansive inclusivity has become an unwilling avatar of the era’s most divisive topic. (It must be said, though, that - all else aside - she does love communicating, and she does love attention, as any successful performer must. Maybe she is curiously well-equipped for this.)
In the 1993 show there is a skit about Anglican Christianity and its failure to move with the times; massive pipe organs that have ‘booster rockets, a brake and a clutch,’ congregations trying to guess where, in the interminable introduction to a hymn, they are supposed to start singing (here we are again, in a crowd, being ridiculous). Izzard’s God, peering down grumpily from a cloud, thinks it’s all incomprehensible. Izzard finds comedy in the fossilised remnants of older forms of religious expression, but she is fascinated by beliefs, and she respects their power; she wants us to move onwards, beyond, further, together. She has said ‘I don’t believe in God. I believe in Us’.
I’m more cynical than she is, but I would like to believe in Us too, and that night in 1993 was as good an expression of Us as I’ve ever experienced. A comedian and an audience creating an unrepeatable moment, moving together, laughing at the same things, being absurd and imperfect, knowing that we have something important in common.
For more enlightening silliness, try a ‘70s Dad: