The gimmick is nothing new to stand-up comedy. Most performers, hoping to find an audience, provide a memorable image or an aural calling card to specifically mark their humor. Be it the prop heavy poop of Gallagher and that red headed hack, Carrot Top, or the blue streak swear workout of an Eddie Griffin or Martin Lawrence, comedians need a hook, either visually or verbally, to stand out in the ever-swelling sea of merry makers. Sometimes, the conceit works perfectly; Robin Williams is omnipresent, known for his lightning fast blasts of jocular gas, while the equally worshipped Jerry Seinfeld works the opposite, laconic lounge level for all its observational power. And then there are times when the persona becomes the person, overpowering them to the point where the tone is the joke, not the material. Someone like Gilbert Gottfried or Emo Phillips may possess a rare biting humor, bordering on the genius, but their grating gargling-with-sulfuric-acid antics seem to eradicate their wit, relegating them to the novelty or geek level carnival act. Eddie Izzard comes dangerously close to entering their sawdust covered sideshow tent. A self-professed "executive transvestite," Izzard performs his comedy act in full drag style makeup and unisex clothing. But instead of playing off the arguably odd outward appearance, he merely applies it as a device, a means of grabbing the attention that his comedy may not otherwise warrant. Released last year on DVD, Eddie Izzard: Dress to Kill is an example of this widely popular British humorist's brand of calm anarchy. Izzard is out to politely shake things up. And he's starting with his own image as a man.
Facts of the Case
Filmed in San Francisco during an extended tour of his comedic one-man show, Dress to Kill is a basic presentation of Izzard 101. Dressed very stylishly in a royal blue lounging pajama outfit, medium heels, and a huge slathering of exaggerated pancake makeup, you are presented an extended monologue, the world according to Izz. You get all the basics here: his opinions and explanations about cross dressing and alternative fashion lifestyles. His didactic views on religion and politics. His memories of puberty and of first sexual encounters. Add a healthy dose of America-bashing and some telling jabs at Europe, and you have the overall Eddie's eye view in one two-hour capsule. It is a place filled with hypocrisy, taboo busting, and self-deprecation. There is even a telling end segment on trying to get the French to understand sophisticated (read non-Jerry Lewis based) verbal humor.
There may be some of you out there who are completely unaware that Eddie Izzard is, and always has been, first and foremost, a comedian. Since first taking London's West End by storm in 1993 with a series of one man shows and acclaimed acting roles, Izzard has evolved into one of a small handful of full-blown British standup comedy legends. The UK has always been known for its quirky, dark brand of humor, and Izzard is no exception. For those who have seen him, sans drag, in Mystery Men, The Cat's Meow, or Velvet Goldmine, his dramatic, "straight" persona seems incongruous with the flamboyant onstage image he has cultivated for over a decade. Frankly, in some ways, the transition to legitimate actor has hampered the power and impact of his stand up routines. Izzard is currently the toast of Broadway, taking on a serio-comic role in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg. It offers him the chance at coloring his caustic wit with an incredibly dark subject (the trials of living with a handicapped daughter). And it appears to be a perfect fit, if you believe critics.
So why then does what many consider to be his best work, Dress to Kill, seem so…pedestrian? Why does Izzard come across more matronly than manic, composed than chaotic? This is not to say that he is not funny, witty, clever, insightful, or shocking. In truth, he is all of those things, as well as warm, friendly, compassionate, and sentimental. But let's not forget the basic premise here—Eddie Izzard is a professed mad heterosexual cross dresser. Unlike drag queens, which he claims confuse him a little, Izzard uses the clothing of the female gender as a kind of personal political statement, like punk in the '70s or Blitz in the '80s. Making no apologies for appearing on stage dressed like a Margaret Thatcher look alike and pushing the limits of acceptable glam slam behavior, Izzard is a walking contradiction, a looking-for-a-shag bloke dressed as the bird he would probably end up snogging. But this is where the confrontation ends. Izzard doesn't demand acceptance or champion a life choice cause. He likes to wear woman's clothing and that's the end of it. But as a gimmick, as a sure to get attention promotion, it functions at cross purposes; it's bizarre at first, but in the long term, it fails to resonate. Nor does it offer any more vitriol to the protestations as baggy pants pandering of his act. Dress to Kill is entertaining, since Izzard is a compelling communicator. But that is where the riotousness ends.
About the worst thing one can say about Izzard is that, when it comes to pushing buttons and challenging the establishment, he is a passively controversial. There is a very apologetic tone to his attacks, as if wanting to provoke and simultaneously avoid confrontation at the same time. Like kabuki or Greek theater, the makeup and drag components are a mask, a way of shouting unconventionality and rebellion while the words seem to indicate otherwise. Discussing a potential career as a "placer of babies on roasting spikes," he goes for the cannibal joke (they taste like chicken) but then makes a confused, "bad boy" face as if ashamed with what he's just said. Tearing into the mythology of Engelbert Humperdink (?), he jokes for a good five minutes that the bombastic baritone is dead—and every time he sounds the death knell, he sheepishly takes it back. Like the adolescent caught red handed with his humor in the cookie jar, Izzard is happy to win small battles and then retreat, like McClellan during the Civil War. He rarely zeroes in for the kill or gets all worked up over the topics he is discussing. This doesn't make him boring; far from it. But it makes the manic energy and extreme comedy he is supposedly dishing seem a tad flat.
When Izzard gets wound up, his humor can be targeted and very cutting. Two long sequences in his monologue highlight the level of sophistication and savagery he can achieve. The first is a mid-show tirade about church and religion. Pointing out the apparent hypocrisy in the Church of England (founded so that Henry the 8th could be a Mormon, apparently), the Last Supper, and even the heretical Druids, Izzard hits bull's eye after bull's eye in his deconstruction of organized belief systems. You can see the twinkle in his heavily made up peepers as he plays Christ, yelling at his "Dad" not to call him "Jeezy Peezy" and wondering just what job "The Holy Ghost" has in the order of things. The other sequence, offered as an encore and done all in French, acts as a double-edged sword, cutting at both the bourgeois and plebian attitudes of those continental croissant eaters. Izzard describes, and then acts out, how his limited knowledge of French (all he could say were various animals were on/near various inanimate objects) was put to the test when he went to Paris to perform his act in their native tongue. At once championing diversity while simultaneously pulling down its snooty drawers and giving it a damn good thrashing, this material shows Izzard in all his pre-hyped mode—intense, charming, clever, and unrelenting.
Overall, though, there are more dry patches than balls-to-the-wall belly busters. Izzard, surprisingly, spends little time on his personal proclivity to cross dress. True, he informs us that he is a straight man who merely loves to wear ladies clothing, and he does label himself "an executive transvestite," but the background or rational is left as a private mystery. As are the normal ins and outs, if you will, of living the lifestyle. Izzard apparently has no desire to education or enlighten on the subject. You either get it or you don't. There is also a tendency in the humor to bite the hand that feeds him, which is jolly at first, but gets dull after a while. His Columbine jokes don't work, his NRA material has been done before (and better) by others, and when reduced to Don Rickles style slam humor, he immediately whips out the apology handbook and back pedals. There is no denying that Izzard is a unique, compelling voice in comedy. His world view comes pre-warped via his lifestyle choices. But it's too bad he places so much restraint on what he says and does. He has the power to overwhelm. In Dress to Kill, he seems content to simply show up.
In light of Izzard's ever increasing profile, it's amazing this 1998 concert was not released on DVD sooner. Perhaps HBO was waiting for the proper moment to spring it on the public. Or maybe they were waiting for a groundswell of Izzard madness to take over. Time is surely not reflected in the presentation. We are offered a full frame image that appears to be directly lifted from a high-resolution transfer. While this critic could not confirm any HDTV capability with the disc, the print quality has that lo-res rendering of something incredibly detailed. The picture is also jumpy and unfocused at times, which also lends credence to the high-resolution argument. Still, the picture, when good, is quite impressive, especially in close-ups of Izzard's expressive, heavily lacquered face. Sonically, the Dolby Digital 2.0 doesn't offer much in the way of immersion. Izzard's act is very much one man talking, so there is no use of sound effects or other ambient noises to grade channel performance. What can be said is that there is a definite aural concert hall feel to the sound.
As for extras, at least HBO goes all out and offers outstanding examples of why the DVD format has grown so popular so quickly. You have the option of hearing Izzard's stand-up commentary, or you can then hear him comment on his act through a funny, if somewhat sparse, alternative narrative audio track. Izzard apologizes for this less than stellar commentary work ("this is my first time at it"), but he manages to offer some insight into the making of a one-man show and anecdotes about audiences and personal acceptance around the globe. It is a good, if less than all encompassing track. We also get a "raw cut" of the infamous Dress to Circle Paris show, all done in French and subtitled. It's incredibly interesting to watch Izzard work outside of his own native tongue, to try and translate his humor and inside material into something that will resonate with a foreign culture. And then, as if to add an additional layer of context, we get another Izzard commentary, this one more relaxed and entertaining than his first one on Kill. Hearing him discuss the European audiences and how they react to his work is the reason the DVD commentary was invented. Along with a slightly humorous faux documentary about America in 1998, done as homage to Ken Burns, you get quite the package from HBO. It's just too bad that the main attraction, Dress to Kill, is not the comedy classic it claims to be. While often funny and occasionally fresh, it's too passive aggressive to have a lasting impact.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Even if he looks like the unfunny Jim J. Bullock in spandex on the cover of the DVD, Eddie Izzard is light years away from the mundane mincing of that quasi-celebrity. Fashion lifestyle choices aside, his material is fresh, inventive, and cutting edge. He is not afraid to flaunt convention and attack the establishment. Like the best of the shock comics, Izzard has developed his own freestyle form of humor harangue, taking the audience to task for the moral trauma they cause on a daily basis, and making them laugh at it as well. Sure, like most comedians, not all of his jokes work. And there are times when Izzard is too apologetic for something randy or riotous that he just said. But every great comic voice has to start somewhere, and what we are witnessing with Eddie Izzard: Dress to Kill is a special humorist in full experimental mode. Izzard is trying things here, casting his line out into the great clown void to hopefully land a tasty tidbit or two. And since he succeeds more often than he fails, it's safe to say that you'll be more than satiated by this serving of slanderous silliness. It's no wonder he is a much sought after actor these days. Izzard is a gifted performer and Dress to Kill is a fine showcase for his talent.
Every once in a great while, something so completely unique comes out of the blue to tickle your funny bone in such a way that it makes you wonder how you ever lived without it. One such example was the 1981 HBO broadcast of a scandalous ersatz kiddie show created by popular LA improvisational act the Groundlings. Centering on a demented, diminutive playhouse owner and his unbelievably daft cast of friends, its presentation on the still fledging cable channel marked a significant moment in the continuum of comedy, of a time when genius merged with the genial for the creation of a true comic masterpiece. With its Emmys and ever growing fan base, you'd believe that Eddie Izzard: Dress to Kill is yet another example of HBO hitting a humor home run by finding a heretofore unknown property and lighting the fireworks underneath it. But unlike Paul Reubens and his ever infantile Pee Wee Herman, Izzard is only selling himself and his fabu image to the world. And it's a much tougher purchase. It's impossible to deny his charm or cheekiness. He was, and continues to be, a performer of rare gifts. But Dress to Kill is merely good, and while you can see the basic outlines of the greatness it wants to achieve (and that legions have since thrust upon it), it never quiet takes off, igniting the kind of passion and power that something like The Pee Wee Herman Show did in 1981. Award winning or not, Izzard is just too damn British to play fury forcefully. He wants to be an angry yet angelic punk poet, but he's really just a member of Spandau Ballet with a better sense of humor…and fashion.
Eddie Izzard is found not guilty by this court and is free to go. Dress to Kill is, however, sentenced to 60 days in the hoosegow for failing to deliver on the promise present in Izzard's, and the show's, reputation.
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Scales of Justice
• Dress to Circle (Paris -- Raw Cut)
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