Before we can talk about Eddie Izzard's new memoir, Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death and Jazz Chickens, we have to talk about the jazz chickens. Because of course, cows go "moo," sheep go "baa," and a chicken will cock-a-doodle-doo — unless you get tired of the racket and jam a trumpet over its head.
Full disclosure: There are no actual jazz chickens in the book. "They said there's gotta be something funny in there," Izzard tells me. "I do talk about love and death, and 'jazz chickens' is just there to be funny, in a way." And it's true: There are some very somber moments in Believe Me.
On his mother's death
It was an unusual thing ... Mum and Dad decided not to say that this cancer was going to kill her. And then one day she was gone, and, yeah, it doesn't get better. You just put layers and layers over it.
I'm trying to do all these things, because if I do enough, maybe she'll come back ... if I can really do enough interesting things, maybe it'll cut through to the other side. Now, I don't believe in a god — I just think unfortunately that we live and then we die, and then that's it, kids. So I don't think Mum can come back — I think she would have got a message back, you know? Surely one person would have got a message back over the eons and eons of time, 10,000 years of civilization! Just one! One message, one cloud to pull aside and say, "It's me, Janine! I died last Tuesday. Anyway, it's great, they get massages up here, and God's nice, he's a bit full of himself, but alright. They're all hanging out here, everyone gets on, it's great. Be nice, and you'll end up here, if not you go down and it's smelly and it's horrible, it's all cold and hot at the same time."
On his "pigheadedness"
It was locked in from coming out in 1985, coming out as transgender, or, I was "TV" when I came out, the language has changed over the years — transvestite/TV, transsexual/TS — we are now at transgender. So, I came out in 1985, and it was very difficult to go out and forge a way out and lock it into your life. Once I did that, once I pushed back on all that fear and hatred and the feelings that society all around the world was saying to me, "You're not allowed to do this, this is wrong," and I'm saying it's built into my genetics and I think I have girl genetics and boy genetics, so I'm going to express them, I'm not going to feel shame or guilt, and that has given me the confidence for everything else.
On the way he develops his routines
I just start ad-libbing on the stage. Everything is verbal sculpting ... you get this energy that goes into it, and the audience really reacts to the energy. But then after a while, you can get it locked down, and if you get it precisely, "Oh, I'm going to use these jokes in this section," and then it starts become leaden, and then I thought, if I always keep it molten, it will always be live. So I write down some ideas in the notes section of my iPhone, and then I go onstage and I develop them.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Before I talk to Eddie Izzard about his new book, "Believe Me: A Memoir Of Love, Death And Jazz Chickens," I think we need to hear about the jazz chickens.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
EDDIE IZZARD: Cows go roo (ph). Sheep go bahh (ph). Ducks go quack. Pigs go oink - all of them. Chickens go cock-a-doodle-doo (ph) - unless you wedge a trumpet on their face.
MCEVERS: (Laughter) If you are a fan of Izzard's surreal stand-up comedy, you probably can tell where this is going.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
IZZARD: (Imitating trumpet). Farmer's wife going, what is that? That's jazz chicken. We bought a jazz chicken? No, it's the old chicken, but a trumpet fell on his face. What do you mean fell on it? Well, I wedged it on there. I couldn't stand it (imitating chicken crowing) all times of the day and night. I thought, let's make it jazz.
MCEVERS: (Laughter) Eddie Izzard, comedian, actor, writer, joins me now here in the studio in the flesh. Welcome.
IZZARD: I've got to say two things about that. One, that's the first time I've ever heard someone in the middle of the joke pull out to make a comment that, OK, here, a joke's coming here...
IZZARD: ...And then go back in and let the joke release, which was very weird but maybe very NPR-ish (ph) of you.
IZZARD: And the word jazz chicken - well, the two words jazz chickens is not mentioned in the book at all.
MCEVERS: Right, jazz chickens is in the title but not in the book. I mean, was that (laughter) supposed to be true?
IZZARD: They said, there's got to be something funny in there. So there is - I do talk about love and death and jazz chickens is just there to be funny, in a way.
MCEVERS: And as much as we're laughing, it's a serious book. You start with the day that you say your childhood ended.
MCEVERS: The day your mother died of cancer, March 4, 1968. You were 6 years old.
IZZARD: Yeah. It was an unusual thing, which I think I say in that first chapter - if not, I say it later on - that Mom and Dad decided not to say that this was - this cancer was going to kill her. And then one day, she was gone. And, yeah, it doesn't get better. You just put layers and layers over it.
MCEVERS: At some point, and I don't know if it's in that chapter or later, but you write that ever since she died, you feel like, in a way, you've been trying to bring her back. What do you mean by that?
IZZARD: Well, I'm trying to do all these things because if I do enough, maybe she'll come back. And that is right that if I can really do enough interesting things, maybe it will cut through to the other side. Now, I don't believe in a god. I just think, unfortunately, we live and then we die and then that hurts kids. So I don't think Mom can come back.
And I think she would have got a message back, you know? You know, surely one person would have got a message back over the eons and eons of time of 10,000 years of civilization - just one.
MCEVERS: One email (laughter).
IZZARD: If one - yeah, one message, one clouds pull aside and it's me, Janine (ph). I died last Tuesday. Anyway, it's great. They get massages up here. And God's nice. He's a bit full of himself but all right.
IZZARD: You know, they're all hanging out here. Everyone gets on. It's great. Be nice, and you come up here. If not, you go down and it's smelly and it's horrible. It's all cold and hot at the same time.
MCEVERS: So obviously, yeah, you don't mean you would actually bring her back. But you said, like, if you just keep doing enough things...
IZZARD: Yeah. And they're not scattergun. It's not, like, and then I'm going to be a stamp collector, be the most brilliant stamp collector. These are just things that I wanted to do. You had a few things usually on the boil there. And I've just kept those on the - sort of simmering in the back of my mind. And then I brought a number of them forward, like drama and surreal comedy.
And then I went off to do gigs in Spanish in Madrid and Barcelona to do en Espanol, and now I can go around America doing it in English and...
MCEVERS: And Spanish, yeah.
IZZARD: ...En Espanol. And I will go through Central America and South America as well.
MCEVERS: 'Cause this is a thing that runs through the book. You worked really hard but you also had this confidence that you could do what you wanted to do, right? Some people call it chutzpah. I think you call it pigheadedness.
MCEVERS: Where does it come from? I mean, I feel like I want to be able to bottle and sell it. But I want to know where...
IZZARD: It was locked in from coming out in 1985. Coming out 32 years ago as transgender or - I was TV when I came out. The language has changed over the years.
IZZARD: Transvestite, TV, transsexual, TS. We are now at trans and transgender. So I came out in 1995. And it was very difficult to go out and forge your way out and lock it into your life. Once I did that and I pushed back on all that fear and hatred and the feelings that society all around the world was saying to me. You're not allowed to do this. This is wrong.
And I'm saying, it's built into my genetics. And I think I have girl genetics and boy genetics. So I'm going to express them. I am not going to feel shame or guilt. And that has given me the confidence for everything else.
MCEVERS: I want to talk about your process, too, about writing, about how you come up with some of your bits. I want to listen to...
IZZARD: You can't call them bits.
MCEVERS: Oh, sorry.
IZZARD: I think they're scenes. I know there's an American stand-up language thing of saying, I've got this bit. And it just sounds...
MCEVERS: It makes it sound pretty small.
IZZARD: Yes, it sounds like - I got this bit where I talk about the existence of eternity. I mean, you know, it sounds like someone has forced us to say, I've got a bit. No, I've got a nice piece of comedy. I've got a little scene. I've got a little story.
MCEVERS: All right, we're going to banish the bit. Let's talk about one of your scenes. You're talking about something extremely mundane, about how software automatically updates. You know, when you're, like, sitting at your computer and the software is like, oh, do you want to have an automatic update? And you're like, yes, please update, thank you. Let's listen to that.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
IZZARD: No one in this room has read the terms and conditions. No one in (unintelligible) has read the terms and conditions. No one in the world [expletive] world has read it. Even the people who wrote it didn't read it.
IZZARD: Anything could be there. We will take your buttocks and sell them to the Chinese. Fine. Swap your knees out - yes. So we'll tape your buttocks to the hot part of a tractor. OK. Put your big toe on your thumbs and swap them out. Yes, yes, can we? Because at that point, you just want it. You want - give me the [expletive] update. And then you get the update, and nothing's changed.
MCEVERS: So process-wise, is that you, you know, sitting at home at your computer, the update actually happens and you think to yourself, I'm going to write a scene about this or...
IZZARD: No, it's even more loose than that. It's actually on stage - like, if I was doing that, I would be on stage talking about something else or something close to it. And then I'd think, that terms - we don't read it, do we? No one reads it. Do you read it? What's in it? And then suddenly you realize there's a whole lot of areas I can go there.
So I just start ad-libbing on the stage. Everything is verbal sculpting. I verbally sculpt from there. So the next night, I'll expand upon it more. And I will say, I'll sell my buttocks to the Chinese, whatever it is. You know, and you get this energy that goes into it. And the audience really reacts to the energy. But then after a while, you can get it locked down. And if you get it precise, you go, I'm going to use these jokes in this section. And then it starts to become leaden.
So I thought, if I keep it always molten, it will always be live. So I write down some ideas in the notes section of my iPhone. And then I go on stage and I develop them. And I developed "Force Majeure," my latest show, in LA and San Francisco and New York. And I will do that in Paris. And that'll be a salute to France in voting in President Macron and the 65 percent. And that was, like, their referendum.
I'm very positive on Europe. We have to make the world work, otherwise this century, it's going to be our key century. The first century for the rest of eternity where humanity really gets as fair as possible or it's the last century and goodbye humanity.
MCEVERS: Wow. Stakes....
IZZARD: Yeah, I think those are the stakes.
IZZARD: I think those are the stakes. So moderates of the world, be radical in your moderatism because the people on extremes, they will use a lot of hatred and a lot of aggression against you. And you have to push - you have to be tough and push back against it.
MCEVERS: Awesome. Eddie Izzard, thank you.
IZZARD: Thank you. Cheers.
MCEVERS: Eddie Izzard's book is called "Believe Me: A Memoir Of Love, Death And Jazz Chickens." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.