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Eddie Izzard is a comic genius

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The blog of Bill Gates
Eddie Izzard is a comic genius
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Trans Atlantic humor

Eddie Izzard is a comic genius

I’ve recently discovered that I have a lot in common with a funny, dyslexic, transgender actor, comedian, escape artist, unicyclist, ultra-marathoner, and pilot from Great Britain. Except all of the above.

Eddie Izzard is one of my favorite performers. Melinda and I had the pleasure of seeing one of his comedy shows live in London, and then we got to talk with him backstage after the show. So I was excited to pick up his autobiography, Believe Me. It was there that I learned for the first time that Izzard and I share a lot of the same strengths and weaknesses.

As a child, Eddie was nerdy, awkward, and incompetent at flirting with girls. He had terrible handwriting. He was good at math. He was highly motivated to learn everything he could about subjects that interested him. He left college at age 19 to pursue his professional dreams. He had a loving mom who died of cancer way too young.

I can relate to every one of these things.

You might find you share similarities with Eddie as well. In fact, that’s the overarching point of this book. We’re all cut from the same cloth. In his words, “We are all totally different, but we are all exactly the same.”

If you’ve never seen Eddie perform his stand-up routine, you’re missing out. Like Monty Python, he often draws from real historical figures, such as Shakespeare or Charlemagne, and comes up with hilarious riffs, many of them improvised. And like other super talented comedians like Robin Williams and Tom Hanks, he’s also great in serious dramatic roles. (He recently appeared in the movie Victoria and Abdul, with Dame Judi Dench.) He even talks semi-seriously about running for Parliament.

Despite all those gifts, I’m not sure I’d recommend this book for those who’ve never seen Eddie perform. There are some comedians, such as David Sedaris and George Carlin, whose books would make perfect sense even if you haven’t seen their act. That’s not the case here. You have to witness his brand of surreal, intellectual, self-deprecating humor. Otherwise, it will be like you’re walking into the middle of a conversation.

But if you have seen Eddie’s stuff and you like it—here’s a typical bit, a riff on Pavlov’s dogs—I promise you’ll love this book. You’ll see that his written voice is very similar to his stage voice. You’ll also see that the book provides not just laugh-out-loud moments but also a lot of touching insights into how little Edward Izzard, a kid with only a hint of performing talent, became an international star.

The book begins with the event that had by far the biggest impact on his life—the death of his mom in 1968, when Eddie was just six years old. Eddie’s father, an accountant who traveled a lot for work, was not able to care for Eddie and his brother by himself. So the Izzard boys were sent off to a boarding school near a Welsh seaside resort “where you’d expect a few dead bodies to wash up occasionally … but no such luck.” Imagine you’re six years old, you’ve just lost your mom, you’re starting to have gender-identity issues that make no sense to you, and you’re packed away to a boarding school where you have to cry yourself to sleep!

As hard as these experiences were, there’s no way Eddie would be the star he is today if they hadn’t happened. “I do believe I started performing and doing all sorts of big, crazy, ambitious things because … on some childlike magical-thinking level, I thought doing those things might bring her back. But she never came back. I keep trying, though, just in case.”

He’s honest about the fact that he was the opposite of a natural. Instead of innate talent, he had something perhaps more important: a burning desire to be in show business and the propensity to be relentless in pursuit of his goals.

He spent most of the 1980s working as a street performer, often in London’s Covent Garden. It was a slog, with a lot of embarrassing moments. But he got much better the old-fashioned way: by working at it day in and day out and learning from his many failures.  

In fact, I couldn’t help but think that Eddie’s life would be a perfect case study for the Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, who has written about the concept of the “growth mindset.” As Dweck explains in her book Mindset, the growth mindset is one in which you believe that your capabilities derive from practice and perseverance rather than DNA and destiny.

Eddie has the growth mindset in spades. Being lousy at something doesn’t stop him from doing it. In fact, it often has the opposite effect, driving him to work at it until he is no longer terrified of it.

Not only did he apply that to performing in front of huge audiences, despite his fundamental shyness. That growth mindset also drove him to become a pilot, despite his fear of heights. It drove him to run 27 marathons in 27 days, despite his lack of natural athleticism. And it drove him to start performing stand-up in French, German, Arabic, Russian, and Spanish, despite the difficulty of learning these languages and translating his British humor into other cultural contexts.

Maybe most difficult of all, that growth mindset allowed him to walk out the door of his home in 1985 in makeup and a dress, despite opening himself up to ridicule and hate. But doing so was liberating: “It led to … a world I could begin to change in my own personal way, carving out for myself a small slice of freedom of expression.”

I’m always impressed by the growth mindset when I see it in action. Now that I understand how much it’s at the core of Eddie’s brilliance on stage, I’ve become an even more devoted fan of his.

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