Task: Read a humor book.
In 1999 or maybe 2000, I was at a dear friend’s house (at the time, he was in the high school boyfriend iteration of said friendship – long story with many revisions). We were high school kids with driver’s licenses and big dreams in a small town in Arkansas eating pizza pockets in front of his parents’ TV on a weekend night, when we channel-surfed into Eddie Izzard’s Dress to Kill HBO special.
This wasn’t just any TV. Matt had satellite TV. He had so. many. channels, including MTfreakingV (my hometown’s standard cable package was a VHI-only deal, which is part of the reason I’m so well-versed in 1980s one hit wonders). Keep in mind that these were pre-YouTube and pre-Napster days. Discovering new music often involved shelling out for an actual $9.99 CD, which would then be lovingly installed in my six-disc changer and listened to obsessively while poring over the liner notes.
Anyway, watching TV at Matt’s house was a big deal.
And so we were surfing the mind-boggling number of premium channels in his satellite package when we came across a British comedian wearing thick eyeliner, bright blue eye shadow and heels, but who also appeared to be a man.
You need to understand that at the time my understanding of transgender identity was largely informed by Silence of the Lambs, Ace Ventura, and, mercifully less damagingly, Wanda in The Sandman (because we were cool kids, mind you). So I was confused by this person so confidently and unapologetically coloring outside of the lines.
I hadn’t had much exposure to his style of comedy either. It bounced around wildly between cerebral, ridiculous, surreal, and big-hearted.
I’d never seen anything so funny in my entire life.
Fast forward into a new millennium, both literally and in terms of my awareness of LGBT+ identities and issues. More than once I’ve wondered what exactly was going on with Eddie Izzard’s “executive transvestite” persona. I’ve had some gut punches recently involving the disgrace of confessional comics I’d previously adored, and if there was something Not Okay about Eddie Izzard, I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. I guess I was a little worried it might have been a stage gimmick (it wasn’t and isn’t).
So I couldn’t help but grin at the sight of Believe Me‘s cover, with Eddie in a men’s suit and brandishing a scarlet manicure, just being shamelessly and fearlessly himself.
And it was a great read. I love his voice, and spending 350 pages with it was a pleasure.
This is someone who came out as having both “boy mode” and “girl mode” in 1985, who survived a ten-year tooth and nail fight to establish a career in one of the toughest, most emotionally exhausting entertainment industries out there, who ran 43 MARATHONS IN 51 DAYS WITH SIX WEEKS OF TRAINING, and who dealt with his fear of flying by getting a pilot’s license. But this isn’t a struggle memoir, even though god knows it could have been. He has an almost relentlessly positive perspective on everything.
Though he does describe his first walk down the street in a dress and heels as the hardest thing he’s ever done – harder than the 43 MARATHONS IN 51 DAYS, even.
When he was performing a one-person escape act on the street in London, a fellow “escapologist” told him that he would only be able to escape his restraints if he believed he could. I don’t think he needed to be told that, since he’s apparently spent his entire life bulldozing ahead by sheer force of will (see: 43 MARATHONS IN 51 DAYS). But he doesn’t write about this in a snotty or self-satisfied way. It truly seems like he wrote this book to encourage people to make whatever they want out of their own lives.
He has a breezy style as a comedian that, while hilarious, keeps a bit of distance between himself and his audience. There’s a bit of that distance in his memoir too. That said, the sections dealing with his mother’s death when he was six were emotional reading, maybe even more so because of that charming-but-protective veneer. He remembers the Christmas which she (but not Eddie and his brother) knew was going to be her last. At one point he visits one of her friends as an adult who calls him Edward. No one calls him Edward, but he figured out that his mom did.
He wraps the book up with a wonderful statement of faith in humanity (written in 2016, no less, in the middle of Trump and Brexit). Up until that point, the book is peppered with jokey references to his cheerfully adamant atheism, but in the end he brings it home in sort of a secular humanist ‘stand and be counted’ way that fogged my glasses a little.
I felt better about the world after reading this, and that’s about the highest praise I can imagine giving a book right now.
Oh, and there aren’t any actual jazz chickens in the text. But we have YouTube in this day and age, so I can easily point you toward the reference:
Here’s a fun clip from Dress to Kill while we’re at it.