A Memoir of Love, Death, and Jazz Chickens
By Eddie Izzard. With Laura Zigman.
Blue Rider Press.
348 pp. $28.
Glenn C. Althschuler
As though to confirm the claim that comedians use humor to hide their sadness, Eddie Izzard begins his memoir with his mother's death. At age 6, living in Northern Ireland, Eddie shut down emotionally. He did not cry again until he was 19. And he believes he "started performing, and doing all sorts of big, crazy ambitious things" because "at some magical-thinking level," he thought they might bring her back.
Izzard's "big, crazy ambitious things" have included stand-up comedy, one-man shows, movies, stage appearances, a documentary of his life, 70 marathon runs that raised $6 million for charity, and activism in support of LGBT rights.
In Believe Me, Izzard reflects on his identity as a "straight transgender person" and a career that has (so far) produced Tony and Olivier nominations and two Emmys (for Dressed to Kill).
Not surprisingly, Believe Me can be very funny. When he was a kid, Izzard tells us, he filled bowl after bowl with Frosted Flakes, hoping the free toy would pop out. It took him 15 years to realize he could reach in and grab it. Parents won't want you to do this, he acknowledges, "and probably it's bad for your anticipation/gratification sensibility," but it is the quickest way. If you are worried about hygiene, use a fork, or chopsticks, buy a robotic arm, or find "a clean friend" to grab the toy.
Far more often, however, Izzard is earnest, modest, and, well, conventional. He has gotten pretty good at some things, he confesses, but "being good at relationships is still not one of them." And Izzard describes many occasions when his comedy routines fell flat.
Again and again, Izzard tells his readers those who make things hard on themselves do better when things actually do get hard. For Izzard, being an opening act and ad-libbing his set paid off, "not in the short term but in the long term."
Even more important, "if you believe enough in yourself, you can make things happen." Nor is it a good idea to try to "get somewhere as fast as possible. Get somewhere as good as possible."
In discussing coming out, Izzard finds his own voice. Convinced that individuals do not choose their sexual identity, he counsels LGBT people to do what he did (without the help of a therapist): create space for themselves, stand, announce who they are, with pride but also with an understanding that what you do in life is more important than how you self-identify.
Izzard has accomplished a lot and done it his way. So we can understand why he concludes with another piece of conventional wisdom, that "we have to sort out the world ourselves. ... Follow the Golden Rule."
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.