On February 20. British comedian and self identified executive transvestite Eddie Izzard spoke at Harvard’s Memorial Church to accept the Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism presented by The HSS Cultural Humanism committee at Harvard. Dressed in his signature drag as he sits with me after the event, Izzard sips a glass of wine and cracks open pistachios with long fingernails painted a bright shade of red. A couple of designs on his nails stand out.
1. Fifteen Minutes: I see that two of your nails aren’t red. What’s the story behind those?
Eddie Izzard: That’s the British flag, and that’s the European flag. So I’m a British-European transvestite.
2. FM: That’s a lot of European pride.
EI: Yeah. That’s a political statement. It displays my sexuality and political alignment, and I like it because it’s girly, but it’s also political. So it’s tough-edged, girly, and very shiny and sparkly.
3. FM: Do you have any big future plans? I hear the papacy is vacant.
EI: I’m running for mayor of London, so that’s a big enough plan.
4. FM: What made you decide to run?
EI: I felt like I could be political, and if I wasn’t doing entertainment, I would do politics. Which is slightly bonkers, since I like the entertainment industry and politics looks tougher. But, I thought because the Nazis and fascists keep coming back and keep bringing racism and xenophobia and putting that forward, I felt I should go in. I have a certain amount of energy and new ideas, and I think I should put that into the mix. I should do at least one election and see what happens to see what I can do. Sometimes you have to stand up and be counted.
5. FM: Do you think being a comedian prepared you in any way for politics?
EI: Politics can be very dry, so if you could make a serious speech and make it a little lighthearted, I’m sure people will be thankful for that. And it gives you a certain confidence when talking to people. Just like Al Franken’s gone in, I’m going in. I think Al’s one of the first comedians in the world to go in like this. But I planned it for some time, and I realized Al was doing it. Hopefully I will get to a place where Al is.
6. FM: George Carlin once said that the role of the comedian is to find where the line is drawn and then cross it. In your mind, what is the role?
EI: I think that’s fine for George—I can totally understand what George is saying. I think it’s to entertain in the most beautiful way you know how—to juxtapose ideas in a new way. If you can inform at the same time, then it’s a bonus, but it’s just entertainment. Find the line, and then crossing it that’s interesting. I don’t see that as my main thing. I’m not necessarily trying to cross lines—I do, but it’s not my main drive. If I can point out something without crossing a line, like: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” I was reading about that and saw it was the Golden Rule, and it’s in Christianity, and it’s in Judaism, and it’s in Islam, and it’s in Hindu faith. It’s in all of them, fucking hell. That’s not crossing the line, that’s just saying treat other people as you’d like to be treated yourself. I think that’s the only thing in religion you need. You don’t need the prayers, the fig, the body of Christ, the thing with the hammer—any of that shit, forget it all. Just treat people as you’d like to be treated. Now that gets rid of a whole load of religious paraphernalia, but I think it’s true. That’s all you bloody need.
7. FM: I’m also aware that you were in some hot water a few years ago for recycling jokes. Do you think there’s an unfair expectation of comedians to come up with new material?
EI: Before 1990 Britain, there was this thing where you just get a certain amount of material and then you just do it forever. Like the Rolling Stones: They put a certain amount of songs together and added some too, but they still play “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction,” and this is 50 years since they couldn’t get any satisfaction. They still can’t get any satisfaction, and they’re repeating the song. So that’s what comedy used to be like, and I was part of the group that started changing over to doing the stuff quicker. But it is better for comedy to be turned over. I was just caught because they said I’m not turning it over, and I said, “Yes, that’s my style, I don’t turn it over.” I actually start up with the old material and gradually roll it over. That is my technique, and I told everyone about it. But they didn’t realize I told everyone about it so they complained. Kind of stupid.
8. FM: Does being back on a college campus bring back any memories from your admittedly short stay in college—or university as you guys call it overseas?
EI: Yeah. It does in a way—it makes me think of Oxford and Cambridge because you have Yale and Harvard here. I was walking around here in 2008—I was walking past this very church, and I was standing outside of it, which is kind of weird to come back here and do a talk inside. It does [bring back memories]—I probably could be a better student now. I wasn’t such a great student then. I did very little work and then I pulled out, then I hung around for four years, so I had quite a good time doing shows and not really doing work. But it was the beginning of what I am now, because I put in a lot of energy into doing things and making things. They just weren’t very good things.
9. FM: Do you have any favorite stand-up comedians?
EI: In America, I think Patton Oswalt is great. God, who are the other people—I always think out of my head. Zach Galifianakis when he was doing his stuff was very weird and crazy. Robin Williams of course. His stuff was happening and I was just getting my thing going and his was there. There’s a lot of really good American stuff.
10. FM: Like most of those comics, you do a lot of acting on the side. But if someone were to play you in a movie, who would it be?
EI: Well it would have to be an actress...I don’t think it’s for me to answer. Or else Keira Knightley.