Sunday, 4 July 2010

Why Eddie Izzard is a God, and Matt Lucas is a fool I am destined to piss on in the gutter

Having discussed the intersection of gender and comedy, it's fair at this point to unleash a little rant I've been wanting to launch for a while, focusing on just how much of a boundary-smashing genius Eddie Izzard is and how the forces of retrogression in gender-based comedy can lick my sweaty bits and tell me that they love it.

The genius of Eddie Izzard isn't that he performs in drag. The genius of Eddie Izzard is that he's a transvestite. There is a massive difference between these two things, and that difference lies at the heart of the way in which Izzard genuinely changed the game for stand-up comedy in ways many lesser comedians are trying to catch up with, and some are actively trying to run away from.

Before Izzard, there was a long tradition of drag in British comedy and, whether it was hateful shit like Dick Emery, the more affectionate Northern social observations of Les Dawson, or the weirdness of Monty Python and Terry Jones' endless appearances as 'generic old woman' (most memorably as Brian's mum in Life of Brian), the joke was always, on one level, 'Hey! Look! It's a bloke dressed up as a woman!' The comedy in all these cases - even with Jones and Python, whose work I otherwise worship - depends, in large part, on the disconnect between the ideas of a certain type of idealised femininity and a certain form of masculinity which the performer is assumed to really have. It turns, in fact, on transmisogyny

The brilliance of Eddie Izzard is that his comedy doesn't. Although Izzard finds comedy in his experiences of other peoples' reactions to his transvestism, the punchline in his work isn't hey-look-it's-a-man-in-a-dress. The punchlines in Izzard's work tend to be more thoughtful, odd, and surrealist. Izzard's work is more likely to focus on discrepancies in the Bible than discrepancies between his birth-assigned gender and the clothes and make-up he likes to wear. In a country as sexually unsophisticated as Britain, and in a field as generally immature as British comedy, the idea that a man could wear high heels and make-up on stage without it being the focus of the joke was akin to the impact of glam rock on music. Eddie Izzard is the David Bowie of comedy.

Of course, one of the sadder things about being a rock music fan in Britain is that guys like Bowie are few and far between. We might occassionally strike it lucky with, say, a Brian Moltko or a Jarvis Cocker, but more usually Britain is the country responsible for terrible pub-rock shite like Oasis and the Stereophonics. Rock music straight men can listen to while wearing football shirts and drinking Carling. Unfortunately it's the same with comedy. A lot of men wouldn't be seen dead at an Izzard gig or a Placebo show, because they're terrified of looking gay in front of their mates. The idea that a man might look good in make-up, the idea that there might not be such a hard-and-fast line between acceptable male and female behaviours, and, probably, to paraphrase Hunter S Thompson, the gnawing fear that people somewhere are having fun in ways they'll never know, is a terrifying prospect for these fuckers. So they retreat to comedy which repeats the same old transmisogynistic tropes, which makes them feel comfortable in their tired, old, fossilised notions of gender, which allows them, once again, to grunt ha-ha-it's-a-guy-in-a-dress.

They retreat, in fact, to Little Britain (you'll notice I never include links to Little Britain when I blog about it. This is for the same reason many bloggers choose not to provide links to the Daily Mail in their blogs: I genuinely detest everything about it. I used to laugh at it, it's true, but I used to shit my pants as well. People grow up, and having grown up I despise the fucking show. Besides, the thing is fucking ubiquitous, you probably know what I'm talking about without a link and, if not, Google is your friend). They retreat to David Walliams and Matt Lucas in ridiculous crinoline dresses shouting 'I'm a lay-dee!' (Not that bad drag is all Lucas and Walliams can do. They can do fat suits and blackface too. They're a multi-talented pair.) And Lucas and Walliams make them feel safe and make them feel good and make them feel that, yes, it's okay, you can laugh at a man dressed as a woman (or a black woman. Or a fat woman. Or a lower-class woman. Or a disabled person [because they're all faking]. Or a mentally-ill woman. Or a woman who wets herself. Ha ha ha. Ha. Ha. Ha ha ha ha ha HA. It's astonishing that Lucas and Walliams got away with fooling people that they were 'edgy' for so long, because, really, there isn't a Mars Bars wrappers' difference between the world of their comedy and the world of the Daily Mail).

This is Lucas and Walliam's function: to convince the mass of people following them that they're enjoying something genuinely 'edgy' and exciting when actually their show is deeply retrogressive. All the vomiting, pissing, OAP-kissing, wobbling arses and breast-sucking in their shows serves the same function as the sound of loud electric guitars in the music of Oasis: it creates an impression of excitement and daring, but ultimately serves to distract from the essentially conservative nature of the enterprise (recall that the supposedly edgy, rock 'n' roll mofos in Oasis complained loudly that Jay-Z shouldn't play Glastonbury because rap isn't 'proper music').

It can be depressing, thinking about the popularity of acts like Lucas and Walliams. But you have to think about the long run. Oasis were the biggest band in Britain once, but they're a musical joke now, endlessly retreading the same dull path of lyrics ripped off from the Beatles and guitar riffs ripped off from Slade while newer, exciting bands spring up around them and their contemporaries, like Damon Albarn and Jarvis Cocker, remain creative and musically vital (Bowie, indeed, barring a disastrous stint in the eighties, was a vital musical force for thirty years, while Oasis burned out creatively in about six). And now look at Lucas and Walliams, reduced to slapping on their make-up and reprising their tired old schtick in a series of ads for a building society. Their true colours are revealed: they're a bank manager's idea of what's funny and hip.

Meanwhile, Eddie Izzard continues to perform incredible stand-up, has carved out a decent enough niche as a movie actor (though it's painfully obvious Hollywood doesn't really know how to use him properly), and ran forty-three fucking marathons.

It's fair to say that the idea of a transvestite running forty-three marathons wouldn't occur to Lucas and Walliams, because it doesn't fit in with their transmisogynistic worldview. But it doesn't really matter. In whatever Eddie Izzard does, he'll keep on running, while, creatively and comedically, the little boys from Little Britain remain stalled.


  1. Hi. Just read your blog! LOVED it! I'm from the US, so vastly (and apparently luckily) unfamiliar with Walliams and Lucas, but I am indeed a huge admirer of Eddie Izzard. I just started blogging myself and have made reference to Eddie a few times. I think he is a G-E-N-I-U-S and a helluva human being as well. He has made incredible strides to open minds as the only "out" transgender/transvestite celebrity. The ONLY one with the balls (and heels) to say to the world "This is who I am, fuck you if you don't like it!"

    Eddie has been an inspiration to me since I discovered him. I have a great deal of admiration for a man who has the will and determination to always stay true to himself. Well said honey. Well said indeed.

  2. Hi, thanks for the kind words! You're right that you're lucky not to have heard of Lucas and a way the fact you haven't kind of underscores the different between their impact and the impact Izzard's had on comedy.

  3. Very interesting and thought-provoking post - just a technical correction: while Oasis may well be "a musical joke now", it's not really correct to say that the band is "endlessly retreading the same [ground]"; it stopped doing so when it split up (effectively, in August 2009, officially a few months later).

  4. Interesting post on a subject I knew very little about. As an so-far-straight, football loving male I had no idea that going to see Placebo or Eddie was somehow going to make people think I was gay, and it genuinely never occurred to me until I read this post that I was in a minority whenever I went to see Brian and the boys. I suppose what helps in this matter is not giving a shit, and also having no friends.

    I can't remember the original point I was going to make, now.

    Oh yeah, Little Britain was a huge disappointment after the genius that was Rock Profile on UK Play (where the dressing up was at least in character - Shirley Bassey for example) - the only funny thing about LB, ever, were Tom Baker's links.

  5. Wildaker - thanks for the correction!

    Graeme - thanks for the comment. Inevitably a little bit of simplification does occur in these things in order to maintain the integrity of the rant...

    You're right that Rock Profile was genius, and I think this was because of two things.

    One, Lucas and Walliams, in common with a lot of performers, don't work well if given completely free reign - they don't have enough ideas to sustain a half-hour sketch show. Rock Profile forced them to be focused: they had to work out how to do sketches taking the mick out of the Bee Gees, Blur or Michael Jackson (I still think Matt Lucas' cockney gangster Liz Taylor is a brilliant comic touch) and they had to do it in essentially ten minutes per show. This concentrated their minds. When they were handed Little Britain on a plate, they got lazy.

    Two, I think you can't discount the influence of Vic Reeves on Matt Lucas. Rock Profile is actually an incredibly surreal series - the Bee Gees as half-human, half-lion mutants, Dave Stewart as a pop Frankenstein, Michael and Liz saying 'CATHEDRAL!' for no apparent reason - I'm sure these were partly inspired by Lucas cutting his teeth in the anarchic, anything-goes environment of Shooting Stars. Nothing in Little Britain is anywhere near as genuinely inventive as the conceits in Rock Profile, and I think this is because Lucas was moving away from the surreal stuff he'd been identified with and towards the comedy he'd really liked all along, which was actually more conservative.

    Sorry to waffle on, but your comment sort of chimed with something I've been thinking about, which is how to reconcile the genius of Rock Profile with the bloated mess of Lucas and Walliams' later career.