Eddie Izzard’s Comedy of Belief

As the progeny of a hippie college professor/Episcopal priest who dropped acid with Timothy Leary, I received an admittedly eclectic religious education. How many nine year olds can recite the Lord’s Prayer along with the lyrics to “The Vatican Rag” and “Plastic Jesus?” While other kids were watching the Three Stooges and other classic American fare, my tastes drew me across the pond where I got hooked on Monty Python’s Flying Circus and The Goodies.

My Pythonesque journey took me to the religious universes of Lenny Bruce and George Carlin, two comedians who helped me to deconstruct the world of organized religion during that period when my home life detonated. When I first started writing satire, I got turned on to the religious rants of Bill Hicks, an American comic with a definite British sensibility. By the time I caught Eddie Izzard’s HBO performance Dressed to Kill (1999), I had become a full-blown comedy junkie, devouring the likes of Jonathan Swift, Richard Pryor, P.J. O’Rourke, Molly Ivins, and Steve Allen.

Given how much Izzard’s astute observations of religion and politics helped inform my own development as a satirist, I eagerly picked up a copy of the Eddie Izzard documentary Believe, thinking I might glean some insights as to the formation of his religious beliefs. At the very least, I was hoping this surrealist might explore how he inhabited the body of satirist Lenny Bruce during a 1999 limited run production of Julian Barry’s 1971 play Lenny.

Instead, this documentary—directed by ex-girlfriend Sara Townsend—captures the intense mania that drove Izzard to seek out international success as a comedian and actor. Snippets from home movies, stand-up performance clips, interviews, and other footage reveal a complex person, who comes to the self-realization that everything he does in his life is to get back his mother, who died from cancer when he was six years old. Such a revelation could have been explored further. Also, while Townsend briefly touches on the moment when Izzard chose to go public as a transvestite, those looking for a sleazy TMZ-styled expose of Izzard’s personal life will have to go elsewhere.

During one of the few pensive moments of the film, Izzard reflects how “you’ve got to believe you can be a stand-up before you’re a stand-up.” This belief in his own creative spirit drove to keep performing even though his early reviews ranged from “crap” to “lukewarm.” When he had achieved a level of success that would satisfy most comics, his relentless drive enabled him to achieve seemingly unattainable goals such as playing to sold out crowds at Wembley Stadium and Madison Square Garden, or completing the equivalent of 43 marathons in 51 days for charity even though he is not a trained athlete.

Earlier this week, I caught a press screening for the Doors’ When You’re Strange, and found myself reflecting on the similarities between these two documentaries. While one cannot draw too direct a parallel between the two men’s careers, I had to wonder, why did Morrison (and my parents, eventually) self-destruct from drugs and alcohol while Izzard shows no signs of slowing down?

Becky Garrison is a satirist/storyteller whose most recent book is Roger Williams’s Little Book of Virtues (Wipf & Stock, March 2020). Also, she edited Love, Always: Partners of Trans People on Intimacy, Challenge and Resilience (Transgress Press, 2015). Her six books include 2006’s Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church (PW, starred review).