If you paid even marginal attention to the comedy career of Eddie Izzard, you know what to expect from his live performances. Perfectly nonsensical segues (after taking the stage at Portland, Oregon’s Keller Auditorium, he looked out at the crowd, and said, “Ummmmm…human sacrifice!” to kick things off), lots of discursive meandering during each planned bit, lighthearted jabs at the audience if a joke didn’t land, and lots of material about historical figures and the subtleties of language and the absolute ridiculousness of human nature.
That’s precisely what you got with Izzard’s seemingly never-ending Force Majeure tour, which hit Portland for two nights in late June. It’s a run of shows that has found the 53-year-old comic stopping by dozens of countries around the world, and even performing his entire set in German or French when, and where, he can. But even after all this time (the tour started in the spring of 2013), the material he’s been doing hasn’t become mannered, nor does Izzard ever seem like he’s going through the motions. The jokes remain the same, but even he manages to seem surprised and bemused by what he’s saying.
And he said a lot about a lot of things. His opening gambit about human sacrifice found him wandering through the history of Charles I, the English monarch who was convicted of treason and beheaded in 1649, that included the king deciding to tie a dog to his head in place of a wig and ended with him arriving in heaven and getting an iPad for his troubles. He relayed his surefire method to learn a foreign language—get sent to prison in a foreign country for heroin trafficking and within a month you’ll be able to say, “Please don’t rape me in the showers,” in the native tongue—while also revealing that the only English word that he uses no matter what part of the world he’s in is “fuck” and proving that the commen accents of Wales and India are very close in timbre (“You take the Welsh accent and tighten it up with a screwdriver and you get the Indian accent”).
Watching him over the course of the two-plus hours he was onstage, I couldn’t help but marvel at how successful Izzard has become with his stand-up work even though he’s never really come up with a perfect set. Even more than that, he’s able to connect with everyone from the very front row to the far back of the theater. He’s a guy that can sell out Wembley Arena—a 12,500 capacity room—with little effort spared and no one walking away unsatisfied.
As he said during my interview with him a little while ago, it has everything to do with his days attracting an audience of erstwhile passersby when he was a street performer in Covent Garden. If he didn’t find a way to bring them in, he wasn’t getting paid that day. That motivation hasn’t left Izzard at all. He still plays to the cheap seats with big broad jokes and deeply silly wordplay and self-deprecating stories of getting his ego deflated by London cabbies. Even when he was calling out Portland for not giving him the response he felt like he deserved, everyone in the room left delighted and glowing with laughter.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.